The Elusive Book

For several years, when other projects allow, I have been working on a book: a big critical study of Ivor Gurney’s music and poetry. I really have been working on it, although it is not yet as much in evidence as it should be. To be frank, it should — as other things —have been finished by now, and even (I add, optimistically) be on your bookshelf. But it isn’t. More fundamentally for me, its absence is probably why I don’t currently have a job. 

There are excuses aplenty: We have moved house twice, the first time relocating by 200 miles; we have had four children (in 7 years); and my composition work has become increasingly important.  But I have been Gurneying. Indeed some of my other work on Gurney, projects that are enormously consuming by themselves, are an absolute prerequisite for the book. The cataloguing of the archive has been a far more monstrous task than I or anyone else envisaged, and that has taken much time away from my co-edition, with Tim Kendall, of Gurney’s complete poetry (more on this very soon!), never mind the book. 

But the book has been developing: Over 30,000 words have been drafted, although by the Plan of the book there is a generous 100,000 or so left to go. That Plan, the structuring of the book, however, has occupied more hours of thought and worry than has been spent on the writing. It has been almost nightmarish, causing moments of despair.  How do you best structure a book dealing with the driving forces behind an artist’s work, when so many of the ideas weave together in a rich tapestry of influences across time and genre? The problem is that I am purposely avoiding the biographical detail of Gurney’s life as much as is possible. I cannot avoid them, and must indeed engage in some depth with some of fundamental elements of his life in relating his work; but his biography has done huge damage to the reception and perception of Gurney’s music and poetry. By avoiding the narrative of the biography, there is no ready-made thread on which to hang the critical insights. The book needs to be structured otherwise — likely thematically — weaving its own tapestry of interrelationships that manages to reveal and give insight into the threads within the work and artist by unraveling the threads woven into that work. 

In trying to find the way through, I have produced numerous lists, schematics, incomprehensible webs of relationships between key subjects and figures, structures and book plans. It took me a long while — indeed until only a matter of 9 months or so ago — to decide that the only way to find the solution is to write it; to start from the beginning and write it in order from beginning to end, rather than drafting chapters and putting them together later; to allow the structural difficulties to resolve themselves and evolve through the controlled organicism of that writing. The only way out is through, as (I think) Robert Frost said. 

Coming to this realisation was surprisingly liberating. Rather than worrying about the whole and its complex interrelationships, I can just focus on a small part. The whole will gradually become apparent. Which is not to say that I am no longer working to a plan. I am, and that quite a detailed one. I know where it’s going, and when I get there I shall be able to resolve bit by bit how I reconcile, for example, the entwining ideas of place, history, war, landscape, memory, and writers such as Whitman and Edward Thomas, in their several permutations and disparate facets as representation and influence upon both his music and poetry (which I am dealing with concurrently, not separately). So, it has been slow progress, but for this last 9 months it has been progressing in a pleasing way, with growing excitement and confidence, when time allows. The journey is far from over, but I feel better equipped now than ever before. I am no longer packing: I have set out on the journey and am getting into my stride. I shall perhaps bore you with thoughts on the writing and ideas being pursued in later posts. The book’s title (it has had a few): ‘The Gathering Mind’. 


Gurney & Thomas in Arras

On Thursday, 6 April 2017, I shall be presenting a paper in Arras, at the Université d’Artois, as part of an Edward Thomas Centenary Conference.  I shall be speaking on Gurney and the influence of Thomas’s poetry on his work and ideas.  The date of the conference is a significant one: not only does it occur just a couple of days before the centenary of Thomas’s death at Arras; the 6th April marks the centenary of the advance on Bihécourt from Vermand, 40 miles south of Arras, in which Gurney was involved and was wounded.  That day in 1917, Good Friday, he was shot in the arm, clean ‘through-and-through’, and — if his later writing is to be believed — he feared not for his life, but for his piano playing, raining curses upon Fritz for the blighting of English music in his being wounded.

The advance on Bihécourt is likely the event depicted by Gurney in his justly famous poem ‘The Silent One’. The bombardment prior to their advance should have cut through the wires so that they could advance unhindered on the village, but the wires were unbroken.  A ‘noble fool, faithful to his stripes’ stepped over ‘and ended.’

‘Do you think you might crawl through, there; there’s a hole;’  In the afraid
Darkness, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied —
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’  There was no hole, no way to be seen.
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes’

Glancing briefly at the map, my train journey will take me through and close to so many places that Gurney knew.  It is sad that I won’t have time and opportunity to venture further afield than Arras to take in some of those places I am writing about at present.  Even so: it will be poignant indeed to be speaking of Gurney on the exact centenary of his wounding, and on Thomas, just a few days shy of the centenary of his loss, and as close as can be to the place of that loss and where he now lies.

In Memoriam (Easter 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas, 6 April 1915

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. 

Poetic Butchery: the Act of Artistic Appropriation

The setting to music of a poet’s hard-wrought text is an act of butchery. It is an appropriation of a work of art which can lift a poem off the page and bring it to life; it can bring a poem to an audience who would likely never have otherwise encountered it; and it can also rile a poet, who sees his the result of his labours as a piece of art ‘intire in itself’; a work that was the poet’s ultimate goal and vision.

I am reminded of this today as I work through some of the secondary correspondence in the Gurney archive. In 1925 Gurney composed a setting of Robert Bridges’s ‘Johannes Milton Senex’, ‘Since I believe in God the Father Almighty’, which Gurney set as a ‘motett’ for double choir. It is an extraordinary setting, and, after I brought it out of the archive and to performance in 2012, it has now been recorded twice for CD, by Gloucester Cathedral Choir and The Sixteen, and broadcast at twice on Radio 3, sung by the BBC Singers.

Robert Bridges, on being sent a copy of the motett in July 1925, shortly after its writing, showed it to Henry Ley — then organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford — who thought it interesting, suggesting that he might try it through [with the choir] if copies could be made. Bridges, however, was more circumspect about giving an opinion following any hearing of the work, stating that

‘I am not at all sympathetic with the way in which modern musicians treat words. They aim at effects which I do not desire. When they are successful I am pleased enough, but I do find their success very rare. I hope this may be one of them and that it will be possible to let Ley try it with his choir next term.’

Whether the work was ever tried through we cannot tell, although we know that a copy was made and reproduced, one such copy in Marion Scott’s hand being the only source for the motett now extant.

Nor was Bridges alone.  A. E. Housman, one of the most-set poets in the English language, while not disallowing the use of his words, resented the corruption that composers could impose upon his work.  The most famous case is that of Ralph Vaughan Williams: Housman was livid that RVW had had the audacity to cut two stanzas from ‘Is my team ploughing’ in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge. Reportedly, W. B. Yeats, heard a large group of boy scouts singing a setting of his ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ that so went against the vision and intention of his poem that he employed a musical agent to vet any future settings.  Peter Warlock fell foul of that censor in his Yeats cycle, The Curlew, having to fight to allow his settings past Yeats and his agent for publication under the Carnegie British Composers scheme.

The poetry selected for setting is a very personal thing to a composer, but it is, in my opinion, not merely a matter of subjectivity.  Not all poems are suitable for setting.  I have a number of times been asked to suggest some Ivor Gurney poems for musical setting, and it is a task that I find quite difficult — not merely because of the subjectivity of the matter.  Quite a lot of Gurney’s poetry contains so much innate music in its language and sound that it seems to preclude its setting.  It needs no further music.

As one who has dabbled in both poetry and composition, as well as gaining some insight (I think) into the separation between Gurney’s arts, I have become more sensitive to the matter of musical setting of poetry.  My role as an academic editor of poetry heightens the tensions at play.  In this latter, I strive always to represent as truly as possible the poet’s intentions.  The text is everything; it is the apogee of a poem, and the poet’s manuscript must be the last word on every aspect from punctuation to capitalisation of words, never mind the words themselves.  These details matter immensely.

In my recent composings, in the writing of the War Passion that is to receive its première in just over two weeks’ time, these tensions came to a head.  On the one hand I was interrogating  manuscripts of poems by Rosenberg to get to his original intentions where the published poem has been corrupted from its first, posthumous publication (see this blog-post).  Likewise, I sought out the corrected text of Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’, which was similarly corrupted.  Conversely, and much against my academic judgement, I also edited a few poems, for which I feel much guilt and underwent some very serious soul-searching.  The edits were made for purely dramatic purposes.  I have appropriated a work of art — several, in fact — and turned them to new use, which goes against the pains that the poets went through to get those poems right.  I left out a short stanza from ‘Into Battle’ — a poem which I also broke up across the span of the first movement; I made such selections from Edmund Blunden’s ‘Third Ypres’ as might be akin to roasting a whole chicken and then taking only a small bite from a leg, a bit from one of the breasts, and one of the oysters from the underside, before discarding the rest.  In Sassoon’s ‘Christ and the Soldier’ I omitted several words, and also took the decision to represent one of the stanzas in wholly musical terms, depicting in musical sound what was described in the stanza.  The words omitted from this were those descriptors and attributions that are un-neccesary when the words are being spoken or sung by an assigned character: ‘he groaned’, ‘he said’, and rhetorical statements that one can, I think, make out in the music, such as the closing line, ‘The battle boomed, and no reply came back’.  Such butcheries still play on my conscience — although I did seek express permission from Blunden’s daughters to be so selective about the passages chosen from ‘Third Ypres’.  They go against the grain, and I feel immensely guilty that I have appropriated the words of these poets, sometimes with great selectivity, and turned them to my own devices.  I can only apologise to those poets whose work I have butchered and appropriated — although I hope the Rosenberg at least will be glad at having had his text restored.

Whether butchered or restored, there still remains the question of whether the poets will have balked at the way I have used their poems in expressive, musical terms, or will I have used effects, as Bridges puts it, which the poets would not desire or have imagined?  We cannot tell.  All I do know is that it was the poetry, and my strength of feeling for the poems that led me to write the settings I have.  The music always started with the words, with vocal lines emerging directly out of them before textures suggested themselves around those vocal lines.  It is the way I feel the poetry, and the passion that I feel in my reading of them.  Whether they would pass the musical censor is impossible to say (I suspect it likely that it would not!), but it is what I felt, and I hope that might have sufficient validity to somehow overcome the great sense of guilt and betrayal I feel on the poets’ behalves.  In the form of the libretto I created, and in the music I composed, I have created a new work, a new whole, a new vision, which I think of as being very much my own.  But in that I am deeply indebted to the ten poets whose words I have taken and to which I have given voice, without whom the piece would never have come into being.  Their art and power gave me the thoughts to create anew. So all art can feed us, and future generations, whether as reader, listener, or as a creative artist who wishes to build on and give their own personal response to the work of others.  It is not that one is seeking to improve upon that work.  It is, I hope, more flattering than that; that they have created a piece of work that speaks so powerfully to another that they want to express that power, passion and meaning in the way they know how.


[Letter from Robert Bridges to Marion Scott is in the Gurney Archive, Gloucestershire Archives, ref. D10500/8/2/2/3.]

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


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

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.]