This month marks the 175th birth anniversary of the great English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). The violin played an important part in his family and therefore his own life.
A description of his daily schedule when Hardy was in his 20s (in his ‘biography’, purportedly written by his widow Florence after his death, but now thought to have been the work of Hardy himself!) reads thus: “He would be reading the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Greek Testament from six to eight in the morning, would work at Gothic architecture all day, and then in the evening rush off with his fiddle under his arm, sometimes in the company of his father as first violin and uncle as cellist, to play country dances, reels, and hornpipes at an agriculturist’s wedding, christening or party in a remote dwelling in the fallow fields, not returning sometimes till nearly dawn, the Hardys being still traditionally string-bandsmen available on such occasions, and having the added recommendation of charging nothing for their services, which was a firm principle with them, the entertainers being mostly acquaintances; though the tireless zeal of young couples in the dance often rendered the Hardys’ act of friendship anything but an enjoyment to themselves. But young Hardy’s vigour was now much greater than it had been when he was a child, and it enabled him, like a conjuror at a fair, to keep in the air the three balls of architecture, scholarship and dance-fiddling, without ill-effects, the fiddling being of course not daily, like the other two.”
He was able ‘to tune a violin when of quite tender years’, apparently aged four; and ‘extraordinarily sensitive to music’.
With no pretence at false modesty, Hardy (or his widow) writes: “It was natural that with the imitativeness of a boy he should at an early age have attempted to perform upon the violin, and under his father’s instruction he was soon able to tweedle from notation some hundreds of jigs and country-dances that he found in his father’s and grandfather’s old books. From tuning fiddles as a boy he went on as a youth in his teens to keep his mother’s old table-piano in tune whenever he had the time, and was worried by ‘The Wolf’ in a musical octave, which he thought a defect in his own ear.”
Perhaps because of his country origins, and bring acutely aware of class divisions in society, Hardy never felt quite at home in London. But he does seem to have made the most of the opportunities that living in London offered him when it came to music.
The ‘biography’ chronicles the notes made by Hardy in May ?1901 at a concert by the great violinist Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931) at Queen’s Hall, London of Johann Sebastian Bach’s violin concerto in E major: “The solo enters at the twelfth bar…Later in the movement a new theme is heard – a brief episode, the thematic material of the opening sufficing the composer’s needs. In the Adagio, the basses announce and develop a figure. Over this the soloist and first violins enter. I see them: black-headed, lark-spurred fellows, marching in on five wires.”
A few days later, he writes about ‘a feat of execution’ by another legendary violinist of the age, Jan Kubelik (1880-1940) at St. James’ Hall: “that of playing ‘pizzicato’ on his violin the air of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ with Ernst’s variations, and fingering and bowing a rapid accompaniment at the same time.”
Music crept into Hardy’s writing as well, notably in his short story “The Fiddler of the Reels” where the children in the parish who could ‘burst into tears’ on hearing the fiddler Mop Ollamoor’s country jigs, reels and ‘favourite quick steps of the last century’ are a projection from Hardy’s own childhood; he admits how some tunes his father played could move him to tears in his memoirs. Mop Ollamoor seems a conflation of Hardy as well as his own father, Thomas senior.
But the most poignant tribute to his father I could find is the poem Hardy wrote in 1916, almost a quarter of a century after his father’s demise,titled “To my Father’s violin”:
Does he want you down there
In the Nether Glooms where
The hours may be a dragging load upon him,
As he hears the axle grind
Round and round
Of the great world, in the blind
Of the night-time? He might liven at the sound
Of your string, revealing you had not forgone him.
In the gallery west the nave,
But a few yards from his grave,
Did you, tucked beneath his chin, to his bowing
Guide the homely harmony
Of the quire
Who for long years strenuously-
Son and sire-
Caught the trains that at his fingering low or higher
From your four thin threads and eff-holes came outflowing.
And, too, what merry tunes
He would bow at nights or noons
That chanced to find him bent to lute a measure,
When he made you speak his heart
As in dream,
Without book or music-chart,
On some theme
Elusive as a jack-o’-lantern’s gleam,
And the psalm of duty shelved for trill of pleasure.
Well, you can not, alas,
The barrier overpass
That screens him in those Mournful Meads hereunder,
Where no fiddling can be heard
In the glades
Of silentness, no bird
Thrills the shades;
Where no viol is touched for songs or serenades,
No bowing wakes a congregations’s wonder.
He must do without you now,
Stir you no more anyhow
To yearning concords taught you in your glory;
While, your strings a tangled wreck,
Once smart drawn,
Ten worm-wounds in your neck,
With dust-hoar, here alone I sadly con
Your present dumbness, shape your olden story.
Hardy’s father’s violin, now unused (”your strings a tangled wreck”) becomes a medium of tribute to its owner who loved it so much, and we acutely feel the poet’s pain. Hardy is now seventy-six, but the “merry tunes” “at nights or noons” still speak to his heart, and ours.
(An edited version of this article was published on 14 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)