The Accents of National Music

As we listen to music, even if we don’t know the piece or composer, we can sometimes identify the national origin of a work.  ‘That’s French!’, we might declare, or Russian, or English, Nordic, Bohemian, Eastern European, American, or whatever else.  As a scholar, a musicologist, a recurring theme that is of interest to some, in talks or notes, is how that sense of nationalism is created.  What is it that allows us to identify that national origin?  What is it that defines a national voice?  How can we identify what it is that make those nationalist differences in music, and what they are?  More fundamentally, do these boundaries truly exist?

After the question of national identity in music arose in a discussion panel at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song in 2017, composer Martin Bussey remarked that he doesn’t set out to write ‘English music’.  Nor do I.  It is the last thing on our minds.  I don’t believe any composer sets out upon their career, or indeed a work, thinking, ‘I must write music as befits my nationality!’  In writing an idea, we don’t think, ‘I can’t write that: it just isn’t representative of the national voice and music to which I am contributing and belong!’  In the case of several composers I have spoken to, we write the music that we want to hear.  Even when a composer is part of a movement that consciously seeks to create, or rationalise, a national cultural voice, they cannot ‘create’ that identity.  Such movements (think Finland, and their 19th century movement towards independence) draw upon traditional cultures: folklore, folk-songs, the reclamation of native language where it has been suppressed — elements of their national, non-occupationist, culture that have survived on the fringes.  Beyond that, a composer or writer cannot truly create a national voice.  It comes from somewhere deeper.

While personal musical style can be a conscious, or half-conscious thing that a composer refines and hones with practice and writing, any sense of a national cultural identity that might be perceived in that music is a subconscious, if not indeed wholly unconscious, act.  So what is it that underpins that unconscious, or half-subconscious, yet tangible sense of ‘national music’?

Much has been written of landscape and music, particularly in Britain with the perceived pastoralism of composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and the late-19th–early-20th century school.  Is it the landscape that shapes it?  Is there something of the elemental rock of Iceland, unsoftened by green, in Jon Liefs, as one might say of the green pastures of England’s pastoralism?  Can we differentiate between the urban and rural?  Perhaps we can, but Vaughan Williams, as an adoptive Londoner, wrote many of his apparently pastoral works in that metropole (although I think landscapes reside within us more than without — but that is an essay for another day).  A more fundamental and constant part of our environment I think does have some bearing on national style: the climate; the heat of Spain, the more temperate variance of Britain, and the cool Nordic climes, such as the quality of light in those places is evident in visual art.  Also of bearing, is our national cultural distinction, the nature of our characters.  Of this, I believe one aspect is crucial and fundamental: our language; our voices.  Language is, I believe, the true key to that sense of national identity in music; something ingrained in us from even before we leave our mother’s body, hearing the shape and sound of that which is spoken around us.  In Iain Crichton Smith’s poem, ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ (the Gaelic question is a subject for yet another essay, perhaps), a line stands out in this respect: ‘It wasn’t a factory that made your language — it made you.’  It is likely a factory of men of which he writes (‘Keep / out of the factory, O man, you are not a robot.’), but it is true also of the language: it, the language, made you.

Our language is at the root of our cultural identity and of our music making.  The most basic and innate instrument we have is our voice.  Composing is a singing (a truth I have only discovered this last few years, as the balance between my singing and composing has shifted), and the origin of the sounds that we sing come from the well practised art of speech: from the shape and sound of the vowels in our language and accent, the lie of the consonants and their placing and prominence, the construction of the language, the character of the line, the cadences, and the wider tonal level, range and natural lyrical shape of that speech.  All of this impacts upon how we shape sound in music as we compose.  While it would likely benefit from some scientific surety — a deeper, metalinguistic study, for which I am not qualified — from my standpoint as a writer, a composer, a singer, and a musicologist, there seem to be some extraordinarily strong links between language, accent, and national musics.

At a very crude level, think of Mussorgsky’s extraordinary Boris Godunov.  The Russian language, from my experience of attempting to sing the language, with its verbal placing of sounds towards the rear of the tongue rather than at its tip.  This deep production, and unique sound, seems to resound in the aural quality of Boris (think of the motto theme of that work).  The impressionistic qualities of French music seem to me to echo something of spoken French; the openness of American speech gives something of that quality to their music.  Linguistically, do the formal aspects  of Teutonic music that have came to dominate Western Music for so long have their foundation in the formal, compound-construction of the German language?  Perhaps I imposing these ideas on these national musics, seeing something that isn’t really there; but I don’t think I am. It requires, however, a linguistic analysis — however that might work — with defined parameters that don’t risk resortion to, or definition by, malperceived stereotypes.

But these are hugely cosmopolitan times.  With the ease of international travel (for better or for worse), and the cross-fertilisation and enriching of cultures that arises with the movement of peoples and forming of immigrant communities, with the changes and collaborations that might be possible in that movement (something which has been present in our various nations’ societies and cultures for thousands of years); and with the dilution of parochialism in the centralisation of businesses and services in international centres, are we at risk of losing our national identities?  Are we losing that aural sense of origin, of place, morphing into a homogenous individualism (if that isn’t a too great an apparently-irreconcilable contradiction) devoid of national locus?  No, I don’t think we are, nor will we ever do so.  We will always be true to that native language of our upbringing, be it bilingual or otherwise, in whatever place that upbringing takes place.  It is part of our uniqueness in belonging to a nation (or more than one), and our individual voices.

Thinking further on the national identity of music makes me wonder further whether there is any way of identifying ultra-localism in the music, from the dialects and accents within a nation.  Even though the language is the same, can we identify something of the midland drawl, the harsher tones of English-speaking Glaswegians, or the more song-like tone of the English-speaking Welsh, in music written by composers of these places?  I should love to know.

Advertisements

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. 

Arthur Benjamin in the Trenches

In early 1917 the composer Arthur Benjamin was serving with the Royal Fusiliers in the trenches of France.  In the Gurney archive, at Gloucestershire Archives, is held a letter, dated 26 January 1917, that I cannot help but transcribe for his description of his situation.  Benjamin writes to Marion Scott:

These are lines of intense frost, clear skies & dainty sunsets.  It is so cold that in one of our worst trenches where there is, as a rule, 2ft of water, one can walk dry-shod on 3 inches of ice.  Of nights myriads of stars and the narrowest of sickle moons give us that feeling that Heaven is closer to use; and if Turner could have lent Corot his palette we should have had a reproduction of last week’s sunsets.  No splashes of vivid orange or red, no purples, no silhouetted clouds[;] in short, none of the fantasy of the east or south.  Simply the blue merging peacefully into rose-grey and a ball of orange infusing an aura of its own colour into the rose-grey and dipping behind lace-like trees and shrubs of that green-tinged grey only Corot could mix.  If only Turner could enliven Corot and Corot subdue Turner!

It is all very lovely.

Benjamin’s letter begins whimsically, responding to a letter from Marion Scott in which she evidently reported the illness of her cats, Fluff, Tumble, and Lady Audrey — this latter immortalised in their mutual friend, Herbert Howells’s, four movement work for string quartet, Lady Audrey’s Suite (1917), in the manuscript of which Howells refers to himself as ‘the Composer–person’ (see here).  They (the cats & Marion Scott) evidently sent Benjamin a card featuring a golliwog (with the first movement of Howells’s suite being titled the ‘Four Sleepy Golliwogs’ Dance’, I presume that Scott had a menagerie of black cats), in response to which  Benjamin writes,

I think it delightful of them [the cats] to have thought of me while feeling so unfit.  Please thank them & give them my love.  The Gollywog will fraternize I’m sure with my other mascot[,] a ‘Touchwood’.  They have a piece of uncut amethyst (my lucky stone) to amuse them and the wishbone of a pigeon to dine from.  Also they have very warm quarters in my pocket-book. So they can’t grumble.

At the end of the letter Benjamin adds as a postscript, ‘The Gollywog’s patriotic pantaloons are vastly diverting!’.  We can only but wonder!

[Letter at Gloucestershire Archives D10500/8/2/1/1.]

W. Denis Browne: A Forgotten Centenary?

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915)

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915)

Today marks the centenary of the death of one of British music’s too-long-overshadowed figures: the composer, critic and pianist, William Denis Browne.  Born in Leamington Spa in November 1888, Denis attended Rugby School, where he met Rupert Brooke, whom he followed to Cambridge — Brooke to King’s College; Denis to Clare, where he served as organ scholar.  They knew each other well, and together became part of Edward Marsh’s circle, Marsh arranging ultimately for Brooke and Browne to serve together in the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, in which they were together dispatched for Gallipoli in 1915, neither of them to return home again.

At Cambridge, Denis Browne became one of Edward Dent’s most important protégés.  Dent, who knew both Brooke and Browne,  believed Denis to be every bit the worth of the now much lauded Rupert Brooke, but that he was too honest an artist to have wanted the sometimes blind attention that Brooke attracted even from the first announcement of his death.  Dent therefore refrained from pushing him into an uncritical limelight, and waited a few years before seeking to make his work more widely known.  Today, he is still little know, his reputation standing on just a few songs — a few of the eleven he completed.  One of these is one of the masterpieces of English song, and has gone on to become one of the most influential songs of the century: To Gratiana Dancing and Singing.

There is no doubt that, had he survived, he would have been one of the key players in 20th Century British music.  As a performer and critic, he was embracing the work of the modernists — Scriabin, Berg and Schoenberg — and was starting to introduce some of those ideas into his own music.  He worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and some of the most notable singers of his day.  His was a truly remarkable genius, and was unquestionably the greatest loss to British music of the First World War.

In his pocket book he left a modest note to be passed on to Edward Dent in the event of his death:

It’s odd being dead. Rupert’s gone too, so there’s no reason why I should mind; and at any rate I’ve had a run for my money, and he was stolen unfairly before a shot was fired.  There will be no-one to give me such a jolly funeral as I gave him, which is a pity.

Think of me sometimes.

WDB

In honour of this centenary, I have put up on my website an article I wrote on WDB some years ago, which I hope might be of some interest, and I will be posting some scores and a selection of his other writings.  That page is here: http://www.philiplancaster.com/r/wdbrowne.htm

If you do nothing else today, try to seek out either To Gratiana Dancing and Singing or his truly remarkable and unique last song, Arabia.  Both are available for download for a matter of pence from Hyperion, from their wonderful War’s Embers disc (what I think to be the best performance of Gratiana on disc), or you can hear at least Gratiana on YouTube.  Arabia is certainly worth the 70 pence download cost (and more!), being not, as far as I can see, available for free from anywhere.  If such artistry as is shown by singers and pianists should ever be given for free — but that is a question for another day, perhaps.  Today is Denis’s day.  Remember him.

Ivor Gurney on Crickley Hill

I am these days often ensconced in the Gloucestershire Archives, beavering away at the cliff-face of the Ivor Gurney archive.   Often this is spent in the transcription of Gurney’s many poems from manuscript, in preparation for the edition I am preparing with Tim Kendall of the Complete Literary Works of Ivor Gurney for Oxford University Press.  This week I have been mopping up a few odds and ends relating to the collation of the 1973 published selection of Gurney’s poems edited by Leonard Clark; a knotty process that began in 1962 and took 11 years to finally come to fruition.

In the midst of Clark’s papers are a number of press cuttings, which include some recollections of Gurney, the writing of which was prompted by Clark’s edition.  One was published on Wednesday 29 August in The Citizen – Gloucester’s local paper — and was from Mrs Helen Herring: the then 9-year-old daughter of the farmer of Dryhill Farm, where Gurney worked and stayed in the spring of 1919.  She recalls:

I remember so well the first cup of tea in the kitchen and my mother trying to get him to talk.  But all he would do was to look out on to the wash house roof and go into raptures over the moss and broken tiles.

My father swept out, remarking, ‘A rum chap to help farming’.

The first job he was given was to groom a yearling cart colt which had wintered badly.  He curry-combed away and was knee deep in hair and lice.  But Ivor could see beauty in everything and his notebook was on the wall.  He wrote a poem about Lousy Joe — but forgot to turn poor Joe loose.

Evenings he would compose music on our old iron framed piano which had not been tuned for years.  No one would come so far into the country to do things like that in those days.  To me it was the most terrible noise.  The whole room seemed to rock as he thumped away.  Father would get his gun and disappear.  Mother would sit and worry about Ivor’s health as he would not eat while he was composing and drank, literally, gallons of milk.

When he had finished whatever it was on his mind he would have an enormous appetite.  Which was rather awkward, as one never knew when that would be.

When put to dig a potato patch, very little was done, but Ivor came in with a poem about how he met a German in the war — ‘I shot him, it had to be one of us, him or me’.

[The quoted poem is the opening line of ‘The Target’, which in fact dates from October 1917]

Mrs Herring also went and found out the old autograph book from the farm house, in which Gurney, as a guest in the household, had written a short squib:

How wonderful,

To be able

To sit one down

At the table

and write tout-suite

Straight off

A wonderful, original

Autograph.

Following the publication of this recollection, another former resident of Crickley Hill, Mrs Beatrice Blandford, came forward with her own recollections of Gurney, on his visits to the ‘Green homestead on Crickley’.

Ivor Gurney and my father, George Compton, were great friends.  Ivor was organist at Hempsted Church [an undoubtedly peripatetic post] and after service he would come to our home and entertain us by playing all sorts of funny pieces on our piano.

One of the songs of which I had the manuscript was ‘Bright is the ring of words when the right man sings them.’ He gave it to me and my father used to sing it.  […]

Although Mrs. Blandford says in the article that she has searched for the manuscript but has been unable to find it, this song is held in the archive, titled ‘Song and Singer’; a pre-war manuscript dated 18 January 1911.

Gurney and Mr Compton were ‘comrades in arms’, both serving with the 2/5 Gloucesters, and the article goes on to recall an occasion which reflects ‘Gurney’s sensitivity’, on ‘an occasion when they were relaxing behind the lines on the Somme’:

Gurney said, ‘George, let’s found an organ’, so they did — in a ruined church with the organ still in working condition.

Ivor […] played and played as her father pumped the instrument until he could pump no more.  Then Ivor broke down and sobbed like a child because his hardened hands were in such bad condition.

For any who wish to visit Dryhill Farm, and perhaps look at what is now known as ‘the poet’s room’ in the farmhouse attic, the Gurney Society is organising a walk on Crickley Hill on Sunday 10 May, 2015, as part of their annual Spring Weekend.  See www.ivorgurney.org.uk.

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!

 

Creating a Genre : A Recital Programme Conundrum

In early 2012 I gave Adrian Partington a tour of the Ivor Gurney archive.  One of the items I showed him was the manuscript full score of ‘Spring’ from Ivor Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs – a set of songs that includes Gurney’s most popular work, a setting of John Fletcher’s ‘Sleep’.  Some time after this meeting I was asked whether I should like to reconstruct the remainder of the full score of the ‘Elizas’ (as Gurney called them), and to perform them during the 2013 Three Choirs Festival.  The answer was obvious (Yes!), and, given that the songs were written in December 1913 and the centenary of that writing is therefore close upon us, particularly timely.

Gurney’s ‘Elizas’ are his first acknowledged masterpiece, and their quality was acknowledged by Gurney himself in a letter to his friend and fellow Gloucestershire poet Will Harvey, in which he asked ‘How did such an undigested clod as I make them?’  I am sure that any who know the songs will be thinking, ‘What does he mean, “full score”? Why should they need reconstructing?!’  It is not widely known that Gurney originally intended these songs to be accompanied by the rather curious ensemble of  two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons and harp – a curious ensemble indeed!  Only one of the songs is extant in full score, and a few of the manuscript piano scores bear some indications of that scoring, so the task ahead is to take these indications as the starting point for the reimagination of those scores.

Ivor Gurney: SpringIt is probable that the scored version of the songs was performed only once, in an orchestral concert at the Royal College of Music.  The fact that this performance took place during a full orchestral concert made their programming rather straightforward.  The necessary instruments could come forward from the orchestra and then return to their stations for the remainder of the programme.  Such was not my luxury when trying to programme the forthcoming Three Choirs Festival recital, for which the only forces available are those specified by Gurney.  Furthermore, it was asked that this be a ‘Gurney and Friends’ programme; so what works from those composers in Gurney’s circle could one draw upon to create a 70 minute recital programme when the instruments available to you are voice, 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and a harp.  There are not many works that spring immediately to mind, but nothing is impossible!

SO: The first task was to make a list of composers who had connections with Gurney, identifying those whose work it is almost essential to include and those whom it would be good to do so.  In honesty, with the right forces, one could have created a recital of twice the length or more, if one had the option of a piano to hand.  There were so many that one should have liked to have included, most of whom it was impossible to do so with the forces to hand: Arthur Bliss, Arthur Benjamin, Rupert Erlebach and Francis Warren were a few of those whom I should have liked to have represented and whose work I explored.  In the end it boiled down to a few essentials:

  • Gurney himself;
  • Gurney’s teachers: Charles Stanford & Ralph Vaughan Williams;
  • two RCM staff who were hugely influential: Hubert Parry, the Director of the RCM and another local ‘Gloucesterian’, and, most importantly, Marion Scott;
  • his close boyhood friend, Herbert Howells;
  • a composer whom Gurney never met, but one who was influenced by Gurney and, notably, did more than anyone else before 1978 to promote his music: Gerald Finzi.

But how might these work with the available ensemble?  There are few works by any of these that are scored for combinations of these instruments.  Howells wrote a Prelude for harp (‘Prelude no.1’, although no further preludes were written), which must obviously form a part of the recital; and Vaughan Williams’s Household Music, which can be performed on any combination of four instruments of the correct registers, was long in the running, in whole or in part, but was ultimately omitted owing to time constraints and the cost of hiring parts, which would have been necessary but problematical.  Such flexibility of instrumentation was something that would have to be brought to other works.  One could have sought songs that would work on harp in lieu of the piano – which I have done to some small extent – but I also had to start thinking, as the cliché goes, ‘outside the box’.

For instance, Marion Scott – whose musical works are very rarely heard and whose importance for Gurney lies in the fact that she looked after all of his business affairs, during the war and after – composed a Romance for oboe and harp.  The presence of the harp makes this a must, so a compromise must be made and the work passed to the clarinet.  The manuscript for this arrived yesterday, so I am looking forward to playing it through in the next couple of days.  (The lack of an oboe in the ensemble also discounted some wonderful potential works that I had on my list, such as Vaughan Williams’s Ten Blake Songs.)  More creatively, the potential for more involved arrangement is great, and allowed the choice of a programme that I hope will cast new light on the works in the programme.  Some works were long considered (Vaughan Williams Four Last Songs – how wonderful ‘Procris’ would be arranged with perhaps flute, clarinet and harp – and indeed the others!).  However, I think I have put together a particularly interesting programme, bringing together both personal relationships and musical influences.

For instance, I have been able to choose two Shakespeare settings by Hubert Parry, which are – to my ears – blatant precursors to Gurney’s Elizabethan Songs: ‘Blow, blow thou winter wind’, which musically pre-echoes Gurney’s ‘Orpheus’, and ‘When icicles hang’, which, with its bird calls, is a very distinct precursor to Gurney’s ‘Spring’.

One of the difficulties of presenting a novel form of a work and being constrained to that same ensemble is that one is at risk of pre-empting the moment of originality.  And so while I hoped to make the arrival of the Elizabethans in the programme a real moment of arrival rather than an ‘Oh, its this ensemble again, which we’ve already heard in the other works’.  It needs to seem like a culmination: the previous works must prepare the way, but somehow they mustn’t steal the thunder of the main work.  This is a very difficult thing to achieve, and in fact had to be compromised in the context of the programme and balancing the demands on each player and some of the musical relationships I wished to portray; so I must hope that its thunder will not be stolen nor its effect lost in the preceding works — although if I exchange one of the Howells pieces in the second half with the Stanford in the first……. Still the programme writhes in my mind!  I must lay it to rest.

The Five Elizabethan Songs closes the first half, which left the question as to the work which might close the programme.  There was one work that seemed an obvious counterpart to the Elizas, which would balance the programme nicely: Gerald Finzi’s set of five Shakespeare songs, dedicated to Vaughan Williams on his 70th birthday: Let us Garlands Bring.  Gurney’s work had a great influence on Finzi, who heard Gurney’s genius in his first hearing of ‘Sleep’, in 1920.  It is my belief that Let us Garlands Bring is directly descended from the Elizas and is in some ways a homage to Gurney’s set.  So: I have sought and be granted permission from both the Finzi Trust and Boosey & Hawkes to arrange the work for the same ensemble as the Five Elizabethan Songs, for a single performance at the Three Choirs Festival.  I am enormously grateful to both Trust and publisher for allowing me to undertake this task, which I hope will affirm the link between these two works and shed some new light on the Finzi.

And so, the programme is settled; the accompanying ensemble is nearly gathered (I hope they’ll like the programme and that few, if any changes will be necessary); and I am extremely pleased that mezzo-soprano Susanna Spicer has recently agreed to appear alongside me in the recital.  Susanna will most notably be singing the Elizabethan Songs, which were intended by Gurney to be sung by a mezzo, and her joining the ensemble allows scope for a couple of duets – one composed thus, and one not!  All that will remain is for you to come along to the recital on 29 July 2013 to hear for yourself how it all works out.  It should be a unique and interesting experience on many fronts.  To find out more, visit the Three Choirs Festival website.  I hope that the full programme list will be up there before long to entice you further – should you need it!