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 ; 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). 
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
. 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) . 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
'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'  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 . It is also
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.
Copyright © 16 January 2000, Roderic
Dunnett, Coventry, UK
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