Music and Vision homepage


The Rightness of Gurney


Gurney the Musician


 << Return to the text 



  1. This article, originally entitled 'Patterns of Bright Green' is reproduced more or less verbatim from the Ivor Gurney Society Journal, volume 1, 1995, by kind permission of the Ivor Gurney Society. Editor: George Walter, Department of Cultural and Communications Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, Sussex, England, tel +44 (0)1273 606755 ext 2204/2235. Deputy Editor: Professor R.K.R. Thornton, Department of English, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, England, tel +44 (0)121 414 3344, fax +44 (0)121 414 5668, e-mail

    The Ivor Gurney Society can be contacted via the Secretary. John Philips, 7 Carlsgate, Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire, England, HR3 5BS. Tel and messages: +44 (0)1497 820541. Concerts, recitals, lectures and other meetings are held, normally in Gloucestershire - where Ivor Gurney grew up, lived, wrote and composed - three or four times a year.

    Principal works on Gurney referred to in the text and notes are:

    Poems : Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, ed. P.J.Kavanagh,
    Oxford University Press, 1982.

    Ordeal : The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (biography), by Michael Hurd,
    Oxford University Press, 1978.

    Letters : Collected Letters of Ivor Gurney, ed. R.K.R.Thornton,
    Carcanet-Midnag, Manchester and Newcastle, 1991.
  2. The main body of Gurney's songs dates from 1918 (or 1917) to 1926. Michael Hurd places 'the bulk of his finest songs' between 1918 and 1922, 'his output rising to a peak in 1919 and 1920 of about 50 songs a year' (Ordeal, p.206), with a creative fall-off in 1921-2 (Ordeal, p.145) plus a sudden, largely incoherent outburst in 1925. Stephen Banfield, in his Sensibility and English Song: Critical Studies of the 20th Century (Cambridge University Press, 1985) paints a similar picture, noting 'two particularly intense bursts in 1920 and 1925, but [ominously] nothing at all in 1923' (p.180). The flow dried up in 1926.
  3. For simple but convenient summary details of the published songs, see Michael Pilkington, Gurney, Ireland, Quilter and Warlock, English Solo Song Guides to the Repertoire (London: Duckworth, 1989).
  4. Gamut Classics GAMCD 516 (1990), a recently deleted compact disc, copies of which are now available from the Ivor Gurney Society.
  5. See Ordeal, pp.35 and 206. See also Herbert Howells, 'Ivor Gurney: The Musician', Music & Letters, volume XIX, number 1 (January 1938), p.13: 'There was, too, an (early) essay for orchestra that strained a chaotic technique to breaking point' and Letters, pp.477, 490 and 506.
  6. As part of the celebrations to commemorate the centenary of Gurney's birth, 27-29 July 1990.
  7. See for example Banfield, op. cit.,p.187.
  8. Donald Davie, 'Ivor Gurney Remembered', Under Briggflatts (Manchester: Carcanet, 1989), p.197. See also Edmund Blunden's reference to Gurney's 'gnarled' poetic style in his introduction to Poems by Ivor Gurney (London: Hutchinson, 1954), quoted by Hurd (Ordeal, pp.200 and 208). Gurney was latterly all too aware of the problem: 'of failures rough, crude, half-formless (yet I understood rarely why)' ('As they Draw to a Close', Poems, p.221).
  9. Howells, op. cit., p.14.
  10. See the view of a 'typical' Gurney song in C.W. Moore, The Solo Vocal Works of Ivor Gurney (Mus.D thesis: University of Indiana, 1966), quoted in Banfield, op. cit., p.182: F major - 2 measure introduction containing unifying motivic elements - basically chordal accompaniment - triplets in melodic line - use of melisma for emphasis - certain specific modulations (Neapolitan etc.) at climax and coincidence of musical with textual crux - four-measure postlude. Moore's detailed overview of Gurney's songs is further developed in Maker and Lover of Beauty: Ivor Gurney, Poet and Songwriter (Rickmansworth: Triad Press, 1976).
  11. Michael Hurd, 'Ivor Gurney', New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980), p.854. Commenting on early chamber works, Hurd details several Gurney 'fingerprints' also relevant to the song-cycles, and some individual songs too: 'intricate cross-rhythms, subtle / less subtle enharmonic changes; rather wayward melodic lines; the tendency to let the line degenerate into a mere scrabble of buzzing semi-quavers that leads nowhere in particular' (Ordeal, p.36).
  12. See note 5 above. Vaughan Williams also contributed a two-page article to the same issue.
  13. Howells, op. cit.,p.15: 'Gurney's melodic speech is a "kindly" utterance - as gentle as the outline of the Malverns ... He does not write "catchy" tunes. His melody is rarely four-square and patterned'. Howells' attractive image doesn't altogether square with F.W.Harvey's 'Jagged Malvern with a train of shadows' (Songs 4, p.30), quoted in Letters, p.207. See also p.251 and pp.38-43
  14. ibid., p.16. Interestingly, and more encouragingly, Howells also ventures: 'This is something akin to the use of condensed metaphor in modern poetry', a point which might relieve Gurney occasionally of his slightly cloying 'Georgian' label, and - now that we are more familiar with the generation that included those mockingly dubbed the 'MacSpaunday' poets (Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Day-Lewis) - might usefully be explored further.
  15. Banfield, op. cit., pp.185-187.
  16. ibid., pp.186-187 and 201.
  17. See 'The Springs of Music', Gurney's (slightly bizarre) contribution to The Musical Quarterly, volume 8, number 3 (July 1922), p.319: 'The sight which seems more than any to provoke the making of music performed on strings is that of a hedge mounting over, rolling beyond the skyline of a little gracious [Gurney word] hill. A hedge unclipped, untamed; covered with hawthorn perhaps'. Reprinted in Anthony Boden, Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters of Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), pp.119-125. See also 'Where the Mire': 'By the woodside, where I walked and mused | Of the deep music floating there out of reach, | Just out of arm's length'. (Poems, p.218) or the Anacreontic 'Love Song': 'Out of the blackthorn edges | I caught a tune | And before it could vanish, seized | It, wrote it down' (Poems, p.194).
  18. This and some other songs were composed under pseudonymns: 'I am Michael Flood with Pot Boilers now' (Letters, p.507). See also Letters, p.514 with R.K.R. Thornton's footnote.
  19. Trevor Hold, 'Ivor Gurney: Poet and Composer', Musical Times, volume CXXXI (August 1990), pp.414-417. See also Banfield, op. cit., p.181: 'It is vital to an understanding of Gurney's style to appreciate that traces of imbalance and decay are present in nearly all his songs from this [last creative] period'. And also (taking up from Finzi): '"Queerness" is present in nearly all the published songs. There are very few unflawed by passages in which the train of thought weakens and the sense of direction falters'.
    On the plus side, Hold lists 'some twenty songs which rank amongst the finest achievements of English Song', including 'Sleep', 'Severn Meadows', 'Desire in Spring', 'The Singer', 'In Flanders', 'The Folly of Being Comforted', 'Black Stitchel' and 'I will Go with my Father a-ploughing'.
  20. See for example Hurd's comment on the sources of the 'Elizas' (Ordeal, p.39). One should bear in mind that by 1912/1913 Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin (all of whom visited the UK) had only just begun to impinge on British sensibilities. Even by 1919, what other available 'new music' was there? Sibelius perhaps. See for example Letters, p.529 and also Lewis Foreman, From Parry to Britten: British Music in Letters 1900-1945 (London: Batsford, 1987), pp.50, 52n and 103.
    In Austro-German terms at the time (anathema!) we are thinking beyond Wagner, of Strauss, Reger (Letters, pp.517 and 529: 'the late Piano Quartet, rather shocking to me'); Dohnányi perhaps; not even Schreker or Schmidt - let alone Hindemith, or in wider European terms, Prokofiev, 'Les Six', Bartók, Janácek and Szymanowski (to all intents and purposes post-war phenomena in England). Even subtler Holstian and Delian influences were still filtering through to the generation Gurney - because of the wartime interlude - now belonged to (Warlock, Howells, Moeran). A few, such as van Dieren, blazed trails, only to be neglected later. Bax, Bridge and Bliss (and, even earlier, Howells himself) would earn scant thanks early on for their courageous postwar harmonic experimentation.
    Despite this, there is evidence that, by 1922, Gurney had actually been exploring and broadening his horizons. See, inter alia, Letters, p.497 and p.502, and Ordeal, p.209.
  21. Andrew Clements, 'A Celebration of Ivor Gurney', Financial Times, 1 August 1990, p.21.
  22. Frank Howes, The English Musical Renaissance (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966), p.309; my italics. See also Howes's article 'An English Schubert?', Radio Times, 15 July 1938, pp.12-13.
  23. Howells, op. cit., p.14.
  24. Howells does, however, show some ambivalence about the merits of analysis: contrast, for example, his comment on p.17: 'There is no space here to enter into a detailed analysis of Gurney's setting of the second stanza of the lines: "And the movement ... music there"' (the second stanza of 'The Singer', Songs 1, pp.1-3); my italics.
  25. Michael Hurd, introduction to the Ivor Gurney Centenary Concerts Programme, Gloucester, 27-29 July 1990; my italics.
  26. On Sunday, 29 July 1990, at the Guildhall Cinema, Gloucester.
  27. The distinguished pioneering turn-of-the-century Viennese musicologist Heinrich Schenker, who applied rigorous methods of analysis to classical and post-classical music with quite striking results, causing the term 'Schenkerian' analysis to be coined. For Schoenberg, see Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition (London: Faber and Faber, 1967).
  28. See Ordeal, p.210: 'His finest songs have a rightness that cannot be challenged'; my italics
  29. Compare Banfield's detailed (and instructive) examination of 'The Folly of Being Comforted', op. cit., pp.192-195, plus a compact overview of 'Heart's Pain' (Rupert Brooke's 'All suddenly the wind comes soft'; see Letters, pp.526-527) in the same work, pp.196 and 200-201.
  30. Howells, op. cit., pp.14 and 16; see also Ordeal, p.35.
  31. See Ordeal, p.208: 'The faults often seem such an integral part of his style' alongside Howells, op. cit., p.14: 'Sometimes the inequalities are a barrier to a listener's ready approach: a barrier even ... between the imaginative and expressive sides of the composer himself. But in Gurney ... the struggle-in-making is an integral part of expression'. See also 'Snow': 'I | Bend over my task and am hard | at wrestling with the stuff for mastery | That is dumb music now - | My spirit and I wrestle, you may hear us breathing hard' (Poems, p.184).
  32. Rimsky's well-meaning attempt to 'tidy' Mussorgsky with lush orchestration was one of the most famous pieces of musical vandalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  33. Gerald Finzi, letter to Marion Scott, quoted in full in Ordeal, p.184, and in extract by Banfield, op. cit., p.181.
  34. Howells, op. cit., p.16. See also 'Hedger': 'Had indeed my piano-playing or counterpoint | Been so without fear | Then indeed fame had been mine of most bright outshining' (Poems, p.161). For Gurney's night-composing, see 'Masterpiece': 'See the night worker writing his square work out' (Poems, p.180). See also Letters, pp.472-473: 'We had a great stunt last night; sat up together to make a cycle of songs called A Gloucestershire Lad Cycle ... This performance started with milk, went on to Perry, which was succeeded by Champagne to end with sloe gin ... between 4 and 5 o'clock!'.
  35. The 'Organ loft' composers Walford Davies and Basil Harwood, for instance, or from the successor generation, Bairstow and W.H.Harris. Nor were 'Wagnerians' and 'Debussyists' such as MacCunn, Scott and Holbrooke exempt, or before them, the likes of Cowen, Mackenzie and Bantock.
  36. Banfield's comments, op. cit., regarding Howells's organ compositions and the 'organ' quality of certain Gurney accompaniments are perhaps pertinent here (p.189). More than occasionally the textures of both songs and piano preludes suggest Brahms's chorale preludes, whether or not channelled through the influence of Parry.
  37. 'Long, flowing vocal lines of great sensuous beauty and rhythmic subtlety ... projected against a warm cushion of shifting harmonies' (Hurd, op. cit., p.854).
  38. My italics. The 'non-stop quaver accompaniments' and 'background of figured fussiness' mentioned by Howells, op. cit., p.14, as - at worst - an 'incubus' on certain of Gurney's songs suggest that a real integration of voice and accompaniment, even if aspired to, could also elude him, in contrast with his acknowledged masterpieces, most notably 'Sleep'.
  39. Banfield, op. cit., p.185.
  40. ibid., p.200.
  41. See for example the 'jerks' (Hurd) and 'jolts' (Banfield) instanced above. The 'wrench' back to E major in 'The Fields are Full' (Banfield, op. cit., p.217) is one of numerous such instances. Contrast its more positive side: 'Delightful and very typical changes of harmony - the unexpected turn from E major to C major in 'Tears', for example (Ordeal, p.39).
  42. See for example 'The Last of the Book': 'verse which shall recall the rightness of a former day' (Poems, p.192).
  43. 'After many years of trying to find depths in clumsy Beethoven and Schubert, true neatness in the Mozart Quartetts etc, I find such things in the Elizabethans' Gurney writes in a visibly disturbed (indeed, asylum-like) 1922 letter to the composer Maurice Jacobson, which in passing applauds - on what grounds is unclear - Debussy's 'Nuages' (the first of the three Nocturnes) and Wagner's Tristan (Letters, p.527), regarding which see also Banfield, op. cit., p.202.
    Gurney was not wholly untouched by Wagner. Howells (op. cit., p.15) talking of his modulation - 'at best ... the rich source of a pervading beauty in his music' - observes that 'he learned its secret neither in Wagner nor in Prout'. Compared to the likes of MacCunn and others, this would seem to be so. Yet the 'Winnie' prelude, for instance (the Prelude in D, dedicated to Winifred Chapman, set alongside Banfield above), perhaps suggests otherwise.
    On a slightly different tack, from the point of view of performance, Banfield also suggests some potentially fruitful analogies between the demands posed by Gurney's more difficult, extended vocal lines (for example 'The Folly of being Comforted') and those found in the Lieder of some members of the Germanic school - most notably, Mahler and Richard Strauss (Banfield, op. cit., pp.192 and 206). Gurney latterly acquired copies of Strauss songs; see his ironical letter of July, 1916: 'Send me a Walford Davies work to protect my bosom, but then they might use Strauss ... Supposing instead of a strafe, they played Heldenleben at us ... What a horrid Imagination!' (Letters, p.118). See also 'Serenade' (referring to Aubers, July 1916, though written later; Poems, p.173) and Letters, p.46, dating from 1915.
    This is not entirely in contention with the (still discussable) claim that 'Gurney has little or nothing to do with the German Lied, but he has a debt to French song, partly in his harmonic schemes but mainly in his general approach to song-writing ... essentially an underlining of the words and a stressing of the emotional overtones': Mervyn Burtsch, 'Ivor Gurney: A Revaluation', Musical Times, volume XCVI (October 1955), pp.529-30. See also Ordeal, p.207: 'Gurney's whole approach to song was more French than German'.
    The continental 'cut' of some aspects of Gurney's song and piano output - whether conscious or coincidental - has still to be fully recognised. More fully pursued and, pace Howells, given due emphasis, it might enable some, at least, of his experimental difficulties to be viewed in a slightly different light.
  44. The Ivor Gurney Society Journal is published annually by the Ivor Gurney Society, and is free to members. Details of membership from the secretary, John Phillips; for contact details, see note l above. Articles on Gurney and related subjects for possible inclusion in the Journal are welcomed, and should be submitted to the editor or Deputy Editor - see note l above.

    A fresh collection of songs by Ivor Gurney, entitled 7 Sappho Songs, more than half of them hitherto unpublished, will be issued by Thames Publishing (London) in Spring 2000. Details from the Hon.Secretary. A further collection of eleven hitherto unpublished songs was issued by Thames Publishing, in conjunction with the Ivor Gurney Society, last year. Ivor Gurney - 20 Favourite Songs, selected by Neil Jenkins (a reissue of 20 selected songs published by Oxford University Press), was published by OUP in l997.


Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, December 26th 1999



 << Music & Vision homepage            Leo Ornstein >>