Georgian Pianos – Jane Austen History
We have looked before into the nature of young Georgian ladies’ ‘accomplishments’, and how highly Jane Austen rates music among them, describing musical performances with much more feeling than when she refers to needlework or even painting. This may well have been because she herself was a gifted musician, very used to providing evening entertainment by singing and playing her own accompaniment on the pianoforte, like Jane Fairfax in Emma.
What she does not focus on, however, is the required rigour of practising one’s boasted ‘accomplishments’ – barring Elizabeth Bennet’s famous remark that her fingers,
‘do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault — because I would not take the trouble of practising.
It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.’
Jane Austen herself, however, committed several hours of her day to practice, knowing full well that what was performed apparently effortlessly in the evening must be rehearsed before breakfast. In fact, music, like so much that was central to Georgian society, was, despite its impromptu presentation, determined largely by mundane matters such as time and money.
Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
This is made evident by the life of the manufacturer of the piano that now stands in Chawton Cottage, who had all the canniness of a modern-day impresario in anticipating and playing the Georgian music market. The Italian-born composer Muzio Clementi covered all aspects of the contemporary music business, working not only as a performer and composer, but also as the type of ‘London master’ whose guidance was needed to ensure a young lady’s true accomplishment, and in later life his primary pursuits were music editing and the manufacture of the instruments for which he chiefly composed.
Although his name is not well-known any more, in his day he was an admired composer and performer, who competed with Mozart – Mozart borrowed one of his themes for his opera Die Zauberflöte – and who was so well-respected by Beethoven that the latter gave him the publishing rights for his music in London. Considering his popularity and fame, it is perhaps surprising that he gave up performing in order to enter the more tradesman-like profession of piano manufacturing, and one explanation, proffered by Leon Plantinga, is that ‘the reason for Clementi’s decision to stop playing was his concern over the reputation and social position then accorded to instrumentalists and singers in England. Accordingly, he preferred to devote himself to composition, publishing and instrument building.’
To me, however, it seems likely that he had an excellent entrepreneurial spirit, and used the name he had made for himself as a performer as a brand to sell not only sheet music of his compositions, but entire pianos, an indispensable accessory in all middle- and upper-class households including the Austens’, despite their relative poverty at Chawton.
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