#Austen200 – “Without music life would be a blank to me”

To mark the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, we take a look at her love of music and investigate its influence on her written works.

‘Without music,’ Jane Austen wrote in Emma, ‘life would be a blank to me.’  Austen’s passion for music is apparent throughout many of her novels, and is reflected in countless of her heroines and characters – from Mary Bennet who plays with skill (through “vanity”, and with “a pedantic air”), to Lady Catherine de Bourgh who declares that if she “had ever learnt… should have been a great proficient”.

Sp Coll f253

“I must have my share in the conversation if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” Lady Catherine, Pride and Prejudice (Sp Coll f253)

Austen herself was a prolific pianist, practising every day. In the Regency period it was expected that all accomplished young ladies could play the piano, and Austen was no exception. As music books were expensive, copies were often passed from family to family, and Austen would copy out pages onto ruled pages in her diary.

Notably, only one composer is ever mentioned in any of Jane Austen’s novels: Johann Baptist Cramer. Cramer was a renowned piano performer in the early nineteenth century, with Beethoven claiming his technical prowess made him the finest pianist of his time. His written pieces are dominated by works for piano, which may explain why Austen was so drawn to them.

In Emma, the character of Jane Fairfax owns a piece of Cramer’s music, as many young women of the time would have done. A wide variety of his work is held by Special Collections, including ‘The Hartzfeld: a new waltz for the piano forte’:

Farmer f186_1

The growing popularity of the piano forte in the 18th century, and an expectation that women should become skilled players, created a big market for sheet music. (Sp Coll Farmer f186)

In Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennet is said to be “glad to purchase praise and gratitude by [playing] Scotch and Irish airs”. Folk songs, having been reconceptualised by well-regarded composers such as Beethoven and Haydn, were popular at this time and, like Mary, Austen would no doubt have played these songs for her family and friends.

Between the 1790s and 1840s, a widely known and widely used collection of such songs was put together by George Thomson, an Edinburgh music publisher. With the help of composers including Beethoven and Hummel, he collected pieces of Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk music which featured new accompaniments and symphonies, as well as words provided by his good friend Robert Burns and other contemporary poets. The high profile nature of both the musicians and the lyricists therefore made these volumes of songs highly popular.

Farmer f24_01

“Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters, who, with some of the Lucases, and two or three officers, joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.” – Pride and Prejudice (Sp Coll Farmer f24)

In Emma, the piano forte is more than just an instrument, and is used as an integral plot device. The mysterious arrival of a new Broadwood piano, and Jane Fairfax’s skill at piano are central to the interactions between characters. While in Miss Bates’ house, Jane Fairfax plays the tune ‘Robin Adair’ (the only named piece of music in the novel) which arouses suspicion amongst the other characters as to the identity of her secret admirer – “she is playing ‘Robin Adair’ at this moment – his favourite”. This traditional celtic song was popular in the eighteenth century – Robin Adair was a real person, who had married Lady Caroline Keppel, to the disapproval of her family due to his lower class status. The lyrics to the tune can be found in a chapbook printed in 1823:


 “What made th’ assembly shine
Robin Adair
What made the ball sae fine
Robin was there” – Robin Adair (Sp Coll Bh13-d.4)

MS Euing R-d-33 item 30

Due to the expense involved in purchasing new music, books would often pass through many hands and be copied into private notebooks. (MS Euing R.d.33 Item 30)

200 years since the death of Jane Austen, her work continues to inspire and influence.  While Austen was little known in her lifetime, her influence is undeniable 200 years later. Only this year, she has been commemorated on both a limited edition run of £2 coins and is to be the face of the new £10 polymer note being released in September. Indeed, her books can be found in a number of different collections held by the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections, showing how universally renowned her work has become. These, and all of the items mentioned in the above blog post, are available to consult in the Special Collections Reading Room. After all:

“I declare… there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” – Caroline Bingley, Pride and Prejudice

Categories: Archives and Special Collections


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