Many American women like me are passionate about Jane Austen, and often dream of visiting Chawton. So when I applied to the International Visitors’ Program, which is sponsored by the Jane Austen Society of North America, with a project proposal to set Jane Austen’s prayers to music for congregational worship and was chosen, my dream of living and working there became a reality. For six weeks, I was composer-in-residence in the village of Chawton. Through the process and my time there, I learned so much about myself, and what an artist can do when artistic needs are met and fulfilled.
Everywhere I looked in Chawton, there was beauty: a white rose growing up along a brick wall, a tobacco flower peeping into the office window, a nasturtium plant flowing over the edge of an old watering trough. This kind of beauty inspires sound in me because beauty makes my artist heart sing. In Chawton, this was overwhelming and completely unexpected.
Because I found manuscript paper (music staff paper) in the office, this provided me the tool to compose sketches of the tunes I felt and heard in my heart and head. These sketches became my “Chawton Notebook”, which now provides me with valuable melodic material that I can and will incorporate, or use in future compositions.
Also, because a 1928 Steinway is beautifully maintained at the Chawton House Stables where I was living, I practiced. I reconnected with Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, which led to opportunities to play historical instruments including the 1810 Clementi piano at the Jane Austen House Museum, the refurbished 1828 Stodart grand piano at Chawton House, the extraordinary opportunity to play Chopin’s piano (among others) from the Alec Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands Park, and a Broadwood (Beethoven’s preferred instrument) at The Vyne.
Due to the nature of my project, the prayers generated opportunities to connect with the 18 Austen-related churches throughout England. Prior to my visit, the JASNA Churches Committee provided me with contact information that created opportunities to visit nine of the churches, which led to opportunities to set up, produce and perform a concert in Godmersham, and premiere the prayer settings at St Paul’s Church Covent Garden in London. These concerts connected me with musicians and talent throughout England, which is now creating more opportunities.
Chawton inspired me. It still inspires me. When I think of my time there, I am empowered by those thoughts. My success happened because everything I needed as an artist was provided and available to me. I know I ‘hear’ my first symphony there and very soon I hope to go back and write it. Until then, I will work to create an environment like that for myself here in the United States. By doing this, I keep Chawton alive in my heart and continue to empower myself to do what I do best.