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The Rightness of Gurney


Gurney the musician


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Hurd's own assessment (see especially Ordeal p.36 and pp.206-10) comes close to that of Herbert Howells, whose significant contribution to the seventeen-page Music & Letters tribute published just a month after Gurney's death, [12] still - with a good cause - carries much weight. Howells, amid many positive points regarding 'kindly' melody [13], quietly shifting tonality, poetic identification, thematic unity and the phrases that 'engender' it, and on pace-variation and 'silence' in Gurney, sounds a due warning:

Yet in many of the songs there is something uncompromising and intractable: as if the logic of modulation could be matter for scorn, and gentleness of procedure an elegant waste of time. At such times he seems bent upon crushing a rich and complicated harmonic progress into a space too brief to admit clarity. [14]

Their joint overview is broadly shared. Gurney's gentle - or bold - disregard for the niceties of modulation, for example : extreme situations from which 'he extricates himself sometimes with great dexterity, and sometimes only by means of a desperate jerk' (Ordeal, p.208) anticipates the 'creaking sideslips' ('Dreams of the Sea'), 'sinking enharmonic change' ('Kennst du das Land') or 'sudden and distant modulation' and 'jolts' ('The Twa Corbies') noted by Stephen Banfield in his discussion of the early songs [15], which can at worst herald 'rhapsodic incoherence', 'tonal anarchy', or the initial motivic inspiration getting 'soon bogged down in a harmonic mire' [16].

The composer and musicologist Trevor Hold offers a related, if not identical, picture:

There is a delightful waywardness about [Gurney's] music. It rambles like an unkempt English hedgerow [17]. This is both a strength and a weakness. In some cases it becomes more haphazard meandering ... At its best, in its harmonic unexpectedness, avoidance of the obvious cadence and modulation, it can produce subtle and elusive effects.

It would be a mistake to assume that Gurney's hedgerows are always or invariably unkempt, or that such 'rambles' lack all goal or direction. But Hold too finds torsos 'half-conceived', 'lacking final artistic polish, as though he couldn't be bothered to follow up the initial fine line of inspiration':

Some potentially fine songs are spoilt by technical flaws: beautiful vocal-lines and exquisite word-settings are marred by clumsy accompaniments (he too easily succumbed to vague arpeggiated piano figurations), unconvincing harmonic movement and (a recurrent fault) unsatisfactory conclusions.

Hold's criticisms go a stage further:

His range is limited. His attempt to write a swashbuckling ballad in 'Hawk and Buckle' lacks both swash and buckle [18]. He hasn't the requisite art to bring off light humorous songs, such as 'Nine of the Clock' and 'Goodnight to the Meadow'. For all its individuality, his harmonic language is rooted in Brahms and Stanford. Vaughan Williams and Holst might never have happened. The new music from the continent certainly hadn't. And for a specialist songwriter he lacks a crucial talent - the ability, when needed, to write a memorable tune [19].

More to take issue with here, perhaps [20].

The critic Andrew Clements, writing in the Financial Times, also puts a measured boot in:

Alongside Finzi ... Gurney's songs seem a little pallid, harmonically ponderous, melodically square, with Brahms's solidity sometimes too obvious. Finzi's vocal lines are instantly recognisable, Gurney's are not, which is not to deny the power of some of his songs - less the easeful lyrics than the bleaker settings.

What's more, adds Clements, perhaps more surprisingly, 'he never achieved the ideal fusions of text and music which the best of his contemporaries managed: he did not reach so close to Housman as Vaughan Williams did, or identify with anyone as closely as, say, Finzi did with Hardy. Often he selected third-rate verse by close friends' [21]. Here, Gurney is challenged on the very counts where he is so often rated: his sensitivity as poet's musician and musician-poet.

A quarter century earlier Frank Howes, the former Times critic, had his own doubts: 'Gurney's songs published in 1938 are not contemporary in idiom: they are diatonic, limpid, rarely touched by modal influence, backward rather than forward-looking, individually exquisite, but hardly significant historically' [22].

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Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, December 26th 1999 



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