November 29, 2008

My view of Percy and Thomas

For as many years as I've been familiar with either of them, Percy Aldridge Grainger and Thomas Hardy have held a strange (and somewhat connected) fascination for me. A quick and dirty analysis of why they're bundled in my mind would be to simply say that it's a coincidence. That my high school band was rehearsing Grainger's "Mock Morris" during the same few weeks that my English class was watching Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles"... but I'm not sure if that's entirely accurate. I mean, yes it was true... but I like to view it as more of a catalyst than a cause.
Hardy and Grainger were born about 40 years apart (Hardy, June 1840 in Dorset, England and Grainger, July 1882 in Melbourne, Australia) and, as far as I know, they'd never met each other. And yet in my mind the parallels and common themes that run throughout their separate works are incredible. Just the ideas of it... the visuals that erupt throughout... it's hard to miss, really. I'll try to put each of their lives into perspective (or Hardy's, at least because Grainger's is a little more... complicated) and then see if I can figure out a way to explain how I feel.

It's hard for me to imagine Hardy's world as a young man - England in the 1850s and 1860s. When we stop to think about where our own country was at that time, it almost seems inconceivable. For America this is pre-Industrial Revolution, pre-Civil War... we were barely even on our 8th President when he was born! Nevertheless, across the Atlantic, Hardy was raised by hardworking and ambitious parents (his mother was surprisingly well-read) and ended up attending the Royal Institute of British Architects. After a few years, he decided to dedicate himself to writing and moved back to Dorset. In 1870, when on a mission to restore a church parish, he met and fell in love with Emma Lavinia Gifford; they were married in 1874. That was the same year that his first (important) novel, "Far From The Maddening Crowd", was published.

"Far From The Maddening Crowd" sort of introduces Hardy's audience to his view of the world, but doesn't quite explain it or even show the full scope of his opinion.

Quick Summary: Basically, the story revolves around Bathsheba Everdene, a young, independent woman and Gabriel Oak, a somewhat poor, 28-year-old shepherd. He wants to marry her, but she brushes him off and moves away. Several years later their paths cross and he ends up working for her... it's kind of like an awkward pity thing at first. During this time she has acquired a suitor - an old, rich guy - when suddenly a young soldier shows up and whisks her away to elope (think Marianne Dashwood here... except without all of the gushy romanticism. Or, actually...) Anyways, years go by and she's ended up marrying both guys, people kill each other, lose money, she's full of regrets (who hasn't been there?) etc. when she's finally alone again. Gabriel is about to leave to find other work (he's protecting her dignity because he's a man of high moral standards apparently) when she realizes that Gabriel has been the perfect companion for her all along! I mean, c'mon, he's a reliable, kind friend who's basically been there for her throughout the novel (and it don't hurt that he knows his way around a hoe, if you know what I mean. Eh? Eh? Okay, bad farming joke). After what she's been through, he's basically like an angel sent from Heaven to relieve her of some of the guilt and remorse that she's accumulated over the years.

So, some of the most important things to get out of his first important work are:

1. Hardy's relish of the English rural life: Don't kid yourself, he LOVED it. It may seem like "what the hell are all of these hicks even doing??" most of the time, but trust me. He. Loved. It. This aspect of his writing is probably the most obvious connection to Grainger, whose most well-known compositions are of rural English folk songs. And let's not forget - who gets the girl in the end? Yeah. The FARMER.

2. Hardy's taste for Tragedy. So basically, in every Hardy novel EVER someone gets royally fucked. It's usually the girl. On occasion it's the girl AND the boy. But, in his defense, I will say that it was a time dependent thing; the older Hardy got, the less concerned he was about the well-being of his characters. So, in the case of "Far From The Maddening Crowd", the end wasn't tragic. But trust me: unrequited love, bastard children, murderous vengeance, gambling, lying, relentless misfortune? All present and accounted for.
It's hard to describe in words why Grainger's music feels tragic to me. I'm going to guess that it's simply because it's based on English folk songs, which were written by rural people who lived the sorts of lives (roughly) that are described in Hardy's novels. A lot of his music is happy (or maybe contented is a better word), but so much of it is reflective or nostalgic that I can't help but envision the lives of these people.

3. Location Location Location. This is the first of Hardy's novels to take place in... Wessex! A fictional area in Southwest England. After reading his novels, you'll definitely want to take a holiday there. Yeah. Riiiight. This doesn't really relate to Grainger, but I just like the word Wessex. Every time I hear it I think about Shakespeare in Love and Judi Dench - "Lord WESSEX".

Sooo... sorry about that. I get a little excited whenever I think about Shakespeare. Or Judi Dench for that matter. And together... well... you can only imagine.

Back to Hardy.
After publishing "Far From The Maddening Crowd", he wrote (chronologically) "The Return of the Native", "The Mayor of Casterbridge", "The Woodlanders", "Tess of the D'Urbervilles", and "Jude the Obscure", to name several of his most important works.
That all felt a little long winded, so I'm sorry to have subjected you to that (if it was, indeed, painful), but I think, in this instance, that to grasp the feel of time and place is a very important part of understanding his connection to Grainger. Well, that and who wouldn't want to know??

Hardy's internal conflict over nature and religion (in my mind) is perfectly orchestrated in Grainger's compositions. Grainger's pieces are both sad and happy, his music both complicated and simple, rural and worldly. Like the man himself (and Hardy, for that matter), there is a detached feel to it sometimes that gives the listener a chance to feel what they want, instead of what he wants them to feel. Like he's putting something out there and he wants you to decide if it's tragic or not, if it's joyful or melancholy.

I think that I know enough about music to be able to say, with some small degree of certainty, that there is absolutely NO way I could prove this with anything but words. I can't say that his music sounds a certain way because of chord progressions, key changes, inverted or ex-verted whatevers, or anything technical whatsoever. But I do know the way that it makes me feel. And when I hear it, I can feel inevitability. I can hear fated choruses. It's like Tess or Bathsheba; there's no way they can stop what's happening to them - they're part of the past and the future, just along for whatever ride fate has in store. But, the one thing that they do have is hope. Hope that tomorrow or the next day things will be better, and even if it's not... then they can still hope for a place to rest in Heaven.

They're sad and tired and worn out and cold, but they're certain. Something out there will be right.
And that's what's tragic. And that's what's romantic.

Lincolnshire Posy
My favorite Grainger piece. The second movement "Horkstow Grange" is a good example of what I'm talking about.

In Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urberville's", Tess is basically subjected to fate over and over again. She's been raped by her cousin, given birth to a bastard child (who died shortly after), vowed to never marry, been convinced to marry by a love-struck preacher's son, confessed her past on their wedding night, and then been abandoned for admitting the reason (her "sin") why she'd never wanted to marry in the first place. She's miserable and humiliated and disgusted with herself and suicidal. Tess herself wants to die, wished that she'd never existed... But we don't. Even after all of that - we know her, we know why we want her to live. We know she deserves it. Hardy is proving to the reader that we're all alike - we all have that same feeling of hope, no matter the circumstance.

Tess's Lament

by Thomas Hardy

I would that folk forgot me quite,
Forgot me quite!
I would that I could shrink from sight,
And no more see the sun.
Would it were time to say farewell,
To claim my nook, to need my knell,
Time for them all to stand and tell
Of my day's work as done.

Ah! dairy where I lived so long,
I lived so long;
Where I would rise up stanch and strong,
And lie down hopefully.
'Twas there within the chimney-seat
He watched me to the clock's slow beat -
Loved me, and learnt to call me sweet,
And whispered words to me.

And now he's gone; and now he's gone; . . .
And now he's gone!
The flowers we potted p'rhaps are thrown
To rot upon the farm.
And where we had our supper-fire
May now grow nettle, dock, and briar,
And all the place be mould and mire
So cozy once and warm.

And it was I who did it all,
Who did it all;
'Twas I who made the blow to fall
On him who thought no guile.
Well, it is finished--past, and he
Has left me to my misery,
And I must take my Cross on me
For wronging him awhile.

How gay we looked that day we wed,
That day we wed!
"May joy be with ye!" all o'm said
A standing by the durn.
I wonder what they say o's now,
And if they know my lot; and how
She feels who milks my favourite cow,
And takes my place at churn!

It wears me out to think of it,
To think of it;
I cannot bear my fate as writ,
I'd have my life unbe;
Would turn my memory to a blot,
Make every relic of me rot,
My doings be as they were not,
And what they've brought to me!

Just as a side note, here's a link to Grainger's arrangement of Gershwin's "Love Walked In". His interpretation is fascinating.
For a song reference, here's Dinah Washington's version.

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