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Dame Sarah Connolly performs Ivor Gurney's wonderful orchestral songs in a programme that also includes some of Vaughan Williams's most poignant choral works and a new tribute to Gurney by Judith Bingham.
Gloucester Cathedral played an important part in the musical origins of both Gurney and Howells. They studied with Herbert Brewer, and from late 1907 were allowed use of the organ to try out their works ‘in the midst of Gloucester’s imperturbable Norman pillars’. Gurney was also a former chorister in the cathedral choir, with a long involvement with the Three Choirs Festival, at which he had first encountered Elgar, who inspired him to become a composer.
With his experience at Gloucester, and later associations with Westminster and Salisbury Cathedrals and St John’s College, Cambridge, Howells would go on to write many works for choir and organ. In early 1941, during the Second World War, he composed a set of six anthems ‘in time of war’, five of which were written on successive days. Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks was composed in a single sitting on 8 January. Written in London, with air-raids a constant threat, whilst many men were engaged in fighting, and many were lost, the questioning cry of ‘where is now thy God?’ must have been close to the lips of many.
Gurney wrote very little church music, and little of what he did write has survived. His motet for double choir, Since I believe in God the Father almighty, was written in June 1925, a couple of years before Gurney stopped composing. It is a deeply personal work that seems to look back to Gloucester Cathedral, with extended pauses written into the piece that allow the great acoustic of that building to sing fully. The reasons for Gurney’s attraction to Robert Bridges’s poem are obvious. It speaks of an ambivalent relationship with God. The speaker undoubtedly believes in God, but neither he nor anyone else can know or understand him, particularly as one who had ‘crie[d] angrily out on God’ in poems of the First World War and in his later life. Also, throughout his life, Gurney remained true in his pursuit of beauty. It could have been of Gurney that Bridges wrote of he ‘whose spirit within [him…] loveth beauty’. In the final stanza, while the speaker is cherishing the freedom of belief, Gurney, in his ‘hours of anguish and darkness’, may have been cherishing an idea of a freedom both spiritual and physical; freedom from the mental hospital in which he spent the last fifteen years of his life, where he eventually resigned himself to his hopeless abandonment.
In his freedom, Gurney was an inveterate walker. He perhaps knew Gloucestershire more intimately than any other in his day. He walked endlessly the county’s meadows and hills, across the Severn plain westwards to May Hill, north towards Elgar’s Malvern hills, and east into the Cotswolds. He walked with friends, talking of music and poetry, and alone, often reading, declaiming Shakespeare to unsuspecting cattle, and pausing to write ideas in his notebook. Gurney’s connection with Gloucestershire, however, was not merely circumstantial or aesthetic. As Thomas Hardy observes in his novel The Woodlanders, one who truly inhabits a place knows ‘those invisible ones of days gone by’: they know ‘whose feet have traversed the fields’, ‘whose hands planted the trees’, and the ‘domestic dramas’ that have been enacted in that place. In his late poem ‘Gloucester Song’, Gurney writes, ‘I walk the land my fathers knew, wide to distants blue / And summon all the tales unseen, the good earth lets them through.’ Memory is an inherent part of his landscape, summoning up the Elizabethans, Danes and Romans. He felt that connection with the past in his veins also: upon seeing a Roman brooch, discovered in a field, he declared, ‘how the centuries in my blood shouted and woke!’
Part of Gurney’s attraction to the Roman presence in Gloucestershire may have arisen from a shared experience of war in a foreign territory. Gurney’s studies at the Royal College of Music were interrupted in 1915 by his volunteering for active service in the First World War. Whilst serving with the 2/5 Gloucestershire Battalion near Arras in June 1917, Gurney began a song setting of a poem by A E Housman, ‘On Wenlock Edge’, which tells how little the human condition has changed: each generation must weather the storms of their age; ‘Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I’. When writing A walk with Ivor Gurney, commissioned by Tenebrae in 2013, Judith Bingham identified something of that common circumstance: ‘[T]he Romans were foreign invaders here, and we don’t feel the same sympathy for them as we do for the men in the trenches. And yet, on the tomb memorials found in Gloucestershire, one gets a sense of men stranded far from home, and of the gulf of time between them and us.’ In A walk with Ivor Gurney, Bingham sets passages from several Gurney poems and intersperses them with inscriptions from some of those Roman memorials, ‘evok[ing] the sense Gurney had of time and people of the past residing in the landscape. The mezzo-soprano solo is ‘the spirit of that landscape’, while the male voices of the choir, always “off-stage”, sing Roman tomb memorials of soldiers long dead.’
With the coming of the war, the Royal College of Music – as other institutions – emptied of many of its students as they volunteered for active service. Hubert Parry, the director of the college, worried greatly for his students, and felt any losses very deeply. He tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Vaughan Williams from volunteering; and in April 1917 he wrote to Howells, ‘Gurney’s case I feel to be quite a special martyrdom. His mind is so full of thoughts and feelings 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.’
It was only whilst serving in France that Gurney began to write poetry in earnest, serving his apprenticeship in the trenches and behind the lines. It was more difficult to write music, but he did compose a handful of songs. Amongst these, In Flanders—a setting of a poem by his boyhood friend Will Harvey—is an expression of homesickness, composed in January 1917. By a bierside sets a poem that first appeared within John Masefield’s play, The tragedy of Pompey the Great (1910), where it is spoken by four centurions, lamenting the death of a young Roman soldier. It was written in August 1916, whilst lying on a damp sandbag in a disused trench mortar emplacement. Gurney wrote at some length on the song, which begins as ‘a rhapsody on beauty, full of grief but not bitter, until the unreason of death closes the thought of loveliness, that Death unmakes. Then the heart grows bitter with the weight of grief and revelation of the impermanence of things … but, anger being futile, the mind turns to the old strangeness of the soul’s wandering apart from the body, and to what tremendous mysteries! And the dimly apprehended sense of such before us all overpowers the singer, who is lost in the glory of the adventure of Death.’ In another letter, he wrote that he imagined ‘some poet-priest pronouncing an oration over the dead body of some young Greek hero’. This description, and that of the soul ‘wandering apart from the body’, recall Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and particularly the Priest’s parting declamation over the dying Gerontius—‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana’—which is echoed musically in Gurney’s declamatory setting of the words ‘It is most grand to die!’ Both In Flanders and By a bierside were orchestrated by Howells at the behest of Sir Charles Stanford, for performance at the Royal College of Music.
While the Romans were a tangible and inspiring presence in the Gloucestershire landscape, it was the music and poetry of the Elizabethan age that proved particularly fertile for Gurney. Gurney’s first acknowledged masterpiece came in the form of a set of Five Elizabethan Songs, composed in December 1913 and January 1914. Shortly after the publication of these songs, in 1920, the young Gerald Finzi took a copy of one of them—a setting of John Fletcher’s ‘Sleep’—to his composition lesson with Edward Bairstow in York. Soprano Elsie Suddaby was there, and she and Bairstow tried the song through. It was Finzi’s ‘moment’ on the road to Damascus: Sleep demonstrated to Finzi the power of song, and reinforced his determination to become a composer. It also sent him to Gloucestershire—the birthplace of not only Gurney and Howells, but also of Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst—to discover what it was about that county that inspired such music. Finzi was later to spend many years working on Gurney’s behalf, striving to bring his work to a wider public. In 1949 he paid tribute to the song that had provided him with such inspiration, scoring Sleep and three other songs for string orchestra for a performance by his Newbury String Players, sung again by Elsie Suddaby.
In 1901, Ralph Vaughan Williams had begun making sketches for an opera based on Matthew Arnold’s poem The Scholar Gypsy. Over four decades later, when he returned to the idea in 1947, it became not an opera but a melodrama, for narrator, chorus and orchestra: An Oxford Elegy. Adapted from two poems by Arnold, ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ and ‘Thyrsis’, it recounts the story of a disillusioned Oxford scholar who, two centuries earlier, went to live with the gypsies, to discover their arts before returning to relate them to the world. Two centuries on, the scholar is still glimpsed in the countryside, wandering, still seeking the truth that he set out to find, and while the lonely elm tree still stands on the top of Ilsley Downs he shall wander yet. Vaughan Williams presents us with a rich, Samuel Palmer-like vision of an England-Eden; a vivid depiction of a midsummer idyll that is more a state of mind than a reality—perhaps the idyll where lies the wisdom that the Scholar was hoping to find in his wanderings; that he still seeks.
Vaughan Williams’s biographer, Michael Kennedy, has suggested that An Oxford Elegy recalls and pays tribute to those friends who were lost in the wars, including Gurney, who survived the war but was effectively lost to the world a few years afterwards when he was committed. In the closing stanzas of the Elegy the speaker tells how ‘thou art gone, and me thou leavest here / Sole in these fields’, and says of their shared journey and aspirations, ‘the light we sought is shining still.’ This pastoral invocation of the Elegy is something that Gurney would have related to, in both his poetry (particularly that poetry influenced by Edward Thomas) and his music. For Gurney, music—like his sense of the past—‘clung to’, and was ‘exhaled’ by, the landscape, while poetry ‘fill[ed] up spaces in landscape and life with human interest and memory’. Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody for orchestra (1919–21) depicts a similarly enchanted pastoral idyll, wandering the landscape and seeking its truth, imbued also with that keen sense of the former inhabitants of that place.
Vaughan Williams was fascinated by the idea of the wanderer and the ‘journey’ in his work, in pieces such as Songs of Travel and A Sea Symphony. In 1949 another project that had been in gestation for four decades was finally completed: an opera based on John Bunyan’s 1678 allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. His association with this book began in 1906, when he was invited to provide incidental music for some scenes adapted from The Pilgrim’s Progress, to be staged at Reigate Priory. In this incidental music, a certain melody by Thomas Tallis was used as the basis for a movement for strings, which accompanied a tableau in which Christian arrives at, and passes through the wicket gate at the start of his journey. A few years later, this portion of the score was removed and developed into the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Between the writing of the incidental music in 1906 and the completion of the opera in 1949, there were further ‘Pilgrim’ works, including a one act ‘pastoral episode’ (1922) and music for a radio production (1943). In 1941 he composed Valiant-for-Truth: a choral setting of a passage that tells of the passing of Mr Valiant-for-Truth ‘from this world, to that which is to come’, crossing the river of death and being welcomed into the Celestial City.
The programme concludes with Vaughan Williams’s 1921 setting of psalm 90, combining both the original psalm and a metrical version by Isaac Watts, ‘O God our help in ages past’, sung to the hymn tune St Anne. Whether in Roman times or the present, on the journey of life, even in the face of war or incarceration, faith has been a refuge; a source of strength and hope.
Philip Lancaster © 2018