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The Rightness of Gurney


Gurney the musician


 << Continued from page 3 


As Howells recalled, at the keyboard (including those dawn-chorus or midnight-oil sessions at Minsterworth) Gurney tended to go for 'the big line' of a work, 'less mindful of detail'. Given the background to his F.W.Harvey song cycle (Minsterworth Perry etc.) and nightwalking songs, scarcely surprising ... [34] The same often suggests itself of his compositional processes.

Howells's Music & Letters tribute remains one of the most important, detailed and perceptive of all writings on Gurney's music, and deserves to be required reading for all. Yet one should bear in mind its date. Nor can one exclude, amid much loyal support and perceptive praise, just a hint of patronage. Both Howells and Stanford, like others around them [35], had to struggle (for all their discipline) in different ways against the tendency - almost requirement - to inflate and over-rhapsodise. Howells's celebrated Psalm-Preludes, admirable though they be, are a case in point; some of his longer anthems, another. [36]

A range of ingredients may stamp Gurney's name on a song; the casual, easy flow of an unusually supple vocal line [37]; a brief rhapsodic uplift, studied flippancy or whimsical turn; a dying fall, some moment of surpassing grace, an unexpected cadence; or elsewhere, that ominous, ballad-quality, where he contrives to escape the merely routine and formulaic; plus the constant, reassuring feel, as Michael Hurd reminds us (Ordeal, p.208), that in Gurney 'voice and piano are part of a unified texture'. [38]

The 'unified texture' can grow shaky, however: 'As so often with his later songs, Gurney has attempted to carry his poem on a far-flung harmonic span but has not quite reached the other side safely'. [39] So too 'his songs nearly always do complete their ideas, and the endings are often exquisite, but the lack of balance or propulsion experienced midway is often a severe weakness'. [40]

Still, time and again in Gurney, a damned-near-impossible sequence gets where he wants it to, even if he has to emply Houdini-like methods to make sure it does. [41] The more negative elements - overtelescoping, curious modulatory crises that may intrude - are reasonably easy to identify. The larger reasons for the success of the overall span are harder to tie down.

Take this for example:


'The Folly of Being Comforted' ('Songs 2', p.18)
'The Folly of Being Comforted' (Songs 2, p.18)


Just how does he get away with that? Or this?


'Last Hours' ('Songs 2', pp. 26-27)
'Last Hours' (Songs 2, pp.26-27)


Or this?


'You are My Sky' ('Songs 1', pp.22-23)
'You are My Sky' (Songs 1, pp.22-23)


Often one has the inkling that there is some kind of 'rightness' - we might even call it a 'Beethovenian' rightness - to Gurney's sense of direction (even proportion) in certain apparently contorted development passages: one which complements his talent for spinning anything from a simple, magical four-square tune ('Down by the Salley Gardens') to a distended vocal aria. The outcome of seeking and finding, rather than mere rambling: 'Rightness', in not just a psychological [42] but in an aesthetic, sense, mattered to Gurney, as he strove to quarry 'true neatness' from his baroque and classical predecessors: [43] 'And poetry comes after eight miles' seeking | Mere right out of mere love' ('Silver Birch', Poems, p.92; my italics).

In setting out the stall, I have dwelt perhaps too long here on the apparent difficulties of Gurney's style. What of the positive? It is this 'rightness' on which Michael Hurd focuses at the close of Ordeal that I should like, tentatively, to pursue further in the second half of this article. Others too may like to take up the cudgels on his behalf in future issues of The Ivor Gurney Society Journal. [44]


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 Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, December 26th 1999 



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