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The Rightness of Gurney


On the anniversary of the death
of English composer and poet Ivor Gurney,
RODERIC DUNNETT examines Gurney the musician [1]



Part 1:   Wrongness       

Encompassed mainly within a brief decade and a half [2], truncated by trench, fatigue, footslog and hospitalisation, Ivor Gurney's musical output is not, in grander-scale compositional terms, extensive.

But within his own orbit, as primarily a miniaturist, it surely is: almost 300 songs, including cycles to words by Housman, Edward Thomas, F.W.Harvey [3], a clutch of by no means characterless piano pieces, tinged with Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and other, more modern styles as well - the most presentable lovingly captured by the late Alan Gravill on The Piano Music of Ivor Gurney and Edward Elgar [4] - the odd wayward MS for organ, and even orchestra [5], and several 'Quartetts', or bleeding chunks thereof, none perhaps wholly redeemable, but including the F major of 1919, whose Molto Allegro movement was tried out publicly by Brian Schiele's Auriol Quartet at a concert in Gloucester in 1990. [6]

None of the 'flagship' items by which Gurney is best known - the 'Elizas' [7]; the published songs and Housman cycles; the piano Preludes published in 1921 by Winthrop Rogers - is wholly free of problems. And if you add in the large quantity of unpublished material, Gurney's music is as replete with 'magnificent torsos' (that splendid phrase used by Donald Davie to characterise Gurney's poetry [8]) as his poems.

What are the reservations? Is it despite, or partly because of, such perceived 'problems' that Gurney's songs are held in wide regard, so as to justify Howells's observation that 'the struggle-in-making is an integral part of expression'? [9] And can we tie down some of that rightness which many sense, admire and applaud in Gurney's songs?

The case against has been well made by not just his detractors, but by his firmest allies and admirers. Michael Hurd, for one, draws attention to his tendency to 'overtelescoping' (like the syntax of his poetry): 'modulation under pressure, tenuously linked', 'enharmonic change' (sudden transitions from sharps to flats or vice-versa) and 'over-elaborate piano textures - too many notes lacking direction', so that 'a rhapsodic manner degenerates into aimlessness' (Ordeal, p.208).

He describes Gurney's essential tools thus:

The generality make use of a wide range of soft discords - sevenths, ninths, and so forth - which provide the kind of rich, warm, romantic palette that is in tune with his whole approach to piano writing. [10]

and elsewhere:

The piano parts, essentially rhapsodic in style, are sometimes clumsy in layout, clotted and harmonically over-rich; and there are moments when the sheer mechanics of musical construction break down, to be hastily smudged over until the next imaginative flash. [11]


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Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, December 26th 1999



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