I missed this story when it first came out in July, but I think it’s far too interesting not to share! The video above was made by Christina Kobb, a Norwegian pianist who has been studying Viennese piano manuals from around 1820. She noticed that the instructions for the most basic aspects of technique- the posture of the body, arms, and fingers- were very different from those taught today. Based on her research, she re-trained herself to play piano using those historical techniques. What an accomplished lady!
My childhood piano lessons are far behind me, so I confess it is difficult for me to see in the video above exactly how her historical technique differs from modern styles. It’s clearest at about 10:00 and 15:00, when she plays the same pieces in two different ways. Dr. Kobb demonstrates that some movements required by early 19th century compositions are much easier using contemporary techniques. While what her performance gains from the historical practice is interesting, I’m struck by how similar the posture advised by music manuals is to the posture advised by writing manuals. In particular, the upright back with the elbow held close to the body matches the directions given in George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant:
This advice is echoed in many of the other educational guides I’ve read from the later 18th and early 19th centuries. For writing as for piano-playing, this posture seems to place focus on the fine actions of the fingers rather than larger movements of the elbow and wrists. Ergonomic considerations aside, the preoccupation with posture in writing and music manuals is also a reminder of the role these accomplishments played in teaching deportment. The term deportment is usually used now as nearly a synonym for etiquette or manners (at least in the US), but its original meaning has to do with elegant management of the body. In this period, grace, poise, and controlled movements were important signs of a genteel, “well-bred” person. It’s obvious that dancing might show off how graceful and well-trained a person was, but writing, playing the piano, and even needlework were also opportunities for displaying elegant deportment through posture and the movement of the hands.
Christina Kobb’s research gained wider exposure this summer due to an excellent New York Times piece about the science of music. Rolf Inge Godoy, a musicologist at Oslo University, filmed Dr. Kobb’s piano-playing using motion-capture technology (the same techniques that allowed Benedict Cumberbatch play Smaug in the recent Hobbit movies). Dr. Godoy will use the data he gained to quantify how historical techniques affect the sound of the music Dr. Kobb plays.
A quick update- I feel ready to celebrate my accomplishments by making a “Schoolpiece” or sampler of my elegant 18th century handwriting, but I’ve run into some difficulties reproducing a writing blank. I’ve been grumbling in frustration for a while rather than writing and posting. Sorry!
But I’ve gotten very excited about a project that will use my handwriting skills in a new way. Sabine of the amazing bilingual blog Kleidung Um 1800 has sent out an open call for letters as part of her re-enactment of a Milliner’s shop in Westphalia (now part of Germany) in 1814. It’s modelled on the HMS Acasta’s Mail Packetwhich seems to be on hiatus this year which has been postponed to September this year. If you’d like to learn more (and maybe contribute a letter of your own), check out these posts on Kleidung Um 1800 (look for the English portions in italics beneath each paragraph of German):
I’ve had a lot of fun researching and planning letters, and I can’t wait to share with you what I’ve learned! While I put the finishing touches on that project, I have some posts planned about other writing-related topics from Jane Austen’s era. Don’t forget to check out my Pinterest boards and my Tumblr!
I’ve been enjoying a daily fix of history from Amanda Vickery, and I just had to share it! Vickery, a British historian, is well-known to Jane Austen fans as the host of the 2013 TV show “Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball,” which recreated all the elements of a Regency ball like Mr. Bingley held at Netherfield. She is also the author of two books that I devoured as research for this project, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (1998) and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (2009).
BBC Radio 4 is currently reprising a fascinating radio show Vickery presented in 2009, based on her research for those books. “A History of Private Life” deals with all aspects of domestic social history in Britain, from the bachelor’s lodgings to the marriage bed to the widow’s garret. It’s an ambitious series that consists of thirty 15-minute episodes and deals with material from four centuries, although the emphasis is on the 18th and 19th centuries. If you’ve read her books or watched her BBC TV series “At Home with the Georgians” you’ll hear many familiar names and stories, since all are based on the the troves of private letters, diaries and court records Vickery explores in her research. Even so, I’ve enjoyed listening daily- each episode is a little gem of historical story-telling.
Episode 12: Domestic Harmony – Using the diary of John Courtney, a Yorkshire bachelor gentleman of the 1760s, Vickery shows how the musical accomplishments of young ladies and gentleman brought them together and sometimes led to marriage.
Episode 23: Science and Nature at Home – My favorite episode to date, since it brings together handicrafts pursued by elegant ladies and fashionable scientific collecting- from shellwork to paper collage to a room entirely covered with feathers!