A Bit From My Gloucestershire Rhapsody
The trees talked it, and horses, went trampling by.
There is no end to glory when blood is high,
And we that are Gloucester’s own, since She has gracious grown
Will take a day of April as it is meant in mind.
Cotswold called an infinite love from the deeps
Of Her – Severn remembered the galley sweeps;
Thought Dane – as Cotswold Roman – and lifted Her whole
Soul to the day; all the history and gossip keeps
She heard in twenty centuries of change, and strange people.
March with Her wind, which might be great, is kept friend;
For one day man is allowed equality, and/of/godlike mind
Comrade with March and Cotswold – Severn broadening
All love from all memory called out – Beethoven, Belloc,
The Lament Song – and watching the scarred hills, “Puck
Of Pooks Hill” – and my own music surging up and up.
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), from Best Poems
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM. Today’s programme presents two orchestral works by two composers from Gloucestershire: Gustav Holst’s early work, the Cotswolds Symphony – later disowned by him – and The Gloucestershire Rhapsody. Neither of these works represented a landmark in British music at the time of their reception, and only one of them was publically performed.
The Symphony in F Major, ‘The Cotswolds’, dates from the end of the 19th Century, the years 1899-1900; the then Gustav von Holst began it the year after leaving the Royal College of Music, at about
the time that he was writing the Wagnerish Walt Whitman Overture and Winter Idyll, filled with plans, though mainly vocal and operatic, and ruefully aware of the three influences on him, Mendelssohn, Grieg and Wagner. He was also studying Sanskrit and Indian mythology; his theosophist step-mother being influential. The transformation from Holst the student into Holst the artist was under way. He was born and brought-up in Cheltenham, educated at Pate’s Grammar School for Boys, and loved the Gloucestershire Cotswolds-area, with its complex-curved hills and oddly secretive valleys; the bluffs of the hills rise above Cheltenham, sheep and agrarian country with added woods, rocky limestone outcrops, such as the Devil’s Chimney at Leckhampton, tiny local stone-built villages and hamlets, and wildness. Country fairs take place in larger towns, and yet are a part of the lonely lives and comraderie on one farm – and wider friendships in pubs – of the local people. In his late teens, he had served as church organist and choir-master at Wyck Rissington and Bourton-on-the-Water, respectively.
The first movement of the Symphony is all too brief, Allegro Con Brio, more like a voluntary for orchestra than a first movement as taught by Professors Stanford or Parry (Holst was one of Stanford’s boys). F Major is a bright key, held to be evocative of nature: Holst proves that other keys are bright and evocative by unusual tonal vagrancy, though the harmonies are quite clear and pleasant. Beginning with a brazen fanfare, this piece is fresh and highly attractive in its mixed scoring, which is effective in all sections, favouring trumpets, higher woodwind and violins; its brief, Parryesque, therefore mildly 18th Century first subject is robust and a little (attractively), crabbed and stubborn, but active and purposeful; the second is melting, sweet in the style of Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov, airy and with nagging pendants that heighten its happy pathos. The development is brief-to-unnoticeable, but neat, and refuses to become bogged-down in the hectoring scrabble that often passed for symphonic argument at the time.
One guesses that Stanford, a hard task-master as Professor of Composition, had left, and had not left, his mark on the frail but innovative and determined Holst, just as he was to do on Ivor Gurney (who referred to his teacher as “that python!”). Contemporary critical opinion was that the First Movement was the work’s weakest.
Track 1: Symphony in F Major, “The Cotswolds”: Allegro con brio, Holst
The mournful slow movement, Elegy (InMemoriam William Morris): Molto Adagio, may explain the Classical brevity and liveliness of the first. In B Minor, it is in Stanford’s commemorative or symphonic vein, a slow march with pauses and asides that allow for llittle relief. The brass and lower woodwind are heroic, the violins sighing and sliding in ornamentation. All is as tightly packed and shaped as in a Brahms symphony, not over-repetitive, but its 8.35 minutes do impose; possibly the movement is too grave and powerful in its place in the scheme of this Symphony. Holst, a lifelong Socialist, had had deep feelings for the head of the Arts and Crafts movement. He had heard Morris speak. The Molto Adagio has led an independent life in the concert-hall. With a different title, it might do duty as a superb War Elegy. Cheltenham is a military town – officers of the Indian Army and civil servants of the Raj-administration settled there for the waters of the spa, and the Gloucestershire Regiment had had a long and fine career in the service of the Empire, losing many good men in the course of its expansion. The War in South Africa was a nightmare to Imperialist and Socialist alike, the loss of volunteer soldiers to death, serious injury and, overwhelmingly, disease, sharpened people’s concern at the international disgust with which this cruel and foolish war caused the world’s other powers to regard Great Britain. The movement ends smoulderingly, as it began.
Track 2: ll, Molto Adagio
The Scherzo in D and B-flat, returns us to the bluff bucolic style of the first movement. As at least one commentator has written, it is like a fairground-scene. Actually, for once, one can accept this kind of idea. It teems with detail, syncopations, changes of emphasis; the trio adds a tone of intimacy or transcendence to the presence almost everywhere of barkers and murmurous or clamorous crowds dawdling, riding or playing, and music courtesy of musicians or steam - the eye is on a pair of eyes, or the cloudy-blue sky above bunting, tents and gaudy roundabouts. Holst met his wife at meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist Choir, but it’s tempting to read the couple into any picture of fairs and easy enjoyment of life, particularly after a tortured Adagio Molto. The movement nips back to D by the close.
Track 3: lll Scherzo
The finale, in the Symphony’s home-key, is marked Allegro Moderato. It is happy-go-lucky, Holst’s manner brassy, suggesting assurance and rightful expectancy of the future – of an infinity of hope and joy in life. His counterpoint and scoring are British Symphonism of the 1880s and 90s, striding out a little coloured by Wagner, but new in practical terseness and spare contrasts. There is strenuousness, the rhythms are a little square, the brass insistent, but optimism prevails without too much forcing of the issue. Rationed cymbals add a requisite touch of high-spiritedness. The music is strong but has its feet firmly on the ground.
Track 4: lV Allegro Moderato
During Holst’s lifetime, the Cotswolds Symphony was performed once in full, by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, conducted by the redoubtable Dan Godfrey, in 1902.
The period from 1918-1922 was, in the life of the composer-poet, Ivor Gurney – who, pace his latest champions, did not love the War - one of the most exciting to be read about for its record of artistic achievements against the odds and in the face of fairly arrogant and obtuse middle-class appreciation of our own “Schubert” – as Parry – squire of Highnam, just outside Gloucester - called him... In March, 1919, he wrote to a friend that what with sketches of a Gloucestershire Rhapsody and other musical tasks (including the writing of a symphony), his life wasn’t worth living! There was nothing else on hand, save songs, a mass and string quartet, and a piece for violin and piano...
Ivor Gurney's colourful Gloucestershire Rhapsody was a work of love, following on from his despairing last days as a number in Kitchener’s army. In it surges the tidal Severn, as the superfine nervous (and chromatic) system of Scriabin's strings and woodwind and Straussian harmony, soaring violins and burnished brass – a three-note trumpet call seems to have come straight straight from Also Sprach Zarathustra - mesh with a further weave of British influences. A recurring grand passage in full orchestra begins in the world of Parry’s Jerusalem, joins with an evocation of Elgar’s
Coronation March, to meet an upward leap that seems to suggest that Gurney may have known Herbert Hamilton Harty’s fine vocal and orchestral setting of Ode To A Nightingale, the climactic spirit of Holst's early Cotswold Symphony (and oompah-bass processionals of later), and Stanford's Brahms-influenced rhapsodic manner...
The result is yet 100% Gurney, the Gurney of withdrawal from the world into contemplation perhaps of a clay shard or coin found amid the red-brown clods of a ploughed field, or of Sirius during a nightwalk in the hills, but also the Gurney of county fairs, football matches, the Gloucester Regiment in which, even as the convinced Socialist that he became, he was proud to serve, and the society of farm- and dock-labourers, river- and fisher-folk - a Gloucestershire of the British Empire. The sudden, mysterious hushes of the Severn plain or Cotswolds are there - moments when one stands on the hills above Cheltenham or by the Severn at Framilode, Saul or Frampton - where willows waft grey-green locks of glaring-backed leaves,and the weighty river feels its own length surprisingly little: Gurney’s ghost may be with one. Alto woodwind have a magical descending snatch that seems wood-magic in itself – the sighing response has what may be Straussian sixths and doubling of violins. Possibly the ‘Moglio’ episode in Elgar’s Concert Overture: In The South – Alassio influenced Gurney. Later on, there's a little, plodding tune on alto woodwind, to strummed accompaniment that may remind one (very slightly) of an old French Carol or song! It seems mediaeval, and of course Gurney’s sense of history was profound. As a Gloucester chorister and apprentice organist, he must have performed much church-music of long tradition. The development of the tune is predictably lovely in all aspects.
On the other hand, the Rhapsody has a more extroverted side that seems almost to invoke Georgian bandstand-music. One trumpets-and-drums passage may seem like a march of adolescence in Summer or Autumn: Gurney and his friend, the poet, Will Harvey, arm-in-arm and singing preposterously on a country lane. The finale of the Cotswolds Symphony seems evoked at the grand close, but the Cotswolds Symphony isn't in it! The Also Sprach Zarathustra fanfare is almost like a glorified bugle-call - Lights Out – here (significant, that). The final chords are quite definite, yet peculiarly unbrassy and austere, almost classical in weight of tone.
Track 5: The Gloucestershire Rhapsody, Gurney
That was the Gloucestershire Rhapsody by Ivor Gurney: a lovely, consequential, yet fantastic piece, beautifully-scored, with all the light and shade and sense of history that one finds in the embowering Cotswolds and on the lonelier, bleaker Severn Plain... Not Elgar, not Delius, not Vaughan Williams, nor Howells. The Elgarian phrase nags at one - Coronation March? The Young Olaf motif from Scenes From The Life of King Olaf seems closer... Or possibly a moment from the partly Gloucestershire-based Falstaff . One hardly expected to hear a rhapsody on the scale of, and written with as much skill as, a Bax tone-poem, from the pen of a composer once thought to be only a miniaturist of the piano and a songwriter. ... And no, it's not remotely like Bax, either. But Gurney knew from where the word rhapsody was derived: in the ancient Greek, a rhapsode is an epic poet or bard. A speaker for a nation – or county! In his vocabulary, a rhapsody was not a japed-up orchestral medley of popular songs! Gurney hoped for far more than fame; he wanted to live to see Socialism flourish in Britain. He died in an asylum.
As he lay dying from tuberculosis in late 1937, a parcel of recognitions – including a number of the magazine, Music and Letters, that contained an appreciative article on his work – arrived for him. It was handed over, he struggled to open it; in moments, let it slip, and relapsed on the pillow: “It’s too late,” he said.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. We hope you enjoyed our programme of music by Gloucestershire composers, scripted by Mike Burrows. We leave you with the War Elegy by Ivor Gurney. Goodbye.
Track 6: War Elegy, Gurney