The World of Reverend White

A few days ago I made an excursion to Selborne, a small village only a few miles from Chawton.  The road that connects the villages is very narrow, with ample hedgerows on either side, though at one point lavender fields have been cultivated, creating a startling burst of color and scent.  Selborne, like Chawton, is known today for an 18th-century resident who became a celebrity.  Though Jane Austen and Gilbert White never knew one another—he died in 1793, over a decade before the Austens moved to Chawton—she knew his son, John White, who was also a naturalist.  In a letter of 1811 she wrote of friends going to Selborne to celebrate the “Gaities of Tuesday” (celebrations for the birthday of King George III on 4 June) on the village common, in company with the White family.  Gilbert White lived nearly his entire life in Selborne, most of it in the same house, which was called The Wakes.

Gilbert White studied at Oriel College, Oxford, and though ordained in 1747 never rose, nor attempted to rise, very high in the church hierarchy.  He much preferred staying close to home, spending most of his time outdoors, constantly expanding and improving the gardens at The Wakes, and making copious observations in his Garden Kalendar.  These observations concerned much more than just vegetation; he was interested in everything that had any influence or effect in the garden:  the weather and its fluctuations, the birds and animals that either lived there or passed through, the surrounding forest and nearby lakes and streams.  The gardens at The Wakes are to this day very sumptuous and beautiful, and preserve many features, such as the ha-ha and sundial, that White himself installed.  He even invented a revolving chair that would screen him as he sat and observed in all directions.

In the 1760s White began a correspondence with two learned gentlemen that would have great consequence for his work.  One was Thomas Pennant, an eminent zoologist already well known in the scientific world; the other was Daines Barrington, a lawyer and amateur naturalist. White and Barrington shared a passion not only for nature, but for music.  Those of us familiar with Mozart’s career will recall that it was Barrington who examined the boy genius who came to London in 1764, and reported his awed conclusions to the Royal Society.  Thus many of White’s letters to Barrington concern what one might call the music of nature, particularly bird calls and the sounds of insects; in one letter he reports that a certain owl tends to hoot in the key of B-flat.  Though it seems obvious to us today, White seems to have been the first naturalist who actually employed bird sounds in identifying birds, and to delineate closely related species from one another.  In a wonderful letter of 1778 White describes an echo heard consistently at the same spot in a nearby hanging wood, and then relates the series of measurements, observations, and reflections that led to his understanding of it.

These letters were eventually published as The Natural History of Selborne, and they were instantly recognized not only as a new paradigm of scientific observation and description, but as a genuine labour of love.  It is for this reason that the work has never gone out of print since its first appearance; it is written in plain, clear English that turns lyrical in the face of beauty, and inspires the latent naturalist in all of us to awaken more intensely to our surroundings.  It also seems to me that White had much in common with that other gentleman whose house I recently visited, William Herschel.  Both were in the grip of an overwhelming ambition to survey, to comprehend, and to explain a chunk of their universe, inventing the tools that they needed to do so, and devoting their lives day in and day out to their chosen tasks.  Herschel mapped the heavens, White mapped his own locality, and they then communicated their findings in all the density of detail that their questing minds could convey, and created knowledge.  Herschel’s stars, White’s birds, Mozart’s concertos, Haydn’s symphonies:  telescopes, microscopes, orchestras, all instruments for exploring worlds within or worlds without.

A Most Unusual Legacy

Today I’ve been reflecting upon a quite lovely and unusual little volume that I’ve been studying in the Chawton House Library.  It is a small, elegant book bound in softest green morocco; its pages are thin and dense with print.  It is called A Legacy of Affection, Advice, and Instruction, from a Retired Governess to the Present Pupils of an Establishment for Female Education, which She Conducted Upwards of Forty Years.  Its title page is inscribed, in a beautiful copperplate hand, The Misses Lucas – 11th June 1827.  I like to think that the Misses Lucas may have so excelled in their studies that they were awarded this little book as a prize.  Perhaps one or both of them were preparing to be governesses themselves.  Published in London earlier that year, the book is a rarity; not only is it now hard to find, but its liberality of outlook was rather unusual for its time.  It unfolds in epistolary style, and the opening of each new chapter with “My esteemed Children,” or “My dear Children,” lends the book a certain tenderness and intimacy that one doesn’t normally encounter in a published tutor.   The Author opens her Preface by stating plainly, “The object of this volume is to provide a pleasing Text-Book for the perusal of young females during a course of liberal education.”

Liberal indeed.  There are ninety-three chapters in this little volume, and they cover an extraordinary range of knowledge.  She begins, as one might expect, with how to conduct one’s self at school; manners, courtesy and charity toward others, the evils of gossip, all useful advice.  Then, like most classic textbooks of this period, she launches into a discussion of religion and particularly the doctrine and services of the Church of England, as the moral and spiritual foundation on which education must rest.   So far so good.  Where things become interesting, at least from my point of view, is at Chapter XXI, The Art of Reading. Suddenly I hear Marianne Dashwood berating Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility for not reading with proper feeling, except that our kindly Author is taking the pains to explain and instruct exactly how this should be done.  “As reading with ease, propriety, and grace, is a qualification of the highest order, equal at least to brilliant execution on the piano-forte, and as worthy of being pursued with the same zeal; I have subjoined some formal rules calculated to lead to perfection in this primary accomplishment.”  Then she relays her eight cardinal rules for reading with elegance, bringing in a great many musical terms and analogies, particularly in regard to phrasing and dynamics.

The Author spends quite a bit of time on music, as one might expect in a girls’ course of instruction.  However, she is not content simply with explaining the theory or performance of music; there is a full chapter on the physics of music and sound, which one finds in boys’ textbooks of the period (the Universal Preceptor by Richard Phillips, under the pseudonym David Blair, is a prime example), but is usually omitted where girls’ minds are concerned.  It gets more interesting.  There are a couple of chapters on arithmetic – not altogether unheard of, since it was thought in the interest of domestic economy that a woman should be proficient with figures.  But then we come to chapters on “The Solar System,” “The Stars and the Universe,” “Comets and other Celestial Phenomena,” and it becomes clear that our Author is very interested in astronomy.  She is aware of William Herschel’s discoveries, and indeed refers to the planet Herschel (as it was often then called, before the name Uranus was finally settled upon) with its moons, and discusses the use of the telescope.  She concludes by writing, “Our sun belongs to a shoal [of stars], and all the small stars which we behold belong to this shoal, though tens of thousands may be counted with a telescope, and the milky way is rendered a gleam of light by their numbers; yet the nearest of these stars must be so distant, that a cannon ball would not reach it in seven millions of years!  How vast, therefore, must be the shoal itself to which we belong—perhaps a cannon ball would not move from end to end in a million of million years—and yet this shoal at the distance of another shoal would be but a point, and appear like a single star!  I am lost in wonder as I write these paragraphs; and well might Dr. Young exclaim, that ‘an undevout astronomer is mad.’”

Is anyone else reminded of Fanny Price, looking out at the starry night in preference to joining the others at Mansfield Park in playing the piano and singing?   “‘Here’s harmony!’ said she, ‘Here’s repose!  Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe.  Here’s what may tranquillize every care, and lift the heart to rapture!  When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene’” (MP 113).

I have a sense that astronomy was a science that was beginning to seem an acceptable pursuit for women during this era.  William Herschel himself may have contributed to this, along with his sister Caroline.  A professional musician who began his career in the Hanoverian military bands as a youth, he made his way to Bath where he excelled as an oboist, violinist, organist, composer, singer, impresario, and teacher.  Caroline Herschel also sang and played the piano, taking part in concerts organized and directed by her brother.

His early work in astronomy, and his experiments with building better and more accurate telescopes, took place while he was still earning his living as a musician.  Interestingly, when Herschel began to take over their house in New King Street for his astronomical experiments (much to his sister’s initial chagrin; it was bad enough having the drawing room buried under heaps of materials, but the explosion in the workshop that nearly set the house on fire was almost too much), Caroline gradually became his assistant and an astronomer in her own right.  Herschel built Caroline her own telescope in 1783 and she became adept at the identification of comets, discovering and documenting eight in all.  The discovery of the planet that Herschel called “Georgian Star” [Georgium sidus] in honor of his king, took place in spring 1781 in the Herschels’ garden, right in the center of Bath.  It makes you realize how much darker nights were in the eighteenth century.

King George III, along with his large family of daughters and many other British citizens of both sexes, was riveted by Herschel’s discovery, and brought him to Windsor.  Herschel set up his telescope so that the king and princesses could also have a look at the heavens, and in coming years many of the hundreds of telescopes that he made were sold not to fellow scientists but to amateurs with a new passion for celestial exploration.  In this regard our Governess-Author was very much abreast of the times in opening this field to her female pupils.  But another aspect of this, which our Author alluded to in her exclamation about “the undevout astronomer” and that Jane Austen touched upon with Fanny Price, concerns astronomy as a spiritual pursuit.  This, too, may have made it more palatable as an activity for women, even more like music than the other sciences (and after all, the famous Herschels embodied quite literally a “harmony of the spheres”).  In another little instruction manual that I’ve examined recently, written by a Mrs. Rundell as Letters to Two Absent Daughters (1814), she mentions that her daughters have been “very anxious to gain some knowledge in astronomy.”  She gives her approval to this endeavor, stating, “astronomy seems to me admirably and irresistibly calculated to impress the mind of man with the grandest conceptions of the Divinity.”

However, lest you think that the Legacy of the Governess-Author limited itself only to a field of science that seemed to be growing in acceptability for women, I should point out that there are eleven chapters devoted to human anatomy, as well as chapters on insects and their metamorphoses, plant forms and the wonders of their sexuality, the most advanced theories (in 1827) on the earth’s creation, and EVEN a learned discussion of England’s constitution and politics.  She very neatly summarizes the political parties of the time by saying, “we have our liberty party, or our Whigs, friends of free discussion and public liberty; and our ministerialists, or Tories, who are friends of power, and who think that power ought to be supported.”

It sounds to me as though our Author was an enlightened woman, and I hope that she had many students whom she in turn enlightened and inspired.  I’m delighted to have made her acquaintance here in this library, nearly two hundred years further on.

At the Grave of Signor Rauzzini

The interior of Bath Abbey is absolutely crammed with graves, plaques, and monuments of every kind commemorating the many prominent people who over the centuries came to Bath to take the waters and be cured, and died instead.  But of course there are many citizens of Bath, who spent their lives here and made contributions of all kinds to the city, buried in the Abbey as well.  I have come here in search of the grave of Signor Venanzio Rauzzini, a splendid musician of Old Europe, who came to join the fashionable and Modern society represented by Bath, and brought with him his talent, his energy, and all the kindly connections he had formed over the years, and put them all at the service of his new home.  I am an admirer of Signor Rauzzini.

Bath Abbey is not one of the really old churches in England, though it stands on the site of a Norman church.  But the Abbey did not begin to rise until 1499, and had not long been finished when King Henry VIII decreed the dissolution of the monasteries, and the new Abbey was stripped of everything valuable, including its windows, and left empty and open to all the elements.  Of course eventually the Abbey was restored and by the eighteenth century had become much as it is today:  a working church with all the usual services, a place where one can hear lovely music at Matins and Evensong with occasional recitals on the organ, and a boisterous meeting place for all the tourists who swarm to Bath during the summer months.  For the Abbey is situated right next door to the famous Pump Room, where then as now you can swallow three glasses a day of curative, sulphurous water, and dine elegantly in a spacious room where a trio quietly plays.  On the day of my visit, the yard that joins the Abbey and Pump Room is thronged with spectators watching a man juggle with flaming batons while balancing on a unicycle.  Not exactly the atmosphere of hushed reverence one associates with an Abbey churchyard, but very, very Bath.

Eventually I make my way around the nave, which is quite a beautiful, very light space with delicate fan vaulting; and all the way at the farthest possible reach from the altar, in a tiny enclosure tucked away in the southwest corner of the nave, I discover Rauzzini’s memorial.

Venanzio Rauzzini was born in 1746, and when I say that he was a musician of Old Europe, I mean that he began his career on a fairly traditional path for an Italian opera singer.  He became a castrato at some point in his early youth, and appeared in his first opera before he was twenty.  He performed in many opera theatres in Italy, and was in residence at the court theatre in Munich for a time, travelling to Vienna for appearances as well.  When Mozart produced his opera Lucio Silla in Milan in December 1772, Rauzzini was one of the performers.  Mozart must have thought highly of him, since the following month he wrote a marvelous virtuosic motet, Exultate jubilate, for him.  Not long after this Rauzzini went to London and began an association with the King’s Theatre as both singer and composer.  But in 1777 Rauzzini moved to Bath, and unlike so many other visitors he decided to stay, settling into a house at 13 Gay Street and eventually purchasing a lovely villa at Perrymead, a village high in the hills to the south of the city.  He took part in many concerts and when his friend, the musician and astronomer William Herschel, left Bath in 1782 to concentrate on his scientific studies, Rauzzini succeeded him as Director of Concerts at Bath’s celebrated Assembly Rooms.

Now Rauzzini became a great impresario, arranging hundreds of concerts and bringing many of his famous students – Elizabeth Billington, John Braham, Charles Incledon, Michael Kelly, Madame Mara, Nancy Storace – to perform, often at much reduced fees from what they would earn in London.  By all accounts Rauzzini was a generous and congenial colleague, teacher, and friend.  John Braham and Nancy Storace, who contributed the plaque in his honor at the Abbey, were among the foremost singers of the time; Storace even forms a link with Rauzzini’s early years, since she too sang for Mozart, as the first Susanna in Marriage of Figaro.  One can imagine the conversations they might have had about their experiences with Mozart.  In 1794 Europe’s greatest living composer, Joseph Haydn, came to Bath and stayed with Signor Rauzzini at his villa, immortalizing his favorite little pug dog, Turk, in a canon.

Among the residents of Bath during Rauzzini’s era was Jane Austen.  For a few years she and her family lived in a house overlooking Sydney Gardens, where we know that she attended outdoor entertainments with fireworks and music.  She also attended evening gatherings at the Assembly Rooms, and one of the most potent scenes in her novel Persuasion takes place at a concert in the beautiful concert room there, with Italian love songs in the background.  In 1805 Austen moved to 25 Gay Street, and was thus living only a few doors away from Rauzzini.  So it’s quite likely that she knew him by sight, highly likely that she heard him perform, and beyond doubt that she knew his music, since a duet from his opera Alina, o sia La Regina di Golconda survives in her family’s music collection, which I’ve been studying at Chawton.

Rauzzini died in his Gay Street house on 8 April 1810, and a notice in the Bath Chronicle read, “In private life few men were more esteemed; none more generally beloved.  A polished suavity of manners, mild and cheerful disposition, and a copious fund of general and polite information, rendered him an attractive and agreeable companion . . . in Mr. Rauzzini, this city has sustained a public loss.”  At Signor Rauzzini’s grave, I reflect on his life, its times and places, his acquaintance with Mozart, his shared milieu with Austen, the complex patterns formed in his long and happy career at Bath, and feel a loving sense of recognition and appreciation.

Arrival at Chawton

Nowadays one takes a Stagecoach bus to journey from Winchester to Alton, and then a footpath to Chawton.  But in Jane Austen’s day this sixteen-mile route would have been covered on horseback, or by coach, and one would enter the village of Chawton directly via the old Winchester-London road.  The prevalence of horses in that era is still preserved in a handful of pub names all along the way:  the Running Horse, the Horse and Groom, the Horse and Hounds, the White Horse, and so forth.  As you leave Winchester and plunge into the beautiful Hampshire countryside, you find to this day horses in many fields and villages.  In Chawton itself there are horses in paddocks within the village and children taking riding lessons in the afternoons.  This is a very lively and congenial aspect of the culture here.

The house in which Jane Austen lived with her mother and sister stands directly beside the old road, which must have brought considerable traffic past their windows.  If you continue beyond their house, and up the road to the left, you come to the big manor house that belonged to Jane’s wealthy elder brother, Edward Austen Knight.  This is where the Chawton House Library now resides, and will be my home for the next month.  As we turn into the drive, the first thing we see is a wide, rolling pasture with many sheep and several gorgeous big shire horses.  There is a beautiful little church near the entrance, dedicated to St Nicholas, and containing bells that are rung by a devoted group of ringers on Monday evenings.  My accommodations are in the Old Stables, which since Tudor times have sheltered the many horses that would have helped to keep a big estate like this running, and which are now handsomely renovated for the care and feeding of visiting scholars who come to study in the library.

During the days this is a place of intense activity.  Scholars here are working on a terrific variety of projects, using the library’s extraordinary collection of women’s writings from the long eighteenth century; midwifery, Romantic novels, nutrition and diet, the music collection of the Austen family.  A conference on the history of the English novel unfolds here over two days, groups of visitors arrive for tours of the house, informal study groups form.  An exhibition of sculpture throughout the estate’s “wilderness” is installed and people come to view and assess it.  A busy staff of librarians, caretakers, gardeners, and horsemen moves constantly through the house and grounds fulfilling its tasks.  The place hums with concentrated energy and productivity.

In the evenings things relax.  The scholars leave the library and become a group of women who prepare food and drink wine together in the ample kitchen of the Old Stables.  You become very aware of the evening sounds:  a neighbor playing the pipe organ in his loft, the wood doves chortling, a young family of sparrow hawks cheeping under the eaves, the quiet clopping of the shires’ hooves as they cross the courtyard and come into their barn for the night.  A Hamburg Steinway stands in the drawing room, so I contribute my own sounds to the evening chorus.  There is surely no place more conducive to cheerful study and reflection than this.

Further Reading: You may learn more about the Chawton House Library and its programs at

Tramping Musicologists

Several years ago I was reading Andrew Wheatcroft’s book The Habsburgs (Viking, 1995), and came across a resonant passage in which he used the phrase “tramping historians.”  Specifically, he referred to a Cambridge professor called Dr. John Saltmarsh, “the last of the tramping historians,” whose students “were expected to walk over the land, to understand the true contours of the past which they would later learn about in the dark recesses of the documents.”  This struck a chord with me, as I had just returned from a trip to the Czech Republic where I had visited some very remote and out-of-the-way places in pursuit of a research quest, and realized that I am definitely a tramping musicologist, and know quite a few others among my friends and colleagues in the field.

The patron saint of tramping musicologists, at least for those of us who study the eighteenth century, is surely Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814).  He went everywhere.  He traveled to France and Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, to great cities and small villages, where he visited musicians in their homes and places of work, and went to courts and cathedrals and conservatories and libraries.  He listened, he observed, and he wrote.  Dr. Burney combined the spirit and intellect of a scholar with the soul of an adventurer.  He could have stayed at home in London and lived quietly as a church organist.  But he set forth in quest of the sources of music, wherever they might be found, and ended up writing great music history that is also a compelling travelogue.

When I began to study at New York University as a graduate student, I encountered a passionate tramping musicologist, Jan LaRue, who became my mentor.  He too had been everywhere.  Jan’s particular quest was the eighteenth-century symphony, and he unearthed and catalogued thousands of them in hundreds of libraries, archives, and closets.  He assumed that all of his dissertation students would likewise tramp, and so we did.  During my first research year abroad, as a DAAD fellow in Munich, I visited libraries and collections there and in Berlin, Paris, Salzburg, and Vienna.  My quest at that time involved the study of Mozart’s keyboard concertos in early manuscripts, including his own, and this was a thrilling period of discovery.  I learned not only the tingling, ineffable sensation of tangible contact with the past, but the indispensable practice of seeing and judging a source for one’s self, and the exceptional richness and value of exchanges with new colleagues, of conversations in other languages, of food and wine and manners and perspectives entirely different from one’s own.

In short, tramping musicology has become a way of life, and my intention in this blog is to record aspects of it for sharing and reflection, in a more colloquial style than I would use in writing up my observations for scholarly purposes.  I hope that students and colleagues, family and friends, will enjoy keeping up with this peripatetic part of my musical life, and will feel encouraged to share their own adventures and quests.

Further reading:  Occasionally I will share links to other essays that are relevant to the topic of the day.  I would like to recommend a delightful recent piece by a fellow Mozartean, Bruce Alan Brown, that offers a classic narrative of tramping musicology; see An Idomeneo Odyssey at