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The Rightness of Gurney



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  1. Songs 4, quoted in full and analysed by Stephen Banfield in Sensibility and English Song (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp 202-6
  2. Songs 5, p.2; it dates from August 1916, only a few months earlier.
  3. A.E. Housman, 'Bredon Hill', A Shropshire Lad (1896), XXI.
  4. Music and Letters, Volume XIX, Number 1 (January 1938), p.15.
  5. See 'that simplicity and serenity which is surely the final aim of all art': Ralph Vaughan Williams, 'Gurney the Musician', ibid., p.12.
  6. Howells' description, op. cit., p.17.
  7. Songs 1, p.10; dated the same year, 1920.
  8. Howells, op. cit., p.15.
  9. See Howells, ibid., p.13: 'The Mussorgsky-like music-drama he talked of, in 1913, on the subject of Simon de Montfort.'
  10. See Banfield, op. cit., p.196: 'the minor ones nearly always sound modal because of a flat 7th and/or sharp 6th'.
  11. See Journal 1, pp.35-6.
  12. See Banfield, op. cit., pp.185-186: 'As so often in his later songs, Gurney has attempted to carry the poem on a far-flung harmonic span but has not quite reached the other side safely' and 'Gurney's tonal plans are in his later songs often ambitious to the point of incoherence. In such instances it is distressing to see the initial motivic inspiration so soon bogged down in a harmonic mire'.
  13. See the example from 'The Cloths of Heaven' above.
  14. See also Letters, p.490, dated the preceding month: 'I place this letter, hoping to send with it a song and a Piano Prelude a la Scriabine'. Both letters were written at High Wycombe; at least three of the published preludes - possibly, but not necessarily, the three referred to in Letters, p.489 - date from this period.
  15. Compare, too, an unpublished setting of de la Mare's 'The Ghost', which Banfield quotes as Example 9, 'Long dead these to thine': op. cit., p.227.
  16. See Journal 1, p.39, first musical example.
  17. For such thematic adaptations, see Banfield, op. cit., p.194, with his reference to Brahms's 'developing variation'. Gurney's contrasted handling of the first two verses of Bliss Carman's 'Love Shakes my soul' (Songs 4, p.6) is a classic example.
  18. For this kind of proclamatory writing in Gurney, compare also 'The Latmian Shepherd' (Songs 1, p.6), the arpeggioed 'Tom o'Bedlam now is still', the punched out closing bars of 'A Sword' (Songs 2, p.16), or most strikingly of all, the words 'Woman bore me, I will rise', forming the climax to 'On the Idle Hill of Summer' from Ludlow and Teme (London: Stainer & Bell, 1982), p.25. Gurney's dreams, in 1919, pace the interlude with Annie Nelson Drummond, may well have been rather different in character from those of the Yeats of The Wind among the Reeds (1899): closer perhaps to the memories conjured up and honoured by Vaughan Williams in his Third Symphony.
  19. Howells, op. cit., p.15. Compare Trevor Hold: 'More than any other English songwriter, Gurney has the ability to allow his poems to breathe': Trevor Hold, 'Ivor Gurney 1890-1937: Poet and Composer', The Musical Times,Volume CXXXI, Number 1770 (August 1990), p.416. He judges 'The Folly of Being Comforted' to be Gurney's masterpiece.
  20. See too the extract from de la Mare's 'The Ghost' quoted by Banfield, op. cit., p.227, referred to above.
  21. Itself a ballad-parody: see Michael Pilkington, Gurney, Ireland, Quilter and Warlock (London: Duckworth, 1989), p.8.
  22. For a comparable simplicity, compare perhaps 'With rue my heart is laden' from The Western Playland.
  23. His comment above ('Not accompanists, do you note?') notwithstanding: Letters, p.493, to Marion Scott from High Wycombe, September 1919, the time, too, of several of the published Piano Preludes.
  24. Note Hurd's pertinent comments in Ordeal, p.207.
  25. As Howells pointed out, op. cit., p.16.
  26. Songs 5, p.6.
  27. See C.W. Moore, quoted by Banfield, op. cit., p.182, on the 'typical Gurney song': 'melisma would appear on important words of the text and would be used either for emotional emphasis or for word painting'.
  28. Compare, for example, 'Walking Song' (Songs 5, p.33) at 'Black rook'. Howells notes this characteristic, op. cit., p.15: 'He makes lovely use of the seventh -- rising and falling. So did Parry and Elgar. Yet it is "Gurney" -- as plainly as Elgar's tune was Elgar or Strauss's is Strauss.'
  29. Howells, op. cit., p.15. Mervyn Burtch, 'Ivor Gurney -- A Revaluation', The Musical Times, Volume 95, Number 1340 (1 October 1955), p.529, uses the word 'nucleus' to characterise the vital engendering first phrase, or take-off point, of a Gurney song.
  30. The 'ship of sunrise' in 'Reveille' (from The Western Playland) arches up to 'the Eastern rims' to similar effect, just as merry whistling, wilful stone-throwing, even Eternity itself, call for special treatment in 'When Smoke Stood Up' (Ludlow and Teme). The D natural introduced jarringly and unexpectedly into the eighth bar of 'Snow' (Songs 3, p.24: 'silence of snow') single-handedly wrenches the mood from mere ennui to a spectral anticipation of the impending supernatural. A near-identical effect, and context, turns up at 'by pools I used to know' in 'Far in a Western Brookland' (Ludlow and Teme).


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



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