Thomas Hardy's Musical Heritage

Edward Griffiths and Bonny Sartin take a different view of Thomas Hardy – the gifted musician and collector of Dorset folk songs and dances

Thomas Hardy’s Musical Heritage

Edward Griffiths and Bonny Sartin take a different view of Thomas Hardy – the gifted musician and collector of Dorset folk songs and dances

All over the world, Hardy Societies abound, especially in the US and Japan; they all want to be part of the Thomas Hardy ‘phenomenon’. Yet Hardy the musician and Hardy the collector of old Dorset folk songs is a stranger to most fans of his evocative Wessex novels. The exploits of Tranter Dewey and the Mellstock Quire in Under the Greenwood Tree may be legendary, but the songs and music, which are so fundamental to this tale, merely hint at Hardy’s love for, and appreciation of, the traditional folk songs that his fellow Dorset folk carried in their hearts. This year marks the 170th anniversary of Hardy’s birth in Lower Bockhampton on 2 June 1840 so, for a change, we thought we’d take a look at the part that traditional songs and music played in his life and stories.

At Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, Hardy’s study at his Max Gate home has been completely reconstructed – from its walls, bookcases and cupboards, to desk, chairs, pens and pencils. In one corner, Hardy’s violin lays alongside his father’s, who was also called Thomas. In the museum’s archives there is a vast store of music and songs which the Hardy family had written down over many years. Here, too, are two Hardy family tune books, packed from end to end with handwritten verses and music. The 1800 songbook which belonged to Hardy’s grandfather (yet another Thomas) is bound in something resembling pigskin, but is so well-used that its true origins are far from clear. At one end are written the old songs and music, and at the other end there are the hymns and carols played in church by the Stinsford Church Band. Hardy’s father’s equally well-thumbed book dating from about 1820 is bound in red cloth and holds over 300 tunes – a selection of favourites handed down through generations of Hardys.

For young Thomas, a love of music was inevitable. His grandfather, father and his uncle James were all members of the Stinsford Church Band, playing regularly in the gallery above the nave. Had it not been for the arrival of the barrel-organ, in much the same way as he related in Under the Greenwood Tree, Hardy would have carried on the tradition himself. In 1847, the year the railway arrived in Dorchester, the group played for John and Mary Antells’ wedding at Bockhampton. Young Thomas, aged just seven, played second-fiddle alongside them. His father had given him an accordion when he was four and, by the time he was seven, he could play and tune his own fiddle. He could also tune the family piano, and once said he regretted not having pursued a career as an organist. Of course, this could have been because the Stinsford Church Band had been replaced by that barrel organ. This was probably the inspiration behind his later short story, Absentmindedness in a Parish Choir, in which he tells how being in such great demand had a considerable downside.

After playing into the small hours at a Saturday night ‘randy’, and being half frozen during the following morning’s service, the Longpuddle Band took a barrel of hot brandy and beer to warm them in the bitterly cold church that afternoon, which happened to be the Sunday after Christmas. Not surprisingly, being overtired and pleasantly warmed, they all fell asleep and missed their cue to start playing the hymn following the sermon. When young Levi Limpet stirred them from their slumbers, they set about playing The Devil Amongst the Tailors with great gusto before realising their terrible mistake. Maybe their leader had opened his tune book at the wrong end! The very same week, the squire sent for a barrel organ that played 22 tunes – none of them sinful. In Life’s Little Ironies, Hardy explained more about the busy lifestyle that led to the downfall of the Longpuddle Band. ‘One half-hour they could be playing a Christmas carol in the squire’s hall to the ladies and gentlemen and drinking tay and coffee with ’em as modest as saints; and the next, at the Turk’s Arms, blazing away like wild horses with The Dashing White Sergeant to nine couples of dancers and more, and swallowing rum and cider hot as flames.’

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Hardy himself said that the band ‘received so little in payment, that their efforts were really a labour of love’. His favourite tune of all time was Enrico, and the fiddle that he played it on still lies on his cabinet in Dorset County Museum. The dark and well-worn violin has a lion’s head carved into the peg-box instead of the normal scroll. Music and traditional songs were in the very bones of the Hardy family, and kept springing up in Hardy’s novels and short stories.

There are dozens of examples, of which these are but a few: in The Return of the Native, Grandfer Cantle would break into the ribald Queen Eleanor’s Confession at every opportunity. Another of Grandfer’s favourites was The Barley Mow, a song that covers the entire range of beer cask and tankard sizes. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy wrote: ‘Nothing moved Henchard like an old melody’. In the short story, The Grave by the Handpost, the kindly Chalk Newton Choir sang He Came the Prisoner to Release over the suicide’s grave at the crossroads where he had been buried without Christian ceremony. Hardy said that Tess of the d’Urbervilles was a fine singer with ‘an innate love of melody’. Her favourite song was The Break O’Day but she enjoyed the rather saucy The Spotted Cow as well.

Thomas’s mother, Jemima, often singing to the younger children, Henry and Kate, could well have been the inspiration for music-loving Tess. Thomas had written that his mother was ‘a woman with an extraordinary store of local memories, reaching back to the days when the ancient ballads were everywhere heard at country feasts, in weaving shops and at spinning wheels’. Many of these songs were corruptions of traditional ballads or old folk airs, which were printed on broadsheets and sold in the streets and at fairs. Village folk and players usually just copied what they heard being sung, not always correctly, and most became somewhat degenerate versions, more in the words than the tune. During the Napoleonic Wars, troops based in Dorchester would march through the streets playing their military tunes and these were often ‘pirated’ by Hardy and other Dorset song collectors and writers. It is said that Hardy could detect the sources of many a military and dance tune of the Napoleonic era as being from old jigs, reels and quicksteps and was quite content to recognise them as contemporary tunes worth saving in his music manuscripts.

Hardy had a prodigious memory for the old tunes. In 1910, when Hardy and his second wife, Florence, were living at Max Gate, he became acquainted with young Jessica Stevens at a rehearsal of The Mellstock Quire. Her father was a fellow member of the Dorchester Debating Society. They met again in 1918 at another rehearsal, when Jessica was 18 and Hardy was 77. Jessica recalls that Hardy ‘expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the dancing and the musical accompaniment. He took a lady as his partner and nimbly demonstrated the correct steps and positions’. As for the faulty tempo of the music, he ‘borrowed a violin and played in a lively manner all the required tunes from memory’. After Jessica had studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, she was invited many times to Max Gate where she would ‘accompany Hardy on the piano whilst he played old dance tunes on the fiddle’.

In 1920, when Hardy was 80 years old, the Hardy Players staged The Return of the Native, which incorporated the old Mummers’ Play. Hardy was able to supply the play’s complete ancient script from his own collection, which by then was considerable. In order to show their gratitude for this and their appreciation of Thomas Hardy and all his works, the Hardy Players later performed the Mummers’ Play in Hardy’s Max Gate drawing room – a surprise arranged with Mrs Hardy, much to his delight.

Dorset County Museum has the largest Hardy collection in the world, the bulk of which was bequeathed to the Museum by Florence. The most fascinating items from this collection, including manuscripts, books, diaries, photographs, notebooks and paintings, are on show in A Writer’s Dorset gallery, the centre of which is Hardy’s study. The manuscripts are available for viewing by appointment, and both violins are displayed in Hardy’s recreated study at the museum.

Thanks to Jon Murden and Nel Duke of Dorset County Museum, High West Street, Dorchester. 01305 262735, http://www.dorsetcountymuseum.orgOpen Mon-Sat 10am-5pm (April to October)

Further Reading on Hardy:Hardy at Home – The People and Places of his Wessex by Desmond Hawkins, published by Barrie and Jenkins, ISBN 0712620346 Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin, published by Penguin Books, ISBN 9780143112877 Folkways in Thomas Hardy by Ruth Firor, published by AS Barnes, New York

Listen to Hardy’s Music:The Musical Heritage of Thomas Hardy by The Yetties is a unique recording of Hardy’s violin, with a selection of Hardy readings and music. CD ALD4010 1988 available from The Yetties, Downside, Sheeplands Lane, Sherborne, DT9 4BW or via

Learn about Dorset’s Folk Traditions: Bonny Sartin is President of Halsway Manor Society at Crowcombe, the National Centre for Traditional Music, Dance and Song. Bonny and his wife, Cynthia, also run the Manor’s Kennedy Grant Library of folklore, customs, traditional music, dance and song. They hold regular Heritage Open Days and Song and Dance Workshops. Call 01984 618274 or visit