Sunday, March 13, 2016

Rosin Up the Bow

Though Thomas Hardy would not follow in his father's footsteps as a stonemason, he did join in the family tradition of playing music. Hardy's father was part of an ensemble of local musicians that performed not only at church as part of the congregational worship but also at social events like weddings, festivals and other more minor celebrations. His writing is chocked full of references to music and songs of his time and place and, by all accounts, music remained an important part of his life even after he stopped performing himself.

The church went through a transition during Hardy's childhood with the ensemble eventually replaced by an organ--a transition facilitated, no doubt, by the Industrial Revolution in England . An organ would have been too rare and too expensive for such a humble place of worship before the onset of mass production. Hardy gifts the modern reader with a glimpse into that world in Under the Greenwood Tree (which bears the subtitle The Mellstock Quire), which we will explore in greater depth upon reading the novel, as well as in a variety of poems.

Hardy dwelt upon the loss of this tradition, no doubt reacting to its erosion in practice as a sort of metonymy for his relationship with his father. Thomas Hardy Sr. was, by all accounts, a hard-working man of generous spirit and no small degree of affability. He was also a very quiet man who deferred to his wife Jemima in all matters related to the home. We have a very clear sense historically of Hardy's sense of debt to his mother for pushing him to aspire beyond his station and very little evidence that this debt came with resentment. He seems to have been very devoted to her, sometimes at the expense of his first wife, until her death in 1904 and eulogized her beautifully in the poem "After Her Last Breath." Hardy's father casts a more elusive shadow within his work.

As a young architect, Hardy would be assigned to oversee the renovation of churches into the Gothic Revival Style, an undertaking that one can see echoed in the page of Jude. He expressed his regret for his involvement with it later in life, seeing it akin to destroying the design integrity of the original buildings in the name of a slavish devotion to a past poorly glimpsed. One must also wonder if some of that shame wasn't a deeper expression of his sense of progressive detachment from the days when his father played music in a church just like the ones he had changed in the name of progress.

Going to church for Hardy was never, as far as we can tell, about entering into a deep relationship with a personal savior. It was about community, family, rite and hymn. It was a place where music was once made by a band of skilled local musicians in service to the local folk. I feel strongly that Hardy's deepest connection to his father came through playing music together and in his life-long love of music we can see that bond most clearly on display.

In 1995, a group called The Mellstock Band released an album of music drawn from Hardy's work called The Songs of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, performed in a style consistent with the historical period. I've included a playlist of videos featuring the songs on that record. It is a wonderful listen and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for the Mellstock Band recommendation. I'll have to take a listen. I recently came across a copy of Maddy Prior's 'Sing Lustily & with Good Courage' ( and immediately thought of rural churches of Hardy's time. It's pretty good. Also, I was happy to see that the soundtrack to the new Madding Crowd film had period songs played by The Dorset Singers.

    1. Great recommendation! I've added it to my Google Play library!