Friday, 18 November 2011

Making music at home

Before television and radio a family's home entertainment system was naturally rather more home-made in nature. It was most common for young girls to be trained in music, particularly the piano, and then it was believed girls could not only amuse and soothe the weary souls of their fathers and brothers, but also learn about their domestic responsibilities, such as duty and home-making.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries boys were not pushed into music in quite the same way, it being seen primarily as suited to a woman's warmer, emotional nature. The involvement of the men was more to do with one-off expensive purchases, such as that of the piano itself, and this gesture was limited to fathers and husbands (or husbands-to-be, hence the gossiping and eyebrow-raising that the gift of the piano caused in Jane Austen's Emma). Men were expected to be connoisseurs in music - to be able to recognise good from bad - but in the home, it was the role of the women to play.

Women sung a broad range of music from popular ballads to Italian opera arias, as well as playing piano pieces which needed no singing. Sadly it could often be the fate of the girl most gifted at the piano to have to play when there was a dance at home, meaning she was unable to join in the dancing herself. If a girl's family were able to afford the most expensive singing masters, as in the case of aristocratic families, girls would be expected to sing and play complex pieces, otherwise the reserve of the professional musician.

'Farmer Giles and his wife showing off their daughter Betty to their Neighbours on her return from school' by James Gillray, 1809

Women could purchase and collect single sheets of music, which they could buy directly from London or from regional music shops, and they could then bind them to make their own personal music books, annotating them with their own particular embellishments in pencil. Girls and women shared music they liked with each other, by copying pieces out and giving them to friends, which was an important part of female social bonding. Just as now, some girls resented their rigorous training while others found solace in their music. Either way, girls were expected to have some proficiency at music - it was seen as an important female accomplishment and sign of taste. Some contemporaries even noted it as an important strategic way to ensnare a husband as the following two quotes attest:
"Every well-bred girl, whether she has talent or not, must learn to play the piano or sing; first of all it's fashionable; secondly, it's the most convenient way for her to put herself forward in society and thereby, if she is lucky, make an advantageous matrimonial alliance, particularly a moneyed one". (Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, 1800)

"Miss and her sisters sit down by turns, and screw themselves up to Ah vous dirai, or 'I'd be a butterfly' - till some handsome young fellow who has stood behind her chair for six months, turned over her music, or accompanied her through a few liquorish airs, vows his tender passion...and at length swears to be her accompaniment through life". (Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, 1828)
For further information, see or read '"Girling" at the Parlour Piano' by Ruth Solie from Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations