Music and Vision homepage


The Rightness of Gurney


RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician


 << Continued from page 2 

As Howells saw it, 'practically the whole implication of modal thought ... passed [Gurney] by' [8]. The 'modes' - modifications of ancient scales such as the 'Phrygian' or 'Lydian', each of which has a palpably different feel and emotional pull from the more familiar diatonic scale, and which were freshly in vogue in Gurney's own day (whether from Stanford's teaching or the examples of composers such as Mussorgsky [9]) - may have counted for little with Gurney as theoretically or formal entities. Yet one is struck again and again by the way his own melodies, for all that, manage to bring even to ordinary diatonicism a natural, almost atavistically simple 'modal' flow of his own.

This modal feel colours 'Desire in Spring', for example - part-composed (one assumes not apocryphally) up a rock-chimney in Cornwall. Here not just the D natural flattened 7th, but the prominence accorded it (as the first strong beat of the melody's first two lines) creates its own modal feel [10]. Not only does Gurney 'love the cradle songs the mothers sing'; he has, in his artificially folk-tinged, Celticised melodic line (note the way it descends so easily by thirds, lending an additional pentatonic feel), composed one. Gurney modalism - natural, guileless, untheoretical, undoctrinal, a little mannered occasionally; but still, in essence, there.

It features elsewhere: compare the easily climbing octave of 'The Cloths of Heaven' (Songs 5, p.16). Though the initial ascending vocal line is diatonic, Gurney unveils at bar 5 ('silver light') a sinuous little harmonic minor arabesque, which together with the following C flat and D natural not only sets in sharper relief the top G of 'half-light', but also appends a hint of modality without recourse to modal cliché.

That idiosyncratic, almost casual passing C flat will, incidentally, assume far greater proportions, resurfacing at a significant point to colour the eerie echo at 'tread softly' (see below), on which, with its pregnant ensuing pause - one of those 'resounding' Gurney silences which speak mountains - the emotional crux of the poem rests. The musical shift in mood is palpable, from that easeful, seemingly innocent initial ascent to an ending not far removed in spirit from Warlock's eerie, haunting, crepuscular setting of Yeats's 'The Withering of the Boughs' in The Curlew.


Continue >> 


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



 << Music & Vision homepage            Wrongness >>