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The Rightness of Gurney


RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician


 << Continued from page 1 

What the curving melody of 'Severn Meadows' suggests is surely not so much a hymnic quality (such as characterises his setting of Belloc's 'Most Holy Night' [1] as a kind of extended, secularised psalm chant, reaching beyond the familiar chant book metric layout into a longer span. Woven into this is a summoning church-bell effect: not the massive, funeral tolling framing the build-up to 'By a Bierside' [2]; but a simple, bold, arpeggioed vocal line, set in relief at the outset by the plain thirds and sixths of the opening accompaniment, and recalling the descending peal of bells (minor, then major seventh) heard across English field and meadow; 'Come all to church, good people' [3]. 'Severn Meadows' comes perhaps as close as anything to the wistful nostalgia found in Gurney's two published Housman cycles. If any song fits Howells' description of Gurney's melody as a 'kindly human utterance - as gentle as the outline of the Malverns' [4], this surely does.

A different bier, or tomb, inspires Gurney to another of his best, most transparent and most evocative short songs: 'An Epitaph'. The nostalgia is of a different kind, even if its melodic contours share something with those of 'Severn Meadows'.

The opening is spare - think of the very barest, simplest of stylised folksongs, such as Vaughan Williams's 'Ca' the Yowes' [5]. The third stave ('I think she was') contracts or telescopes what has preceded, yet also relaxes it and opens it up, lending ease and suppleness to the word setting, enhanced by the triplets and the tied-over crotchet which delays the second syllable of 'beautiful': part-rhapsody, partly a poignant, almost sobbing effect.

By the time we have her full credentials, de la Mare's lady has slipped into not the expected D or B minor, but C major ('West Country') - a most elusive lady, and surprising too: for awarded this potentially most stolid of keys, she seems suddenly - in Gurney's hands and treated to the Gurney alchemy - more spectral, more Yeatsian.

The short, controlled 'development' that follows is unusually compact for Gurney as from bar 22 ('but beauty passes') he plies and works at one of those 'engendering' opening phrases [6], whose origins, in this case, lie in the notes of that initial figure at bars 6-7 ('beautiful lady'). Gurney nurses it through E flat, B flat minor and various wispy diminutions, never losing sight of his beginning ; then finally cranks it up through G flat / F sharp minor back to the initial high D for his recapitulation, 'Who will remember?' - a mild, but typical, modification of the opening phrase ('Here lies').

Not here, then, one of those abstruse, untamed, Gurneyesque developments: things remain pretty firmly under control. Too abrupt, perhaps? Harmonically speaking, we haven't been far. But we have spied beyond bounds, and glimpsed, briefly and sufficiently, another dimension, another country: as wistful and evanescent here as those Northern domains, in the bleak third stanza of 'Black Stitchel' [7], appear black, wrathful and foreboding.


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Copyright © 2 January 2000, Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK



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