Monday July 13 2020

Britten owned a large collection of verse anthologies as well as volumes of specific authors in his library. Of these volumes the one with the most interesting provenance may be this first edition of Thomas Hardy’s poems – Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses.

Two letters from Hardy found in the cover of the volume reveal that it was given by the author himself to composer Gustav Holst as a thank you for setting three of his songs.

Thomas Hardy’s letter to Gustav Holst, 1909.

In his first letter, dated 1909, Hardy describes Holst’s settings as ‘very beautiful’. Two of these were In a Wood, from The Woodlanders, and Between us now, both composed in 1903 and both remaining unpublished despite Hardy’s encouragement for Holst to publish them. Imogen noted in her Thematic Catalogue of her father’s works that she was unable to identify the third song. Hardy mentions in his letter new poems being published imminently.

Another letter from Hardy to Holst written in January 1910.

In January 1910 Hardy sent his new volume of poems with a covering letter hoping that Holst would ‘find some lyrical ones in the collection’. Holst did indeed find further inspiration amongst its pages setting The Homecoming for male voices for the 1914 Morecambe Festival. Holst folded the corner of the page to mark his chosen poem.

Hardy’s poem The Homecoming with folded corner.

In his letters Hardy addresses the composer as ‘von Holst’ – Gustav dropped the von from his name in response to anti-German sentiment during WWI, making it official by deed poll in 1918.

Holst continued his acquaintance with Hardy, visiting him and his wife in Dorchester in August 1927, and writing to Imogen from the Phoenix Hotel afterwards: ‘It’s been an unbelievable day – lunch, a long motor ride and tea with them both during which time he showed me Tolpuddle, Rainbarrow, Egdon Heath, ‘Melstock’…’. At this time Holst was writing his orchestral work Egdon Heath, an ‘Homage to Thomas Hardy’, inspired by walking over the heath as well as by the first chapter of Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native. Sadly Hardy never heard this work which was dedicated to him as he died shortly before its February 1928 premiere performance. Holst himself died in 1934 and the volume Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses passed to Imogen.

Britten first met Imogen in 1943 at Dartington Hall, Devon where she was establishing a music school. They held a mutual respect for each other’s musicianship and in April 1952 Imogen came to Britten’s seafront home at Crag House to work on an orchestration of his Rejoice in the Lamb for that year’s Aldeburgh Festival, as he was busy with another work – his coronation opera Gloriana. She was aware of Britten’s fondness for Hardy’s work – indeed Britten and Pears owned a set of his complete works. When she returned to her home in Dunmow, Essex, she sent Britten her father’s Hardy volume as a present to thank him for having her to stay for what she called, in her covering letter, a ‘wonderful holiday’! She inscribed the volume to Britten.

 

Inscription from Imogen Holst to Britten. It says ‘Ben, with love from Imogen, May, 1952.’

Britten wrote back ‘I shall treasure the lovely volume with its memories of Hardy, your dear father and you too. It has given a great incentive to the songs and although my mind is somewhat full of other things (!) I think some new songs will bubble up before long’.

That summer Imogen returned to Aldeburgh at Britten’s request to help out at the Festival and to conduct the first performance of the orchestral arrangement she had worked on in the Spring. She moved permanently to Aldeburgh in September to begin work as Britten’s music assistant.

A poem that Britten would set in his song cycle Winter Words.

Hardy’s words in turn provided inspiration for Britten as, in 1953, he set eight of his poems in Winter Words, lyrics and ballads of Thomas Hardy for high voice and piano. Two of the poems set in this collection can be found in this volume – Wagtail and Baby and Before Life and After. One of Imogen’s first jobs as Britten’s music assistant was to make the fair copies as he composed each song. In her usually generous spirit she commemorated this work with another gift to Britten – her father’s copy of Hardy’s The Return of the Native which had inspired his 1927 work. She inscribed it ‘To Ben with love, a thank you for having written the Hardy songs, Sep 1953’.

This volume of poetry, with its prodigious provenance, has sparked the creativity of more than one composer through whose hands it has passed and is a great treasure to hold in our collections.