Other recommended albums
Gurney: Ludlow and Teme & The Western Playland; Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge
CDH55187 Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
Of all the world’s great wars none has been more pointless or more prodigal of human life than that of 1914–1918. No one wanted it—not even the Austrians, understandably apprehensive of their tenuous hold over the Balkan states after the heir to the Hapsburg Empire had been assassinated at Sarajevo. Europe drifted into the conflict through the sheer incompetence of its leaders and the inability of anyone, at any level, to envisage the degree of devastation that would be unleashed. Millions of young men, urged on by vainglorious and dunderheaded military commanders, leapt to the slaughter and took with them talents that the world could ill afford to lose. Not least among the wasted lives were those of the little group of English composers whose achievements—considerable or pitiably embryonic as may be—are celebrated in this collection.
The choice of songs and composers calls for an explanation. The greater number of songs are by Ivor Gurney, because in terms of actual achievement, both as composer and poet, he is the outstanding figure of the group. Moreover, although he was not killed on the field of battle his fate was in some ways worse than that of those whose lives were summarily ended. He has emerged as one of the symbolic figures of his time: his poems a fierce and truthful report of war and its consequences, his songs the paradigm of genius wasted in its prime. Many of his songs have been recorded elsewhere, but there are still gaps and it is some of these that this collection seeks to fill.
Next to Gurney in terms of sheer genius must stand George Butterworth. He, however, is represented by only one song—for the very simple reason that he has been recorded already so often and so excellently. Gerald Finzi makes an apperarance because the carnage left deep scars on his creative imagination even though he was of an age to escape personal involvement. His song of mourning and consolation may serve to remind us of the shadow that the First World War cast over succeeding generations.
Ernest Farrar, Frederick Kelly and W Denis Browne are represented by such songs as show their talents at their best and most typical. That there are no more than a handful of songs merely reflects the intolerable fact that their lives were ended before they could reach either maturity or any acceptable degree of fulfilment.
W Denis Browne was born in Leamington Spa on 3 November 1888. In 1903 he won an open scholarship to Rugby, and in 1907 a major scholarship in classics to Clare College, Cambridge. Music, however, began to dominate his life and in 1910 he became the college’s organ scholar. He took his MusB in 1912 and then, briefly, taught music at Repton. In November 1912 he moved to London as organist of Guy’s Hospital, supplementing his income by teaching (at Morley College) and music criticism. Articles written for The Times and The New Statesman reveal a penetrating mind eager to absorb new ideas—as indeed does the fact that he gave the first London performance of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata. Friendship with Edward J Dent, who had been his supervisor at Cambridge, led to a fruitful encounter with Busoni, while his friendship with Rupert Brooke, dating from their Rugby days, drew him into Edward Marsh’s somewhat rarefied artistic circle. He was commissioned on the same ship as Brooke and Kelly and was killed in action at Achi Baba on 4 June 1915 during the Gallipoli campaign.
Browne’s output consists of a handful of songs, six of which were published (four posthumously in 1927), a small quantity of choral, orchestral and piano music, and an incomplete ballet The Comic Spirit. The four (posthumously published) songs in this collection are far and away his finest. They date from October 1912 (Diaphenia) to June 1914 (Arabia) and show very clearly the remarkable way in which he was developing—from a routine fluency and charm to an Impressionistic tonal freedom of great subtlety. For his setting of Ben Jonson’s Epitaph on Salathiel Pavy and Lovelace’s To Gratiana dancing and singing he turned with great effect to Elizabethan models—the latter being based on an anonymous ‘Allmayne’ in Elizabeth Rogers’ Virginal Booke (1656). In all four songs it is Browne’s sensitive illumination of the poem, allied to his capacity for subtle dramatization, that mark him out as one of the most talented composers of his generation.
George Butterworth was born in London on 12 July 1885. He was educated at Eton and in 1904 went to Trinity College, Oxford, to read Greats. Music, however, began to take precedence and he soon abandoned all pretence of working towards a legal career. On coming down from Oxford he worked as a music critic, taught briefly at Radley College and then, equally briefly, studied at the Royal College of Music. During this period he became increasingly involved in the activities of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and this in turn greatly influenced the music he was writing. At the outbreak of war he enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, went into the trenches in September 1915 and was killed at Pozières on 5 August 1916. He was awarded the Military Cross, posthumously. Butterworth completed his setting of Oscar Wilde’s Requiescat in 1911 and it is therefore one of the earliest of his thirty or so surviving songs. Its reticent but telling simplicity is characteristic of his style.
Ernest Farrar was born in London on 7 July 1885. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and in 1905 awarded an open scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music under Sir Charles Stanford (composition) and Sir Walter Parratt (organ). In 1906 he won the Arthur Sullivan Prize, and in the following year the Grove Scholarship. On leaving the Royal College in 1909 he spent six months in Dresden as organist of All Saints English Church, thereafter settling in Yorkshire, first (in 1910) as organist of St Hilda, South Shields, and then (in 1912) as organist of Christ Church, Harrogate. It was at Harrogate that he became the young Gerald Finzi’s first composition teacher. Farrar enlisted in the Grenadier Guards in December 1915, later being given a commission in the 3rd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment. He arrived in France on 8 September 1918 and was killed at the Battle of Epéhy Ronssoy on 18 September.
Farrar composed a considerable amount of music, including, most notably, a symphonic poem The Forsaken Merman, an Heroic Elegy, and a setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel for chorus and orchestra. His English Pastoral Impressions and Three Spiritual Studies were published posthumously as part of the Carnegie Collection of British Music. The earliest of the three Vagabond Songs, Op 10, was composed in 1908, and the whole set was designed for baritone and orchestra. The piano version was made in 1911. The three Op 21 songs belong to 1914—the two Norman Gale settings being offered separately as Two Pastorals. Farrar’s style is very much of its period: elegant, charming and unpretentious—pleasant fodder for the amateur and the drawing room. Such weaknesses as the songs may be thought to possess are due more to the inadequacy of the verse he chose to set than any intrinsic lack of skill or imagination on the part of the composer.
Gerald Finzi was born in London on 14 July 1901. He was educated privately, studying music first with Ernest Farrar (1914–16), then with Edward Bairstow (1917–22), and finally with R 0 Morris (1925). Though he taught composition briefly at the Royal Academy of Music (1930–33) most of his life was spent in rural seclusion, first in Gloucestershire, then Wiltshire, and then, from 1937 until his death on 27 September 1956, at Ashmansworth in Hampshire.
Finzi’s setting of Thomas Hardy’s In time of ‘The breaking of nations’ dates from 1923. It was designed as the third movement of a Requiem da camera completed, all but the instrumentation, in the following year but eventually put to one side by the composer. The complete work consists of an orchestral Prelude, followed by settings of John Masefield’s sonnet August, 1914, Hardy’s poem, and Lament by Wilfred Gibson. Necessarily sceptical of orthodox religion, Finzi expressed his grief at the loss of friends and relatives through the grief of poets equally unwilling to gloss over the pity and the truth. He dedicated the work to his friend and teacher, Ernest Farrar.
Frederick Kelly was born in Sydney on 29 May 1881, but received his education in England—at Eton (1893–9) and as Nettleship Scholar in Music at Balliol College, Oxford (1900–03). From 1903 to 1908 he studied at the Hoch Conservatory, Frankfurt-am-Main, under Ernest Engesser and Iwan Knorr. He then settled in London but toured widely as a concert pianist. In September 1914 he joined the Royal Naval Division, saw action at Gallipoli (where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross) and was killed at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre on 13 November 1916.
Kelly’s output includes some two dozen songs, chamber and piano music, and several orchestral pieces—one of which (an Elegy written in memory of his friend Rupert Brooke) achieved a certain currency. Although he cannot be said to have found a distinctive voice of his own, his music is both fluent and forceful—the piano-writing betraying (or possibly being betrayed by) his skill as a pianist. The setting of Shakespeare’s Shall I compare thee? was composed in Sydney in July 1912 and published, along with an earlier song (a setting of John Todhunter’s ‘Aghadoe’), as his Opus 1.
Ivor Gurney was born in Gloucester on 28 August 1890. He was educated at the Cathedral Choir School and in 1911 won a scholarship which took him to the Royal College of Music to study composition under Sir Charles Stanford. In February 1915 he was drafted into the army and served, as a private, with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters in Flanders and on the Somme. In September 1917, after sustaining a bullet wound and, later, mild gassing, he was invalided back to England. His mental condition deteriorated and at one point he seriously contemplated suicide, but eventually he was able to resume his studies—this time under Vaughan Williams. On leaving the Royal College in 1921 he failed to find permanent work and his health again became very uncertain. Increasingly eccentric behaviour, and further threats of suicide, led in September 1922 to his being placed in an asylum—where he remained until his death on 26 December 1937.
Gurney’s mature output consists largely of songs. He also wrote a great many fine poems, publishing two volumes in his lifetime (Severn and Somme, 1917, and War’s Embers, 1919) with further selections appearing in 1954 and 1973. A definitive collection, which confirmed his place as a major war poet, was published by the Oxford University Press in 1982.
Of the songs included in this recording, three of them (The twa corbies, Edward, Edward and The night of Trafalgar), though powerful and uncompromising, are indebted to classical models—Brahms, filtered through Stanford, in particular. Many of Gurney’s best-known songs were written, in what must surely be a unique example of concentration, in the trenches, but his remaining songs in this collection belong to that period of frenzied creativity that followed his return from the fighting, as he strove desperately to hang on to his sanity in the face of increasing anguish and despair.
What gives Gurney his pre-eminence as an English song composer is his remarkable range. He seems able to tackle virtually any emotion—from the light-hearted and casual to the grim and bleakly powerful. His love songs are warm and sensuous, his evocation of the English landscape without parallel. His capacity to identify with his poet and to find the essence of the poem in vocal lines that never for one moment betray the integrity of the words is almost unique—only Warlock, Finzi and Britten enjoying a comparable degree of sympathetic identification. But Gurney was also a poet, and so the fusion of words and music was, to him, as natural and inevitable as breathing.
Michael Hurd © 1987