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The Rightness of Gurney


RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician


 << Continued from page 2 


Take the most salient feature for the listener -- those Elgarian falling sevenths of the second page [28]. What more glowing, yet what more unexpected, way to set 'Eyes shining'? A passing fancy or whim, conjured from nowhere? Well, no; but a brainwave, certainly. Yet those entrancing sevenths have been implicit from the start, and deftly prepared -- not just by the rising accompanimental figures in the right hand (at bars seven and eight, featured chordally in bar 9) or -- more obviously still -- the anticipatory descending piano figure at the top of the second page.

What binds Gurney's whole song together so ingeniously is that fact that those falling sevenths are the selfsame rising major seconds of the opening phrase ('Cherries ...') -- one of Howells's 'engendering' opening phrases or motifs which can 'set the seal on a whole song' and prove to be the 'whole source of ultimate unity', if ever there was one [29].

The entire song is in fact a flurry of major seconds and broken sevenths, to the extent that at the top of the second page (bars twelve and thirteen), not only the falling upper phrase, but the top line (descending progressively from E to D) and shifting lower parts are all stating, one way or another, that selfsame second or seventh, like some kind of hectoring stretto -- in which everything piles into one. Hence the urgency, the childlike breathlessness and simple urchin excitement and enthusiasm of the entire, two-in-a-bar piece.

Perhaps most ingeniously of all, the fragmentary triplet melisma at 'buy bags of cherries' pulls all these aspects together: it repeats and telescopes the pair of falling sevenths ('Eyes shining, cheeks', the E coming from the accompaniment) but converts it back into the rising seconds of the opening phrase ('Cherries, ripe cher...'); and then it its excitement breaks the octave on E (established, with a markedly pentatonic feel, in both the rising quaver and semiquaver voice patterns on page 2), bubbling over to a top F sharp for the first time in either voice part or accompaniment (which then takes it up with a vengeance.) This is rare songwriter's alchemy, indeed.

The Puckishness is explicit throughout: the resolute refusal, for all the chuntering ostinato in the bass, to relax into one key -- we sense G major there somewhere, but will it settle, let alone stay? Gurney loves to tantalise with these first inversions over an unstable bass. It's part of his interminable cheek. Even at the close, having denied us B minor, and plumped for some kind of E, he trumps it all, like a triumphant card-sharper, with an impertinant tierce-de-Picardie effect, culminating in E major.

This is cock-a-snook music: that lovely, gay, chirpy rising semi-quaver sequence ('To eat ...') is totally in character. It offers a kids'-eye view: Gurney the wag, the ebullient Gurney of the Chapman Letters, Gurney the enchanted youngster himself, who sketches us scampering gamins fresh out of school or choir practice (the determined one-two pattern of that principal phrase almost suggests a two-bell peal).

The way he deals with the problematic disyllables is typical: those prolonged feminine endings ('snowy ...' 'apron ...') could almost parody the agonies choirmasters go through (or don't) to teach their toffee-smeared young charges to avoid the pronunciational pitfalls of ShepHERD, kindNESS, blessINGS, FaTHER, and the umpteen other choral ghastlinesses that lurk in wait for the unwary chorister.


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



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