The Rightness of Gurney
RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician
<< Continued from page 3
Part 4: Conscious or unconscious?
There are those who might argue that Gurney's tunes lack an 'instantly
recognisable' or memorable character . To what principally are they referring? Not, surely, to those
'engendering' initial phrases noted by Howells. But rather to the 'wandering'
quality of Gurney's writing, a melodic, or at times harmonic, elusiveness
which is certainly integral to his style and individuality. Perhaps, too,
to the more elaborate piano accompaniment links between verses; the more
contorted among his fast-moving modulations, featuring rather self-conscious
enharmonic shifts; or to the more intricate and erratic of his attempts
at second or third stanza 'developments'.
Gurney's tonality, as a longer song unfolds (or just occasionally 'unravels'),
can seem elusive: not necessarily because he loses sight of it (he does
so occasionally, and more so later on)  or because of some overwhelming desire to attempt a Beethoven-like
development (more common); but also because he is of his age.
His tonal centre of gravity, even - or especially - at openings, can
feel strangely elusive, almost contradicted before it is even allowed to
take root. Sometimes his tonic can be so lightly implied or touched on as
to make one wonder if he intends one at all. On other occasions, by deliberate
ambiguity, he will lull you into an erroneous expectation, almost as if
he is setting out to hoodwink or gull the listener.
Take 'Ha'nacker Mill' (again by Belloc). The song's ultimate home,
or destination at least, will turn out to be F major. By contrast, at the
outset there is a persistent G minor feel, albeit an elusive one, due both
to the flattened leading note (no F sharp) and to the pervading 6:3 inversion
- the chord hovers over a B flat foundation - further underlined by the
E flats which make their appearance from bars 7-8 ('Briar grows ever').
Indeed, G minor is so strongly suggested, almost established, that the subsequent
E natural at 'calling aloud' (in verse 2) comes as a very considerable,
and deliberate, shock - even though it will prove, by the end, to be the
leading-note to the closing F major chord.
Each is a Gurney thumbprint: the apparent flattened 7th, which he will
finally promote to tonic; and the almost cheeky, casual manner with which
he feeds in a note that will turn out to be a principal player in the harmonic
That initial thematic fragment in 'Ha'Nacker Mill' - it's little more
than a motif - might, moreover, seem at a glance too fragmentary, indefinite,
even unsatisfactory. Yet such elliptical touches are typical of his opening
bars. They not only characterise Gurney's melodic writing, they enhance
it; indeed they are fundamental - a kind of personal signature, and one
to be relished.
Copyright © 9 January 2000, Roderic
Dunnett, Coventry, UK
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