Objects in Focus
Carols, Songs and Dancing
December 5, 2021
The Musical Heritage of Thomas Hardy’s Family
One of the most interesting items in the Thomas Hardy collection is the music book that belonged to his father and grandfather. This is a hand-written book of carols, hymns, ballads and songs which had been passed down orally and collected over the generations, and the pages sewn together in this simple homemade book.
Thomas Hardy’s grandfather, father and other relatives played violins and cellos in the West Gallery church choirs at Stinsford and Puddletown until about 1835-40, when the church replaced the instrumentalists with barrel organs.
On Christmas Eve, the tradition was for these singers and players to walk through the dark night, lit only by lanterns, carrying their music and instruments, to sing and play carols at all the cottages and houses.
From these family musicians, the young Thomas inherited a love of music. As a boy, he was taught to tune and play the fiddle by his father, with whom he played at parties and weddings. He later drew on the family memories of the choir in Under the Greenwood Tree:
Chapter 4: GOING THE ROUNDS
Shortly after ten o’clock the singing-boys arrived at the tranter’s house, which was invariably the place of meeting, and preparations were made for the start. The older men and musicians wore thick coats, with stiff perpendicular collars, and coloured handkerchiefs wound round and round the neck till the end came to hand, which they just showed their ears and noses, like people looking over a wall. The remainder, stalwart ruddy men and boys, were dressed mainly in snow-white smock-frocks, embroidered upon the shoulders and breasts, in ornamental forms of hearts, diamonds, and zigzags. The cider-mug was emptied for the ninth time, the music-books were arranged, and the pieces finally decided upon. The boys in the meantime put the old horn-lanterns in order, cut candles into short lengths to fit the lanterns; and, a thin fleece of snow having fallen since the early part of the evening, those who had no leggings went to the stable and wound wisps of hay round their ankles to keep the insidious flakes from the interior of their boots.
Just before the clock struck twelve they lighted the lanterns and started. The moon, in her third quarter, had risen since the snowstorm; but the dense accumulation of snow-cloud weakened her power to a faint twilight, which was rather pervasive of the landscape than traceable to the sky. The breeze had gone down, and the rustle of their feet and tones of their speech echoed with an alert rebound from every post, boundary-stone, and ancient wall they passed, even where the distance of the echo’s origin was less than a few yards. Beyond their own slight noises nothing was to be heard, save the occasional bark of foxes in the direction of Yalbury Wood, or the brush of a rabbit among the grass now and then, as it scampered out of their way.