Which instrumentalists have a “rakish, scampish” look?!

Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music

George Eliot

Hands up if you enjoy reading!

As a student (which seems a long time ago now), I enjoyed quite a lot of Victorian literature. I didn’t read much by George Eliot (or Mary Ann Evans), however, but I really like her quote. Apparently she was very passionate about music and makes references within her writing.

The Victorian writer I studied the most was definitely Thomas Hardy and I think I read almost all of his novels. Despite Hardy having penned one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read (‘Jude The Obscure’ – not a fan!), I loved all his earlier works.

In fact, this quote by Eliot reminded me of my old essays on Hardy and I was fascinated to blow the dust off them and take a trip down memory lane. I had forgotten how much Hardy loved music. He played the violin and came from a family and culture where singing and music making were an integral part of life.

His first novel, Under The Greenwood Tree, is centred around the Mellstock parish choir who form the heart of the community and represent part of the traditions of rural England. But as one choir member laments, “times have changed from the times they used to be”. Whereas the choir used to be accompanied by string players, it seems “barrel-organs, and the things next door to ’em that you blow wi’ your foot, have come in terribly of late years”.

The choir is under threat as the vicar of the parish, described as an “urban invader”, wants to replace them with a young lady playing a pipe organ. The singers and musicians liken their departure to death; “well then, Mr Mayble, since death’s to be, we’ll die like men any day you name”.

The entirety of Hardy’s works pretty much document the steady decline of old rural traditions as the world around the author becomes more urbanised. Music is one such casualty caught in the changing world that Hardy reacted so passionately against.

Despite the underlying themes of the novel, Under The Greenwood Tree is still a very light-hearted and fun read. I love the spirited discussion the choir has about the merits of each musical instrument: “strings be safe soul-lifters” but “clar’nets, however, be bad at all times”, and one of the choir members remarks that “depend upon’t, if so be you have them tooting clar’nets you’ll spoill the whole set-out”.

Poor clarinettists!

Your brass-man is a rafting dog – well and good; your reed-man is a dab at stirring ye – well and good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker – good again. But I don’t care who hears me say it, nothing will spak to your heart wi’ the sweetness o’ the man of strings!

Dewy in Under The Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

The choir members don’t all agree with one proclaiming, “there’s always a rakish, scampish twist about a fiddle’s looks”. But the worst criticism is reserved for players of ‘harmonions and barrel-organs’ who are derided as “sinners’ and “miserable dumbledores!”.

I’m not sure what a ‘dumbledore’ was in Victorian England as an internet search just brought up Harry Potter references! But all I could find was that it might be a bumblebee or a dung beetle.

I wonder what Thomas Hardy would make of music today!

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