These poems were set over Christmas 2015, and submitted (unsuccessfully) to a local choir's competition.
They are dedicated to Peter & Melanie Vojak, our very good friends & neighbours.
For the competition I was also required to submit a programme note:
Three Hardy Songs
Having lived in Dorset for over thirty years, walking regularly in the woods past the cottage where Hardy was born, I have breathed the same air through the same seasons on the same paths as the great man, and grown in love with his poetry above all of his writings. He mused more than most, about life in all its shapes and forms, its triumphs and tragedies, its fateful journeyings and its myriad purposes, and transformed his thoughts not just in his novels, but at least as eloquently in his poems. I sought out a group of three, very minded to present my settings of each individual verse not just as as my own deeply personal response, but also as a philosophically connected group.
The outer two poems both have birds as their subjects, and these are two of Hardy's best-known writings: 'Proud Songsters' and 'The Darkling Thrush'. Both project an intensity of living energy in the context of death, of either brave optimism or innocent getting-on-with-life, depending on how anthropomorphic the reader is feeling. Hardy is commenting on the fatefulness of birth as well as death; his thrushes (which 'sing as the sun is going....'), finches and nightingales were 'a year ago, or less than twain' .... 'only particles of grain, and earth, and air, and rain'. And yet they 'pipe' .... 'as if all Time were theirs'. In the 'Darkling Thrush' he lauds with amazement and confusion the musical exhilaration and sheer joyful optimism of the aging bird's song – 'some blessed Hope, whereof he knew' - delivered in the grip of a deadly Winter's freeze – 'and I was unaware'.
In the central poem, Drawing Details in an Old Church, Hardy reverts to his more usual lugubriosity, not just wondering (as he sketches 'what some Gothic brain designed') the identity of some dead person for whom the bell rings (its axle in dire need of oil), but whether anyone will similarly wonder when his own death one day betokens such mournful, 'lagging' bell tolling.
Given that I have studied and set numerous folk songs (and Hardy, too, loved Dorset folklore), it surprises even me that none are used in these settings. I felt rather inclined to make my musical additions entirely from my soul, entirely in personal homage to a fellow ponderer of a deeply felt love and respect for our locality and the nature of life's struggles here. I have sought plentiful opportunities to reflect the poet's words with comparable musical expression, perhaps most obviously in the depiction of that church bell. I loved, too, hinting at our very English church tradition, as Hardy describes the aged thrush's 'full-hearted evensong of joy illimited' – my setting of these words is no more flavoured with the merest hint of our choral richness than I, myself, have so much quintessentially English sacred music coursing through my veins since childhood.
So I let my musical imagination set itself free in these Hardy texts, and for a fortnight in the middle of January I lived and breathed the poems, word by word, phrase by phrase, meaning by meaning. I attempted to match Hardy's dealing with such vast philosophical questions through his exquisitely crafted descriptions of, often, the simplest of life forms, or the most banal human situations.
Since the submission was not successful, these songs have not been performed. The 'recording' below is made up, as usual, using the EastWest sound library - with string sounds:
The thrushes sing as the sun is going, And the finches whistle in ones and pairs, And as it gets dark loud nightingales in bushes Pipe, as they can when April wears, As if all Time were theirs.
These are brand new birds of twelvemonths' growing, Which a year ago, or less than twain, No finches were, nor nightingales, nor thrushes, But only particles of grain, And earth, and air, and rain.
Drawing Details in an Old Church
I hear the bell-rope sawing, And the oil-less axle grind, As I sit alone here drawing What some Gothic brain designed; And I catch the toll that follows From the lagging bell, Ere it spreads to hills and hollows Where people dwell. I ask not whom it tolls for, Incurious who he be; So, some morrow, when those knolls for One unguessed, sound out for me, A stranger, loitering under In nave or choir, May think, too, 'Whose, I wonder?' But not inquire.
The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate When Frost was spectre-grey, And Winter's dregs made desolate The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky Like strings of broken lyres, And all mankind that haunted nigh Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be The Century's corpse outleant, His crypt the cloudy canopy, The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth Was shrunken hard and dry, And every spirit upon earth Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among The bleak twigs overhead In a full-hearted evensong Of joy illimited; And aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, In blast-beruffled plume, Had chosen thus to fling his soul Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings Of such ecstatic sound Was written on terrestrial things Afar or nigh around, That I could think there trembled through His happy good-night air Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew And I was unaware.