CB Gurney And Milford
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I'm Rupert Kirkham. We weren't sure whether to call this programmeTwo British Outsiders, or Two British Composers Who Regarded Themselves As Outsiders?
Ivor Gurney's Cello Sonata went unknown, unplayed, for over 90 years. It was written sometime after his return from war-service and a year before he was certified, perhaps in about 1921. It was just one of the many works that he composed at the time, stimulated by return to studies at the RCM, and latterly, by defiance when those studies lapsed. Its single movement-structure is unusual in the genre. Some hold that it was the first movement of a multi-movement piece left incomplete, others that it was intended to be self-standing in a tripartite, possibly part-dissolved sonata- or fantasia-form. As with Sibelius' later experiments in symphony, argument among commentators seems vain. Music was not made for form; form was made for music.
Hints of Gurney's own E flat Violin-Sonata first and third movement and setting of Housman's poem Into My Heart an Air That Kills haunt this piece. The outset is calm – the cello and piano exchanging opposing brief phrases that hold a wealth of shared trouble and stoicism, also, beauty - the folkish cello's question answered by quizzically ambling piano, whose part is deceptively casual in effect. Deceptive because continuation – continuous development - soon becomes impassioned, though not violent, in canon, block chords and filling-out from the piano. There are at least two climaxes between asides of brown study, in which the baleful implications of theme or harmony are revealed – in the second climax, one seems to arrive at the cold clay bleakness through bare harmonic instability of parts of Butterworth's Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad, or Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony, a collision between academic, diatonic or chromatic, and more down-to-earth modal, procedures. Consistent growth causes it to be most effective. Canon and imitations, though not fugue, suggest the influence of Brahms. The piece is very tightly argued throughout, the elliptical cello line abetted by insistent rhythm in the piano in which stress tends to be heavier on the second beat. The music tends to involve sequences of three steps answered by three steps. Much appears enigmatic even after the last climax. The close is sudden, with the sense of having come full-circle: as in the slow movement of the Sonata in E flat, this music seems to steal into the major only at the last moment.
It is as far into austere, interval-generated, organic development as one may ever have heard Gurney go. It sounds like a near-thirteen minute cipher, and fascinates by such means, rather than by the contrast between outer and “inner” dynamics found in the Violin Sonata in E flat, or any other piece from Ivor Gurney's lamplit room. There are very few high notes for the cello – it is abetted by the piano that rambles with two hands on either side of its line.
The restricted rhythm adds to the sense of intriguing mystery. One seeks and knows to go on seeking. One senses open air, whether or not one has one's thought amid the severe grandeur of Cotswold hills or their deep, stealthily aromatic woods. The moments of release are rare, and the eyes may see for miles but the mind dwells on the thoughts of one's setting out.
Track One: Cello Sonata, Gurney (12.50min)
That was Ivor Gurney's Cello Sonata, music of a lonely, powerfully thoughtful man. A close friend said of him, "Ivor could only ever do things in his own way..." - but that was his, not our, misfortune.
Throughout much of his life, Gurney was a lonely walker, often by choice. On Service in wartime, he loved nothing better than writing letters home – real free rambles of letters – or of seeking flowers, wildlife and ancient works in the French countryside behind the British lines, the Somme plain and hills standing in, one feels, for the loveliness to him of the Severn Plain and Cotswold steeps that rear up with suddenness, yet all on a smaller scale. It would have been his habit to go accompanied when in France, of course: and, surely, one could have had no better companion as talker, naturalist and poetic historian. Mostly, in peacetime, few were free to walk with him. In the asylum, he walked in imagination, save when taken out to see the sea, or a visitor (Helen, the widow of Edward, Thomas) brought him Ordnance Survey maps to look at... Another view may be that the music of works like the cello sonata has the regularity of detail of church architecture – narrow-spaced intervals opening out in sweeps of stone in three planes for those who choose.
Now, music by another lonely, thoughtful man, one perhaps less confidently powerful! Robin Milford was born 13 years after Ivor Gurney. Where Gurney had been the first son and second child of a tailor, Milford was born late to the affluent family of a founder of the Oxford University Press. Where Gurney's family had been nonplussed, even thunderstruck, to be the kin of a musical genius – or bloody resentful as they were scarcely fools themselves, but had never been afforded his advantages – Milford's kin were public-school- and Oxbridge-educated academics and top civil servants, high-achieving, well-known and well-regarded in their upland fields. Robin sang to himself in such an environment, where, whenever possible, Gurney had lit out, to use Huck Finn's expression, even when attending King's School, Gloucester and serving as an articled pupil of the organist of Gloucester Cathedral.
No, Milford was “sivillised” - to use Huck Finn's word of dread. All the same, he learned the flute and piano whilst at Rugby and studied with Holst and Vaughan Williams at the RCM – lucky not to be a pupil of Gurney's nemesis, the bluff, exacting and rancorous Professor Stanford - Gurney had written of this mighty establishment-figure as“That python!” After his studies, and having friends like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, to back him, he wrote first songs, then works of increasing length and ambition. He fairly quickly made his name when he turned to full-time composing; received regular commissions from local festivals, his works published and performed to acceptance as Gurney's had rarely been - yet continued to see himself as the family failure. Milford's music is a study in subtle tones, marrying modal folkishness and, through the example of Warlock and Grieg, if not Delius or Moeran, expressive chromatic harmony. There's use of certain courtly features of a baroque or earlier fantasia and arioso-style, though the counterpoint is less developed than that found in Finzi or Rubbra, less, therefore, of a principle that dictates form. Melodic transformation is underpinned by traditional working out of intervals within contrasting themes, exploring their kinship, working from contrast to unity. Milford's style is anything but obvious; often, its spell remains strong and pleasant after a hearing, but it's precise turns are hard for the unpractised musician to memorize. It is melodious, wistful, haunting, well-proportioned, occasionally attempting a darker effect, whereat its inhibitions are plain. Assuredly logical in working out, it is rarely emphatic, its courtesies extending to exquisite – but practical – scoring, the influence of Holst.
The themes of his Phantasy for Clarinet and String Quartet, Opus33, dating from the period of his maturity, in 1933, contrasts its first major theme for violin over other strings – the clarinet birdcall-like then in urging a moment of exquisite sadness - and the second for clarinet with strings-accompaniment from the beginning. The first is incisive, utilizing Scotch snaps (and, as polite as it is, oddly related to the brusque first subject of Sibelius' First Symphony), the second utterly original in its half-wistful, half-humorous jog-trot, whose overall effect is ingeniously innocent. There had been nothing quite like that second theme anywhere in chamber-music, in 1933! Its idiom recurred in the work of Bernard Herrmann. Improvisatory, related themes abound between the two, all with a sweetly reflective or active folkish air, one with an Appalachian flavour, another, more brief, with downright shades of Vaughan-Williams – and Milford proceeds to extract the most that he can out of them all in variation, segmenting, juxtaposition and ordering, in the shortest possible time. All ends very suddenly, hushedly, but not unhappily. A lovely work.
Track 2: Phantasy Quintet, Op 33, For Clarinet and String Quartet (11.29min)
A depressive, he was never confident or outgoing, and enlistment in the Army brought on a breakdown in
1940. After prompt discharge, he returned home, but the following year,lost his only son, Barnaby, to a car-crash. Somehow, with the help of his wife and friends, he lived for some years longer, but the deaths of Finzi, in 1956 and Vaughan-Williams, in1958, were great blows – Finzi was only two years older than he was, and his closest confidant. In 1959, life dealt him a last cruelty: his works were dropped from the
Oxford University Press catalogue. He committed suicide shortly afterwards.
The Welshman from Balham, Edward Thomas, was the poet closest to Ivor Gurney's vision. Gurney was a fine poet himself, but, in words, did not always have Thomas' ability to nail a profound philosophical idea with
the use of simple, universal images from nature and unpretentious diction whose natural observations and conversational cadences owed much to country life and the sayings of countrymen. Manner disguised the truth that Thomas was one of the more scholarly and widely-read poets – and literary critics - of his generation:the matter - and self-critical acuity behind its shaping – did not.
A lover of many forms of poetry, Gurney set the work of most of his contemporaries of note, outside the Imagist or Vorticist camp, creating lovely songs that demonstrated the strength of the English poetic tradition. He found a continuity between Elizabethans and Jacobeans and his as-beloved 20th Century Georgians and older, perhaps unwitting, associates of Georgians.
Thomas died before he could become a Georgian. As an ex-soldier, Gurney proceeded to set Second-LieutenantThomas's poetry with a will. Nevertheless, his cycle, Lights Out, for Baritone, Piano and String Quartet took seven years to gather, and was completed three years into his confinement at The Stone House, Dartford, Kent, far from the Gloucestershire that had been his only real home.
The cycle was once recorded in the 1960s, but among critics, there were felt to be too many places in which Gurney's mind failed to shed light on his or Thomas' purpose, or in which he failed to remember even the text of the poems – changing odd words as seems to have been his practice – he learned a phenomenal number of poems by heart and travelled light - the odd line was missed out altogether.
Here, the texts have been corrected, if you enjoy the pointillistic, yet continuous orchestration made by Jeremy Dibble, object-lesson of its kind though it is, you may wonder why the cycle was not given in its original dress in this new recording, in which the misrememberings and omissions perpetrated by the composer have been made good. As Schumann said of a Liszt transcription of a song by Schubert: “Wonderful! So wonderful, indeed, that one was left in no doubt of how good the original must have been.”
The first song of the cycle is The Penny Whistle, an evocation of a charcoal-burners'-encampment. Since the days of George Borrow, gipsies, vagabonds, charcoal-burners and other livers in the out-of-doors had exerted a powerful charm over writers horrifiedat the materialistic and worseningly illiberal development of urban, industrial Britain in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In the pincers of “regular employment” and Workhouse, Self-Help and villa--vulgarity, this was understandable. Here is a symbolistic yet utterly down-to-earth picture of a girl and boy sitting by the charcoal-burners' caravan-hut in a forest-clearing, the boy playing the penny-whistle of the title, the girl reading a letter by the light of an ivory bugle-like crescent moon. They may be charcoal--burners, but the washing on the line and letter are white, the caravan-hut gleams like a kingfisher amid the darkness of Winter and charcoal-burning. Gurney's treatment of this beautiful poem is characteristically free, feeling and idealistic; the drone-effect under a trilling piccolo at the opening, and flecks and mixed-scoring swells of orchestral tone provided by Dibble may well be like the colourizing of a black and white photograph or etching. The free-wheeling, moment-by-moment setting is characteristic; it may be noted that it is also shapely and touching, its accompaniment harmonically complex, but pin-sharp.
Track 3: The Penny Whistle, Gurney (2.53min)
Thomas and Gurney loved the very idea of husbandry of garden or farm. Both used physical labour – or
long walks - to ward off, palliate or overcome attacks of depression and debility. In Scents – Thomas's own title for this poem of Autumn was Digging - the gardener-singer thinks only in scents, but a Thomas or Gurney recollecting without four of his five senses is unimaginable! This poignant piece hymns the attraction of soil, the lovely distinctness of living things that grow in it in season – and all that goes to the fire, come Autumn... The fullness of a life so simple and yet life- and earth-aware! In his work, Gurney's tenderness never failed.
Track 4: Scents, Gurney (2.27min)
Bright Clouds: Reflections in a pond on a bright Spring day – like a Chinese or Japanese poet, Thomas and Gurney, in verse and music, summoned up brilliant, deeply-felt lyrics in response to a little bright-clouded sunniness on water.
Track 5: Bright Clouds, Gurney (1.32min)
Lights Out. Poet and composer knew equally the pain of overwork, anxiety and longing for rest. Thomas wrote as a soldier of the Royal Artillery, hearing the last bugle-call of the day at Lydd, honestly tired, on the borders of sleep, sinking without choice into its shelf on shelf of forest – losing his way, and himself... As an ex-soldier, Gurney tried to go without sleep, perhaps owing to nightmares. In this metaphysical song, he finds a harmonic resource and drooping form of strophic song-speech that may anticipate the method of Benjamin Britten. The nobility of Thomas was honest, self-testingly backed-into – an attitude that Gurney understood well.
Track 6: Lights Out, Gurney (4.27min)
Will You Come, a teasing love-song is given dry but charming treatment by Gurney, the disappointed lover. Nothing involving the heart or mind was simple for the happily-unhappily-married Thomas, either, even for the sake of a folkish love-song! Gurney doesn't ignore the shrewd if not awkward clauses of this piece, but finds the ideal melodic touch.
Track 7: Will You Come, Gurney (1.42min)
If you noticed the ivory bugle in The Penny Whistle, so, no doubt, did Private Gurney. Thomas' poem on the subject of Reveille, The Trumpet, prompted not one but two settings by him, one for choir and instruments, and this one to conclude his Thomas-cycle. Edward Thomas found himself in the army, at the expense of his wife and children, all the doubts and physical suffering caused by discontented marriage, commissioned literary work and a pre-diabetic condition that caused blistered feet when forced to wear standard-issue boots, at last receding to his something-like-satisfaction. The purging of the aesthete and hack left the makings of a fine, highly professional officer of immaculate uniform, shaven head and clipped moustache, though he wrote verses in the mess (setting them out like prose on the page to conceal his eccentricity), and retained his habitual clay-pipe to the end.
Gurney found another self, the perfect blend of the subversive squaddie and capable fighter, smart, learned and readily excused by his Sergeant for his outrageous scarecrow-appearance at an inspection in the line: “He's a musician, sir.” On active service, and well-aware that they were not alone, neither Thomas nor Gurney showed fear when in danger. The Trumpet, the anticipation of danger as experienced in the old wars is a rousing poem. Gurney's late setting, wayward, veering and yet ultimately trenchant and thrilling, shows the old fire and defiance of terrors that had ruined his every hope of health or happiness.
Neither Gurney nor Milford would have wanted to be remembered for their tragic lives, and when you hear their music, you hear much that is strong, honest and transcendently beautiful – the music of two highly individual, brave and believing souls, to whom the acquisition and use of musical technique was worth giving up their lives to, come what might. This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM; I'm Rupert Kirkham. Today's programme on music by Ivor Gurney and Robin Milford was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you liked it and will join us again soon. Goodbye!
Track 8: The Trumpet, Gurney (2.02min)