History and romance are sure to hang heavy in the air at a concert of new choral settings of Thomas Hardy’s poetry in the Dorset writer’s family church of St Michael’s Stinsford in April.

Some of Hardy’s best-known poems, including ‘A Church Romance’ in which he describes the first sparks of his parents’ love affair being kindled in St Michael’s, have been set for the highly regarded Wessex Consort vocal ensemble by composer Graham Stansfield.

“It’s a wonderfully atmospheric poem, a sonnet written by Hardy with a warm twinkle in his eye,” says Graham.

In the poem Thomas’s father is playing his viol in the west gallery behind the congregation while his future mother is below in the pews. As she sings, the young woman is so taken by the force of her imagined suitor’s playing she feels it is coming to “claim” her.

“So the audience at the Stinsford concert will be sitting in the very space in which this great romance took shape. I’ve written a quite powerful piece with a peaceful ending portraying their loving companionship in old age.”

The concert ‘The Poems of Thomas Hardy Sung In His Family Church’ is on Saturday 7 April from 7.30pm at St Michael’s, Stinsford.

Graham has previously set Hardy’s ‘Great Things’, ‘Weathers’, ‘The Oxen’, ‘Seen By the Waits’ and ‘The Third Kissing-Gate’ and has been composing choral versions of more poems for Wessex Consort’s next album to be recorded this summer.

“I’ve always loved Hardy’s poems, I think it’s where you find the real Thomas Hardy,” he says. “The choir is singing so well now, the voices are fusing perfectly, so I feel it’s time we tackled an album of Hardy settings, but setting his poems is a real challenge as one needs to represent the incredibly wide range of mood and tone of his language and imagery.

“Working on Hardy’s own favourite, ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ has been hugely satisfying. I wanted to conjure the sense of the heath, this great landscape and then the sheer tragedy of the story with an almost mystic episode at the end.”

The story is about a homeless woman and her three travelling companions – her lover, another man and an old woman. In jest the woman constantly teases her lover that the other man has taken his place and he is not the father of her unborn child. Furious, her lover kills the other man, is arrested, tried and hanged. The old lady dies before the execution and on that most gruesome day the woman miscarries and is left all alone.

At the end of the poem her lover appears to her and asks if the baby was his. When she tells him that after they pledged themselves to each other she never touched another man he disappears into the mist with a smile.

The 12 in-demand young professional singers of Wessex Consort enjoy a growing reputation that has seen them favourably compared to Voces8 and the Swingle Singers. Formed by Graham with their distinguished conductor Andrew King (BBC Singers, The Sixteen, King’s College Cambridge), they have recorded two albums in the last three years and appeared together in concerts in Dorset and London.

Wessex Consort return on 14 July to perform at Kingston Maurward House in the opening concert of the 23rd International Thomas Hardy Conference and Festival as the Thomas Hardy Society celebrates its 50th anniversary by returning to where it was first convened in 1968. This year’s festival emphasises the festive with the opening concert at Kingston Maurward and further events during the week at the United Church in Dorchester.

Poetry was Hardy’s first love and some eight volumes, around 900 poems, were published in his lifetime. After his death in 1928, although his ashes were interred in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey where George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling were pallbearers, in accordance with Hardy’s wishes his heart was buried at Stinsford a stone’s throw from his birthplace at Higher Bockhampton.

Tickets for the Wessex Consort concert of Thomas Hardy settings at St Michael’s, Stinsford are £12 on the door to include a donation to church funds.

Saturday 7 April 7.30pm, St Michael’s, Stinsford £12 on the door

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