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The Rightness of Gurney


Gurney the musician


 << Continued from page 2 


Part II: Rightness


So much for wrongness. What about its opposite? Is it possible to tease out, more precisely, some of the reasons for rightness in Gurney?

First, a few words of warning. Howells, for example: 'Analysis has no power to do it. Nothing I can write here can put you in possession of Gurney'. [23] And just below, with added irony (Howells again) : 'No discussion of [Gurney's] music can provide opportunity for the gaudy pomposities of "linear counterpoint", "juxtaposition of sonorities" or "tapestry of isorhythmic unities" ... From danger of these he is blessedly safe'. [24]

Or Michael Hurd: 'Gurney's is not a style that lends itself to deep analysis - it is not "clever", calculated music'. Hurd adds, however - just as pertinently - that 'a construction that seems rhapsodic and spontaneous (e.g. 'In Flanders') is actually quite tightly organised. And so it is with all his finest songs'. [25]

Stephen Banfield, at a lecture given during the 1990 Gloucester Centenary celebrations, [26] puzzled not a few listeners by entering into a discussion (with annotated handouts) that focused attention on some structural minutiae in Gurney in a manner worthy of Schenker dissecting Beethoven, or Schoenberg Brahms. [27]

Gurney enthusiasts may feel more at home with an easier, more laid-back approach. Why spoil the mystery? But Banfield's talk touched on some important territory. I must confess to feeling the answer lies somewhere between, or 'across', an overcautious 'hands-off-don't-touch' viewpoint and a more analytic approach to Gurney. When something is specifically 'right' in Beethoven or Schubert, Brahms or Dvorák, there tends to be a reason. Why not - as Banfield seemed to be suggesting (and both Howells and Hurd imply) [28] - in the best of Gurney himself, who - even where formal calculation seems unlikely - and setting aside what he may or may not have learned in his famously sparky and confrontational lessons with Stanford - seems ably served by a quite remarkable, if not uncanny, instinct for design.

Gurney's musical output, like his poetry, remains a teasing paradox. How often - as performers or mere listeners - have we found ourselves wondering just what it is that makes so many of his songs work in practice, when on paper they look as if, frankly, they shouldn't? [29]

Was he perhaps, with that famous 'unteachableness', [30] on to something? And what is it that, time and again, proves so alluring about even some of the more perverse among his song output? [31]

Finzi's antennae were better than most:

There is comparatively little that one can be really sure is bad. Even the late 1925 asylum songs ... have a curious coherence about them somewhere. A neat mind could smooth away the queernesses, like Rimsky-Korsakov with Mussorgsky, [32] yet time and familiarity will probably show something not so mistaken about the queer and odd things. [33]

Optimistic and loyal, perhaps - but prescient in its way, too.

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Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, December 26th 1999 



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