Music Suited to a Lady

music for a lady

Colonial ladies played instruments that showed their graceful features to the best advantage, and they never showed their elbows. Music Interpreter Jane Hanson explains.

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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Jane Hanson, and at Colonial Williamsburg, she’s a music interpreter, which is exactly what?

Jane Hanson: Well, it has several components, actually. Because there is the performance component, where you’re actually sitting in a home playing a harpsichord, as I might, or singing with the harpsichord as people come in. There’s the sound element of interpretation; just as people walk in, they’re hearing a sound of the 18th century. Then there’s the verbal. As people walk in and say, “What is that instrument you’re playing?” Well, then, you have to tell them what it is, why you’re playing it, why is it in this house, those kinds of things. So, it’s really a double component, if you will, to the job.

Lloyd: Which do people care more about, hearing it or learning about it?

Jane: I think the initial response is the hearing, obviously. I think of the Wythe house or of the palace ballroom – those are two places where we are in a situation where people come upon music interpreters. There are five of us here at Colonial Williamsburg. And, in that sense, the first thing they sense is the hearing of the music. But then, as they see you or they see the instrument, then, for some people, it’s the curiosity. “What is that? Is that a piano? What does it do? How does it work?” So, it’s fun to kind of be able to put both of those things together.

Lloyd: I am going to be just as curious as they are. How is a harpsichord different from a piano?

Jane: (Laughs.) If someone gave me a nickel for every time I had that question, I’d be rich. But it is interesting, and, you know, I was a music major, and I was a voice major, so I took piano from the time I was little, but I never in my mind put the name of the piano to the fact that it plays “piano,” which means “soft” in music, and “forte.” The full name of the instrument is “piano forte,” which means, “soft and loud.”

Well, then when you say, “That’s kind of a strange name for an instrument. Why is the piano called the piano forte?”  Because the instrument that precedes it in the keyboard category, harpsichord, does not play soft and loud by touch, which the piano does. Anybody knows if they have a 2-year-old and they have a piano in the living room, you tell the child not to press down hard on the keys or not bang on the keys because it’s louder. Because in the piano, the strings are hammered.

But, preceding that, about 300 years earlier than the piano, was the harpsichord, which plucks its strings. Because of the nature of the instrument, it doesn’t play soft and loud by touch. So, that’s the main difference. One, the harpsichord, plucks the strings. Piano hammers them. 

Lloyd: How do you pluck the string in a harpsichord? It’s played basically the same way. Is that correct? You press down on keys and something happens?

Jane: Right, something happens. So, what happens is, at the back of the key sits a piece of wood. And that piece of wood has, sitting towards the top of it, in about the first half inch of it, a pick that looks almost like the thorn on a rose bush. As you press down on the key, that piece of wood, which is called a jack, lifts, almost like a seesaw. The front of the key is where you’re pressing down; the back lifts that piece of wood. As it comes up, that little pick, or plectra, plectrum, plucks the metal string inside and gives it the sound.

Lloyd: OK.

Jane: But people immediately – they come and they just don’t want to know – they want to see it.

Lloyd: Oh, OK.

Jane: They want you to pull it apart or take off the jack rail and say, “Where does that work, you know, that way?”

Lloyd: Well, it’s a curiosity, because I assumed that it was a hammer type of thing, but it didn’t hammer a lot.
Jane: Right.

Lloyd: That it was just sort of a soft hammering so you got this soft, nice, sort of sound that mellowed out.

Jane: Right. And people often think of, you know, when they were kids and they’d open their grandmother’s piano and put tacks on the felts and they got that sort of plucked sound – the same sound you sort of get in a harpsichord.

Now, for me, harpsichord is also an introduction – and singing – to one of the few instruments that women played in the 18th century. We live in an age where we don’t put instruments in a gender category. Although, I think of when I was a kid, and I’m in my 50s now, that I don’t remember girls in school, for instance, taking up tuba, or trombone, or those kinds of instruments. Which now, any school band around the country, you’ll see girls playing all of those instruments. So even in our lifetime, we do have these stereotypes of what’s for girls, what’s for boys.

But in the 18th century, it’s more of a factor. Women were generally – and I say that, generally, because you can never say never – women generally wouldn’t be seen playing flutes or violins, instruments that were a detraction to what was called the visage, or the visage, as the French would say, the focus of a woman’s beauty: her face, her neckline.

And so, instruments generally played by women would be keyboards or something held in the lap. I also play a little instrument called a guitar, English guitar as we say today, the English in the 18th century would just call it a guitar. Instruments that would show women off gracefully as they were playing music. So, it’s also an opportunity to talk about that, particularly to school groups as they come in, about, “Well, why would a lady not play a violin, or a flute, for instance?”

Lloyd: OK, you’re going to have to help me with this.

Jane: Mm-hmm.

Lloyd: A professional musician I knew years ago –  a female in New York – was a fine cellist. Did they play cellos and that sort of thing?

Jane: Usually not, and it isn’t because of what we’d think. Cello, of course, held between the knees, and, in the 18th century, without an endpin, but we won’t get into that. But, what it is, is along with the idea of the focus of beauty here, is also the compass of your arms. And ladies generally, the elbow was considered vulgar. That’s why, even though the fashion was for shorter sleeves, a woman wears a shift that ties below her elbow, so that her elbow isn’t up in these awkward angles.

And so, we have a gentleman here who plays an instrument called a viola de gamba. It looks a lot like a cello, and that’s what most people think when they see it, but it is an older family of instruments that come in all different sizes, just like the violin family, but instead of bowing overhand, as you think of when you think of a cello, the person’s arm over the strings, it’s bowed underhand. It’s like you’re taking your hand, and instead of putting it on top of the bow, and putting it underneath it. That is an instrument that a lady might’ve played, and we say that in earlier times, maybe the time when Jamestown was still the capitol of Virginia. It is an older family of instruments, kind of dying out by the 18th century.

Lloyd: And, your elbow wouldn’t show.

Jane: Your elbow would be encompassed.

Lloyd: Because you’re playing underhand.

Jane: That’s right.

Lloyd: OK, perfect sense.

Jane: Yes.

Lloyd: Once it’s explained.

Jane: Right.

Lloyd: Personal question: do you prefer vocals or instruments?

Jane: Oh, vocals.

Lloyd: Oh, really? OK. That was too easy, wasn’t it?

Jane: Well, that’s all right. Vocal music, for me, began as a pleasure, not a discipline, because I was singing from a very young age. It became a discipline as I studied it, but instrumental music was always a discipline. And in a sense, a harder discipline for me because my first love of music was vocal, and it was easy. Piano, my first instrument, was hard because it didn’t come naturally. It was something I had to learn. But now I’m very glad I pursued it, and continued it, and took it up again here. I think it’s special to be able to put the two together in the situations that I mentioned earlier, as I’m sitting in the Wythe.

In the 18th century, in Williamsburg, you would rarely have what we would consider professional music making. Most people who were musical were doing it on their own. Most music you heard was done by your neighbor, your family member, your servant. One of my favorite quotes is from an old 18th-century gentleman named Landon Carter. And he’s here in town; he doesn’t live here, but he’s here in town. He’s making the observation that, “There’s a constant tooting from every window in town and the vocal dogs complete the howl.” He’s talking about Lord Dunmore’s dogs. So, it sounds as if music making is a general racket, almost, coming from people’s windows. But, you know there’s a loss, I think, in our present day. When we think of music, so many people don’t play or don’t sing regularly because they can just turn it on.

Lloyd: Mm-hmm.

Jane: And it becomes just part of life to be somewhere and music is just playing in the background. In that time, you had to be it. You were it.

Lloyd: But, for balls and that sort of thing, they had professional musicians, right?

Jane: They did have some, yes. Those who were professional musicians in Virginia in the 18th century kind of come in a couple categories. One would be teachers, primarily. Most of the people who lived in Virginia and were musicians made their living by teaching, which means that they were primarily men. Because Williamsburg’s such a small town, it didn’t have a population that could support many music teachers full-time. Now, we have Peter Pelham, who was the organist at Bruton Parish Church, who lived here year-round. But he did other things, too. He was the jailer, for instance. He was the secretary for one of the governors, I think.

But then you have servants who could be used also to play for a ball. There was a dancing master here who had what he called “Fiddler Billy,” who he paid to come along with him. A slave or a servant would play while he taught dance and when he had, maybe, an assembly at the Raleigh Tavern.

We don’t know who made up the musical component, completely, for a ball at the Governor’s Palace. We know Peter Pelham was paid by Lord Botetourt, one of the governors, for sort of putting together a group of musicians for a ball. Six to eight musicians – who they were, we have no idea.

Then the other would be the actors who were here periodically. And they traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard: New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Williamsburg, Charleston. We know Mr. Pelham, when the actors were here, was brought in to be the musical director for “The Beggar’s Opera.” Many of these actors were London-trained singers, who also taught music if they were also in another location. One of them was a man named Thomas Wall, who taught guitar to young ladies in New York and in Annapolis. So, we have those professionals, too, but they’re not residing year-round in Williamsburg.

Lloyd: Well, that changes my view of balls in Williamsburg. I always there was sort of a core of professional musicians who sort of went from place to place and did balls. But, obviously, it wasn’t.

Jane: No, and I think part of it – the governor gave a ball, Lord Dunmore, for instance, gives a ball less than once a year while he’s governor here. So, and it was usually at a certain time of year. So, if you’re a music teacher, and you’re teaching up in the Northern Neck, or you’re teaching out where Thomas Jefferson lived in Albemarle County, you probably were well aware, and you would be available, in other words, for that to be here.

Lloyd: Oh, OK. You would schedule yourself around when things were going to occur.

Jane:  Now, that’s my speculation. I don’t know that for certain, but I would suspect that would be.

Lloyd: Well, let’s you and I just declare it’s true. That takes care of that.

Jane:  All right.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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