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An Oxford Elegy

First line:
Go, for they call you, Shepherd, from the hill
author of text
adapted from The Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis

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.

from notes by Philip Lancaster © 2018


A walk with Ivor Gurney
Studio Master: SIGCD557Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 3 on SIGCD557 CD2 [22'51] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD557 disc 2 track 3

Recording date
4 January 2018
Recording venue
St Giles' Cripplegate, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Nicholas Parker
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch
Hyperion usage
  1. A walk with Ivor Gurney (SIGCD557)
    Disc 2 Track 3
    Release date: October 2018
    Download only
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