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- On March 23, 2016
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- Jane Austen, Music, Regency History
Mary, Music and Mansfield – the harp in Regency England
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to approach fiction – or any writing for that matter – without filtering the text through our own personal lens. We might read with a particular interest in fashion, or politics, or perhaps with an eye for certain plot elements or depictions of scenery or interior décor. For me, I find I’m drawn to music.
As a musicologist and musician, when I read about characters involved in music, I want to know what they are playing, or what they are hearing. Sometimes, especially in contemporary fiction, actual songs or pieces of music are mentioned, and that can often set a soundtrack going in my head, as the authors no doubt intend. In other works, usually historical or older writing, the exact nature of the music is less specific. When Lizzy Bennet is sitting at the pianoforte at Rosings and talking with the Colonel and Mr. Darcy, what is she playing? Is she battling through Mozart, or letting her fingers wander through an English country dance? What concertos does Mary play for the Bennet family and at supper between the dances at balls?
As I recently began rereading Mansfield Park, one thing that caught my fancy fairly quickly was the image of Mary Crawford and her harp. The harp, at first, is used to help delineate her character. When informed that retrieving her harp from Northampton will be difficult because all the local wagons and carts are needed for the harvest, Mary is rather astonished that something like getting in the hay should be more important than fetching her instrument.
“I was astonished to find what a piece of work was made of it! To want a horse and cart in the country seemed impossible, so I told my maid to speak for one directly; and as I cannot look out of my dressing–closet without seeing one farmyard, nor walk in the shrubbery without passing another, I thought it would be only ask and have, and was rather grieved that I could not give the advantage to all. Guess my surprise, when I found that I had been asking the most unreasonable, most impossible thing in the world; had offended all the farmers, all the labourers, all the hay in the parish! As for Dr. Grant’s bailiff, I believe I had better keep out of his way; and my brother–in–law himself, who is all kindness in general, looked rather black upon me when he found what I had been at.” (ch. 6)
Still, despite her selfishness, she manages to entrance Edmund Bertram, who expresses a great interest in hearing Miss Crawford play. Indeed, her harp seems only to increase Mary’s attractions, for as Jane Austen writes, “The harp arrived, and rather added to her beauty, wit, and good–humour.” Austen goes on to write that “A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.” (ch.7) Would not any man be enchanted by a vision such as this?
What of the instrument itself? What type of instrument might Mary Crawford have played to so entrance Edmund? And what kind of music would she have played?
Although mainly associated today with Celtic culture, the harp had been a mainstay of English music from the Dark Ages, when bards would accompany themselves on small lap harps that they could carry with them. Such easily transported instruments would have had fewer strings and would, for the most part, only be able to play in one key. This made the instrument quite adequate for folk music, but unsuitable for the sophisticated art music of the time. Several attempts were made since the Renaissance to create harps that could play in different keys, and even change keys, within one piece of music.
One innovation was the lever harp, where the strings were attached to levers at the top, letting the performer flip them up or down to create sharps or flats, depending on how the instrument was tuned. Another fascinating development was the triple-strung harp, which had three layers of strings. The centre layer had the strings tuned to sharps and flats, strung at an angle to the outer layers. When the player needed one of these notes, he or she would reach through the outer rows of strings to pluck at the appropriate string in the middle! These harps were popular on the Continent and in Wales. In fact, the triple harp is the national instrument of Wales.
The end of the eighteenth century saw the development of the single-action pedal harp. Five pedals enabled the performer to raise the pitch of all the strings of a single note (for example, all the C-strings) by a semitone. In layman’s terms, this gave the performer the ability to play all the notes of the piano – black as well as white. This gave the harp added flexibility in playing the more complicated art music of the time, which relied heavily on modulation (moving from one key to another, which necessitated those black notes). The advantage pedal harps had over triple harps was a more consistent sound through the range of musical keys. Unlike the smaller Celtic harps, pedals harps were large instruments – easily 5 feet or more in height, and could not be easily transported.
So which of these might Mary have played? Hers was clearly a larger instrument, because she needed a wagon or some similar vehicle to bring the harp to Mansfield, and so was almost certainly not a lap harp. As a sophisticated and accomplished woman of her day, with the funds at her disposal to purchase the latest and most modern instrument, it is also unlikely that she would have a rather old-fashioned and very foreign triple harp. The music being composed for harp at the time is almost all for the new pedal harp, and so it is most likely this instrument that Jane Austen had in mind for Mary Crawford.
Here is an example of an early 19th-century English harp, manufactured by Erard. You can easily see the pedals at the rear of the base. The pillar is ornamented, and harder to see are the inlays and engravings on the soundboard. It is a beautiful instrument to look at, as well as to hear.
And what did these lovely instruments sound like? If a picture is worth a thousand words, a recording is worth even more. Here is a video of a restored Regency-era harp being played by Sarah Deere-Jones, as she performs a Rondo by Johann Georg Heinrich Backofen (1768-1830): Rondo Regency Music
Now that we know what instrument Mary was playing, what about the actual music?
Certainly folk songs and dance music would have been heard in many a music room or salon. Collections of folks airs were popular and would have been easily purchased from any music seller. Jane Austen’s own music books include a collection of Scotch and Irish airs, many of which would have been most suitable for the harp. The simple origin of these pieces would not have precluded their presence in even the finest of homes.
For example, in Emma, Jane Fairfax performs “Robin Adair”, a popular song at the time. It is a simple tune, as you can hear in this vocal performance Robin Adair at Jane Austen’s House, but would make a lovely base for a set of variations. Indeed, many well-known composers were commissioned by music publishers to arrange these folk songs for sophisticated audiences. Haydn and Beethoven were only two of many composers who arranged whole collections of these songs. To imagine that similar arrangements would exist for such a popular instrument as the harp is hardly a stretch of the imagination.
This collection showcases just some of Haydn’s arrangements for voice and piano trio: Haydn, Three Scottish Folk Songs
Alongside simple folk airs and more elaborate arrangements of these melodies, there was also a substantial repertoire of music composed specifically for the harp. Some of these borrowed heavily from the folk repertoire and folk traditions. Blind Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan (1675-1740) wrote many lovely pieces for the instrument, such as this popular Concerto O’Carolan’s Concerto. Mary Crawford may well have entertained Edmund and the denizens of Mansfield with such pleasant tunes.
But by no means was the harp only a folk instrument. Classical composers from across Europe wrote original art music for this lovely instrument. Mozart composed a popular concerto for flute, harp and orchestra in 1778. Another prominent composer for the harp was the Bohemian musician Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812), who lived in London from 1789-1799, and who found inspiration in some of the folk music he heard while in England. His Sonata in F for harp is nicknamed “The Lass of Richmond Hill,” for the melodic theme of the second movement. As well as playing the more accessible folk songs discussed above, Mary, as an accomplished woman of her day, would almost certainly have had the skill and musical knowledge to incorporate such classical pieces into her repertoire.
Here is a recording of the second movement (Allegretto) of that sonata. Close your eyes as you listen and imagine yourself sitting next to Edmund Bertram as he listens to the charming Mary Crawford performing by her open window. The Lass of Richmond Hill
About the Author:
Beverlee is an avid reader and has been a fan of Jane Austen since the day, when she was 12 years old, that her father handed her his old copy of Emma. She is a music historian, and her interests include such diverse areas as the music and writings of Hildegard of Bingen, early Renaissance ethnomusicology and Baroque performance practice. Once upon a time she performed in a duo comprised of viola and Celtic harp. Neither resembled Mary Crawford. You can find her and some yummy recipes at Musings from the Yellow Kitchen
THANK YOU, BEVERLEE, FOR THIS INSIGHTFUL POST AND SUCH BEAUTIFUL MUSIC TO ENJOY AS WE READ IT! YOU ARE SO VERY TALENTED!
Please note: This post was previously published on Jane Austen Variation Author, Rose Fairbanks, site: Stories from the Past
Images courtesy of wikicommons media:
Lady with a Harp, a portrait of Eliza Ridgely, by Thomas Sulley (1818),
The Music Room, George Goodwin Kilburn