Pride, Prejudice, and Classical Music

I’m curious if anyone enjoys seeing references to Classical music when reading Pride and Prejudice variations as much as I do. I likely have likely mentioned it before, but I’ve listened to Classical since I was a kid, and though I think I have quite a bit of knowledge, there’s always something more I don’t know, and I often find new material out in Pride and Prejudice variations I read. I’m always sure to look them up and to enjoy listening to them as I’m reading; it brings me closer to the story somehow.

The 1995 A&E miniseries is also an especial favorite to a certain extent because of the music. Whether it’s Mary plunking away the chords to Ombra Mai Fu, or Elizabeth’s rendition of Voi che Sapete, it adds ambience and context. And it doesn’t hurt at all that the music is beautiful!

Having said that, have you ever read a variation which references a piece of music which was still to be written? Some time ago, I was reading one (I can’t remember which one is was), and the writer referenced a piece by Chopin. Chopin was a marvelous composer, though not one of my favorites, but the main problem is that he wasn’t even born until 1810, and though he began composing at the astonishing age of seven, that is still much too late for Pride and Prejudice. It’s even more jarring when you remember that Chopin grew up in Warsaw. It’s not like a character in a novel of the time could simply pull out an iPod and purchase his early works through iTunes. It took time for music to radiate out from where it was written.

It’s back to the question of proper research and the avoidance of anachronisms which has been discussed many times. As Pride and Prejudice writers we try to avoid anachronisms in word use, world events, etc., but we must also make certain to avoid using references to music that simply don’t make sense.

Considering that the transition from the Classical to the Romance eras was underway by about 1820, most Romance composers cannot be used. Thus, Brahms, Chopin, Wagner, Mendellsohn, etc., are out. Baroque composers can be used, and I’ve often seen (and used) references to Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti. Mozart is a good one, since he had some measure of success during his life and his death occurred only fifteen years before the setting of Pride and Prejudice. Beethoven, who is considered a transition figure from Classical to Romance, is fine, but you must take care in what you use, as he began composing before and died about seventeen years after. Schubert is in the same category.

It all comes down to the creative use of history to support and enhance your story. Though there are many people out there who wouldn’t know Vivaldi from Rachmaninoff, there will be plenty who do, and some might call you out on it. The rule of thumb is to do your research and don’t jar your readers by using references that don’t belong!

15 Responses to Pride, Prejudice, and Classical Music

  1. Thank you for sharing this great article with us. I was never given music lessons when I was a child but I did encourage my children to play the piano. From there even with piano lessons, the second child went on to play the flute also, the third one went on to play the clarinet, and my first child went on to play the oboe and English horn. Still to this day, Mark still plays the oboe and English horn and plays in a orchestra of all professional people for concerts and enjoyment. He says it relaxes him from his chemical engineering job of many years.
    I love classical music and have over 300 CD’s in my collection. I love all the composers except Mussorgsky. Listening to my children and their love of classical music has helped me to understand it better.
    Thank you once again.

  2. Great post, Jann! I came to classical music later in life, but love it now. I am counting the fictional days (well, really, years) until I can finally use the Schubert songs I really want to use in my continuation series.

    As a Patrick O’Brian fan I have to add Boccherini to the list. O’Brian did a great job with his musical research and had the added challenge of adjusting the timing of music acquisition so people on sailings ships and in provincial outposts would have had access to it!

    Clementi is one who was popular then but has fallen out of favor in modern times. But because he not only published music but also had a pianoforte-making business, I expect he would have been very well known to anyone interested in music then (indeed, I’ve given Georgiana a bit of a “celebrity” encounter with him, haha).

  3. Great post Jann. 🙂 Another thing about Chopin, he wasn’t known to many people for quite a while, even when he was already in France. He preferred one instrument compositions, and multi-instrumental ones were in fashion.

  4. “Ombra Mai Fu” is one of my favourite Handel arias (I used it for my processional at my wedding over 30 years ago). Pleyel was another favourite composer for young ladies to play. I remember in several variations (it was not mentioned which but it was obvious) that the authors were hinting that Lizzy was playing either the Moonlight and/or the Apassionata sonatas by Beethoven. Again, these would not have been in England at the time in all probability. I am a music nerd — especially in early music, which I especially love. Two of Bach’s sons at least would have been played at least during this time. I think that most people only expected a nice performance, certainly not anything that would come up to the equivalency of a professional. That would have been considered immodest and improper.

  5. I am married to a television producer/director. And, since she is in the DGA, we get to be/are very serious about film. Pam told me that one of the great jobs an entry level type can get is “Continuity.” What does a continuity person do? Make sure that if the actor was wearing a hat in an early take…that they are wearing one in the reaction shot. How many have watched a Humphrey Bogart Sam Spade movie to see him with a smoking cigarette in one shot…and then after the edit is without cig? Or the conversation in a bar where the beer keeps rising and falling in the glass as if by magic?

    Irritating. And, honestly, small details can be crazy-making for us. If you are going to add something and are specifically naming it…make sure it fits.

    Once read a book where a ship preparing to leave the London docks for America prior to the War of 1812 alerted the Darcy family that it was time to leave by “blowing its whistle.” That of course implies that there is steam to blow that whistle. Uuuuuh.

    Music is such an easy detail upon which to be factually faithful. It is so darn well documented. When I had Annie Reynolds expressing her love for Henry with ‘Fur Elise’…I had to be sure that she was able to do so in 1815. It was never published in Beethoven’s lifetime (he died in 1827). Is this an “OOOPS?” No…because upon research, I discovered that it was originally composed in 1810. I needed to somehow get it from the Confederation of the Rhine/Bavaria/Vienna to London…so I had a musical emigre bring a sketch of the score when he fled to GBr.

    “Safe” composers for me would be Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Purcell, Beethoven, Joseph Bologne (Chevalier de Saint-Georges known as the Black Mozart), Vivaldi, Bach. Although thanks to time travel I was able to use Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin) in “The Keeper.

  6. Loved this post. I’ve wondered about the music for a while now, and my own research for parlor music in the Victorian era isn’t going anywhere. Apart from some references to folk songs, I’m unable to get references of piano pieces a young woman who is an accomplished musician would play for visitors at a gathering. It’s frustrating since I have to build the scene around it. I thought I was being OCD but reading this, I see there are more like me. 🙂

  7. Thanks for this! Anachronistic songs and composers are very jarring to me. Another one that bothers me is the frequent reference to people playing Bach. Although a great composer who was long dead by P&P time, he was decidedly unpopular at the time period of P&P, and the only people who studied him were serious musicians (esp. composers) and then mostly to learn from his work. He wasn’t repopularized until nearly 1830, when Mendelssohn held a ‘revival’ concert. The only P&P character who I could see knowing about Bach would be Georgiana Darcy, and frankly, I don’t see her using his pieces to perform. Stuff like this is why research is important, so kudos to those who try hard! (And for those who make an honest mistake…I’ll forgive you, eventually!) Great post.

    • Yep. Completely disregarded until Mendelssohn brought him back to the public eye, but that wasn’t till later in the 19th century. Even in his lifetime, Bach wasn’t nearly as well regarded as Hoffmeister, who has faded into the mists a bit.

  8. I do think it behooves us to be as accurate as we can be. However, sometimes an author may not know enough to realize they aren’t being accurate. That’s where I am with music. All I know about it is that I don’t know much. Therefor, I try to avoid any specific references. Instead, I go with ‘a jaunty piece’ or ‘she played a heart wrenching melody.’ I figure that’s safe enough 🙂

  9. Jann, I’m totally with you on not using anachronistic music (or anachronistic anything) in JAFF tales or indeed Austen dramatisations. One of the dramatisations of Emma (1996) has Jane Faifax singing a song which hadn’t yet been written. I can’t remember the name of the piece but it was about 40 years too early

    Just a couple of days after the Netherfield Ball episode from P&P 1995 was first broadcast, I heard “Ombra Mai Fu” being played and sung properly on the radio. My goodness, it sounded totally different! It’ll never be a favourite piece of mine but the BBC must have gone to great lengths to make it sound so horrible.

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