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The Rightness of Gurney


RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician


 << Continued from page 5 


Instilling 'disquiet' is as integral to ballad-composing as to ballad-writing. The eerie, 'distempered' feel of ballad is something Gurney captures especially well in some of his best songs, often reaching out well beyond the traditional, slightly four-square, four-in-a-bar ballad framework to achieve his effect.

Even among the best known published songs - 'The Twa Corbies', 'Edward' and so on - there are examples aplenty. One of his finest achievements - related in mood and genre, though like 'Last Hours' not a ballad as such - is another Wilfrid Gibson song, 'All Night Under the Moon'.

The restlessness at the outset is achieved in several ways: the dark G sharp minor key, emphasised all the more (as often with Gurney) by an avoidance of placing the tonic note (here G sharp) on the main beat, instead throwing it onto the off-beat. The initial disquiet is simply and even more effectively maintained by the introduction of the note E - the minor sixth of the scale - almost nonchalantly in the accompaniment (bar 2) on the second offbeat: the weakest, most surreptitious spot in a 3/4 bar.

If unease hangs in the air, it is only increased by the arrival of the vocal line. The process continues: that disquieting E is now displaced to a crotchet on the second beat, only immediately to be telescoped, or echoed, in the third beat triplet ('under the'). By bar four, the E has settled firmly, succubus-like, on the first beat as root bass.

These simple devices, encompassed within the space of a mere few bars, achieve their desired end: a kind of psychological restlessness is set up, not altogether unlike that found in some darker Brahms keyboard intermezzi - even though the fourth bar also introduces the kind of routinely imitated Brahmsian figure


Fourth bar accompaniment of 'All Night Under the Moon'

'All night Under the Moon' (Songs 1, p.15)

whose use by Gurney (see also the preludes) as a kind of mannered padding can occasionally detract from, rather than enhance, his writing for the piano.

These opening two lines of 'All Night under the Moon' also illustrate another intriguing Gurney feature: his habit of building into his tunes slightly curious, asymmetrical arches spanning or incorporating a full octave: not necessarily starting and ending on the tonic (compare the opening and close of 'The Fields are Full') or dominant (as here, D sharp-D sharp); as commonly it may be a supertonic or leading note, or more likely still, a flattened seventh. Compare the extended melody line of 'Desire in Spring' (see the example above), where that same flattened seventh (a Gurney favourite) is accorded special emphasis, underlined further by the word-setting ('love ... mothers': 'lonely ... twilight'). As often as not, these asymmetrical octaves produce a curious, slightly lop-sided effect: a hallmark of Gurney's style and melody, and one that is constantly rewarding and refreshing.

By the top of the second page, that initially wayward E natural of 'All Night under the Moon' seems almost domesticated, or accommodated, by the bar of E major ('meadows of'). We have travelled, emotionally speaking, a long way in a few bars. All is not yet plain daylight, however: at 'calling and crying', the nervous, irregular opening pattern adjusts once again: the E natural shifts to the first offbeat, just preempting the voice ('calling'); the initial D sharp-G sharp pattern is itself reversed ('crying'); and an additional intruder, an A sharp (the supertonic), gets thrown in, like a passing bird cry, for good measure (the intruder is rapidly seen off, cancelled out by the A naturals of the following bars.)

What follows is a curiously successful example of Gurney chromaticism, as an emotionally charged vocal line gropes and feels its way back to the G sharp minor of the start.

Those Yeatsian whisperings are, after all, benign: this is a night, shadows and all, with which accommodation can be made.

As often, Gurney has been anticipating, telegraphing: he has set the wires buzzing. For as Gibson's second stanza progresses, the mood becomes increasingly affirmative, and it is for that wandering, restless sixth degree, by some strange alchemy magically converted to an E sharp (major sixth) where least expected, that he reserves the strongest moment of affirmation: 'Together we're flying' (see also 'hush of the night', where the E sharp significantly recurs near the close of the song). The interval of a minor sixth, key to the Yeatsian unease Gurney conjures up in this song, is time-hallowed as an instrument of pathos - the rising interval of Dowland's Lachrymae ('Flow, my tears ...'), or the grieving alto solo 'It is finished' in the St John Passion.

Gurney knows it well - witness the opening line of 'Sleep' (D flat-F; D flat-B double flat).

Conscious, or unconscious? Artless, or artful, spontaneity? The source of Gurney's canny, or uncanny, intuition for what sounds 'right' is continually teasing and elusive. The 'Elizabethan' songs' true origins, as Michael Hurd reminds us ('There are no obvious models for the Elizas': Ordeal, p.39), are tantalisingly hard to pinpoint. Where did he get them from - if not from the Elizabethans themselves? (Brahms's intermezzi and organ preludes may again perhaps underlie the accompanimental figures). Still, 'All Night under the Moon' is as crystalline and inspired, in its own way, as his handling of 'Sleep', which itself seems plucked from another world.

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



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