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Before music college, and not long after completing his years as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral, Gurney discovered A.E. Housman and in 1908 set his On your midnight pallet; the same year attempting Is my team ploughing?, a song he later revised.
As someone who possessed the exceptional gift of being equally talented as both composer and poet, Gurney was naturally drawn to the poetry of others but rarely set his own poems, unlike his fellow Englishman Thomas Campion (1567-1620)—also doubly gifted as poet/composer—whose lute song texts were always taken from his own words. During the war years when life in the trenches made writing music almost impossible it was poetry that pre-occupied Gurney and in 1917 his first collection of poems, Severn and Somme, was published (the second being War’s Embers that followed two years later). However, a handful of songs were written during this period and include In Flanders and Dinny Hill, (with verses written by his school friend Will Harvey) which express a longing for his Gloucestershire. In addition to these songs Gurney set further Housman verses: On Wenlock Edge. This seems to have been conceived in June 1917; a sturdy and so far unpublished setting which is markedly different from Vaughan Williams own arrangement and which was then unknown to Gurney. It is astonishing that since joining the 2nd/5th Gloucester’s with whom he served as a private from February 1915 and his arrival in France in May 1916 Gurney’s creative stimulus was undimmed, and had even ‘sharpened his pen’. Despite having suffered a minor bullet wound on Good Friday in April 1917 (the poet Edward Thomas was killed on Easter Monday) and a gas attack during the Ypres offensive in September, his letters home reveal a cheerful stoicism.
Following his recovery at Bangour hospital in Edinburgh and his discharge from the army, Gurney returned to the Royal College of Music in March 1919 where he now began studying with Vaughan Williams. It is from this period that his creative outpouring was at its most intense, setting over forty songs alone during the second half of 1919. It was at a concert in November 1919 that Gurney discovered his new teacher’s song cycle On Wenlock Edge. So excited was Gurney by this experience that he immediately began work on his own cycle of Shropshire lad poems, and set seven verses for an identical ensemble, completing Ludlow and Teme in just a few weeks. The following March the cycle received its first performance at the home of Gurney’s college friend Marion Scott who recalled that after the performance ‘No composer being forthcoming in spite of repeated calls for him, Gurney was sought, and at length found, bashfully hiding behind the big bookcase at the far end of the back drawing-room.’
Just as the On Wenlock Edge cycle follows no continuous narrative thread or incorporates any musical connections between the songs, neither does Gurney make any attempt in Ludlow and Teme to create a real sense of unity. The songs are, however, linked by their affection for the English countryside and a love of the rural way of life. So strong in character are they with their own individual mood (as well as their considerable vocal demands) that separate performance of these songs can still be effective. When smoke stood up from Ludlow makes an arresting and dramatic beginning; its opening triplet figure perhaps a passing tribute to Vaughan Williams. In the long-limbed lines and quiet intensity of Far in a western brookland Gurney creates an almost unbearable longing for home; its nostalgia, so typical of Housman, raised to an ecstatic level, despite Gurney’s failure to reproduce faithfully Housman’s lines in the right order. Tensions are released in the quicksilver ‘Tis time, I think where the poet wishes to see the spring in Wenlock. The melodic charm of On the idle hill of summer surely refutes Trevor Hold’s assertion that Gurney’s music ‘rambles like an unkempt English hedgerow’. While the accompaniment is a little inelegant the melodic inspiration is as effortless as When I was one and twenty or The Lent lily—a superb marriage of words and music that is amongst Gurney’s finest. According to Vaughan Williams, the Georgian poets ‘had just rediscovered England and the language that fitted the shy beauty of their own country’. He then added, ‘Gurney has found the exact musical equivalent both in sentiment and in cadence to this poetry’.
Gurney composed a little over 300 songs (of which about one hundred have been published) and include a second song cycle to Housman’s verse: The Western Playland, scored for baritone soloist, string quartet and piano. Sadly, his increasingly erratic behaviour and mental instability noted before the war when a friend declared ‘…he did not seem to belong to us’, led to his eventual incarceration in the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford in December 1922 where he remained there until his death on December 26th 1937.
from notes by David Truslove © 2007
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