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Five Elizabethan Songs


In their different ways Parry and Stanford exerted profound influences on Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells. Gurney and Howells grew up in Parry’s home city of Gloucester, were articled pupils of Herbert Brewer at the cathedral and felt a deep affinity with England’s Tudor past in both musical and literary terms. In 1911 Gurney was awarded an Open Scholarship to study with Stanford at the Royal College of Music and Howells followed him a year later. At the RCM Gurney had a somewhat uneasy relationship with his irascible teacher who at once recognized a tremendous gift in the excitable Gloucester youth, but at the same time found him undisciplined and unteachable. Howells, on the other hand, Stanford considered his ‘son in music’ and, writing to the Carnegie Trust after the acceptance of his pupil’s Piano Quartet for publication, declared that Howells was ‘one of the most striking and brilliant brains [he had] ever come across’. At the RCM the two were the closest of friends and occasionally shared lessons with their revered master. While at the College Gurney composed his Five Elizabethan Songs which were written during the first half of 1912. For someone so young the collection is astonishingly fluent, technically assured, and, most of all, extraordinarily sensitive to the nuance of the language. For Gurney these songs were an expression of his spiritual relationship with that rich cultural edifice of sixteenth-century England so vital to the rekindling of a national musical consciousness. Both Gurney and Howells had sensed this consciousness with Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis which they heard together at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1910. Howells was ready to imbibe the modal and polyphonic idiom of Vaughan Williams’s rapidly developing style, but Gurney’s instincts were principally those of the late nineteenth century where German lieder, filtered through the English Lyrics of Parry, were the defining imperatives. This can be felt not only in the harmonic idiom of Gurney’s songs but also in the disposition of part-writing, the spacing of chords, and the love of multiple appoggiaturas, all enclosed within fundamentally diatonic parameters. It seems no accident that Finzi, who felt a powerful affinity with Parry, should have been equally attracted by Gurney’s music, and it was in fact one of the Elizabethan Songs, Sleep (heard in York while studying with Edward Bairstow), that left a lasting impression. Assisted by Howard Ferguson, Finzi did much to publicize Gurney, sorting through large amounts of manuscript material (which he later did for Parry also) in the mid 1930s and managed to see two volumes of songs into print in 1938 and a third in 1952. Finzi’s orchestrations of four of the Five Elizabethan Songs, written for the Newbury String Players and Sophie Wyss, date from 1943. They were also heard on the final night of the 1947 Gloucester Festival sung by Elsie Suddaby accompanied by the Jacques String Orchestra.

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


English Orchestral Songs
CDA67065Archive Service


No 1: Orpheus
orchestrated 1943
author of text
As you like it (No 3) King Henry VIII (No 1)

Track 9 on CDA67065 [2'16] Archive Service
No 3: Under the greenwood tree
orchestrated 1943
author of text
As you like it (No 3) King Henry VIII (No 1)

Track 8 on CDA67065 [1'36] Archive Service
No 4: Sleep
Orchestrated 1943
author of text

Track 10 on CDA67065 [3'49] Archive Service
No 5: Spring
orchestrated 1943
author of text

Track 11 on CDA67065 [2'44] Archive Service

Track-specific metadata for CDA67065 track 8

Under the greenwood tree
Recording date
8 August 1998
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Martin Compton
Recording engineer
Philip Hobbs
Hyperion usage
  1. English Orchestral Songs (CDA67065)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: March 1999
    Deletion date: May 2012
    Archive Service
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