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The Rightness of Gurney


RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician


 << Continued from last Sunday 


Part 5:   Bread and Cherries


Yeats's 'The Cloths of Heaven' is another song where Gurney fingerprints appear in abundance: the fondness for octave spans (E flat-E flat, G-G), something of an ambling, almost placid triplet feel ('the entrancingly "lazy" flight of his melody' as Howells termed it); and inverting or adapting the original vocal line to take account of the words [17]; or the way, by implied use of 3/4 in a 6/8 context, he cranks down the closing lines of the accompaniment. But (as Howells pointed out in his Music and Letters piece) what lends certain Gurney songs their particular, surpassing beauty is his creative and imaginative use of silence, or rests, to lend weight, intensity and emotional loading. Here in 'The Cloths of Heaven', at the line (pause) 'Tread softly (pause) because you tread on my dreams', he evokes a hushed awe, a heart-stopping silence: time, for just a second, stands still.

This stilled, yet salient moment comes over all the more strongly for a curiously oxymoronic effect: that major sixth, like a distant trumpet call, surfacing from the recesses of consciousness, a sort of spectral Last Post given out in a disembodied pianissimo, like some eerie, ghostly echo of the trumpeting call to arms ('most grand to die') in 'By a Bierside' (Songs 5, p.4). [18]

This telling passage in 'The Cloths of Heaven' can be rendered all the more effective -- just listen to Ian Partridge, for example -- by a judicious added use of rubato. Compare, too, Partridge's performance of 'The Folly of Being Comforted': '(pause) O heart! (pause) O heart! (pause) If she'd but turn her head (pause) you'd know ...'. It dates, surely significantly, from Gurney's period of infatuation with Annie Nelson Drummond (October to December 1917), just after his invaliding home from France.

Here, then, are 'those silences which amount to genius' noted by Howells [19]. Such silences riddle 'Last Hours'; he would later (1920) deploy a similar kind of device, passingly and with a lighter touch, in the rests and accentuation of 'You are my Sky' (Songs 1, p.21): 'sombre, sad ... averse, forgetful ... heavily veiled ...' Silences, too, hold the key to the closing pathos of 'The Latmian Shepherd' (Songs 1, p.7) [20]. Silence, indeed, is one of the surest ways in which Gurney's word setting does achieve that level of poetic sensitivity and refinement which Howells and Finzi and Vaughan Williams warmed to, and which has overwhelmed so many others since.

'The Salley Gardens', Benjamin Britten's folksong arrangement of the Irish melody (Air: 'The Maids of Mourne Shore') to which Yeats's poem 'Down by the Salley Gardens' [21] was set - is (in Peter Pears's and other renderings) one of the sublimest experiences of the entire English language song repertoire. All the more striking, then, is the extent to which Gurney's setting, from scratch, of Yeats's words (Songs 1, p.12), dating from some two decades earlier (1920), holds its own with an equal transparency and simplicity. 'Down by the Salley Gardens' is easily one of Gurney's most charming, untroubled and immediately appealing achievements [22]. It is also masterly.

Beyond its key signature (four flats) it contains -- as others have noted -- not one single extra accidental. But it incorporates several Gurney hallmarks: the ability to make almost routine diatonicism sound modal; the enchantingly filled-out octaves; above all, the enabling, 'engendering' initial phrase, reworked in enticing fragments that mimic and echo, mirror, reflect and invert the openings throughout the whole song -- arguably a characteristic of any truly well-made, well-patterned tune, of whatever hue.

Sing it through without any accompaniment, and it becomes even more clear that Gurney has in effect composed a folksong. There is no arcane complexity, only intricate filigree, tweaked with breathtaking, effortless, seemingly artless simplicity: microscopic tracery, spun like a cathedral fan vaulting or the delicate skein of an insect's wing.

Two Gurney fingerprints are wholly absent here: any kind of complex 'development'; and the kind of accompaniment Howells terms 'a background of figured fussiness', over which Gurney often 'throws a lovely and sensitive melodic line', only partially to obscure the latter.


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Copyright © 16 January 2000, Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK



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