In addition to being one of the most influential writers in history, Jane Austen was an accomplished pianist, albeit at an amateur level. She is said to have practiced her pianoforte every day, usually an hour before her household awoke for breakfast. She hoped no one would hear her then.
Two performers from the Peninsula Music Festival chamber music series are taking some of Austen's musical favorites to prime time this month. "The Music of Jane Austen," presented at 7 p.m. on Feb. 17, introduces Door County listeners to the music most beloved by the famous author. The presentation also features anecdotes about the more tuneful side of Austen's life.
PMF associate conductor Stephen Alltop and soprano/violinist Josefien Stoppelenburg are presenting the concert at Ephraim Moravian Church, located in the Door County community of the same name. The concert was timed to help celebrate the 200th anniversary in 2011 of the publication of "Sense and Sensibility."
"The Jane Austen Society of America contacted me to ask if I would do a musical presentation for their annual meeting this past June," says Alltop, who has worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and serves on the conducting faculty at Northwestern University. "I had previously done concerts based on Shakespeare, but after some research I found there was a great deal of material from which to formulate a Jane Austen program."
What Alltop uncovered were some obvious and not-so-obvious choices for a woman who had grown up in the 18th century. Given her amateur status, it's not surprising that the compositions occupied various levels of difficulty but tended to the simpler, more colorful side.
"Jane Austen had studied piano during the 1790s, so most of the music she played comes from that time and a bit before," says the Netherlands-born Stoppelenburg. "Some of the names that appear most often in her six bound volumes of music are Schobart, Storace and Pleyel, names not really known today."
One of Austen's great favorites was Charles Dibdin, a highly prolific composer often referred to as "the British Schubert," according to Alltop. "Jane had two brothers in the navy and Dibdin wrote many a song based on the lives of sailors and those they left behind," he says.
George Frideric Handel also was on Austen's playlist, while Carl Maria von Weber and Ludwig van Beethoven were not, an oversight Alltop attributes to the lack of circulation of the two composers' music among amateur musicians at the time.
Music by Ignaz Pleyel appears on the Feb. 17 program, along with that of Muzio Clementi. Historical narrative is interspersed with the music in an attempt to aid audience understanding and create a more festive mood. This is especially true when Alltop performs František Kotzwara's "The Battle of Prague" while Stoppelenburg narrates.
"'The Battle of Prague' is a musical depiction of 18th century warfare," Alltop says. "It's complete with horses galloping, cannons booming, bullets flying and cries of the wounded. It is not profound in the least and is loads of fun."
"Prague" was a number Austen played at family gatherings, which were not that often according to history. Even though much of the music the author loved does not require virtuosic skills, the evening should be enlightening for Austen fans of all musical tastes.
In addition to the concert, Alltop and Stoppelenburg will stop by Gibraltar High School in nearby Fish Creek to meet with English students studying Jane Austen. Each student will be given a copy of "Sense and Sensibility" as a gift from PMF.
Preceding the Jane Austen-inspired event will be another chamber concert Feb. 11 at the Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek. A trio consisting of Thomas Kluge on viola, Amy Thieman on flute, and Katie Wychulis on harp will perform Arnold Bax's "Elegaic Trio," Harald Genzmer's "Trio" and Claude Debussy's "Sonata." The trio performs at 3 p.m.
For more information on both concerts, contact the Peninsula Music Festival at 920-854-4060.