Exclusive opportunity to hear a Gurney String Quartet!

Next weekend, on Sunday February 11th, there is an exclusive opportunity to hear the first performance of Ivor Gurney’s late D minor String Quartet, composed in December 1924-January 1925. The Bridge String Quartet are to perform the work at the University Women’s Club, 2 Audley Square, London, in an event which is seeking to raise funds for a forthcoming recording on EM Records.

The Gurney Quartet survived by chance, where all of his other late chamber works are missing—presumed destroyed, and has been reconstructed from surviving, heavily revised, parts by Michael Schofield — the Bridge Quartet’s violist. The Adagio from the quartet, reconstructed by myself, was recorded a few years ago, so it is tremendously exciting to be able to hear the whole of the piece. I shall be talking about the history of Gurney’s Quartet, and will also be introducing and singing the baritone solo in Gurney’s 1920 song cycle The Western Playland, which will be performed in an edition I made a few years ago. As I have said elsewhere on this blog (See Here), The Western Playland has had a difficult history, post-publication, and is nowhere near as well known as it should be. It is a remarkable piece, and I hope that its forthcoming recording with Roderick Williams, the Bridge Quartet and pianist Michael Dussek, will revive its fortunes. For Sunday, it is slightly nerve-wracking being Roddy’s ‘stunt-double’ for an afternoon, but it is amazing how much physically performing a work increases the amount one gets inside it and come to know more about it, even having spent many hours editing and writing about the piece.

If you would like to attend the performance/talk next Sunday (11th February) please email info@bridgequartet.com to let them know you are coming. Tickets will be £15 on the door, but the Quartet would like to know numbers in advance for the purposes of wine and cake!

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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.

A Benjamin Britten Festival, Lichfield, 22-24 November 2013

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

It can have escaped the attention of few – if any – that 2013 has marked the centenary of the birth of a figure regarded as the foremost British composer of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten (1913-76).  The centenary year has been a triumph most notably for the Britten Estate.  The marketing and outreach that has either been instigated or passed through the office of the Britten Estate is second to none.  I doubt even the centenaries of Mozart and Beethoven were as well represented.  But the joy of Britten – who is noted particularly for his vocal works, and the vitalisation of British opera – is that he wrote numerous works specifically for young people, so schools the length and breadth of the Britain, and beyond our shores, have been able to become involved in performance of such works as Friday Afternoons and Noyes Fludde.  Indeed, on Britten’s birthday itself – this coming Friday, 22 November – hundreds of simultaneous performances of Friday Afternoons will commemorate that date, with the involvement of over 100,000 children around the world, in places as far flung as America, China and Australia, not to mention 118 in Britten – sorry Britain! – alone (see here).    That date also marks the beginning of Lichfield’s Britten Festival, organised by Cathedral Director of Music, Cathy Lamb: a weekend of events which begins with the coming together of pupils from several schools in Lichfield in two performances of Noyes Fludde.

The full calendar of events is follows:

Friday 22 November

  • 3.0pm: Noyes Fludde.  Cathy Lamb conducts the performance, which is being directed by the Canon Precentor, Wealands Bell, with Fran Ambrose as Noye and Ailsa Cochrane as Mrs Noye.
  • 5.30pm: Choral Evensong, featuring Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin.
  • 7.30pm: Noyes Fludde (second performance).

Saturday 23 November‘s events are as follows:

  • 5.30pm: Choral Evensong, including the Hymn to St. Columba and canticles by Henry Purcell, who was a great influence on Britten.
  • 7.30pm: Evening Concert: Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir will be joined by DECO (the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra) in performances of both St. Nicholas and The Company of Heaven, conducted by Martyn Rawles.

and there follows a busy Sunday:

  • 9.30am: Choral Matins, including Britten’s Te Deum and Jubilate as well as Purcell’s Hear my prayer;
  • 11.0am: Choral Eucharist, including Britten’s Missa Brevis and ‘This Little Babe’ from A Ceremony of Carols;
  • 1.0pm: Lecture by Paul Spicer: ‘Benjamin Britten: Too Original for his own good?’
  • 3.30pm: Choral Evensong, with Britten A Hymn to St. Cecilia and another set of canticles by Purcell.
  • 5.0pm: Recital by Yours Truly, with Ben Lamb at the piano, including Britten’s marvellous Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.

Philip Lancaster song recital flyer.docSpeaking personally, it is a manically busy weekend, but is one to which I am looking forward with great excitement.  I am involved in every event except for the Eucharist and Lecture on the Sunday (the Eucharist being sung by the boys’ and girls’ choirs, so the gents of the choir are not required).  I am The Voice of God in Noye and one of the three readers in The Company of Heaven.  However, it is the recital which is the most exciting fare of the weekend (and the one for which I am most likely to be rather weary, after all preceding services and events of the weekend!)  It is not perhaps the joyful finale, but a dark, introspective look at the human condition.  The recital begins with the three songs written for Ronald Duncan’s play This Way to the Tomb, which ends with the Purcellian Ground Bass of ‘Night’.  There follows Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s powerful song, ‘Job’s Curse’, which sets the scene for The Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1965.  This is one of the most extraordinary works I have ever performed – one of the most difficult to learn, but by far one of the most satisfying.  The programme concludes with four folksong arrangements by Britten.  These are not the light froth that one might associate with the idea of folksong, but darker tales of loves lost.

I hope to see you sometime over the weekend!  For more details you can download the flyer here.

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!