Life is a bounteous thing. There are so many paths; so many experiences to have. There are people with whom to share life, be it your family, old friendships and acquaintanceships, or new meetings; places to walk or see; books, music, art &c. to be absorbed; work to be done, be it creative or functional; and ideas and aspirations to be pursued. It can be difficult to know where to turn. Every day there are a multitude of decisions that are made that shape and come to define what and who we are. In my life, with our four young children (ranging from 8 months to 7 years), and multitudinous projects and aspirations on the go, as a composer, academic, writer and singer, it can become seriously overwhelming, trying to decide what to get done. This blog has stagnated, in part because I have not known what to write about from the many things going on, and in part for trying to get on with those things in the first place! This last month or so has seen me singing Dvorak’s Stabat Mater and Gurney’s Western Playland for the first time (amongst other singings), lecturing on Gurney and First World War music, writing a CD booklet note for a new disc due out in October, as well as making some substantive progress with my book on Gurney, completing the composition of an extended work for soprano and piano and trying to build momentum on a rare commission, trying to keep on top of the numerous orders for orchestral parts for forthcoming Gurney performances, and edging closer to the submission to the publishers of both the first volume of the big Gurney poetry edition (2 weeks, fingers crossed!) and a volume of his songs.  I’ve also had an article and a poem published.  This is all before we get onto the family and the job searching and applications I am making to try to afford to keep a roof over our heads. I am certain that this is a light load compared to many; but I think it is the juggling that takes its toll, not knowing quite which hat you need to be wearing.

It has been suggested that I ‘give something up’; that I whittle down what I do in order to focus on just one thing or another. The problem is, what? They are all important parts of what I am.  The family, the singing, the telling-the-world about all the things that excite me, and my original work.  I did stop this latter for over a decade, but it has grown increasingly important to me; even necessary.  It was my frustration at not being able to express myself and exorcise ideas from my brain that drove me back to it in 2011; and while I have enjoyed being out of the cathedral system in which I served for two decades, I do greatly miss the regular singing and return to it with renewed joy when the few opportunities arise for me to sing.  If anything I should like to do more singing, but what gives in its stead?  And there is that eternal question which performers ask, and indeed composers of their works: how do I get more performances than I am getting?  The only answer, I think from experience, is to get out there and meet performers and promoters and to arrange your own outlets — all of which is, I think, more difficult when located in rural Devon rather than a bustling metropole, perhaps.  I haven’t yet ‘put myself out there’ in Devon, following our move here a few years ago.  Something on the ‘To-do’ list — although we do not yet know whether we are able to put permanent roots down here, as we crave.

There are things that suffer: I always try to give 100% of myself to whatever task is in hand, and being a perfectionist in my work I do try to work things through meticulously, which takes time.  In crossing between tasks, however, it can take yet more time to eke one’s way back in, to pick up where one left off.  In that crossing between tasks, sometimes, days or weeks later, one finds a small detail niggling at the back of your mind that you might have missed.  Occasionally a ball is dropped, and something that might only take a day to polish off can end up waiting three months before it is ‘got round to’.  Emails — one of the banes of modern life, but a wonderfully useful tool when used in moderation — can very quickly sink below the screen and end up being forgotten.  The deadline of a performance or lecture date focus the mind wonderfully, there being no leaway with such events that require you to stand up and present something at a particular time; but other things can get a little lost in the midst of all.

On a more personal note, I am not in touch with my friends as frequently as I should like, but I am fortunate in being able to see my family far more than many another working father would, which is a great great joy.  (Being here when the children return from school/nursery; and our 8-month-old little boy is just starting to explore speech sounds, although only two words with association have yet been formed: ‘cat’ and, just this lunchtime, that most important of words, ‘Tea’.)  But I still worry about how much time I spend at my desk when they are around, and how I can be a better husband; a better father.  This worry grows as I look to a possible future as a full-time academic — should any of my applications ever bear fruit, wherever in the country such a post might take us.

While it can be difficult to juggle several careers (as such) — aspects of my work which it is easy to pigeonhole and separate out, to undertake alone as a sole pursuit — the exciting thing about them all is how they feed into each other and enrich each single occupation.  My academic work on poetry informs my understanding of the poetry I sing; the performing of that poetry through singing enhances my understanding of it, which feeds into my research and writing about those works (I am fortunate in being asked most frequently to perform the British music I study); that same act of singing, both of music and words, and the wider study of words and music, enhance both my composing and my own poetry.  My family is the bedrock of all; the constant against which all else shifts and grows and renews.

So yes, life is bounteous thing, and while I could, theoretically, give up some aspect of my work, making additional room for the other aspects, it would diminish both myself and those other pursuits to do so.  It would be very difficult for me to give one of them up, and anyway, I am unable to choose which it would be.  The creativity became a physical necessity and so I had to take up that mantle again; the more academic tasks excite me and I feel hugely proud and privileged to have played a part in bringing new works out of the archive to publication and performance, and to be setting the record straight on one certain Mr. Gurney.  As for the family: before I turned 30 I imagined myself to be a bachelor, devoting my life to research.  One chance meeting changed this, and our family has become the greatest thing I have ever done.  So I cannot give up anything.  Nor can I do as I have so often been implored, to keep it all as a hobby and go and get a job in a bank.  If anything I should like to turn my hand to additional things, to letterpress printing; to visual art, in which I dabbled long ago; and to do more walking, gardening and cooking, all of which I love.

So often in life, we have to choose.  We have to set ourselves in one pigeonhole or another.  When dealing with the systems of ‘civilisation’, be it for car insurance, loans or other such a thing, you need to be able to define yourself as one thing or another; you need to be able to give a single label occupation.  Life isn’t like that.  We grow in many directions, and to cut off one of those directions can compromise what we are.  So I shall carry on juggling.  I shall keep on composing, writing, singing, researching, being a husband and father, for all of these are what I am.  I shall keep trying not to let a ball drop, and to keep bringing the various ideas and projects to fruition.  It may take me years, but I get there, and each time something is finally put to bed one of the amassing reservoir of new ideas will take its place.  New works, new research projects, new challenges and adventures for the family.  A juggle, a worry at times, with often not enough of a living to be financially comfortable, but worth every moment.


Fugue on the Salley Gardens

Continuing my quest to add fuller detail to our knowledge of Ivor Gurney’s works, I am today poring once more over his musical sketchbooks, clarifying some of their contents and dating these notebooks with a little more precision, as well as confirming for our (viz. Tim Kendall and me) edition of Gurney’s complete poetry for OUP that we haven’t missed any last fragments. 

As well as finding an incomplete draft of a poem titled ‘Legs’, written in January or February 1921, which has now been inserted into the now complete span of the edition, and identifying the opening of an otherwise unknown setting of Edward Shanks, I have found in the midst of his several sketches and drafts for his song ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ (a Yeats setting of September-October 1920) the opening exposition of a fugue which takes its theme from that song. It was perhaps undertaken as an exercise for his post-war studies at the Royal College of Music; and since that melody was in his mind at the time, why not just use it? It is a rather unexpected use for this, one of Gurney’s more popular songs. Who knows: the working out at least in part of this fugue to part of that tune may have helped him on his way with the song itself. 

The Primacy of the Manuscript

As one who has spent, and continues to spend, many many hours of my life transcribing and editing works both literary and musical from manuscript for publication, I have developed an absolutist — some might say obsessive — need to be true to an artist’s scrawl; the words or notes they write; the definition and placing of every item of punctuation or articulation.  An artist’s manuscript is the most exacting source we have of their intentions, and any representation of a work must be true to the authorial sources available to us.

At present, my time is spent unpicking the poetry of Ivor Gurney — or as much as I am able in the midst of my current teaching commitments (a baptism of fire).  However, in the midst of this, I am at present trying to complete the last minutes of music for my War Passion — a chamber oratorio that is to be premièred at the Three Choirs Festival in July, and my absolutist need for accuracy has spilt over into that task, demanding textual accuracy in the poetry I am using.  (Some might argue that this mindset is at odds with the very act of setting a poem to music — a brutal act of artistic butchery — particularly so given my occasionally liberal way with the poetry I am using. But that is for another day.)

In a recent Oxford University Press (OUP) sale I ordered a book that I have had my eye on for a while: Vivien Noakes’s authoritative last word on the work of Isaac Rosenberg, in her ‘21st Century Oxford Authors’ edition of his poetry, plays and selected prose and letters.  This edition in some respects supersedes her Oxford English Texts (OET) edition, drawing upon manuscript material for Rosenberg’s poetry that only came to light after the OET.  I was fascinated to see one poem in particular in that edition; a poem that I have used in my War Passion, ‘The Tower of Skulls’ (see my blog-post about this setting, posted in April 2015).

At the time of the OET edition, which I have on my shelves, the whereabouts of the manuscript for ‘The Tower of Skulls’ was unknown, so that edition relied upon the 1937 published text.  Having learned that this manuscript was one of those that had come to light subsequent to that edition, I sought it out on the extraordinary and invaluable resource that is Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive.  The manuscript threw up a few questions, the poem evidently having been doctored a little upon its first publication.  A repetition of text had been ironed out: ‘jargoning on’ should have been ‘jargoning on and on’, so this required some slight reworking of the setting I had, by June 2015, already completed.

There was one mightily intriguing change which also required some slight adjustment — although I was in a little doubt about my reading.  I have become quite adept at reading handwriting on manuscripts; but even so, there was just a niggle of doubt.  I had sufficient confidence in my reading to again rework the setting, but I wanted confirmation from Vivien Noakes.  The book arrived this morning, and I turned immediately to the poem, only to be disappointed: the reading given — although correcting the repeated ‘on and on’ — did not reflect my own reading of the manuscript.

The passage in question is the closing stanza of the poem.  In its published form it reads:

When aged flesh looks down on tender brood;
For he knows between his thin ribs’ walls
The giant universe, the interminable
Panorama — synods, myths and creeds,
He knows his dust is fire and seed.

However, in the manuscript, I read the second line as: ‘For he knows between his thin ribs walk / The giant universe […]’.  It is a curious thing.  Knowing those great vistas of possibility within one’s “thin ribs’ walls” is perhaps more likely; but might they also be said to walk there?  Or is there an apostrophe missing after ribs in the manuscript, added in the published version, suggesting that it is within the walk of his ribs — within the locus of his being — that those vistas are to be found?  Rosenberg’s locating the walk ‘between’ rather than ‘within’ suggests that the former reading to be the more probable: the vistas figuratively walk there, between his ribs.

Given that Noakes makes no concession toward my reading of the poem, I have again returned to Rosenberg’s manuscript, throwing aside my seminar planning for a few moments.  Returning to it afresh, I am yet more convinced that it is indeed ‘walk’ that Rosenberg wrote, and so my setting of the poem shall remain thus.  I have posted below the images of the manuscript, so that you might make up your own mind.

Detail of the line in question:
Rosenberg detail 1

Compare the ‘k’ of walk with the surround ‘s’s at the end of words, and also compare that last ‘k’ with the below detail from the same manuscript — the word ‘stark’:
Rosenberg detail 2

The whole manuscript is available to view here: http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/document/5139/4359

You might pity the afflicted who are so concerned with the exact representation of a poet’s or composer’s work from their manuscript, but I hope you might agree: sometimes it is worth being pedantic about these things.  The manuscript and wider authorial sources must have precedence and must be preserved.  It also serves as a warning for both editors such as myself and users of published material; warnings of care and of our fallibility, and that, even though it might be in print several times over, Trust Nothing!!  Even a fine, exhaustive and extraordinarily knowledgeable editor such as the late Vivien Noakes can miss something.

Editing Gurney’s ‘War Elegy’

Ivor Gurney in 1920

Ivor Gurney in 1920

It has just been announced that Ivor Gurney’s War Elegy for orchestra is to be performed in the 2014 season of the BBC Proms on 1 August (Prom 20: details here).  For a composer so long regarded solely as a composer of song, to have an orchestral work programmed at what is probably the highest profile classical music event in the world is a great achievement.  As well as being heard in this prestigious setting, ‘holding his own’ alongside William Walton and Sally Beamish, the War Elegy is also to be featured on the cover CD of the June edition of the BBC Music Magazine (a recording first issued by Dutton Records in 2006), alongside the premiere recording of A Gloucestershire Rhapsody, which Ian Venables and I brought to its first performance at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival, 90 years after its composition.  These works will also be featured in Radio 3’s Gurney Composer of the Week to be broadcast 30 June-1 July 2014.

I think we can surmise that Gurney has ‘arrived’, and that, with the three extant orchestral works now brought to performance and recording (the early Coronation March is to be broadcast as part of Composer of the Week) and a couple of choral works now making waves, and even some of his chamber works being heard (string quartets, piano trios and piano sonatas have been brought to performance in the last few years, and a violin sonata recorded (EM Records), the latter the view of Gurney as a miniaturist and song composer is now something of the past.  We have a fuller view of his work, which is proving Gurney to be a broader ranging composer than has long been thought.

BBC Music MagazineIn case anyone might find it of interest, I am reproducing below an article I wrote shortly after the preparation of the score of the War Elegy, in February 2006, which was published in the Ivor Gurney Society Newsletter.

’Twas the week before Christmas and, all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. An email from Anthony Boden confirms that Gurney’s War Elegy for orchestra is to be recorded in February, and suggests that I call Ian Venables to see if there was any help I could offer with preparing the score for the recording. I call. A casual admission during the ‘phone call – ‘No, I’m not doing much over Christmas’ – and my fate is sealed. I agree with Ian to be his co-editor, and to typeset and produce the necessary scores and orchestral parts in time for the BBC delivery date of 16th January.

No score was immediately available so, being in London the following day – 23rd December – I telephone the Royal College of Music in the hope that the library will be open and I might be able to pop in to acquire a photocopy of the score. The RCM would be open, but the library would not. Thankfully I had called in the morning and, as long as RCM librarian Peter Horton had time to copy it before lunchtime, the score could be left at reception for me to collect the following morning.

Late trains and an eagerness to get to the RCM as soon as possible made me late for my appointment in London. As soon as I could I slit open the envelope to take my first glance of the score that was to dominate my life for the next three weeks. I returned home late that evening but I had to stay up to typeset the opening couple of pages.

Gurney refers to the composition of his War Elegy in a letter postmarked 6th November 1920: ‘Work goes badly. The songs come all right, but the Piano Sonata and ‘Elegy’ for Orchestra; No, there is a hard and futile grind there.’ The address, 74 Longridge Road, Earls Court, correlates with that given on the front of the undated War Elegy score. The front cover of the score states the title as War Elegy. However, within the score Gurney, as he often does, has reused a piece of manuscript paper, turning it upside down, on which is headed a title March Elegy. [March Elegy was in fact the second title considered by Gurney: an early draft of part of the War Elegy was later found amongst the papers of Sir Hugh Allen at the Bodleian Library, where the work is titled ‘Funeral March’. The progression of titles from ‘Funeral March’ to ‘March Elegy’ and thence ‘War Elegy’, gives some insight into the conception of the work. ‘Funeral march’ bears no reference to the war; ‘War Elegy’ makes no reference to the funereal intent (although might be implied in the Elegiac portion of the final title).]

The War Elegy had been first performed in one of a series of seven public rehearsals given at the RCM under the auspices of the Patron’s Fund. The series brought to performance twenty-six works by twenty-one composers. Gurney’s War Elegy opened the programme on Thursday 16th June 1921. Adrian Boult, then on the teaching staff at the RCM, was conductor-in-chief for the occasion. The other works on the same programme were a Novelette for orchestra by R.O. Morris, the last movement of Thomas Dunhill’s Symphony, a Fox Trot for twenty-six players by Hugh Bradford, and a Chinese Suite, ‘The Golden Valley’, by Eric Fogg. In a review of the series published in The Musical Times in August 1921, Gurney receives no mention. Bradford’s Fox Trot apparently proved so popular that it was repeated in the next programme. However, Gurney’s War Elegy was mentioned in Marion Scott’s review in the Christian Science Monitor, 16th July 1921:

‘The first piece, a “War Elegy” by Ivor Gurney, is comparatively short but produces an impression of great aims. The themes are heartfelt and sincere, their treatment is grave and sensitive, and the opening and closing sections of the work are eloquent. Towards the middle the music loses its grip and wanders around rather than holds the direct onward flow. It will probably gain by being rewritten.’

Since 1921 the only outings of the work had been a run through by Richard Carder at the Canford Summer School in 1988, and a public performance by the Gloucestershire Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Mark Finch in March 2003 (reviewed by Lewis Foreman, IGS Newsletter 34, February 2004). It was this performance, and Lewis Foreman’s hearing of it, that lead to the work being programmed for recording for a Dutton CD release.

Only having a copy of Gurney’s autograph full score to hand, it was from this that we worked. It was only about a week and a half before the deadline for delivery to the BBC that Ian received the parts. There was relief in some ways as the parts were not in Gurney’s hand but that of an unknown copyist which could be prone to copyist errors; we therefore felt justified in using only Gurney’s thirty-nine page autograph full score, this being the key source in gleaning authorial intent.

Having been unable to attend the GSO performance it was with intrigue and excitement that I started to bring the War Elegy to life, being able to hear the typeset score through the computer, which I did periodically during the course of the transcription. Such aural capacity makes life significantly easier when endeavouring to iron out the numerous omitted accidentals or correct wrong notes that the editor might have omitted to notice whilst transcribing the score, not to mention in the resolution of ambiguous notes that could be on the line of the stave or either side of it.

The first impressions were of how Elgarian the work was, Gurney’s admiration for his work showing distinctly in his handling of the material, as well as in the contrast between the main march theme and the serene second subject – the equivalent of an Elgar trio tune.

The march theme is fine and memorable – so much so that it kept Ian awake at night, refusing to let him sleep. At the opening this theme slowly unfolds over a sullen staccato bass line, building to an extended forte rendition that dies down to the second subject, first heard in a solo clarinet. One presumes that it is the treatment of this second subject that was referred to by Marion Scott as losing its grip and wandering around. The clarinet is supported by triplet quaver figures in the strings, the first and third of which quavers are tied together with the effect that the music loses sense of pulse in the accompaniment. Cast with the straight quavers in the clarinet and occasionally in some of the strings, cross-rhythms are produced which antagonise this loss of pulse. When the second subject is taken over by all of the wind and strings the melody is at risk of being entirely submerged in the complex accompaniment. It will take a sensitive conductor to bring out the tune, moving between voices in the orchestra. When, towards the end of my work on the score, I was looking to see whether I could do anything with editorial dynamics to bring out the tune, I decided that it would be too complicated a matter – and you never know, it might just work as it is when brought to life by an orchestra.

It has been said that Gurney’s songs would not have stood up to Brahms’ first test of the quality of a piece of music, reading just tune and bass line. Gurney’s bass lines can meander aimlessly. However, at the opening of the Elegy, Gurney sets up a strong, sullen bass line which underpins the work and acts as a structural glue in the transitions. The strong bass line continues under the thematic material and is a powerful force in driving the work, harmonically. In my opinion it would be no understatement to assert that the whole success of the Elegy is founded on the strength of this bass line.

Gurney’s orchestration is at times very dense, exercising the whole orchestra of double wind, contrabassoon, four horns and trombones, three trumpets, timpani and strings. Gurney’s use of the contrabassoon is extraordinary and is perhaps a telling sign of an inexperienced orchestrator. Hector Berlioz wrote of the contrabassoon, ‘it is a very ponderous instrument only suitable for grand harmonic effects and for bass lines in moderate tempo’. It is often used for special effects (notably the worm in Haydn’s Creation). Gurney, however, uses the contrabassoon in nearly half the Elegy, in 82 of the 187 bars, most often doubling the bassi, ‘celli, and second bassoon. Perhaps he was endeavouring to add an enormous sense of gravity. We must wait to hear how it works in performance.

Having said that the writing can be dense, there is a lot of textural contrast. One of the more practical uses of the orchestra is seen in the building up to climaxes and the diminuendo that follows them. Rather than just writing a crescendo or diminuendo, most of the work is done by building up or thinning out the texture. The quieter moments receive treatment in strings or combinations of wind alike. A poignant moment comes at the end of the climax of the second subject, where a trio of horns bring time to a standstill, playing a reflective chorale-like passage. This chorale is echoed later in the work: after the exhilarating – and yet devastating – climax of the whole work has subsided, the orchestra attempts to pull itself together, only to begin to wane and be suddenly interrupted by a sforzando stab, where just two horns try to renew their almost religious theme. It is picked up by the flutes and clarinets and slowly and surely the orchestra builds, tension increasing over a pedal point to where the march theme receives one last flourish.

At this point in the score there is a six bar cut marked in Gurney’s hand. This was the subject of much discussion between Ian and I. I originally typeset the cut and produced two versions of the score both with and without. Listening to the score with the cut, despite a reservation about the slight jarring between the retained music either side of the cut, I felt that it was structurally sound, removing most of another forte rendition of the march theme, and thus not distracting from the main climax, forty three bars previously. With the cut, it produced just a momentary release from the preceding build of tension before being quelled and slowly working its way to the close of the score. Ian believed that the tune was so good that it could take this repetition, avoiding the discrepancy of the join and also retaining a wonderful demisemiquaver flourish. We therefore left the music in.

Perhaps one of the most important questions about the score was whether it was actually complete – only a small matter for consideration! It began and ended where it should, but amongst its pages were some startling gaps: a second bassoon line missing where it was obvious that there should be one; ties suspended over page turns but connecting to blank space. More difficult to resolve was a case not long before the main march theme returns after the second subject: a stark bass line above which a phrase begins in the flute, and clarinets and first bassoon play a figure in thirds. Again, it does not continue over the page turn, as it was obvious it should. I submitted it to Ian who pondered a while and decided to try repeating the clarinet/bassoon figure a couple of times. He returned it to me and I adjusted it slightly, resolving the last repetition of the figure downwards at the end of the inserted couple of bars, bringing it to a semi-close. In the score, above where this figure had been extended by Ian, there is the shadow of a line continuing in the flute – a couple of light marks that look as though they could be noteheads. Looking at it again, whilst writing this, I see that it is possible that two of the three marks could be an imprint from the wet ink from the flute part on the opposite page, Gurney turning over and pressing them together whilst he continued writing the flute part over the page. Anyway, I took these and extended them as a reflection of the falling oboe phrase a couple of bars previously. It worked – a combined effort between Gurney, Ian and myself, which I hope will be transparent to anybody who performs or hears the work.

One of the last things I had to do with the score was to go through and check that all of the articulation was in place – the phrasing and other markings that define the way the work is performed by the instrumentalists. Gurney had put much in, but there was a lot missing. Figures were slurred in some instruments and not others, and thus had to be added, taking into account the need for technical variation between wind and strings, as well as variations Gurney has introduced by design. Tenuti and staccato markings weren’t uniformally applied where it was obvious that it was the intention for it to be so. My working copy of the score is littered with red pen! Consideration also had to be paid to such details as the progression of timpani tunings. Gurney had marked many of these in, but one change of not appears without warning towards the end of the work and necessitated the introduction of a retuning a drum whilst the player is playing another. On the subject of timpani tunings, during the opening section of the Elegy, when the March subject has fully opened out and the full orchestra is developing the material, Gurney briefly passes through the key of A flat minor. Despite this he resolutely continues with his timpani playing A and E naturals, perhaps hoping that in the volume of the full orchestra will render the tone of the timpani indistinct, just providing the necessary percussive impetus.

For the performance of the work the question of tempi is a critical one. As is usual in Gurney’s scores, he gives you a starting tempo but leaves you to your own devices after that. I had originally suggested a tempo of crotchet=85. However, when it came to the second subject it felt garbled. Ian argued that, bearing in mind the intended elegiac nature of the work, it should be slower, reducing it to c.76. He also added a rit. into the second subject, which he brought down to a suitably tranquil 68, returning to 76 for the return to the march material. The tempo of the closing section was a mildly contentious point. Ian had introduced a molto rall. down to a very slow crotchet=c.50. He marked the closing bars ‘Piangendo’. I was wondering whether Gurney would have known such a term! After looking it up I thought that, despite it being unusual and arguably unknown to Gurney, it was entirely suitable: weeping. I listened to the work a number of times, attempting to replicate a suitable molto rallentando on the computer. I reached the tempo I had set for the closing bars only to find that it felt too fast. Eventually I reached Ian’s crotchet=c.50. To my ear he had been right. [Whether it is what Gurney wanted we shall never know, but given what we have subsequently learnt about the titling of the work (the ‘Funeral March’ discovery in the Bodleian), it must almost certainly be right.]

The last couple of days before the BBC deadline were spent tidying orchestral parts on the computer screen, before printing and binding them ready for delivery. They were first delivered to Worcester, taken by train under the shadow of Chosen Hill. The following day they came to rest on the hill itself, before being escorted to London where the work will be brought to life once again and set down for posterity, to be released on CD [details here] and broadcast sometime in the autumn [of 2006].

© Philip Lancaster, February, 2006

Gurney Choral Works in the Recording Studio

Ivor Gurney is known principally as a composer of song, and the recorded catalogue of his works is almost entirely of that genre, for which reason he has never been featured on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week series.  Five hours of programming of just songs – even if alleviated with a little of Gurney’s poetry – makes for poor programming.  During the last eight years I have been working with the Ivor Gurney Estate to rectify this, in part made possible by my extensive work in the archive and my collation of the first catalogue of Gurney’s musical works.  With all this work it has made the prospect of a Gurney Composer of the Week much more realistic, and this is exactly what is happening: he will be featured in the week of 23rd-27th June 2014.  To this end, the BBC orchestras have now recorded all three of Gurney’s extant orchestral works, which the Lead Trustee of the Estate, Ian Venables, and I have been editing and bringing to performance.  With these key works having been set down and lined up for broadcast in June, it is exciting that in this coming week the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra will be recording three Gurney choral works for the Composer of the Week series.  One of these recordings is particularly exciting for me, as the BBCSO will be getting their mouths/fingers around my orchestration of Gurney’s choral setting of Edward Thomas’s The Trumpet – a setting of the poem entirely different from his 1925 song setting of that poem.

I first undertook the orchestration of this work in 2008, for performance in Kendal at Ian Jone’s ‘Cumbrian Choral Initiative’ as part of a Vaughan Williams weekend (there are elements of RVW’s A Sea Symphony in Gurney’s Trumpet, and RVW also taught Gurney at the Royal College of Music between 1919 and 1921).  The orchestration was given a further outing in 2010 at the Three Choirs Festival, with the Philharmonia Orchestra.  I wrote two blog-posts about the work at the time of that performance, which you can read here and here.  Following this performance (and the musings of the second of these blog-posts) I made a few small revisions to the score, and so will be listening with especially keen ears on Tuesday as it is being performed, under the baton of Paul Brough.

The other two works to be recorded in the coming week by the BBC Singers are:

  • his chant to psalm 23 – a work of relatively little musical interest, perhaps, but poignant for the fact that he sang that psalm to his chant whilst serving in France at Fauquissart to steady his nerves under bombardment;
  • a remarkable setting of Robert Bridges, Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty, for unaccompanied double choir, composed in June 1925 whilst incarcerated in the City of London Mental Hospital.  This is one of two pieces of Gurney that I am particularly proud of having brought to light.  It was first given by Gloucester Cathedral Choir in May 2012, who have performed it a number of times since, and was recently also performed by Tenebrae in a particularly rich rendering, which truly convinced me of its power.  The work has its weaknesses, and is not an easy sing, but it is powerful work and is enormously worthwhile.  Listen out for it on Radio 3 in June!

The recording of my Gurney orchestration on Tuesday comes at a time when I am again spending many idle moments musing texture and instrumentation.  I have recently been commissioned to undertake the orchestration of a movement of Cecil Coles’s suite Behind the Lines, which was left unfinished on his being killed in the First World War.  More significantly, however, is the impending writing of my chamber oratorio, The Passion of War, the texture/ensemble for which is critical and is uppermost in my mind at the moment.  I can find no precedents for that which I wish to create (a good thing!), and I am trying to be sure that I get it right.  For the moment, fingers crossed that all goes well on Tuesday, and that the singers and orchestra think the piece a worthwhile undertaking!

[Corrected: the original posted stated the recordings were to be conducted by David Hill, not by Paul Brough. Apologies to both for this initial misattribution.]

In Search of Ivor Gurney’s Western Playland

Cover of the 1926 publication

Cover of the 1926 Carnegie publication of Gurney’s The Western Playland

I have recently completed a performing edition of Ivor Gurney’s song cycle for baritone, string quartet and piano, The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) in readiness for a rare performance as part of the Finzi Friends’ Ludlow Weekend of English Song on 1 June.

In the autumn of 1919 Gurney attended a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s monumental song cycle for tenor, string quartet and piano, On Wenlock Edge.  Gurney was so fired up by this work, and the possibilities of the accompanying ensemble, that he immediately set to work on his own cycle for this combination, which, like the Vaughan Williams, set poems by A.E. Housman: Ludlow & Teme.  The cycle was completed within a matter of weeks, and was brought to performance in a private recital in March 1920, sung by Steuart Wilson.  So immediate was the success of this work that he was inspired to continue in a similar vein, and in May 1920 started work on a second Housman cycle, this time for baritone with string quartet and piano accompaniment: The Western Playland (and of Sorrow).  In the writing of this Gurney returned to some previously written material, breathing new life and context into some of his songs originally conceived for piano.  Where in Ludlow & Teme all except one of the seven songs had been composed anew (‘Ludlow Fair’ had been drafted the previous year for piano), four of the eight songs in The Western Playland were reworked from previous settings with piano.  The new cycle for baritone received its first performance at the Royal College of Music in November 1920.

In the mid-1920s both of these song cycles were brought to publication by Stainer & Bell, under the auspices of the Carnegie Trust’s scheme for the publication of works by British Composers.  Ludlow & Teme was submitted to the Trust in December 1920, offered the award of publication in May 1921 and was issued in print in October 1923; The Western Playland was submitted subsequently and was published by Stainer & Bell in February 1926.

The modern reception of these two cycles is quite different: Ludlow & Teme has come to be regarded as one of Gurney’s masterpieces.  It is performed with relative frequency (helped by its being for the same voice as the Vaughan Williams – an obvious programme partner), and has in recent years been twice recorded (by James Gilchrist on Linn and Andrew Kennedy on Signum).  In 2011 Stainer & Bell published a new critical edition of the work (edited by myself!) which incorporated a number of revisions to the work made by Gurney following its publication.

Where Ludlow & Teme is very much on the horizon of performers, promoters and record companies, The Western Playland is very rarely heard, and while it has been recorded some years ago, by Hyperion, it does not have the same presence in the musical canon as its predecessor.

The reasons for this probably stem from the published score: there are numerous errors in the score which were not picked up when editing the work for publication, some of which make the work rather painful listening and, as a performer, one is left wondering how one deals with various ‘moments’.  The reasons for this become evident when one is looking at the manuscript and published evidence that exists for the work.  There is extant a set of manuscript piano (vocal) scores for the cycle, a manuscript full score, the published full score and parts, the published vocal score, and, in the Gurney archive, a copy of the published vocal score with some small corrections and amendments made by Gurney in 1926.  When editing the work and seeking to rectify the numerous errors (what are obviously errors and not Gurney’s idiosyncrasies) one might think that all of this source material will help clarify matters; but no: the manuscript scores and the published scores are almost entirely different.  One might even go as far as saying that they might almost qualify as a new work!  There are passages that are similar, with some revisions, but other parts are unrecognisable.  Furthermore, one might imagine that the vocal score might be a precise reduction/reflection of the full score.  This is not the case: there are numerous departures, and it is evident that they were written and perhaps conceived independently.  What is particularly interesting about the manuscript material is that it is evident that the manuscript full score was that score submitted to the Carnegie Trust.  It was therefore this work about which the Trustees wrote, in their report recommending publication, ‘The melodies, sensitive and poetic, are admirably suited to the lyric quality of the verse, covering a wide range of emotional expression.’

When it came to submitting the score for the final act of publication, in 1924, Gurney made a wholesale revision of the work.  Textures were added and reworked, the scoring often wholly altered (one song originally scored largely for strings was in revision accompanied largely by piano); harmonies became more diffuse, in Gurney’s impressionistic vein; and the songs in parts substantially redrafted.  Given that the work had already been studied and approved for publication, one wonders whether there was any editorial eye cast over the score when it came to publication.  The publisher, one suspects, might have thought that any interference between approval and publication would amount only to some small corrections or slight revision.  A wholesale rewrite would certainly not have been expected.  Indeed, one might go as far as to ask whether the work would have been awarded publication had it been first submitted in the revised form.

While I opened by saying that I had edited the work for performance, what I have undertaken thus far has merely scratched the surface.  Because versions of the score are largely irreconcilable, I have sought to clarify problematic moments with reference to the published vocal score and the extant manuscript material, making some small amendments to the lines – in line with the other material (what could be errors, misreadings, or just amendments in the texture that Gurney didn’t think through), and in one instance correcting a terrible moment which I am certain arose from the use of a wrong clef.  One of the songs was problematic to the extent that I took the rash decision to return wholly to the original 1920 version, which was much more coherent.  The ethics of this decision are very difficult, and it is a grave inconsistency.  However, I think that in the short term the performance will be the better for it, until I can spend more time than I have had in order to work through the songs.  This decision has scratched the surface of an underlying thought that has arisen during the process of editing the score: that rather than trying to reconcile the scores, one should edit the original version as a whole and put this out into the world as a valid version of the cycle which I think might speak with greater clarity and hopefully allow these wonderful songs to be appreciated more readily.  The sometimes overworked textures of the pre-publication revision, and some of its diffusing of harmonies, however, do create some real magic in the work, and so one doesn’t wish to lose these.  It is, I think, going to be a case of bringing long thought editions of both versions to performance so that we can make comparison in performance.  Only then, I think, can we truly assess the parallel versions of the work.  A performance/recording also needs to be undertaken in the piano version, which bears great validity as an independent work.

As far as the post-publication revisions to the vocal score are concerned, these add occasional additional notes/lines to the piano texture, which work in the piano version; and some tempo markings at the end of the cycle help in clarifying the work’s extended instrumental coda (I have added these tempo markings into the full score).  A curious tirade of additional flats are something that I have questioned, whether it is successful or not, but this seems to have been something Gurney added, it would seems, to a proof of his 1924 version, and which the publisher removed or ignored.  In a letter of late April 1925 Gurney asks Marion Scott, lamentingly, ‘why did they take those flats out in “The Aspens”?’.  One can only presume that the additions to the published vocal score are Gurney’s attempt to reinstate what the publisher removed.

In spite of all of these textual difficulties, The Western Playland is a remarkable and worthwhile work of some great beauty.  ‘Loveliest of Trees’ and ‘The Far Country’ both rival George Butterworth’s fine settings, and more besides.  So if you happen to be in or near Ludlow on 1 June, book now to hear Jonathan McGovern, the Carducci Quartet and Susie Allan give a rare performance of this work that deserves to be so much better known.  I’ll see you there!