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Of all the great English novelists, with the possible exception of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy was fondest of music. While Austen enjoyed (and played) art music, Hardy's particular love (while not eschewing art music) was of the music of the people, specifically that of his Dorset youth and earlier. From around 1801 his father and grandfather played stringed instruments in the church band at Stinsford (called "Mellstock" in the novels). Music makes appearances in many of his novels and other writings but particularly in his early novel Under the Greenwood Tree, subtitled The Mellstock Quire, a title Hardy himself preferred. Although it was first published in 1871 it is set perhaps a generation earlier than that and one of its principal plot strands is the replacement of the "Mellstock" church band instruments (here, violins and bass viol, though other bands included flutes, oboes, clarinets, serpents and even brass instruments) and singers - by an organist playing a pipe organ in this case, though many churches acquired barrel organs or, later in the 19th Century, harmoniums. The fact that the organist, a young woman, is courted and eventually married by one of the band's violinists, perhaps serves to reflect the peaceful and good-humoured nature of the changeover - though the "quire" are hardly delighted at their supersession, "progress" though it may be, and they do not give-in without a show of resistance.

Under the Greenwood Tree is shot through with many titles of popular music, secular as well as sacred, for the bandsmen play for dances, in church and as accompaniment to singing Christmas carols around their own village. Here we read the titles of folk tunes (The Sheep-Shearing Song and King Arthur He Had Three Sons), carols (Remember O Thou Man, whose time, dated 1611, was by Thomas Ravenscroft, and Behold the Morning Star) and country dances, which had replaced the earlier true folk dances around 1800 (The College Hornpipe, Haste Ye to the Wedding and various unnamed jigs, reels and hornpipes). It is very much a feature of Hardy (and again we can contrast Jane Austen in this) that he loses no opportunity of letting us know the title of a piece of music. Just one more example, from 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles', must suffice. When Tess goes into a church to rest, the organist is practising, so Hardy tells us, the psalm tune Langton. In his prefaces to 'Under the Greenwood Tree', Hardy recalls the enthusiasm of the old instrumentalists, often travelling long distances to church and in all weathers and playing for perhaps ten shillings (50p) per head per year, enough for new strings (or reeds), rosin, instrument repair and maintenance and music paper on to which they copied the music. Few of the old bands survived at the time of Under the Greenwood Tree's publication. That novel and a number of Hardy's poems ('Friends Beyond', 'A Church Romance: Mellstock c.1835', 'The Rash Bride' and 'The Dead Quire') are their memorial.

Hardy was not only a great novelist but also a major poet (his other "musical" poems are 'To My Father's Violin', 'The Choirmaster Buried', 'The Fiddle' and 'Seen by Waits') and as such attracted the attention of several of the major 20th Century British song composers. Not Peter Warlock, admittedly, nor Ivor Gurney (see footnote)and among Vaughan Williams' song output I could find only the little heard Buonaparty. (Vaughan Williams however set Hardy's words during the course of his Christmas cantata Hodie.) John Ireland came to Hardy's poetry - in a musical sense, that is - in the mid-1920s and found the experience rewarding. Three songs (Summer Schemes, Her Song and Weathers) were published by Cramer in 1925 and five more poems set for baritone and piano (Beckon to Me, In my Sage Moments, It was what You Bore with You, The Tragedy of that Moment and Dear, Think Not that They will forget You) followed from O.U.P. the following year. Many years afterwards came arguably the finest of all Hardy settings, Winter Words (1953), with music by Benjamin Britten, a marvellously evocative cycle of which the two "railway" songs appeal most to me (At the Railway Station Upway [sic. should be Upwey] and Midnight on the Great Western, or The Journeying Boy, in which the accompaniment depicts a train travelling over the points). Britten also set The Oxen for women's voices.

But among major British song composers it was perhaps Gerald Finzi who produced most Hardy songs and rich responses they are. There are the early By Footpath and Stile, for baritone and string quartet (1921-2), I Say I'll Seek Her (1929), the cycle A Young Man's Exhortation for tenor and piano written in 1926-9 and four other collections which are song groups or song sequences rather than true cycles: Earth and Air and Rain (medium voice: 1928-30), Before and After Summer (1938-49), Till Earth Outwears (high voice) and I Said to Love (low voice). If we take together the Hardy settings of Ireland, Britten and Finzi, we can argue with conviction that among the poets of the past 150 years Hardy stands second only to A.E. Housman - who did not, incidentally, share Hardy's love of music - as an inspirer of great British songs.

Many other composers have also found inspiration in Hardy's poetry. One who seems to have visited it more than most is Andrew Downes, with the five song cycle for baritone and piano, Casterbridge Fair, the cycle Lost Love for soprano accompanied by treble recorder (or flute), bass viol (cello) and harpsichord (piano) and a third cycle (five songs) Old Love's Domain. Arnold Bax, not perhaps one of the greatest of English song writers, whatever his other achievements, set The Market Girl, Carrey Clavel and On the Bridge, all in the 1920s. Then there were Satires of Circumstance (1969) by Seymour Shifrin, for soprano and instrumental ensemble, Nicholas Maw's Six Interiors, for high voice and guitar, The Weather the Cuckoo Likes by Peter Crossley-Holland, When I Set out for Lyonesse by Leslie Walters, The Scarlet Tunic (from The Melancholy Hussar) by John Scott and Wessex Graves, five songs for tenor and harp by Michael Berkeley (1981, published 1985). And Hugh Wood and Betty Roe are among other British composers who have set Hardy's words. Harold Carpenter Lumb Stocks (1884-?) wrote a Wessex Suite or A Wessex Pastoral for clarinet and piano (publ 1944, Hinrichsen).

These are all solo songs, but choirs have been catered for in Hardy settings. We have mentioned Britten's The Oxen; Ned Rorem, the American composer, set this for SATB and W.R. Pasfield as a unison song. Also for unison voices are The King's Men by Ian Copley and Weathers, set both by Norman Gilbert and James Butt (Weathers, which may be Hardy's most popular poem with composers, has been done for SATB by Arthur John Pritchard). For mixed voices, Ron Caviani set The Darkling Thrush and Christopher Le Fleming the cycle, Six Country Songs which had besides the chorus solos for soprano and tenor and orchestral accompaniment. An unusual one is Nicholas Marshall's unaccompanied SATB setting of 1965, Inscriptions for a Peal of Eight Bells after a Restoration, to Hardy's words. And Holst's The Homecoming (1913) was a setting for male voice choir.

Hardy's words have from time to time been transferred to the musical stage in all genres from grand opera to musical comedy and including music for theatrical adaptations. 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' is perhaps most popular in this respect with Baron Frederic d'Erlanger's four act opera, produced in Italy in 1906, incidental music for a stage version by Anthony Feldman and a musical by Stephen Edwards which was praised by almost all the critics. Geoffrey Brace's A Young Man's Fancy (1986) is a musical based on 'Under the Greenwood Tree'. Peter Tranchell's opera The Mayor of Casterbridge was produced in Cambridge in July 1951. 'The Dynasts', Hardy's only play, appears to have defeated musical representation; Elgar thought about it, but did not get very far. Not a stage work, but somewhere between a song cycle and an instrumental tone poem is Anthony Payne's Scenes from The Woodlanders (1999); in four basic sections, it represents the seasons of the year. The instrumental writing is superb.

We are left with orchestral music inspired by Hardy. Some of this derives from adaptations of Hardy novels for the small or large screens - mostly high quality adaptations matched by the high quality of their music. We may point to Carl Davis's score for the TV adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge, to Philippe Sarde's music for the Anglo-French film Tess, to Adrian Johnston's score for the recent film Jude [The Obscure], to George Fenton's for The Woodlanders (1997), to Rutland Boughton's opera The Queen of Cornwall (on Hardy's neglected stage drama into which he intersperses choral settings of some of Hardy's poems) and, best of all, Richard Rodney Bennett's for the film version of Far From the Madding Crowd, which was nominated for an award. While we are talking of 'Far From the Madding Crowd' we can mention Dominic Muldowney's Love Music for Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak and Henry Balfour Gardiner's jolly Shepherd Fennel's Dance, which was for many years a standby of British light orchestra.

Some orchestral music inspired by Hardy is less well-known than others: Christopher Wiltshire's Thomas Hardy Suite, for example, though this has been performed in Sheffield. But our last two pieces are among the classics of British orchestral repertoire, though neither are performed at all often in the concert hall. We have already seen the influence of Hardy (and Hardy's Wessex) on John Ireland the song composer. John Ireland's orchestral rhapsody Mai-Dun may have been inspired primarily by Ireland's own visit to Maiden Castle, in Dorset, but "Mai-Dun" was Hardy's name for the "castle" and Ireland's regard for Hardy was considerable, so we may legitimately include it here. Robin Milford (who also set various of the poems as songs including Colours) wrote The Darkling Thrush for violin and orchestra. Finally Gustav Holst's bleakly austere Egdon Heath (1927), his first significant orchestral composition since The Planets more than a decade earlier, catches to perfection the character of the landscape feature which plays such an important role in 'The Return of the Native' as to become almost a character in that novel. It is indeed subtitled "Homage to Hardy"; as these pages have, I hope, shown, Holst was far from being the only British musician to pay homage to one of our greatest writers.

Philip L. Scowcroft. February 2001

Ivor Gurney did set four of Hardy's poems, namely In the Black Winter Morning, The Night of Trafalgar, The Peasant's Confession and The Phantom. These are included in a list of Gurney's songs on and I've also found that The Night of Trafalgar has been recorded (on the Helios "War's Embers" CD, CDH55237).(review)
Alan Child - August 2008

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