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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 [11]. 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) [12] 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 framework. [13]

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.


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Copyright © 9 January 2000, Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK



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