EXPLORING MUSIC: ''A Fascinating Experience'' Under the Greenwood Tree
The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987
click on the cover to return to the table of contents
David M. Greene
I recall having to read, at St. Christopher's when I was 15 or so, Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native. I don't recall who assigned it or what we were supposed to learn about it, but I recollect that, contrasted with Carlyle's Essay on Burns (mostly first degree!) and Burke's speech on conciliation with the colonies, it was a pretty decent read, and probably represented a mistake on the teacher's part. Fifteen years later, as a belated college undergraduate, I came to a better appreciation of Hardy's novelistic power, and went on to teach some of his writings myself.
One autumn in the early 1960s I was in charge of an "offbeat" English 2 class. English 2 was the requisite Freshman Lit course, and the "offbeat" manifestation was dedicated largely to those who had flunked it in the regular sequence. I should add that at this time my University was, at the undergrad level, all male and very macho. One morning I came into the classroom and noted one of my charges looking very pale and peaked. "Are you all right?" I asked him. "Sir," he blurted out, "I finished Tess last night and I cried all night." Hardy! Thou shouldst have been living at that hour! It was one of the most stunning pieces of literary evaluation I've ever encountered.
In that remote time students still came to college with sufficient knowledge of standard literature that if you said "Hardy" they could be expected not to take him for one of the Hardy Boys. Since then there has been a precipitous decline. Of the two or three novels one can expect a student to have encountered, the "classics" are The Catcher in the Rye and something called A Separate Peace. One student told me that his entire high schooling in English had consisted of an elective course called ''The Forms in Your Life." "Oh, yes," I replied, "You learned about tragedy and epic and dithyramb, and stuff like that." "No," he said, "We learned to fill out forms."
Last spring, brushing past Hardy in a socalled survey that is supposed to make up in six months for a young lifetime of deprivation, I asked if anyone had ever read anything by Hardy. To my surprise 25 out of 30 students raised assenting hands and further questioning showed that some had read three or four of the novels. No doubt there is some connection with Polanski's film version of Tess and the PBS serialization of The Mayor of Casterbridge, but to a degree it was clear testimony to Hardy's skill as a novelist.
What has Hardy to do with music? Well, I'm coming to that, I hope. He was not a musician. He considered himself primarily a poet, and novels occupied relatively little of his life. His earliest two efforts (I 871-72) were flops; his first hit was Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). He published eight more before 1895. In that year, angered by the charges of "immorality". leveled at Tess and Jude, he quit for good. He died 33 years later at the age of 87.
The Hardy scholar Frank Chapman calls him ''the foremost--and perhaps the only important--English regional novelist." In his fictional world of "Wessex," he vividly chronicles the rapidly dying lifestyles and folkways of the peasantry and villagers of his native Dorset. These were matters that were in his blood and that he knew intimately. His knowledge of, and reference to, the music of the place and time had a particularly solid foundation. His grandfather, a cellist, had led the church band at Puddletown (sic), and his father, who taught him the instrument, played the violin in Stinsford Church. (Cromwell, 200 years earlier, had had church organs trashed as "evil"; the bands that replaced them also served social functions and as entertainment.)
The senior Hardys were assiduous collectors of fare for such uses, and left manuscript books of fiddle tunes, songs, and carols. These, together with part books from Puddletown Church, form the basis of this recording. The choir is what the manuscripts dictate: four-part, including a non-profundo bass, .:. high tenor, tune-carrying altos, and descant soprano. The Mellstock Band is basically a string group, but, on Hardy's authority, includes clarinets, flutes, and serpents (the predecessor of the tuba). The dance tunes have been harmonized by Dave Townsend. Otherwise what you hear on the record is the music that Thomas Hardy heard and played and remembered in his novels. A fascinating experience!