Last week, I wrote about a unique musical instrument which flourished during a period that almost exactly matched the years during which the Prince of Wales was Regent of England. This instrument, the harp-lute, was played solely by Regency ladies of the upper classes to demonstrate their musical accomplishments. Today, that instrument would be almost completely unknown and its dulcet and mellifluous tones would be lost to those of us living in this century, if not for the efforts of a very small group of musicians, the most dedicated of whom is Sarah Deere-Jones, of Cornwall, in Britain. Thanks to a little serendipity, her determination and diligent efforts, you can hear a real Regency-era harp-lute played by a skilled modern-day lady musician.
How you can bring the trembling of the harp-lute strings into your home, for your own personal pleasure …
Thy Trembling Strings is the title of a CD recorded by Sarah Deere-Jones, an award-winning graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, and an accomplished harpist and harp-lute musician. The title of this collection of music is from a line in a Thomas Gray poem, The Progress of Poesy; "And give to rapture all thy trembling strings …" A most appropriate title for this rapturous collection of music of the Regency period, played on Regency-era instruments, including the harp and the harp-lute. In some pieces, Deere-Jones is accompanied by Phil Williams, playing an early nineteenth-century parlour guitar.
The instruments played on this CD are all authentic antique instruments which Deere-Jones acquired over the course of the last few years. She has had them all carefully restored to playing condition. Each instrument has also been strung as they would have been during the Regency. In her collection, she has a Harp-Lute by Charles Wheatstone, and a Harp-Lyre and Dital Harp, both by Edward Light. You can see photos and find more information about her instruments at her Harp-Lute web page.
Unwilling to allow her harp-lute collection to exist in a vacuum, Deere-Jones has also spent a great deal of time researching that class of instruments. During the course of her research, she has been able to track down Edward Light’s original instruction manuals for the playing of the instruments he designed and sold to the ladies of Regency London. Already an accomplished harpist, Deere-Jones was able to understand and interpret Light’s original instructions just as the first owners of these instruments would have done when they were learning to play them. Deere-Jones is now able to play her Regency-era instruments in the same way that they would have been played by an accomplished aristocratic young lady during the Regency.
Serendipity has also played a part in Sarah Deere-Jones’ efforts to rescue the harp-lute from nearly two centuries of obscurity. Some years before she became an advocate for the harp-lute, she had inherited an archive of sheet music from her Godmother. Upon reviewing that musical archive after her acquisition of her harp-lutes, she discovered that much of it, though completely unknown today, dated from the Regency era, just as did her instruments. Many of the pieces in her inherited sheet music archive were of very high quality, though they have not been heard by human ears for nearly as long as the angelic tones of the harp-lute. Deere-Jones decided it was high time that appalling oversight was corrected, and so it has been.
Thy Trembling Strings: Music and Songs from the Regency era for harp, harp-lute and parlour guitar is a collection of thirteen lovely tunes from our favorite period, played on actual instruments from that same era. Some are instrumentals, while, in others, Deere-Jones sings as she accompanies herself on her harp-lute, just as many a Regency lady would have done at a musicale or during an evening of music in her home. Neither these songs, nor these instruments, have been played for almost 200 years. Until the invention of sound recording, the sounds of centuries past have completely eluded those of us living in the present day. Yet, thanks to Sarah Deere-Jones, you can now pop Thy Trembling Strings into your CD player, close your eyes and be transported to a Regency musicale.
The liner notes for Thy Trembling Strings are extensive, with information about each piece on the CD. A few were played at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, others were written by Edward Light himself, the inventor of the harp-lute, and one, The Last Rose of Summer, was written by the Irish poet, Thomas Moore, friend of both Shelley and Byron, as well as a member of the Carlton House set during the Regency. At least two of the tunes on this CD were known to have been in Jane Austen’s personal collection of music. Other appropriate quotes from Thomas Gray’s poem, The Progress of Poesy, from which the CD title is taken, can be found as section headings within the liner notes. But, lest you think these liner notes too sedate, there is also a bit of scandal to be found within them as well.
The CD, Thy Trembling Strings, can be purchased from the online shop of the Cornwall Harp Centre. Fortunately, they accept PayPal, which eliminates the need for currency conversion for those who purchase from outside the United Kingdom. They will also ship the CD to just about anywhere. A .PDF file of the liner notes can be downloaded from this same page, for those of you who simply cannot wait for your copy of the CD to arrive. If your musical interests include eras other than the Regency, you might want to peruse the other CD and sheet music offerings at the Cornwall Harp Centre Shop.
To bring the full experience of Regency harp-lute music to the world, Sarah Deere-Jones also performs on her instruments, in concert, and in costume. In September, she will be in concert with Phil Williams, at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. They will both appear in Regency costume, playing Regency-era music on Regency-era instruments. This concert is part of the festival sponsored by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, which offers a wide selection of Regency events, for those who love the period and Jane Austen. If you will be in Bath on Saturday, 20 September 2014, and you want to attended a concert of Regency music just as Jane Austen and her contemporaries might have heard and seen it, do treat yourself to Sarah Deere-Jones and Phil Williams playing in the Thy Trembling Strings concert.
For those of you who cannot attend the concert in Bath, thanks to the Internet, you can enjoy some of Sarah Deere-Jones music online. At her Regency Harp and Harp-Lute page, you can view photos of Sarah and Phil in costume with their instruments. That same page also has photos of the sheet music which Sarah inherited from her Godmother. And, if you look closely, there are some links on that page to MP3 versions of some of the songs which are on the Thy Trembling Strings CD. For an even more concert-like experience, you can watch the YouTube video of The Last Rose of Summer, played on the harp-lute, and sung, by Sarah Deere-Jones, accompanied on the parlour guitar by Phil Williams. They are both in Regency costume, in a room which looks much like a Regency drawing room. There are other videos accessible from that same page of Deere-Jones playing the harp in the grand hall of an elegant country house, as well as one in which she plays all her harp-lutes.
Dear Regency Authors, should you ever wish to have a young lady playing the harp-lute in a scene of one of your novels, you will certainly find that scene much easier to write if you have had a chance to actually listen to the harp-lute played as it would have been during the Regency. Thy Trembling Strings makes it possible for you to hear a number of actual pieces from the period so that you can not only name one or more of them in the story but you will be able to describe how they sound to those listening, since you have heard them yourself. And how might one employ the playing of a harp-lute to advance the story? One of my favorite pieces on Thy Trembling Strings is Non lo dira col labbro, by George Frideric Handel. According to the liner notes, it would have been sung in Italian during the Regency, and the lyrics are quite passionate. Perhaps a young lady, forbidden to speak in private with the man she loves, can sing to him, because they both speak Italian, or French, or some other language, which no one in her family can understand. Or, perhaps, a young couple, kept apart by her cruel guardian are able to meet when she goes to Foley-Place, near Cavendish Square, to take her harp-lute lessons from Edward Light. Maybe Mr. Light is sympathetic to the plight of the young lovers and allows them to meet at his home, perhaps in his back garden? How else might a harp-lute, and/or the lady who plays it, figure in a Regency novel?