Below is the original script to this programme with slight additions. Sadly, the opening and closing songs, Cotswold Choice and Goodnight To The Meadow had to be omitted on grounds of time.
Track 1: Cotswold Choice, Sanders
This is Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme, researched and written by Mike Burrows, takes its name from the song we have just heard, Cotswold Choice. Evocation of the Gloucestershire countryside is at its heart, as at the hearts of its composers.
The song itself, written by John Sanders to a poem by Frank Mansell, is little more than a litany of Gloucestershire place-names. Sanders was organist and choir-master at Gloucester Cathedral from 1967-1994. His style here is what might be now described as ‘accessible’. His strophic song’s melody may remind of the old tune, beloved of renaissance and later composers of passacaglie, La Folia. The piano’s restraint in accompaniment heightens an impression of unworldly nostalgia.
Now, an orchestral piece written in a spirit of Arts and Crafts pastoralism during the Nineteen Twenties by the young Gerald Finzi, Severn Rhapsody. Inspired by the generation of artists that fought and in many cases died in the Great War – his own first teacher, Ernest Farrar, a pupil of Stanford, was killed in the Autumn of 1918 – Finzi avoided music college by – as he himself put it - picking the brains of composers and teachers such as Vaughan Williams and RO Morris. After hearing his song, Sleep, he idolized but never met the greatest contemporary influence on him, the Gloucester poet and composer, Ivor Gurney. Of independent means, in 1923, after a spell in London, he settled in Painswick, near Cheltenham, and waited for fitful inspiration to call by.
Named for the West Midlands’ great tidal river, Severn Rhapsody is headed by a superscription from the Cambridge-set Grantchester, by Rupert Brooke: “...Oh, yet/ Stands the church clock at ten to three/And is there honey still for tea?” It is a richly scored piece whose arch-structure owes much to the example of George Butterworth’s pre-War Shropshire Lad Rhapsody and folk-song based Idylls. In one sense it is literally a tribute to Gurney, as it seems based on one of his songs. The Severn Meadows-like main theme is developed with resource but an almost Quakerish severity beyond Finzi’s years. He was only 22 when it was written; he believed on sincerity and inspiration and counterpoint-generated form. The cor anglais lends its reedy tone, and there is much doubling of woodwind, misalliances of higher and lower registers creating a deep, solid, yet elegiac sound. The strings, particularly violins and violas, help create their effects, but when the violins rise, they have a keen edge. This is music whose slow-growing web entraps the mind. In spite of the ironic-sounding superscription, its beauties are profound. The work was dedicated to an artist, the aptly named Vera Somerfield. It won its composer publication in the Carnegie Collection of British Music, an honour shared by his hero.
Track 2: Severn Rhapsody, Finzi
On the death of Ivor Gurney’s violinist-friend and testatrix, Marion Scott, his manuscripts reverted to his brother Ronald. As the son who had taken over his father’s business of gentleman’s tailor whilst Ivor had been getting above himself, and who had not gone mad from fear of radio-waves, he had no time for the ‘artistic’ productions of an utterly misguided lunatic: all along, Ivor had lacked self-discipline and failed to hold down a job. Gurney’s champions, now headed by Gerald Finzi as song-editor-in-chief, feared for the very survival of Ivor’s legacy. Eventually, Ronald was prevailed upon to release the precious notebooks and scores, a huge corpus of poetry and music. Joy, Gerald’s wife, carried them from the baffled brother’s home in a wheel-barrow. There were hundreds of poems and songs, at least one choral work, two orchestral scores, at least 3 string quartets, several violin sonatas and piano sonatas all now kept in the Gurney Collection at Gloucester Central library.
It was long believed that Gurney was a disorganized miniaturist of almost accidental brilliance, a song- or piano-prelude-writer incapable of working on the larger scale owing to haphazard method and mental instability. It had taken years to win acceptance for his songs, incidentally, although a few had been published in his lifetime, and he had won two Carnegie Awards with his song-cycles based on poetry by AE Housman, Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland. That he was brilliant should not be doubted. Let’s hear a song written whilst on active service on the Western Front, to verses by his best friend, FW Harvey, and immortalizing his love of the Cotswolds, In Flanders.
Track 3: In Flanders, Gurney
Committed to Barnwood Asylum outside Gloucester in September, 1922, then, after escape-attempts, to Dartford Mental Hospital in Kent, Gurney, though prey to many terrifying phobias, delusions and sullen despair at his institutionalization, had gone on writing with clarity until 1926. In his next to last book of poems, the defiantly entitled Best Poems, he may have referred directly to the main work in our programme today, a violin sonata in E Flat.
From the poem Sounds, inscribed in Best Poems:
Dear to the heart
Violin and piano sound a note apart,
Catches them, one alone on the high hills
And happy is known.
Out of the limestone or rot
When Autumn grieves –
Or tranquil meadows where the Abbey shows.
Out of these comes
The one note of Romance.
Tone which sounds alone
The true secret
The heart’s thought with nothing does ever mingle.
Gloucester sounds third,
Chilterns has a word
Of Midland truth
In her beech woods smooth
Of trunk, leaves yet unstirred...
Let’s hear the Gurney Violin Sonata in E Flat; a work never performed publically in the composer’s lifetime and which has just been issued on CD. It was begun at the Napsbury Hospital at St Albans, where Ivor was receiving treatment for what was described as Delayed Shell-shock. He was delighted to find the next best thing to a cathedral nearby –St Albans Abbey. Work began furiously in September 1918. The piece was revised the following year.
It could not begin more insouciantly – and artfully. A bells-like motif on piano is entered upon by a lyrical arabesque that leads in turn into a quicker up-and-down passage of Brahmsian or Schumannian to-ing and fro-ing between violin and piano – the duo exchanging imitative figures and wavering between major and minor; further rhythmical motifs are introduced, including a brief fanfare-like figure – a quiet rising scale on piano brings stillness: a far vision, the sound of a quieter more distant ring of bells – seems to draw one away from the here and now, and in a development, the various fragments in the exposition are modified in abstract pitch-transformations and canons, a certain amount of baroque-like passagework. The dutifulness of the procedures is actually fitting – and the bells return suddenly with a greater sense of mystery and the open air, the suggestion of a passing bell. Is this the recapitulation? The arabesque steals in and is followed by the quicker answering principle: there is the sense that there is no traditional sonata-form resolution to their conversational tussles. The piano has its quiet ascending scale of tranquillity: the bells return, again imaginatively altered – but as though nothing had interposed; with piano trill, a working up to the coda builds, the piano’s oppositional rising chords burning, retrospectively like a kind of carefully laid powder train. There is no explosion, but logic has been served. The bells console and the violin has a rising semitonal cadence. This is a dry account of a piece of Sibelius-like plasticity of manner, complex instincts and feeling skill. It is mysterious music, withholding secrets but not random, nor slack-minded. A powerful intelligence and, indeed, charm, are at work.
Track 4: Violin Sonata in E Flat, l Piu Allegro, Gurney
The second movement continues the evolution most delightfully – a private world of quiet happiness. The piano proposes bell-like changes and then melody; the violin continues the figuration pizzicato. A Brahmsian broadening and deepening of things revives something of the first movement but leads back to the opening melody and figuration, and a brief close (related to the dying fall of Gurney's song, Severn Meadows?). A snapshot of contented solitude, an inner song, scarcely 3 minutes in duration. Gurney’s capacity for happiness, like that of many troubled people, was enviable and his by the way gift for expression means that we can share it. Like Schumann, he was a man of charming warmth and sincerity, and understood the higher purpose of music to share the best of life with others. Also, like Schumann, he recognised two forms of logic – equally valid – the formal logic of thematic development and the related logic of song or axiom, that finds its own shape on the moment – the moment heard on the wind, so to speak, and fixed by the universal effectiveness of outright, unique personal expression. Thematically it is related to the matter of the previous movement and advances argument about in a form of sudden apercu owing to changed mood. It is almost by the way in itself, yet a further delight is its place further along the road. Gurney, the poet, made frequent use of parentheses!
Track 5: ll Scherzo, Andante Con Moto
The slow movement moves further. It is the heart of the work, a lyrical meditation of subtle expressiveness, perhaps haunted faintly by Gurney’s own song, Sleep. It is an arioso of Brahmsian formal integrity and shadowy mood – its chief motif questioning, an English Beethoven’s, “Must it be so?” Sombre and halting measures bring us to tersely arpeggiated sequences of deeper pathos – achingly regretful, it seems, the piano accompanying the violin – or is it vice-versa? A pianist, Gurney was capable of being an adept, unselfish chamber-music player, and knows how to divide his material. The violin climbs higher and, over lugubrious piano-chords, seeks its angular way to resolution. More luminous moments bring us back to where we began, and further elaborations. Eventually, we are left with a final statement, dusk and – perhaps - the bells of the first movement. Though quiet, the last word is a surprize major chord.
Track 6: lll Lento
The questioning mood and its material continue into the finale as an introduction. A free-wheeling rondo taken entirely on the wing in the style of Franck or, indeed, of Elgar in his slightly earlier-written Violin Sonata, is not Gurney’s way; the road is more tortuous, more modulatory and in short periods worked together involutedly, with a possible cheeky reference to the Elgar in the midst of much else. The piano provides much of the momentum, but not obtrusively. There are moments of turbidity and keen held notes from the violin – references to the slow movement and earlier; when at last, the sorrows come down on us again, the impression of the sound of bells returns, with imitation, and is not halted-for long. Again, violin and piano are equal and corresponding partners. The movement works its way to the close, which is commendably curt – with something in the nature of a call-sign or Bachian four-note final statement on the violin, clinching the tonal plan; the piano is given the tonic note. This figure, with tonic note, sounded on violin near the outset of the movement-proper and recurred – and, with all the joy of inspiration and musical logic, may seem to have evolved from its opening. In fact, it occured in its final form, as regards pitch, 'by the way' in a brighter moment of the slow movement. After a few listens, it may put one in mind of a persistent memory of birdsong – a memory that gees one up, to which storm or stress has no answer.
Track 7: lV Introduction (Lento) – Allegro)
There’s an intensity of detail and yet something of the dynamism of landscape in the piece as a whole: not a romantic nor far-fetched idea: Gurney’s love of Brahms found room for an appreciation of the Autumnal colours and horizontal shape of the German master’s music – which reminded him often of Cotswold country. A piece by his friend Herbert Howells called forth a similar response. To Gurney, as to many hypersensitive musicians, the play of treble, alto and bass on the down or up signified light and darkness, colours and land-contours.
The writing for the violin is grateful but not trilling nor self-consciously florid; the piano is a wonderful partner, with all the arrestingly strong or melting tone-colours one would expect of this composer. With one point in three of the four movements - 2-4 - where it must double-stop, the violin, if no prima-donna, should be satisfied!
Tonally, the movements are pitched in keys that form a single triad of C-minor; with room for a sense of travel in key and providing a source of satisfying tautness to the work as a whole. The only movement to be pitched in C Minor, the relative minor in a work in E Flat, is the third, the heart of the Sonata. The second movement is in G Major, a third up from the E Flat-major of the first, the third movement a third down. The second and third movements a strong perfect fifth apart from eachother; certainly they seem different in character, yet also to follow. The return to E-Flat in the finale seems close but unlaboured. This kind of tonal pattern may be Brahmsian. In a piece filled with chromatic harmonic complexity, tonal certainties are like subliminal sign-posts to the listener.
You can say that the Violin Sonata in E Flat doesn’t sound entirely characteristic of anyone you know; a more rewarding thought may be that no one else wrote a Violin Sonata quite like Ivor Gurney’s. It is formally most impressive, but also displays a command second-to-none of the expressive side of the musical language. It is mature; for a young composer, doubly so. In another programme, we urged our listeners to prize the superb qualities of the Hamilton Harty Piano Quintet. This work is finer, if anything. It is a piece in which four movements discover endless shades of meaning in motifs and their horizontal and vertical possibilities in question, answer and combination, and in which inspiration, skill and pluck provide their possessor with the authority to personalize his approach to form.
He was appreciative of Sibelius and enjoyed the Finn’s String Quartet, Voces Intimae, Intimate Voices: here, like Sibelius, at a difficult period in his life, he may have written an Intimate Voices of his own – those of the church-bells that had resounded throughout his childhood in Gloucester, perhaps. The work was begun within earshot of the bells of St Albans Abbey.
This was Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We’ll leave you with another song by Ivor Gurney, setting Robert Graves, Goodnight To The Meadow.
Track Eight: Goodnight To The Meadow, Gurney
© Mike Burrows February 2013