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The Rightness of Gurney


RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician


 << Continued from page 1 


'Figured fussiness' can be a notorious feature of Gurney's string writing, whether with voice or without: there are undoubtedly passages of over-writing not just in the quartets but in both Housman cycles. He himself was aware of the problem: 'My stunt is a quartett at present which goes hard and creaks badly' (Letters, p.501). It can also cause problems in the piano accompaniments to the songs (though 'accompaniment', as Michael Hurd observed, 'is not the most apt term for Gurney's piano parts: voice and piano are part of a unified texture' (Ordeal, p.203). Gurney lends some support to this contention: 'My Housman cycle is to be done at the Scotts in March. Rupert Brooke's friend Steuart Wilson as singer, the Philharmonic Quartett and myself as background (Not accompanists, do you note?)' (Letters, p.502; Howells, Harvey and George Thalben-Ball were the other listed performers).

Take, for example, 'Love Shakes my Soul'. Gurney remained his own best critic: 'My own opinion of "Love Shakes my Soul" is that it is a good song but a rather over-elaborated accompaniment' [23]. Yet even if not lying always easily under the hands, another kind of 'fussiness', in the form of Gurney's ever-chugging piano figures, can work rather well. [24] It lends character to the opening of 'The Latmian Shepherd' (Songs 1, p.4) before accidentals set in and things get rather clogged; [25] and to 'Ha'nacker Mill' (Songs 1, p.24), especially if taken at a rather leisurely andante; and generates a transparent ease and charm in both Shanks's 'The Fields are Full' (Songs 5, p.19) and F.W.Harvey's 'Walking Song' (Songs 5, p.32).

It likewise underlies the ambulant feel to what Howells called the 'brief magical procession of scarcely altered harmonies' in Ledwidge's 'Desire in Spring' [26] and holds up rather well in 'When Death to either shall come' (Songs 1, p.27). A busy, chuntering accompaniment keeps 'The Boat is Chafing' (Songs 2, p.5) nicely afloat; just avoids flagging in the delightful 'The Happy Tree' (Songs 3, p.5), and contributes markedly to the character of 'Snow'; although perhaps fails to convince in 'I Shall be Ever Maiden' (Songs 3, p.11).

Admittedly it runs into more serious trouble in several others songs in that volume: 'Shepherd's Song', whose accompaniment reads like a rather distracted Gurney piano prelude; J.C.Squire's 'The Ship' (at least latterly); and above all, the increasingly nightmarish, and ultimately wearisome, toccata-like semiquaver accompaniment to the Blunden-dedicated John Clare setting 'Ploughman Singing' (Songs 3, p.15). Such energetic semiquaver outpourings are strikingly absent from 'Down by the Salley Gardens'. But one salient feature that does appear there is that extra upward 'reach', or melismatic surge, in the vocal line at the words 'young and foolish': a kind of sudden rush of blood, as if the emotion were almost boiling over or 'exceeding' [27].

Such upward lurching, by way of emphasis or colouring, is a characteristic Gurney feature which resurfaces in the last song on which I would like to touch in some detail. 'Bread and Cherries', dating from 1921, is Gurney at his most Puckish and delightful -- the Gurney we encounter, indeed, in so many of the wartime letters. The song is one of his briskest efforts, here and gone in a rapid flurry of a few seconds, and may perhaps serve as an example of some of those other tongue-in-cheek, here-and-gone-in-an-instant Gurney songs (Yeats's 'The Fiddler' of Dooney', the Graves/Doyle settings) which have their own charm; and which I have so far rather neglected.

'Cherries, ripe cherries!'
  The old woman cried,
In her snowy white apron,
  And basket beside;
And the little boys came,
  Eyes shining, cheeks red,
To buy bags of cherries
  To eat with their bread.

Read De La Mare's brief poem on its own, and for all its engaging lyric charm, it might at a glimpse look unpromising song material. A nursery-rhyme-like setting, maybe. That first line might suggest a three-in-a-bar, lilting, rocking children's chant; though one not free of difficulty: each of those dissyllables, for example, poses problems of accentuation -- 'Cherries', 'woman', 'snowy', 'apron', 'basket' - how do you set them? How too, those postponed adjectives: 'shining', 'red'? Let alone the tricky pairs of monosyllables: 'boys came', 'buy bags', 'to eat''? Tongue-twister material all. Any setting would thus seem to me something of an achievement. But Gurney's treatment of these Puckish, elfin lines is unusual, and inspired: 'Bread and Cherries' (Songs 2, pp.8-9)


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



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