This is the full version of the script, which had to be boiled down!
CB 120 English Music (Rpt)
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme consists of English music, an orchestral march, a song-cycle, a slow movement for the organ and a War Elegy for orchestra.
We begin with the Funeral March from Edward Elgar’s incidental music for WB Yeats’ and George Moore’s verse-play, Diamuid and Grania, a Tristram-and-Iseult-style love-story based on Irish legend, and staged in 1901. The work appears under Elgar’s version of title, Grania and Diamid.
For Elgar, himself, the year of Queen Victoria’s death had seen the writing of less music; his self-belief had been tried by the difficult premiere of The Dream of Gerontius at Birmingham the year before; the 19th Century British had lost their Empress, and, for many, the new Century promised little to place one’s trust in. Over forty, even he was not to know that much of his best work lay ahead of him. Wrestling with ideas for a Gordon Symphony in memory of the famous, by now, long-dead general, he perhaps gave vent to some of his self-frustrated ambition in a more easily accomplished elegy for a legendary hero, a march that seemed on large and profound lines for a march, and that was written to a deadline.
Composed in the same largely fallow year as the Pomp and Circumstance March in D Minor that made his name name with the general public, this work is no less imposing than the popular hit, but far more characteristic of his lyrical and poetical side, noble, grieving and forboding.
Where the rest of the score for Diamuid and Grania is almost bardic in slenderness, in the March, its leading-motives are built up into a symphonic work of grandeur and deliberate austerity. Yeats described it as “Wonderful in its heroic melancholy.” “Elgar,” Moore said, “must have seen the primeval forest as he wrote, and the tribe moving among the falling leaves.”
It is certainly memorable music to be coming from a theatre-pit. In the aeolian mode, its economy of means, including sequences, creates an impression of gravity and control that are hard to fault in any detail.
The hero, Diamuid has been killed during a boar-hunt. The horns and trumpets above reedy oboe and plodding strings and tympani make a dry tread of the march in which soft or edged violins and violas suggest both mist and the keening that accompanied Irish funerary rites. The trio comes not a moment to soon at an expression of heavy, brass-laden grief. Calling for muted brass, this trio is like a sung answer to the march, but gradually, the tension increases; a broader set of sequences bring in another climax in which clarinet adds a warmer and more pathetic touch of its own. The march returns to meet the pre-ordained climax of the piece - an impasse in which the brass are at full strength; the trio-repeat is curtailed, the dying fall comes in open fifths in a bare string texture: and it seems that the scene - and grief itself - have dissolved into the air in futility.
Track One: Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid, Elgar
This is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme is of British orchestral and vocal music.
“A fine strong piece of work,” the Gloucester composer and poet, Ivor Gurney, said of Vaughan Williams’ Song-cycle, Wenlock Edge, possibly the best-known settings of poems from the collection, A Shropshire Lad, by AE Housman.
Not long before, he had written more fully. “Vaughan Williams has always strength and colour, though to me, the set lacks musical instinct; to hear, they must be very fine. Poor chap, I fancy he takes some time to heat up, and that his character made him a musician, rather than his gift.”
Praise from Gurney - a glorious setter of Housman - was praise indeed. Vaughan Williams was not Gurney’s equal in setting lyric or ballad poetry, but by the time that he wrote Wenlock Edge, he had worked hard on his sense of form, learning from private lessons with Max Bruch, and new approaches to scoring, “French Polish”, he called it, from a series of working meetings with Ravel...
One has to remember that in 1918, when these words were written Vaughan Williams was in his forties and had matured late, his first masterpieces having been been achieved in the years leading up to the Great War. His amateurism was remarked on in musical circles; he had studied at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music only after taking a degree in History. More to the point, he was from a wealthy background, the son of a Vicar but a Cousin to Wedgewoods and thus related to the Darwins: his evolution was slow, though with no lack of performances. True, his Fantasia on A Theme of Tallis, premiered at Gloucester, during the Three Choirs Festival of 1910 - billed at an evening concert before Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius - had given Gurney and his friend Herbert Howells a sleepless but elated night walking the streets of Gurney’s home city - they had gone to hear Gerontius; - but Vaughan Williams was on friendly terms with Elgar as with Gurney’s teachers, and with the organizers of the Festival. Needless to say, he had been taught by Gurney’s (And Howells’) teachers, including Gurney’s bete noire, Sir Charles Stanford! Gurney would not have realized just how difficult it was for Vaughan Williams to win acceptance for an idiom that was actually excessively strange and modern to his own as well as to the previous generation. He would have seen Vaughan Williams as only a prospective Elgar, another genius who would flourish between him and a proper hearing. The truth is that Vaughan Williams was ploughing a lonely furrow that would help bring about a fine crop of composers who were not slavish imitators of Elgar, though he would have been the first to admit how much was owed to the untaught Worcestershire phenomenon. Elgar was the son of a shopkeeper, like Gurney, but had risen like some pompous cloud, a Society figure, a country gentleman who had no manor of his own but who spent many weekends in manorial splendour and holidayed in Italy, corrupted by his patrons’ wealth. Vaughan Williams...?
Wenlock Edge (1909) was one of the first fruits of Vaughan Williams’ culminatory studies with Ravel: this can be heard in the pointilliste scoring of its accompaniment by piano and string quartet. His activity in folksong collecting, arranging and digesting, and his tastes in Tudor and 17th Century music are also clearly to be heard.
Alfred Edward Housman’s A Shropshire Lad...Nowadays, it is hard, perhaps, for younger people to understand how one book of poems could have caught the eye and seized the soul of so many composers at once as this book did. After all, it is written in strict rhyme and stricter metre. Few poets today could turn one rhyming quatrain with the ear and intelligence that Housman had at his disposal during a short time of after-luncheon walks on the heath at Highgate, the results of his post-beer striding-out subjected to meditation and inscription at his desk. He chiselled poetry, polished his often everyday or existing biblical or literary phrases until they reached a sheen on perspicuity and rhyme that saw millions memorize his work by the page, to answer as wisdoms in almost any contingency. A reluctant poet, he personally later blamed the writing of much of A Shropshire lad on a sore or ‘relaxed’ throat that he had had at the time. He was a great one for irony and secretiveness for a very good reason. Once published, A Shropshire Lad sold remarkably few copies for some years; if the Boer War made some difference to sales - a significant number of poems deal with soldiers, and Housman’s brother Herbert was a private killed during the conflict - by the time of the Great War, sales had become phenomenal and not confined to the upper or middle classes. It is a masterpiece of young man’s loss of innocence and of trust in his fate, as well as the only deeply unreligious uranian - homosexual - literary text that the generality of the British reading-public took to its hearts, missing its most beautiful and affecting irony, but it may be that you just had to be there...
The pianist on the records, FB Kiddle, had accompanied Elwes on that occasion. The band, here, is the London String Quartet, whose members included the great Albert Sammons on first violin. In the accompaniment, one hears heavy pedalling and free rhythmical touches in the piano and strings, use of the long--drawn bow and portamento - slides between one note and the next.
From the onomatopoeic outset on strings and piano, the first song, On Wenlock Edge, grips the imagination. Some actors are said to sing when they speak. The central solidity of Elwes’ tone is impressive - his diction absolutely clear as though he speaks when he sings, his vowels correct, consonants crisp, even dutifully rolling Rs. Notice the abrupt, held-in phrasing, absolutely taut and yet magical. Where strong feeling is called-for, he pounces with absolute security and intense specificness. One should not doubt that this is the wind on the wooded Edge, that this is the lad’s voice, and that the thoughts that hurt though brought to the Edge and contend with the wind are thousands of years old. The tree of man was never quiet. Vaughan Williams sets these words with outstanding care and truth to their meaning. The song is a development of both the initial material and an idea, a conceit or extended metaphor. The detailing under the singer’s line - sighs, flourishes, semitonal swaying, pedal--notes is minute, tremblingly vivid and essential, the piano and strings subsidiary but telling.
The rapt, arpeggiated opening of From Far From Eve is matched by his staunch tone - every accent is firm, but poignant - urgency is there; this is not a song for somnambulism. There are no wide interval drops or rises in the melody, which is almost a chant. This throws attention onto the harmony and from this standpoint, common chords will seldom sound so strange as in this short song, a real thought of the clef of the universes, to hear the voice of 1917 in 2011! As a fellow human being in a vastly changed world, one almost wishes to take that proffered hand.
Is My Team Ploughing is a ballad dialogue in alternate verses divided between a dead man and his friend. The dead man has his fourline melos, to which the friend’s is a rejoinder. Elwes fines away his voice for the ghost and sounds increasingly harried - and convicted - as the worldly but now troubled friend. The mounting tension between questioner and guilty party is breathless long before the living has indirectly to confess that he is sleeping with the dead man’s sweetheart. “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart. Never ask me whose!”
Often, this song is criticized for a melodramatic ending at odds with the style of the rest, but here, not only Elwes more operatic than is customary now, but his performance has been planned and built up so intelligently that the extra intensity is justified, almost unbearable, the outcry of life to the unbiddable dead. Is pity or anger uppermost? What we seem to have is resentment of guilt that becomes remorseful but is, of course, helpless. Those who think of Pre-War England as to a comical fault stiff of upper lip might do well to note the violence of emotion here. The phrase ‘Never ask me whose’ is broken and purged of all but guilt, yet the strings are hawklike, gripping with a taloned repeat of the introductory bars-refrain, tension dying only as the exhausted body relaxes and sleeps. Here, a man is caught between desire and loyalty, unable, out of pity and fear to word outright his actions in life to a ghost. The careful ellipsis is crueller for the speaker than any outrightness. Has the friend found a better bed, lying ‘as lads would choose’, than have the dead? He has found the bed of honest, living instinct: and suffers torment for it...
When he heard this powerful setting, all Housman noted was the omission of two of his verses near the beginning - Vaughan Williams had left them out as not poetry. Enraged, the poet sat bolt upright in his chair, red-faced, his eyebrows and moustache bristling.
The fourth song of the cycle, “Oh, When I Was In Love With You” receives a good performance here - a short strophic song of eight lines, mocking and not unsmiling. The carelessness of tone is to
be regarded as ironical. No-one ever gets over being in love..
“In Summertime On Bredon” is beautiful: the tissues of ringing piano and see-sawing strings: the lovers on the hill hear churchbells from far and wide and dally where they are - they’ll come to church in time. Comes the fatal verse: the frosty sounds of the accompaniment, violins and piano, bring the verse of the girlfriend’s rising up early and going to church alone. Elwes’s voice is slow, pausing, shocked, pitying, blanched, the tolling of deep cello and piano, the passing bell, the high strings the intense glare of snow as the girl goes to her grave. The lad does not attend the funeral. The final verse reaches the pitch of On Wenlock Edge and Is My Team Ploughing but is not overplayed - hearing the bells from the hillside - as they rise to an intolerable clamour - the lad exclaims that he will come to church himself. The return to the peace of the opening for the repetition “I will come” is pitiable indeed. To be leaving such a beautiful world!
“Clun” is more leisurely than nowadays, with pronounced portamento and more rubato in the vocal line than I am used to: the voice is carried along by the “waterwheel” motion of the music, but the placid harmonic richness underneath it will not permit total passivity - and yet the peace promised is such that we are happy to go to “the quieter place than Clun.” The postlude rises warmly into distance of a magnificent breadth and depth - a far horizon to comfort all the hurts and ironies of what we call fate or the human condition. Between us and it is another horizon - that which stands between us and the performance-practices of ninety-four years ago, between us and another world...
We apologize for the sound quality of this item. Elwes and his accompanists stood or sat in front
of a large horn in a small studio - Elwes the closest - as wax was styled with the soundwaves they produced. There were no patches, only retakes of complete sides of records; music had to be timed to fit neatly these sides.
One wonders if this album of records were carried to places where lads of all classes waited for the last push: songs from Elgar’s Starlight Express travelled to the officers’ dug-outs in this way, remarked on appreciatively by a wounded subaltern in a letter to the composer. Gurney may well have heard Gervase Elwes’s Wenlock Edge; after his return to England from active service, his friends interested Elwes in his songs, though little came of this in advancing Gurney’s lifelong - and rightful - hopes of fame.
Track Two: Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams
Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-76) was the grandson of Charles Wesley. Trained up as a chorister from an early age, he grew into a fine executant on the organ and impatient choir-master. Fortunate to coincide with the rapid development of organ-design - in which he had a hand - he was unfortunate in becoming a church-musician and coinciding with a repressive period in Cathedral administration.
His career wherever he was appointed, repeated the same trajectory - at Hereford, Exeter, Leeds Parish Church, Winchester and, lastly, Gloucester. He cut his duties as a teacher of choirboys (he resigned from one position shortly after punching and kicking a recalcitrant pupil) and performer at services. His organ-pupils stood in for him over-often once he had impressed his Dean and Chapter with an initial display of virtuosity and diligence. What with duties elsewhere - inaugurating organs, such as that at Liverpool’s St George’s Hall - the teaching of private pupils and, latterly, a concurrent position of professor of organ at the Royal Academy - he had to be elsewhere; and frequently elsewhere meant a riverbank, as he was a keen angler...
He resented the lack of artistic control and remuneration - every expense, every choice of music for performance; during festivals, every artist engaged, had to be passed by Chapter. He did not get on well with Deans. The Anglican Church’s tastes in music were for the more ornate polyphonists of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries or the simplism of an effete species of oratorio-style that eschewed what he regarded as an essential Bachian gravity of expression. He was in fact as clever a polyphonist as he was a tasteful harmonist...
He produced two fine Services, a number of anthems and organ-pieces and hymn-tunes intended to be a counterblast to the oily chromatic piety found in the Church of England’s first Hymnals, alongside sundry glees, that Victorian club addiction cognate with madrigal. An early symphony and overture ought to be investigated. His father before him had been a religious musician, and lifelong, he strove to be worthy of him in his means of expression. It is said that his extemporizations at the organ went beyond any piece that he committed to paper for the instrument, in terms of grandeur and complexity. He was believed the finest organist in the country, very likely as able as Lemmens, Franck, Bruckner or Saint-Saens. He was known to Mendelssohn and Schumann and a few other international figures, though his reputation largely moved where he did. The Church frowned on worldly fame...
By the time that he arrived at Gloucester in 1865, the man known in various cities for his irrascibility, green umbrella, toupée and limp - the limp caused by a compound fracture sustained when he had slipped on wet stones while crossing a stream - was weary. His frustrated lassitude left an unfavourable impression on cathedral musical standards and the history of the Three Choirs Festival, his training of the choir and limited appearances as organist not pleasing the authorities. His other reputation might have been for personal ability or tussles with clergymen, but his last eleven years were a story of declining health and less composition
His lack-lustre eleven-year tenure of his offices ended abruptly when he died suddenly, though peacefully, whilst in harness.
The Andante in F is his most famous instrumental work of his prime. Something of his genius for improvization is found here. Nothing of the age in which he lived can be heard, save the Romantic imagination and, possibly, the simple phrase and counter-phrase that serves as a refrain. The movement as a whole resembles a hymn with side-lights - the imagination of the organist as he dreams up the figurations, decorations and contrapuntal transformations that would do justice to church-music in a no-time between verses! So far from being cocked a snook at, the hymn undergoes attentions and stages of transfiguration that any hymn would give its eye-teeth to experience, culminating in a transformation worthy of Bach, whereat, the sober but passionate dreaming ends.
It may be that this piece was unequalled in its field until Elgar produced his Organ Sonata of 1895. SS Wesley is not a name known to many outside the Church of England, but he should be rightly regarded as a figure who began the so-called Renaissance in British music; certainly, pace his initials, he was not one of many and didn’t sink in vain.
Track Three: Andante in F, SS Wesley
Ivor Gurney’s orchestral music is thought to consist of three works - a coronation march, a Gloucestershire Rhapsody and a symphonic movement... Not long ago, what may be the symphonic movement mentioned in letters after the War, and is later described as an Elegy, was edited and recorded - a kind of march and trio For the Fallen. It lasts for about ten minutes - a tragic marcia funebre with a trio as long-drawn out as it is intensely moving.
The piece is Elgarian in style, but not Elgar. It is worthy of Elgar, but Gurney’s detachment from his material is less cool and unlike Elgar, he served as a soldier. It is a sad testament to war-service; brave, halting, bearing the strokes of fate and willing itself on. The amazed heart cries out on God, as Gurney himself wrote in one of his poems.
He had fought as a private in the infantry, as a signaller and as a machine-gunner; he had been in the front line for fixed spells for about a year; wounded and then gassed - the latter injury being the ‘blighty one’ (‘Wink, wink’, as he had put it in a letter). Sent home, he had been rested and recovered to the satisfaction of an Army tribunal. He thought army doctors worse than prostitutes. In depot and about to be returned to France, he had broken down, convinced that his heart was damaged; with musicianly precision he had notated the attacks of waltz-time that he felt: under the stress of soon return to active duty and, by cruel chance, the terminal illness of his father, he had undergone ‘a great spiritual adventure’, attempted suicide and spent the rest of his army life in mental hospital as a shell-shock case, determined that he would never march again.
One of the terrible ironies of his life was that he had imagined that his trials were over once he had been discharged, and could be back amid the orchards and blue remembered hills of his beloved Gloucestershire, in the meadows by the Severn.
Like other war veterans to this day, he had discovered the old threads of life had frayed to nothing.
Discharged on a half-pension because employable, he had returned to the RCM and completed his studies under Vaughan Williams, Stanford’s successor.
He heard voices; he had nightmares and imagined that he was tortured by electricity (shellshock was sometimes treated by electric shock therapy) and machines under the floor (the ever present danger of mining - the setting of charges of explosives under forward trench-systems by the enemy? At least once, he had lived for nearly a week, under bombardment, in a booby-trapped shelter). He couldn’t settle. At the time of writing the Elegy, he lived on a half-pension, the few shillings that he picked up for casual labour in the countryside, in storage depots, and fees from musical positions that must have felt more like non-academic musical chairs. He sold the odd song, piano-work or poem and wandered between the houses of friends. He worked astonishingly hard and proficiently at his poetry and music, even won a Carnegie prize for a cycle of settings of poems from A Shropshire Lad, and lived for the day that the decisive publication would vindicate his sleepless existence...
Ivor Bertie Gurney - the Bertie was pronounced Bartie, and was the name of a kind employer - was a lonely man: as a sibling from a large family, a cathedral school pupil, a student in London, and as a devoted member of his Gloucesters Company. He was the son of a tailor and never lost his Gloucester accent - sometimes naming himself as “Oi Be Gurney” - never lacked friends and admirers, a charming, brilliant and wayward companion whose word held good and who suffered for others. His secret war was with himself, with his own impossible standards of scrupulousness, of truth and honour, and with his artistic drive, to which he sacrificed everything except truth and honour; helplessly hypersensitive, he experienced no pity from his own mind. A socialist from a Conservative background, he became obsessed with the work ethic of his class as a worker by day and night. Others slept and were oblivious of England’s need in peacetime. Not Ivor Gurney, though! If his reasoning had gone one stage further, to demanding that artistry be recognized as the valid, hard work that it is, as labour with a lasting value, vital to national discourse and personal and social happiness, contributing to a bastion of sanity and freedom for all, and so, in itself, deserving of a living wage, he might have survived whole.
His brain was like a magnifying glass put up to materialism and brute, capitalist meanness, and the nightmare Poor Law mentality of rich and poor alike, but burning only him. “Will the General Election change nothing?”
The symphonic movement is mentioned in his letters in June of 1919. “Symphonic movement sketched up to the return, and as I think, in its final form.” In November, 1920, five days before the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, he mentions the Elegy: “There is a hard and futile grind there...” Had he come to intend it for use at that ceremony? As a regimental bandsman at the outset of service in England, in September 1915, he mentioned being “occupied with a march for the Glosters, “those inheritors of fame and a long roll of honour...”, whilst appreciating the traditional regimental march, The Kinnegad Slashers...
Elgar had loomed large with Gurney for Gerontius and the First Symphony, and also for his wartime setting of For The Fallen by Binyon - at the height of his suffering, the young composer had asked over and over again in his letters what the setting was like, whether it was any good!
It must have turned out that the text was well and truly spoken-for. If you know Elgar’s For The Fallen, you may guess this. An orchestral movement was the answer...
With Gurney’s memories, it was impossible to write another Grania and Diamuid. The Elegy mimicks the overall structure of this masterpiece, but something less objective, something more terrible, haunts it. It is full of strange harmonies and insistencies, a rhythmic kick and stubborn triplet fanfares halting all along, and ends in total exhaustion and defeat. Straightforward martial measures were not to be expected; the determination to stick it out takes over. The climax that one fears seems turned-away-from at last, too painful - as if Gurney’s mind could not bear the sheer physical strain of his miseries and grief for his fallen comrades, which is where the exhaustion truly came in. It might be seen as a kind of expressionism.
Yes, it begins in Elgar. The theme of the march is like a rhythmically displaced version of that of Grania and Diarmid, scored similarly, but climbing to the near-hysterical foreboding of real terror and heartbreak. It remains controlled, almost laconic.
The trio is true heartbreak. It seems a memory of the Wesley Andante in F, which we heard earlier. On clarinet and violins, like recalled, not to be returned-to, happiness, perhaps the very soul of the organ-pupil at Gloucester as he marched towards or away from the front lines, blooms with all the fragility of ideas of home in the mind of a doomed man... Spiritually, the influence is transcended, but irresistible to recognize... It is the difference between immeasurable inspiration and an already powerful sentiment. Here, the reminiscence of a ghost of Gloucester Cathedral’s organ-loft and choir is made the more beautiful for its context. In the army, Gurney had been looked on by even the regimental sergeant-major with awe and friendly, kidding amusement for his musicality and untidiness. “That man, Sergeant...” - “He’s a good man, but a musician, sir.”
Where Gurney was backed up by someone, he never forgot it.
Though articled to Sir Herbert Brewer, Gloucester’s highly efficient professional, Gurney had never thought of himself as a Cathedral organist: there’s a story of his practising, becoming conscious of the sunset and wanting to make off to see it at one of his many nearby countryside boltholes, Framilode on the Severn. He wasn’t a keen fisherman - though he did go elver-fishing and liked the company of those who made a living on the Severn...
In an irony that Housman would have savoured, if Wesley had become a superannuated young genius, Gurney suffered much the same fate without the remuneration, thanks to the First World War: on his first presenting himself at the RCM, the great Sir Charles Parry had looked through his prentice manuscripts - all songs - with excitement; on meeting the teenaged candidate, he had exclaimed, “My God, it is Schubert!”
The march returns, reaches its point of not going on and implodes. It is as if Gurney, a keen attender of regimental reunions, is seen standing alone by the Memorial after dignitaries, guard of honour with flags, military band and a crowd of onlookers have left the hushed Sunday street, their wreath-tributes placed. He stands bareheaded in the rain. He’d escaped; having ‘wangled’ a ‘blighty one’ he had missed the worst of Paschendaele and lived. Haunted, all ends in a faint breath of the trio and bare fifths, coldly shining high woodwind and strings.
After the war, the advocacy of a Gervase Elwes might have made some difference to his career as composer and poet but one swallow would not have made a summer for an artist as ambitious as Gurney. In any case, Elwes was killed falling under a train in 1921, the year before Gurney’s patience and the thread of his reason finally snapped under the strain of what he thought his utter obscurity.
War Elegy should be played in memory of all veterans, dead or living – and of all those who have been or are suffering by the work-ethic that destroyed at least one great modern British poet and composer. Today, it is...
Elgar, Vaughan Williams performed by Gervase Elwes, in his time a famous Gerontius, and SS Wesley: this programme culminates in Gurney, who was inspired by all of them. This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and this is Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will join us again, soon. Goodbye!
Track Four: War Elegy, Ivor Gurney
copyright Mike Burrows 2011