Warning: Declaration of ET_Theme_Builder_Woocommerce_Product_Variable_Placeholder::get_available_variations() should be compatible with WC_Product_Variable::get_available_variations($return = 'array') in /var/sites/f/finzifriends.org.uk/public_html/wp-content/themes/Divi/includes/builder/frontend-builder/theme-builder/WoocommerceProductVariablePlaceholder.php on line 8
Baedekers and Benedictions: Finding Gurney | Finzi Friends

This article is based upon a talk given at a joint meeting of Finzi Friends and the Ivor Gurney Society, at St. Bartholomew’s Church, Chosen Hill, Churchdown, on 3rd June 2017.

Who is Ivor Gurney? — as an artist? Have we understood him? Indeed, how do we find and understand any creative artist? When can we say that we truly know who they are, what it was to which they were aspiring, and what drove and defined them and their art?

The perception of art is a subjective thing. We bring to it our own experiences and ideas; our own ways of reading, listening and looking. It has been said that there are as many versions of the truth of work as there are numbers of people who encounter it. But there are truths about an artist to which we might attempt to get close in our absorption and exploration of their work. To know, however, we must first be exposed to their work. But how do we get to find these works and get to know them? And how much of their work do we need to know in order to glean some essence of that truth?

The journey of a work begins with the artist. It is they who first endeavour to get their work out to an audience. As they send it out into the world, and as they talk to those who are performing, publishing, curating, or taking in that work, they may be able, in some small degree, to shape the perception of it, and of themselves. They are able to promote their work by actively seeking publishers or performers. In the case of Gerald Finzi, although his life was cut short in 1956, he was still able to spend three decades nurturing an audience for his work through active engagement with performers, promoters and commissioners, establishing his presence in the short to medium term. He was also fortuitous in finding a dedicated publisher for his works, Boosey & Hawkes. Following his death, his publisher continued to keep his work alive, keeping his music in print and in active promotion, whilst friends and family, most notably his wife, Joy, maintained the personal momentum that had been built up by Gerald. Importantly, Joy founded the Finzi Trust in 1969 to continue this work. The Trust, in collaboration with Boosey & Hawkes, has seen his work securely into this century, establishing it in the musical Canon for the long term. More interestingly and importantly, perhaps, the Trust has not only overseen the secure promotion of just his music: it has also sought to perpetuate some of the Finzis’broader values and ideas in encouraging other artists. Finzi Friends, as a daughter but independent organisation, has assisted with this, as well as allowing all those who admire Finzi’s work to come together under a mutual banner which maintains a lively and social interest in the Finzis and their work. Finzi has been fortunate indeed.

Where Finzi was able to spend those three decades in establishing himself personally amongst performers, publishers and promoters, Gurney had little more than three years in which to do so before he was cut off from the world. The biographical concerns of his life, from his discharge from Active Service in the First World War, in October 1918, to his incarceration in an asylum in 1922, left a too short time in which to be able to establish himself fully in the fraternities of poets and musicians. In that short time he did in fact make some remarkable progress: several songs and some piano works were published; and his songs began to be taken up by performers. However, upon his incarceration, this fell away. The stigma attached to the asylum was such that he was as good as dead. Indeed, in a letter to Vera Somerfield of 22 January 1923, Gerald Finzi wrote of,‘the most terrible news I have had for five years. Ivor Gurney has gone mad. He is quite unrecognised now, but in 50 years’ time his songs will have replaced Schubert’s. In his line, Gurney is supreme. I always said he [wouldn’t] live long — his work was such a consummation — & now he is in all but name, dead’. Although only confined in a hospital, Gurney was lost; his place in society and his standing as an active artist gone. His works received a little further attention, with the publication of his two Carnegie award winning song cycles, the first,Lu dlow & Teme (1923) even being broadcast on the radio in 1925; and Jack Squire published a few new poems in his literary journal, The London Mercury, in 1933-34, in an attempt to resurrect Gurney’s name and fortunes. But Gurney was otherwise almost entirely overlooked and forgotten. Not only this, but he was powerless to effect any interest in his work. He wrote many appeals for release, and asking that his music be performed and his poetry published, but to no avail. During the first five years of his incarceration he continued to write prolifically, although only a very small handful of the hundreds of poems and musical works made it out into the world.

Gurney should perhaps have sunk without a trace. With his two published poetry collections of 1917 and 1919, and his published songs and piano works, he may have been a notable footnote in the history of English poetry and music, such as is W. Denis Browne. Where Finzi’s work blossomed under the aegis of his own networking, being able to build and promote an increasing body of performed and published work, Gurney’s reputation has been borne by a trickle of acolytes; individual followers who keep the flame alive and seek to do what they can to keep his name and work in the public sphere. Indeed, it is only through the agency of these acolytes that Gurney’s work has even survived, preserved from being lost or destroyed.

The first of Gurney’s acolytes was the one who bore his flame, and the burden of his art and life, from his first formal footings as a creative artist: Marion Scott. She and Gurney met at the Royal College of Music in 1912, and it was through her encouragement that Gurney began writing poetry in earnest in 1915, serving his apprenticeship as a poet during the war. Scott oversaw the publication of these first poems, notably collating, and seeing from proposal to press, his first collections, Severn and Somme and War’s Embers. In the wake of Gurney’s incarceration, Scott resumed her ministrations, looking after both Gurney’s personal care and his business affairs. She was his connection with the outside world, overseeing the publication of the few works that did make it out. Her most notable act, however, as far as posterity is concerned, was in preserving the thousands of manuscripts produced by Gurney. She retained all of his papers, and asked that all of his work from the asylum be passed to her. Furthermore, towards the end of his life she advertised and asked Gurney’s friends and acquaintances whether they held any manuscripts, in order to preserve his work as a single collection.

Here it is that Gurney’s second acolyte enters the scene: Gerald Finzi, and, through him, his wife, Joy. Finzi discovered Gurney’s work in 1920, taking the newly published Elizabethan Songs to his lesson with Edward Bairstow in York, where Elsie Suddaby, at Bairstow’s for a singing lesson, sang ‘Sleep’. It was Finzi’s ‘Damascus’ moment; his realisation of the true power and intensity that could be achieved in song. The influence of Gurney on Finzi’s own work has not yet been examined fully, but bore fruit in two songs of 1925, Only the Wanderer’(published posthumously in the set Oh Fair to See) and Carol’, which was reworked into one of the movements of the Bagatelles for clarinet and piano. Let us Garlands Bring (1942) may also have been influenced, in the nature of the set, and perhaps more deeply, by those Five Elizabethan Songs of Gurney. It was no accident that Finzi lived for a short time on Chosen Hill and in Painswick; places beloved of Gurney, amongst others, and a locality that bore and inspired many significant musicians and poets in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Finzi wrote to Marion Scott in early 1925, asking whether a new collection of songs might be prepared. In July and August of that year, a new set of Edward Thomas songs, Lights Out, was brought together. Finzi was amongst those who contributed financially to its publication by subscription by Stainer & Bell in 1926. At this same time in 1925 Finzi also assisted with the preparation of the scores for the 1926 Carnegie Trust publication of The Western Playland. However, Finzi’s role as one of Gurney’s key acolytes came in 1937, the final year of Gurney’s life. One of the main impetuses behind Scott’s call for material from Gurney’s friends and acquaintances was the undertaking by Finzi, with the help of Joy Finzi and Howard Ferguson, and occasional advice from Vaughan Williams, of the cataloguing of Gurney’s music manuscripts. As part of this, Finzi and Ferguson proffered a rough grading of the quality of the music: two ticks for very good; one tick for good; a tick and a cross for ‘moderate to bad’; and a cross for bad. He wrote that their system of grading ‘must seem very ridiculous — like a Baedecker [sic] Guide!!’

In parallel with the cataloguing, Finzi was arranging for the publication of twenty of Gurney’s songs by the Oxford University Press (OUP), which Finzi himself transcribed and prepared from the manuscript, ready for engraving. Further volumes of 10 songs appeared due to Finzi’s efforts in 1952 and 1958, the latter volume undertaken following Finzi’s death by Howard Ferguson and Finzi’s son, Kiffer. In order to flag up the new song publications, Finzi was pushing Scott to arrange for a few articles on Gurney and his work to be published in OUP’s journal Music and Letters, to coincide with the publication of the twenty songs in 1938. In devising the range of articles Finzi observed in a letter to John Haines that‘names are what are needed for drawing attention’, i.e. established poets and composers whose name would lend weight to, and in turn qualify the merit of, Gurney’s work. Finzi emphasised the balance of articles required to lift Gurney’s work out of anonymity. Some would proffer a ‘Benediction’: a laying on of hands; a seal of merit and blessing from a well-known figure. Others would balance this with a more discursive article. For the music, Vaughan Williams had offered such a ‘Benediction’, whilst Howells was suggested as the writer of an article on the songs. In respect of the poetry, Walter de la Mare gave the Benediction while Squire provided the greater substance. Although Gurney saw the proofs of the symposium, intended as a living tribute, when it was published in the January 1938 issue of Music and Letters, it had become a posthumous tribute, issued just days after his death on Boxing Day 1937.

Despite Finzi and Gurney living in Gloucestershire concurrently for a short time, and their attending the same concert at a British Music Society congress in London in May 1920, the two composers were never to meet. A meeting was planned, through their mutual friend Herbert Howells, in 1935, a mutual meeting of composers, but the tragic loss of Howells’s son, Michael, intervened, and no further opportunity for that meeting arose.

The Finzis’ work on Gurney’s behalf was not limited to his music. They persuaded Edmund Blunden to prepare a first selection of Gurney’s poetry for publication. With Blunden’s being so busy, he only managed to get round to the edition in May 1951, when the Finzis locked him in a room with Gurney’s poetry at their home in Ashmansworth. Blunden trawled through the many typescripts of the poetry that had been made across the years by Marion Scott and her typist, and by a tame typist known to the Vaughan Williamses, and brought together a collection that was published in 1954. This was the first major collection of Gurney’s poetry to be published since his second collection, War’s Embers, in 1919.

On Christmas eve in 1953 Marion Scott died. She bequeathed to Finzi the debt of monies incurred by her in the course of Gurney’s care and work. For 16 years she had held Gurney’s manuscripts as collateral against this debt. In so doing, Scott ensured the preservation of Gurney’s work by keeping the manuscripts from Gurney’s brother, Ronald. Ronald did not understand Gurney and his work, nor the efforts that others were making on his behalf, and were the manuscripts to come into his hands it was probable that he would destroy them. With the transfer of that debt, and the manuscripts, to the Finzis, perversely Ronald determined to pay the debt and reclaim the manuscripts for the family. A few years after Gerald Finzi’s death in 1956, Ronald acceded to pressure brought upon him by the Finzis and Vaughan Williams, and deposited the collection on permanent loan with Gloucester Public Library, since transferred to what is now Gloucestershire Archives. This ensured the survival of Gurney’s work for the long term.

There is, sadly, a shadow side to this wrangling with the manuscript collection, which is painful to say and painful to hear: Joy destroyed a large number of manuscripts. There is a note in the Gurney Archive written by her two years after Gerald’s death: ‘All the contents of this box were sorted from a vast collection of miscellaneous material and appeals for help — most of which followed a pattern of incoherence — the main mass of which has been destroyed. Joyce Finzi Ashmansworth. October 1958.’ Gerald, I am sure, would not have sanctioned such a destruction. While she makes mention of appeals and ‘miscellaneous material’, it is significant that a large number of music manuscripts also went missing in the midst of these wranglings. The major part of these missing musical works is the contents of a page of Finzi’s catalogue listing 26 predominantly chamber works of 1924–26, but also including a symphony. At the head of that page in the catalogue is written by Finzi, ‘Everything on this page is useless’.

Finzi admitted in a letter written to Marion Scott following the first cataloguing session in January 1937 that;
The sorting has been even more difficult than I expected, chiefly because there is comparatively little that one can be really sure is bad. Even the late 1925 asylum songs, though they get more and more involved (and at the same time more disintegrated, if you know what I mean) have a curious coherence about them somewhere, which makes it difficult to know when they really are over the border.

If these numerous late instrumental works were destroyed, as seems most likely, it was undoubtedly an act that sought to ensure that only the best of Gurney’s work was preserved, so as not to compromise his reputation by the bringing out of‘useless’ works.

Upon the deposition of the Gurney papers in Gloucester Public Library, a third significant acolyte enters the scene: the Forest of Dean poet, Leonard Clark. Clark had attended Gurney’s funeral at Twigworth on 31 December 1937, and shortly thereafter wrote a poem ‘In memoriam Ivor Gurney’; a poem recently set to music by Ian Venables in his song cycle The Pine Boughs Past Music (2010). Clark spent many hours in the library working with the papers, and in 1963 prepared a substantial new collection of Gurney’s poetry, drawing not only upon the typescripts but also the many unpublished manuscripts. However, Ronald Gurney stamped on the publication and would not, as copyright holder, give permission for the use of the poetry. Ronald’s obstruction continued to the end, and permission from the family to publish Clark’s collection was only given following Ronald’s death in 1971. It finally appeared ten years after its making, in 1973, published by Chatto and Windus. The final publication of Clark’s selection contained significant cuts, with only around a half of the poems in Clark’s typescript making it to the final book. Even now, much of that other half remains unpublished.

The death of the obstructive Ronald, and the release of Clark’s collection, gave rise to a new momentum to the efforts to bring Gurney’s work to a wider public, through a series of new acolytes. In 1978, Oxford University Press published the first biography of Gurney, written by Michael Hurd, who a year later also prepared a fifth volume of ten songs for OUP. This was followed in 1982 by a major new collection of Gurney’s poetry, again published by OUP, edited by the late P. J. Kavanagh. He was assisted greatly by Kate Kavanagh, his wife, who undertook a significant survey of the poetry in the archive. Kelsey Thornton brought the first collection of Gurney’s correspondence to publication in 1983, War Letters, followed by the Collected Letters in 1991. A new edition by Thornton of Gurney’s first poetry collections followed, and thence editions of three previously unpublished collections. One of these volumes was co-edited with George Walter, who in turn edited and published Gurney’s third intended collection, rejected by his publisher in 1923, 80 Poems or So. Between them, Thornton and Walter are responsible for bringing some hundreds of poems to public attention for the first time. In 1986, Anthony Boden published a more intimate collection, Stars in a Dark Night. As well as the work on the poetry and letters, Richard Carder was exploring the music, seeking to bring new works to life out of the archive.

A significant moment came in 1995 with the realisation of Anthony Boden’s vision for an Ivor Gurney Society; an important focal point for the social appreciation and encouragement of interest in Gurney and his works. Boden also took on, formalised, and made active the Ivor Gurney Trust. Boden, the Trust, and the Society, have played a key role in bringing about and supporting new recordings of Gurney’s works; a critical thing in the modern reception of any composer.

Gurney could have been lost to us, being that small footnote in the annals of British poetry and music. However, through this procession of acolytes, his work has largely survived the precariousnesses of time and obstruction. The knowledge and reception of Gurney has now gathered such momentum as to ensure that his work will survive and be known by future generations. It is only through the work of this handful of acolytes, carrying Gurney’s work across the years, that biographies and studies by Pamela Blevins (2008), Eleanor Rawling (2010) and Kate Kennedy (2018) have been made possible. It is a great privilege for me to follow humbly in this line of esteemed acolytes, and to have worked, and be working, alongside Ian Venables (who has taken on Anthony Boden’s mantle in the Society and Trust) and Tim Kendall on bringing some substantial portions of Gurney’s output into the public arena, much of it for the first time.

This history of the carriage of Gurney’s work across three quarters or so of a century is all well and good, but what about that opening question: Do we know who Gurney is? To echo the inevitable question from the back seat of the car, ‘Are we there yet?’ Do we know the nature of his art and the motivations and aspirations that he sought in his work?

The short answer is No: we are not yet there. During the last 30 years, poetically, and 10, musically, we have opened many more windows onto his work; but there are many corners of the room on which we are only just shedding light. With the coming publication of the complete poetry by OUP, which I am editing with Tim Kendall, it will be possible, for the first time, to assess this key arm of his output in full for the first time, warts and all. A radical and revelatory opening up of his work. Musically, we are in a better position than ever before, with the breadth of the recorded catalogue which now takes in orchestral, choral and chamber work; but there is still work to be done. Once the work has found its way out into the world, through publication, performance or recording, it takes time for the work to settle; to be absorbed and assessed. Which pieces of his work will live and perhaps find a place in the fickle Literary and Musical Canons? This is a question of chance and opportunity.

But getting the work out into the public arena is only one part of the process. There is a need, particularly with Gurney, to reassess the received knowledge and history of the man and his work; to refresh the expectations of what it is that Gurney is; to inform performers and readers and listeners so that they might meet Gurney on his own terms. The reception of Gurney’s work has been blighted absolutely by his biography. That most media-worthy, sensational aspect of his life, that he ‘went mad’, has coloured much of what we think about his work. The perception of madness and the stigma of the asylum has led to the censorship of both his music and poetry. It has given birth to myths about Gurney which often have little foundation. The seed of some of these were planted early on. For instance, in the January 1938 Music and Letters symposium, Herbert Howells contributed an article on Gurney’s music in which he wrote of his early work and experience:
Gurney went to London in 1911, his wallet bulging with works of many kinds. There were piano preludes thick with untamed chords; violin works strewn with ecstatic crises; organ works which he tried out in the midst of Gloucester’s imperturbable Norman Pillars. There was, too, an essay for orchestra that strained a chaotic technique to breaking-point. In 1911 he had enthusiasm enough to write anything.

I have huge respect for Howells, but I can’t help but hear in this the retrospective layering and confusion of the man and music. Howells, writing in 1937, is looking through the lens of hindsight; a lens of breakdowns and of the struggles with which Gurney had to do battle. But here, in Howells’words, are the beginnings of a great Gurneian Myth: the untamed chaos of Gurney, of his music, and of his scores. This is a myth that has marred the perception of Gurney. From the manuscript evidence, Howells’s assertions cannot be substantiated. The only orchestral essay up to this point, a Coronation March (1910-11),is highly Elgarian, but there is nothing either chaotic or technically deficient in it; the ‘untamed chords’(whatever that might mean) are not in evidence; and the 1910-11 violin works seem to be devoid of‘ecstatic crises’. What might be more true is that, in Howells’s opinion, Gurney was lacking the refinement and elegant finesse which we associate with Howells’s own art. Formally, Gurney’s works are certainly more fluid in nature, and not as structurally tight as Howells would undoubtedly have prepared and preferred, but there is still form. In short, Gurney was Gurney; he was not Howells.

This label of ‘chaos’ in relation to Gurney’s scores has persisted to a remarkable degree. A reviewer of a recent CD recording of Gurney’s A Gloucestershire Rhapsody wrote of that work having ‘long [been] thought to be unplayable owing to the apparently incomplete state in which the music survived.’ That reviewer, and indeed the writer of the sleeve note, lays at mine and Ian Venables’s feet the accolade of having ‘reconstructed’ the score. This simply isn’t true. Gurney’s score was complete and coherent. It had merely been ignored for ninety years. The same has been said of the War Elegy for orchestra, which Ian and I edited for recording in 2006. There were unusual brass transpositions to be dealt with and some correcting of obvious mistakes; and a couple of bars had to be completed, where Gurney had turned a page and forgotten to complete the lines, but it was not the dissolute mess and heavy reconstructive job that writers would have you believe.

Which is not to play down the job of an editor! Editing is a time-consuming and critical job, involving a multitude of small decisions. A bad edition can ruin a work and, through that, compromise an artist’s reputation, while a good edition can help readers or performers navigate a piece and make its reading or performance easier, and therefore, we hope, more viable and regular. In editing the poetry there are regularly stances to be taken on whether a word is one thing or another; and more especially when a full stop is a full stop and not a comma or a colon a semi-colon. In a couple of poem manuscripts there are lines which are to one side of the main line of the text which might be annotations, or they might be part of the poem, needing to be inserted within the text. Musically, there are decisions about whether a note is on the line or below it; whether Gurney has omitted an accidental (a sharp or a flat: he often forgets!). There are also those slightly invasive moments, when one must make a decision about whether, as in the War Elegy, a part is incomplete and needs finishing. Tied notes or phrases can go over a page-turn but arrive into nothing . . . Then there are the decisions about what to offer as a guide to performers about how to interpret the work: tempo, dynamics (sparingly given by Gurney), style and manner.

As an example of the more extreme end of the editor’s job, in his edition of Gurney’s Hilaire Belloc setting, Tarantella, Ian Venables has constructed a version of the song from two of the five extant manuscript versions, for no single version quite gets the poem right. But this is an exception rather than a rule.

So yes: an editor is required, but Gurney’s music does not require the wholesale reconstruction of works from chaotic fragments, as has been suggested. Please put to bed any ideas that Gurney’s work is in a chaotic state! That sense of chaos likely hasn’t been helped by the until-recently-haphazard state of the archive. During my work on Gurney over the last decade I have reorganised the archive so as to bring all of the literary work into chronological order, making it easier to assess the state of, and the relationships within, this vast body of work. This has made realistic that task of editing the complete poetry; a task currently reaching its apogee on mine and Tim Kendall’s desks.

As an editor, one does have to tread a careful line. Whilst wishing to make sense of the music and correcting obvious errors, it is important to present the work as closely as possible to the way in which the author or composer intended. In his letter to Scott of January 1937, after the first cataloguing session, Finzi made a remarkably prescient observation:

I think the eventual difficulty of ‘editing’ the later Gurney may be great: a neat mind could smooth away the queerness — like Rimsky-Korsakov with Mussorgsky — yet time and familiarity will probably show something not so mistaken, after all, about the queer and odd things.

In this Post-Modern era, things are more fluid. Expectations and styles are less formally rigid than once they were and the measure of good’music has become more flexible. Where once a particular parallel interval or harmonic progression might have been seen as categorically wrong, in a Classical sense, musical opinion is now much more open and accepting. What might have been seen as a weakness or curiosity can now be accepted as an expressive nuance, of which Gurney’s are his fingerprint as a composer and as a poet. In an article in the Ivor Gurney Society Journal, Michael Hurd once demonstrated the difficulty of editing some of Gurney’s songs. He ‘smooth[ed] away the queerness’, making them more Classically acceptable, and in so doing removed those fingerprints that made it Gurney. The same could be said of the poetry. It is the ‘queerness’ of the language that makes it Gurney. It is notable that, just as Gurney’s poetic language was becoming more unique, just as it was becoming interesting, his conservative publisher turned down his work. The easy lyricism that sold well was making way for a unique music of a far greater originality.

The pinnacle of Gurney’s poetry, in my opinion, comes in 1925–26. It was a hugely prolific period for Gurney, in poetry and music, yet, owing to the stigma of the asylum and the seeming presumption that this late asylum work was somehow incoherent and useless, it has been largely overlooked. Of the extraordinary body of some 380 poems written in 1926, only just over 30 have been published to date. By 1926 Gurney has worked through his immediate situation; he has worked through his memories of experience; and he has emerged out of the other side with a new universality and language joyous in its music; poetry of an energy and generosity that is genuinely remarkable. It is a far cry from the juvenilia of his poetic apprenticeship, served whilst on Active Service during the war; that body of early work that forms the primary back-bone of what we know of Gurney’s poetry. Gurney was a true Modernist, although this fact has been diluted in an identification of madness and chaos in his work rather than true modernism.

Such perceptions can be born of expectation; what we expect to find there: What do we bring to Gurney that makes us think we know what he and his work should be? What do we perceive him to be from the few works we know? And how do we take on the mantle of those acolytes and‘find him’for ourselves in such a way as to discover the truth of his work?

Gurney defies boundaries, not least in the fact that he is a composer and a poet. As a culture, we have an apparent need to pigeon-hole people; to put them neatly into a shoebox that defines them. Poetically, Gurney is variously a War Poet; a Gloucestershire Poet or poet of landscape and nature; perhaps a‘mad’poet. In the unpublished poetry there are many works that defy these labels, and we should be wary of bringing such labels and expectations to Gurney, even if Gurney himself used the first about himself (albeit for the sake of seeking respect than in definition of himself). Siegfried Sassoon resented the fact that he was labelled a War Poet, a label that afflicted him for the five decades of writing that followed the war. In Gurney’s output of some 1,800 poems, just over 300 might be counted as ‘War poems’, a relatively small proportion.

Musically, Gurney is known almost exclusively as a song composer and a miniaturist. Indeed, Gurney did have a particular penchant for setting words, but he was not only this. Furthermore, while he is allied stylistically with Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, with Elgar and Parry (not without reason), there is something more in his work: an impressionism that comes to the fore in his most intense songs and in instrumental works such as A Gloucestershire Rhapsody for orchestra, which only received its premiere in 2010. I heard some rumblings amongst Gurnites that the work should not have been brought out of the archive, and that, having been heard once, it should be returned post-haste. Finzi, in his 1937 catalogue, gave the Rhapsody an X, adding, ‘[Vaughan Williams] knows this work, and doesn’t think it any good.’ However, when Robert Matthew-Walker reviewed the commercial CD release of the work, he singled out the Rhapsody as ‘a most individual score […] a uniquely expressive work’. We are able to experience the piece as Finzi and Vaughan Williams never could, in performance, and can assess it for ourselves. In order to do so properly, we must forget Brahms and those other inheritances, and listen for Gurney. We must accept the piece on its own terms. Fundamentally, the music should be heard; it should be allowed to live. A similar open-mindedness must be used in his work in other genres that have recently started to open up: the recent premiere and recording of Gurney’s 1925 motet for double choir, Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty has revealed an extraordinary work in which the choirs occasionally shift against each other like tectonic plates with remarkable effect; and his chamber music is now represented on disc by a violin sonata, cello sonata and a beautiful late string quartet movement. This latter, by a fluke of survival, is a movement from one of those chamber works likely destroyed by Joy Finzi. As Finzi wrote, time has shown ‘something not so mistaken, after all’. Not every work is a masterpiece, but the more we are able to read and hear, the closer we can get to the truth of who Gurney is.

Gurney was unable establish his own name and work. It is only through the efforts of his acolytes, keeping what was often just a lonely candle alight, that he has now established a momentum sufficient to carry his work into the future. However, his reputation, and the regard for and opinion of his work, has been marred by his biography; mired in myths that have accumulated around him. His works have been suppressed, and his manner and modes lost in labelled pigeon holes. We must accept artists on their own terms, through their works alone, without any expectation or preconception. Only then can we genuinely know the measure and truth of an artist.

 

Philip Lancaster

 

********************

Short Biog:

Philip Lancaster is a composer, singer, scholar, lecturer and occasional poet. A leading authority on the works of Ivor Gurney, Philip has edited and realised numerous works for performance, recording and publication, and is co-editing with Prof. Tim Kendall Gurney’s complete poetry for publication. Philip is also writing a major study of Gurney’s music and poetry. He was lately British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter, where he taught poetry, and was the recipient of a Finzi Trust Scholarship in 2014.