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The Rightness of Gurney


RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician


 << Continued from page 4 


Elusive tonality also accounts for the character of the suspended vocal opening of 'Snow' (Songs 3, p.24). The wind-borne lament in the vocal line feels oddly disembodied, for all the ostensibly well-rooted F minor in the bass. Again those typical Gurney features, not just a flattened seventh but a major sixth intruded into the vocal line ('Of snow'), and underlined in the piano part. The process of chromatic slips and shifts that follows as it unfolds ('a child was sighing') steers the listener about as far from the starting point as might be. The effect is once more of almost Warlockian eeriness: other-worldly, unsettling, and unnerving.

Gurney's setting of John Freeman's 'Last Hours' (1919) is another where those potent silences so crucial to the close of 'The Cloths of Heaven' have a key dramatic role to play. 'Last Hours' is an impressive, aptly gloomy setting: one of those songs where Gurney takes a well-established, ballad-related genre and then - in a manner quite distinct from other dark efforts ('Cathleen ni Houlihan', 'Edward, Edward', 'The Twa Corbies') - forges of it something markedly original: well beyond routine, run-of-the-mill ballad writing, both in melodic boldness and originality and in its daring word setting.

True, the accompanying, all-pervasive, plodding ostinato could at a glance stem from any of the mainstream Romantic Lieder-writers - Schubert, Schumann, Brahms - but given its extremely sinuous chromaticism (we encounter it also in Gurney's piano preludes) it is surely no surprise to learn Gurney was exploring beyond Chopin, and experimenting at that time with Scriabin ('Have got up fearfully late after a late night and must now hurl myself into Scryabin's F# minor Sonata, which I have just bought' [14] : 10 October 1919, Letters, p.497)

Alexander Scriabin (or Skryabin), the 'Russian Chopin', who died aged only 43 in 1915, was still a comparatively fresh phenomenon on the British musical scene. Initially championed by Koussevitzky and others, he made a marked impact when he visited England personally in 1913, performing in both solo piano and (with Henry Wood) concerto works of his own, and sparking something of a Scriabin craze. Gurney's interest in Scriabin (as also his interest in Reger) is important. While such new obsessions may have brought added complexity to, and intensified the problems of, his 1919-20 compositions (a glance at certain passages in the piano prelude confirms this), a fuller assimilation of such chromaticism might actually have helped him, given time, feel his way forward: conceivably to a better management of complex textures; more likely, to a shying away from them.

'Last Hours', with the grim chromatic plod of its 6/8 against 3/4, takes us into a gloomy netherworld, akin almost to a Mussorgsky song - wholly appropriate for the Edgar Allan Poe-like atmosphere of Freeman's middle verses. The semitonic flattening that enhances the grieving effect in 'An Epitaph' (see the example above) here underlines instead the ennui, the unredeemed blank pessimism: 'the naked and stiff branches ... in the cold light are like men aged and | Forlorn'.

Gurney had encountered Freeman's wartime verse some two years earlier (see Letters, p.310; 24 August 1917: 'And England lovelier looked than when | Her dead roused not her living men'). Here the composer makes these crepuscular last hours, with their headache-inducing thud, feel about as doom-laden and final as can be imagined. This kind of effect can be seen elsewhere. Gurney infects the vocal line of Edward Shanks's 'The Singer' (Songs 1, p.1), for example, with not just a similar eeriness, but a comparable dying fall ('Shining wings', 'Plaintive keys | Sounds in the silent air') [15]. Likewise, in similar vein, compare the last page of 'The Scribe' (Songs 2, p.4). Here in 'Last Hours', the long descent of the vocal line, plus the enharmonic shift (in the sinister dying fall from B flat to B natural - 'hangs ... day'; 'aged ... forlorn'; 'cloud ... day') and attendant augmented triadic feel at each verse ending make it one of a number of passages in Gurney (by no means just his spectral ballad settings) that make one think ahead to Britten.

No less remarkable, by contrast, is the way the winter all but, but not quite, dissolves as the vocal line finally shifts into focus - with the last verse descent ('Slowly pass') by now spanning a full octave, the hesitant resolution onto E, and the concluding chord a bare open fifth.

Despite the plethora of accidentals, intense (though not cloying) chromaticism and density of the piano part, 'Last Hours' stays remarkably on course. The accompaniment is actually more transparent than it looks. Here, as elsewhere (compare, par excellence, 'Black Stitchel'; Songs 1, p.8), it is the third stanza ('Only a gray sky') [16] that bears the brunt of the characteristic tendency of Gurney in his songs to 'variation', or 'development'.

Elsewhere, when only three verses are available to him ('The Singer', 'Cathleen ni Houlihan') this characteristic feature (almost a fixation) of Gurney's writing tends to latch onto the middle verse. Not always satisfactorily: as mentioned above, it can seem like a curious essay in, or echo of, Beethoven sonata-type development, and in some songs becomes intrusive, overdone, or even ultimately addled and confused. Yet it is rarely arbitrary, but more often - however successful or not - crucial to Gurney's attempt at a structure and fundamental to his concept of the overall song, and attempt at detailed word-setting.


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



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