Sunday, 10 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Part Three

Ivor Gurney
Ivor Gurney: The Gloucestershire Rhapsody
Ivor Gurney was a casualty of the war just like so many others: in his case he was gassed, as well as receiving a shoulder wound. In March 1918 Gurney had a serious breakdown which was misdiagnosed, and subsequently treated, as ‘shell-shock.’ Nowadays he would have been recognised as bi-polar. Gurney was both poet and composer.
Unfortunately, there is a persistent rumour that bedevils virtually all of Gurney’s post-war music. Many of his songs and chamber works have been declared unpublishable due largely to the incoherence of their formal construction. There are a number of pieces that have been recovered. In some cases they have only required minor editing. However, in the case of The Gloucestershire Rhapsody a virtual reconstruction was required.
Anecdotally, it was long regarded as one his most important compositions, in spite of it not being performed until 2010 at the Three Choirs Festival.
Philip Lancaster has described this work as ‘a great sweeping landscape which portrays the nobility of Gurney’s Gloucestershire’. This work does not wallow in a ‘clichéd rhapsodic lyricism’ but cleverly presents ‘unity in diversity’. In parts of the score, Gurney nods towards a musical medievalism which Lancaster suggests may represent an almost Virgilian Pastoralism.
The Gloucestershire Rhapsody is a long, wide ranging work that eschews pessimism or self-pity.  The march-like themes, which are ever present in this work, owe much to Elgar in their ‘Nobilmente’ sound. However. these are ‘Marches of the onset of the high-pomps of summer’ rather than reflecting the clash of empires.
It is surprising that a composer who was suffering so many personal problems and health issues could have written such an optimistic work. There is no darkness here. It may not be a masterpiece, but what it achieves is a glorious musical picture of Gloucestershire. It is ‘pastoral music’ at its best.  
Here Gurney is looking back before the First World War and is endeavouring to recapture a lost world-partially true partially imagined.  It is truly a view from Chosen Hill so beloved of the composer.

Gerald Finzi: Requiem de Camera
Gerald Finnzi
Much of Gerald Finzi’s music could be described as being ‘pastoral’ in its mood and sound. For example, the evocative Severn Rhapsody is descriptive of a landscape beloved of the composer himself, Gurney and Herbert Howells.  It fulfils Perkins ‘pastoral’ criteria to a tee. When Finzi was seventeen years old he was studying with the composer Ernest Farrar. In 1918 Farrar, who had enlisted and was killed on the battlefield near Cambrai. Six years later Finzi began to compose his Requiem da Camera whilst living in the Cotswolds.
The work was dedicated to his teacher and was Finzi’s indictment of the war.  Philip Thomas has noted that in spite of the ‘elegiac stillness’ of much of the Requiem it is still a work of protest – it is ‘a desperate cry for certainty in a faithless world.’  I think that this description could serve as a good definition of the pastoral genre.
The opening section of the Requiem is a ‘prelude’ for orchestra which sets the melancholic mood of the piece. This is followed by John Masefield’s ‘blasted ‘pastoral’’ ‘August 1914’ which epitomises the ‘lost generation’ of artists, agriculturists and artisans that are so often alluded to in any discussion of this period.
The third movement was realised by Philip Thomas from a manuscript found in the Bodlean Library: it is a setting of Thomas Hardy’s magisterial war poem ‘Only a man harrowing clods’.  The final section of the work is a ‘Lament’ by the ‘Georgian’ poet William Wilfred Gibson which reflects on how the survivors of the war dealt with memories of what had happened.  Gibson, who had been a close friend of Rupert Brooke and the publisher Edward Marsh was a private in the trenches and thankfully survived the war.

Requiem da Camera is a perfect balance of introspection about the human cost of war, counterpoised with a musical depiction of a (for the composer) half-recalled landscape and society that had largely (but not quite) disappeared by the time the 1914-18 War began. This has remained as a ‘Land of Lost Content’ that composers, artists, poets and dreamers have long sought and are still seeking and will only ever find echoes.  
To be continued...


Philip Lancaster said...

Thank you, John, for including IBG's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody in your survey of works by those composers associated with Chosen Hill. I think the work is a remarkable and unique rendering of the pastoral, somewhere between Saylor's hard and soft types, with reference to the impressionistic mode in places. One small correction, if I may: the editorial job on the work was reasonably straightforward, the score being intact as a single piece, requiring clarification, some elucidation as far as ambiguous notes, dynamics and tempi are concerned, and (as I remember) just a couple of editorial emendations. As you say, it may not be a great work, but it is an important one for both Gurney and the idea of the Pastoral; a work that repays repeated listening and study. I was truly delighted, therefore, that the BBC Music Magazine issued the work on its cover CD in May/June, allowing such study. Sadly, there are a few in Gurney circles who still believe the work to be unworthy of Gurney's memory, wanting it to be shelved and never performed again. With the recording having been issued (albeit in a time-limited magazine release), I am pleased to say that the horse has already bolted before the barn door could be shut, so it will be there for any who wish to find it in the future.

John France said...

Thanks for that Philip.
I note your comment on the editorial work on this piece.