Finzi’s arrangements are presented in a different order from Gurney’s original publication (in 1920). Under the greenwood tree, placed first (rather than third), is a sprightly piece, infused with snippets of delicate counterpoint and archaisms. Particularly delicious are the subtle modifications to the strophic design, notably the repetition of ‘Here shall he see No enemy’ which recurs in the second verse up a semitone before effortlessly dissolving into a cadential statement in the major mode. Gurney’s postlude, with its succession of suspensions and capricious ending in the minor (anticipating the final song), are also a delightful wordless commentary on Shakespeare’s text. Orpheus, which Gurney loved, is an inspired miniature. The limpid line of semiquavers and ‘strummed’ pizzicato is especially apt in the string arrangement as are the passages of three-part counterpoint so redolent of Parry and Elgar. Wonderful in its keyboard form, the accompaniment to Sleep acquires an added pathos and intensity in its string scoring, both in the felicitous touches of the solo viola and the rich sonorities achieved by judicious doublings. Spring bm, a setting of Thomas Nashe’s light-hearted lyric, survives in Gurney’s orchestration for two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons and harp (a scoring that was apparently intended for the whole set though the other songs have not survived in this form). The published piano accompaniment, which is demanding and rather less idiomatic than its counterparts, suggests that it was very much a transcription of the original instrumental conception. Finzi’s string arrangement likewise is able to bring definition and clarity to Gurney’s rather uncongenial piano part, and many of the gestures—the full, multi-stopped tutti chords, octave doublings, syncopations and even the exquisite ‘comment’ for solo violin in the dying bars—are enhanced by the imaginative scoring.
Although Gurney was initially rejected for military service, he persisted and eventually joined up in 1915, serving in the 2/5th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment in France. It was to be the way with so many past and present RCM students—Butterworth, Benjamin, Dyson, Moeran, Douglas Fox, Vaughan Williams among many others—for whom Parry and Stanford worried day by day as the war dragged on. Writing to Howells in April 1917, Parry could not contain his concern for the safety and well-being of his pupils, and particularly for Gurney:
Stanford sent me your letter about Gurney. I fully share in your anxieties. The thought of so many very gifted boys being in danger, such as Gurney and Fox and Benjamin and even Vaughan Williams, is always present with me. This is what horrible senseless war means—and we can do nothing. To put our views, that such beings are capable of doing the world unique services, before the military authorities would surely appear to them absurd. I suppose there are thousands of others in other walks of life who are in the same case with us. Gurney’s case I feel to be quite a special martyrdom. His mind is so full of thoughts and feeling far removed from crude barbarities that it seems almost monstrous. But war is monstrous and we have to take it as far as we can from the collective point of view. There is no consolation to be got out of that, but only something of the spirit which surprises those in the thick of it. I had a letter from Gurney yesterday full of Tolstoi and poetry and longings for the old beloved life, and a sight of the Cotswolds. It is cruel!
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 1999