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.
In 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