Feb 26 2011 12:00pm

Marianne by Moonlight, Part 2: The Music of Jane’s World

Marianne DashwoodLast time, we were talking about Beethoven and his ubiquity in the Regency period. Likely, for example, Jane Austen's more musically inclined heroines would have been familiar with his work, if not played his pieces on their pianofortes. But what we think of Beethoven and his work is not the same as what Marianne Dashwood and her family would have thought in Sense and Sensibility.

When modern people think of Beethoven, we think of the Fifth Symphony and the “Moonlight” Sonata. We think of Beethoven in terms of what came after, as the grand break from Classicism into Romanticism, because that’s how the Romantics appropriated him. But just as I took this description of the Dashwoods’ relocation out of context,

. . . and each of them was busy in arranging their particular concerns, and endeavoring, by placing around them books and other possessions, to form themselves a home. Marianne’s pianoforte was unpacked and properly disposed of . . .

Beethoven’s pieces are equally so. What do I mean? Well, both ends of this quote have ellipses by me and semicolons by Austen. The semicolons mark a classicist sense of symmetry and balance that she couldn’t escape. The novel isn’t called Sensibility, after all. Neither could Beethoven break free of the formal balances of Classical musical forms. But look at me, talking like a Romantic. “Break free,” as if form were something that got in the way of expressivity.  It’s a Sonata first, Quasi una fantasia next, and it’s the formal play of harmonic centers and themes that generate the motion and emotion as much, if not more, than the somber mood of the minor key. 

If Marianne were free to do whatever she wanted, not to mention sensible (or is it sense-y or sense-ful?—that title has always confused me: which is which?) Elinor, Austen wouldn’t have a story to present, and we wouldn’t be deliciously tormented by it. Similarly, those repeated high notes—watch Billy Kempff’s right pinky at 0:24—over the arpeggiated chords (“arpeggio”—harp-like, strumming distribution of notes) would be a lot less dramatic, if the Classical tonal form would not impel them forward to motion and, finally, resolution.

The point is, as you listen, you love to hear that note struggle against the rest and you simultaneously can’t wait for it to get moving and cooperate with all the others.

And then, after one phrase of it, you get a musical semicolon at 0:43—with a similar yet different phrase to follow. (And the complete sentence, if you will, ends at 1:08, as beautifully parsed and rounded as one of Austen’s.)


I looked around on YouTube for amateurish performances, and these were the best I could find. Not the best performances, obviously; those are easy to come by. The best in terms of what the rest of the Dashwood ladies (and domestics) may have been hearing. In other words, the least professional. Amateur, after all, retains the connotation of amor, amare, or love, and love is sloppy. The first movement—played here rather stiffly by the young lady in the clip—almost gets better when the player struggles with it, as the music calls for yearning and reaching and struggle. Mistakes and the stop-and-go process of learning a piece almost make it better. 

The third movement, though—and don’t get me wrong, these performances are great in their own rights, far better than anything my arthritic fingers could pluck out—calls for a combination of bold confidence and playful confidence.  Any sort of stumbling, I presume, will only result in frustrated pounding. The question is, who will storm out of Barton cottage first, Marianne in her frustration or Mrs. Dashwood to escape the headache? We know Elinor will stay and stolidly smile through the whole process. (Keep in mind, the second clip is after months of practice.)

Philipp Goedicke, Twitter: @PGoedi

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