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Performer Preview: Stephen Alltop and Josefien Stoppelenburg on Their Careers and Austen

The role of music in Jane Austen’s time and the influence it had on her literary works is intriguing to Stephen Alltop and Josefien Stoppelenburg, two of this year’s keynote speakers at the Jane Austen Summer Program. Alltop is a specialist in oratorio performance and serves as the music director of the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, and the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra. Stoppelenburg, a Dutch soprano, has performed all over the world as a Baroque music and oratorio specialist, and as a concert singer.

Stephen Alltop conducting. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Alltop)

We talked with Alltop and Stoppelenburg about their careers and what we can expect from their exclusive combo lecture and performance this summer at the Jane Austen Summer Program -- including the world premiere of an Austen-inspired song.

Interview with Stephen Alltop:

How did your extensive music career begin?

I became active in music in high school. I was in lots of ensembles, choirs, orchestras, bands, and I was drum major of my high school band. I got my first professional job as a church organist at age 15, so I was on that path pretty well before I got to college.

Could you explain what an oratorio is and your favorite one you’ve conducted?

An oratorio is a broad term that generally encompasses most non-operatic pieces for chorus and orchestra. It covers things like Handel’s "Messiah" and Bach’s Mass in B Minor. I love so many pieces that I would say whatever I’m conducting at that moment is what I love the most, but I do have a very special place in my heart for the major oratorios of Bach and Handel.

In your experience as an active musician in historic performance practices, what do you find to be the most rewarding part of learning about early compositions, and why is it important?

I love learning about the music of the past. For one thing, I find that it often has so much in common with today’s performers, and learning how they perform music in the past generally leads to the best performances. One of the things that hasn’t really changed over the last 400 years are human voices. So in that sense, everybody starts with an original instrument.

What were some popular music styles and instruments used in Jane Austen’s time?

One popular instrument would definitely be the forte piano, which many other people, including Austen, owned. Since this was a time before electronic media, the forte piano was the focal point for a lot of social gatherings and entertainment. But as we see in so many of the stores that Jane Austen owned, the violin and the flute were also very popular because so many of the pieces offered lines that the violin or flute played. Of course there were full orchestras that had all of the instruments we have today, although the modern orchestra now includes a number of instruments they did not yet have back in the early 19th century.

Interview with Josefien Stoppelenburg:
Josefien Stoppelenburg. (Photo courtesy of Josefien Stoppelenburg)

Could you briefly explain what Baroque music is and list some popular pieces that audiences would be familiar with?

Baroque music came before classical music, and it uses slightly different instruments like the harpsichord and the lute. The style of singing is a bit different, it’s more text-oriented than producing a loud sound. The instruments have really developed over the years; they have become wilder, much louder, and more stable, but the singing changed with this as well. Instead of a lighter sound, which would have Baroque music, singers produced a bigger sound to be able to sing over loud instruments and to fill bigger concert halls.

What intrigues you about the place of music in Austen’s literary works?

It’s really fascinating to read about it. If you look at the role of women in music at this time, most women with good education and financial standing were required to take music lessons. It said something about their status in society, but it also had a very practical function, like entertaining get-togethers. I read that a lot of women after they got married immediately stopped playing their instrument. The forte piano and harp were popular among women because it showed their bodies in a very elegant way. Today we talk about being passionate about music, but in Austen’s days you were supposed to be interested in it but not passionate because it would show an intense character.

How do you believe music enhances storytelling and helps convey emotions?

Every opera tells a story, and the emotion is shown through the music. We feel what’s going on in the music, and the story serves as a factual base. I love watching the Jane Austen screenplays and seeing what music they choose to emphasize the plot.

In researching your musical career, I saw that you performed several times for the Dutch royal family. What was like that?!

My sister, who is also a singer, and I performed a lot as a vocal duo. One time the Dutch royal family came to our hotel in Meppel, which is located in the northern part of the Netherlands. We performed for them and it was really cool. Another time I performed for them was when there was an opening for a new museum, and Prince Alexander, now King Alexander, came to open the museum. I got to sing some Vivaldi and it was very pleasant and special.

Joint Interview:

What do you hope the participants of JASP will take away from your lecture and performance?

Alltop: We love presenting about Jane Austen and her relationship to music. I think it’s really important to show how much music meant to her and to get a sense of what the music was that she loved. Here you have this person who is devoted to writing her novels, but she takes time every day to play the piano. As far as we know, composers of her time, like Beethoven and Schubert, didn’t take an hour a day to work on their creative writing. Austen’s time at the keyboard was configured into her literary creations, and this is a very important thing for people who love Jane Austen to know about.

Can you tell me a little more about the new piece “You Pierce My Soul”?

Stoppelenburg: It was written for me by composer Stacy Garrop. During the pandemic Stacy and I were good friends, and we decided to read all of Jane Austen’s books together. Stacy got inspired to take one piece of "Persuasion," the letter that Captain Wentworth wrote declaring this love, and turn it into music. It’s incredibly special that she wrote this piece and dedicated it to Stephen and I. We are so excited to give the world premiere of the piece at the conference.

Stoppelenburg and Alltop performing together at the International Fortepiano Festival in 2019.

Alltop and Stoppelenburg are scheduled to give their plenary address Friday, June 17, at 4:45 p.m. Registration is now open for the Jane Austen Summer Program. To register, CLICK HERE


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