Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Catalogue now available online

Some may be pleased to know that I have just had confirmation that the beginnings of the catalogue are now available online. Hopefully clicking this link should take you to it. A small start, but it will be added to quite quickly from hereon, as I transfer my excel spreadsheet into the catalogue system, check it, and mark it as catalogued.

The link will bring up a list of records. However, it may be easier to view it as a tree, which is how the structure is designed. To do so, go into one of the entries and click on the red 'seal'. This will make it more obvious how it is laid out, and will highlight the main subheadings which contain detailed descriptions of the genres as a whole rather than specific items.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

A Festive End

And so this year's Three Choirs Festival has drawn to a close, and I have returned to normality (such as it is) in Lichfield.

I was unable to attend Roddy Williams's Saturday morning recital, it being very quickly sold out, but I heard from various people how terrific it was. This recital was notable not only for the performance of four Gurney songs, only one of which has so far been published, but also for the second performance of Ian Venables's song cycle 'The Pine Boughs Past Music': a setting of three poems by Gurney which concludes with a setting of a poem written 'In Memoriam' of Gurney by the editor of the 1973 volume of selected Gurney poems and fellow Gloucestershire poet, Leonard Clark.

Rather than attend the recital I headed to the archive and decided to risk the technical difficulties we have been having with the cataloguing databases in the latter half of this week and send part of the catalogue live: checking the entries and changing their status from 'draft' to 'catalogued'. This was a moment of relief in many ways, finally letting go of part - albeit at present a small part - of the archive, opening the first detailed entries and with it the physical items to public consultation. The catalogue should hopefully be backed up to the public server sometime on Monday, at which point that first part of the collection will be visible in searches done through the online archive catalogue. I am also investigating making the archive catalogue available on the Archives Hub, which I hope will happen in due course. I shall keep you posted.

When backed up to the public server we shall have available details of Gurney's string quartets, piano works, organ works, plays, and the first part of the essays catalogue. I shall complete the essays upload this week, add further musical works, and hopefully get the first part of the substantial correspondence catalogue up.

At evensong yesterday afternoon, as reported in a previous post, the Three Cathedral Choirs gave what is probably the first public outing of Gurney's psalm chant, which, as I have already said, was written in 1914 and used by Gurney during the war to steady his nerves in battle. When I first looked at the chant I found myself rather underwhelmed by it: this single chant has a rather lovely melody, but it does not contain anything extraordinary that sets it apart from many others. However, what I had failed to take into account was the psalm for which it was written. Sung to that text, the simple melody and harmony are suit perfectly; as one would expect from one who is hypersensitive to the musical setting of words, it is a well-wrought companion. Given the additional poignancy of the situation in which Gurney used it at Fauquissart in 1916 - with which 'story' Gloucester's Canon Precentor, Neil Heavisides, introduced the psalm - it was a deeply moving part of the service. Perhaps with the coming First World War anniversary, not to mention the annual Armistice Day commemorations, this chant should find some currency.

This has been an extraordinary week for Gurney. For a figure known, musically speaking, as song composer, his representation in the fields of chamber, orchestral and choral music, have done wonders in broadening the public perception of his work, and introducing his work to a much broader, new audience (the audience for English song being rather specialised). With these performances; in what I tried to say in the programme book essays, linking in some small way his musical and poetic works and placing it in the landscape Gurney loved; with Ian's talk; and with much media attention, including separate interviews on BBC Radio Gloucestershire with Ian and myself; with the opening up of the first part of the archive with its new, detailed catalogue: in all of this Gurney will find his way into new, sympathetic minds.

If you have experienced some of this and enjoyed it, do look further: there are numerous recordings; there are the published volumes of poetry; and there are the two biographies by Michael Hurd and Pamela Blevins. Search for Ivor Gurney on Amazon or some such and they shall appear.

There is of course still much to be done, so watch this space! I shall continue with the catalogue release, and Tim Kendall and I shall make our way through the more than 1,500 poems - only a third of which have been published to date - preparing them for publication by Oxford University Press. This week is a milestone on the way to a much Gurnier future. I am so very grateful to Adrian Partington - the Festival's Artistic Director - and to the performers – the Dante Quartet, Philharmonia Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, the Festival Chorus (and what a chorus!! The best I have heard!), Cathedral Choirs, Roddy Williams and Susie Allen – for taking up Gurney's gauntlet.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The morning after... (and catalogue matters)

I awoke early this morning to hear the glorious, heart warming sound of real rain; that rain that comes in a steady, constant stream, falling as if it has always fallen, and ever more shall fall: neither beginning nor end is imaginable. Not content with listening to it through the open window, I hastened out, foregoing tea for the present, and spent an hour walking around parts of Gloucester: the cathedral close and the docks, taking in the real joy of the morning.

Wandering down the Via Sacra to the docks I found myself humming a blend of Gurney and Finzi: The Trumpet and Intimations of Immortality - two of the works heard in last night's concert. Intimations is Finzi's true masterpiece (truly over and above Dies Natalis), and although I realised I had not heard if for a long while, it is one that I feel very deeply. With this and Elgar's Sea Pictures, sung majestically by Sarah Connolly, I was pondering Gurney's place in the programme, with this, the first professional performance of The Trumpet, and the first time Gurney's music has featured in one of the major evening concerts. I have no doubt in my mind that the work stood up very well against the two established pieces, and was an integral part of a coherent and remarkable programme.

Gurney's work is intense: it is a densely compacted in its ideas, and very powerful with it. It could perhaps have been more expansive in its setting (one would have liked it to have been slightly longer!) but the pacing of the piece, with its tremendous intensification and crescendo to the last 'arise' and final cadence in the orchestra, is masterfully judged.

My own input into the piece - the orchestral colouring, the work originally only being in piano score with no indications as to scoring - is something I have been left pondering, as one might expect. Against the scoring of the Elgar (a master orchestrator) and the Finzi, the Gurney seemed somewhat cloudy in parts, in spite of what I hoped to be a clarity of texture, not being too cluttered. I couldn't quite decide whether there were some issues with balance, or whether it was merely a little tentativeness on the part of the orchestra, who have had just two rehearsals on the work: one the week before the Three Choirs Festival and that yesterday afternoon. The Gurney, being relatively new, was obviously unknown, against two works which they must know very well; and Gurney's writing can be densely chromatic, which, it was obvious during the rehearsal, some of the players weren't quite believing to be true. In fact Adrian Lucas, who did a fabulous job at the helm last night, told me that at the first rehearsal he asked if there were any queries about the score, following which there was a flood of queries asking whether various notes were in fact correct (and I am pleased to say that they were!).

The upshot of all of this is: does the score need revising or not?! Adrian rebalanced the final chord slightly, adding a little more third, which was lacking in the overall texture, and this I shall certainly amend; but the rest? I shall ponder further. Who knows whether it will receive another outing for it to be necessary to make any revisions?! We shall see.

On my meanderings this morning I happened (intentionally) upon Wolfgang Buttress's The Candle - the new sculpture in the docks, for which I consulted on matters Gurney. From the two thirds of the base of the sculpture currently visible, I could see that there was no Gurney poetry engraved into it. Perhaps the intended use of two of Gurney's poems proved impracticable. Once the installation of the sculpture is completed I shall be able to say for sure...

And whilst I'm here: catalogues! (The same to you I hear you say!) There have been some technical difficulties with data on the archive servers, with records disappearing, so I have had to hold off the upload of the first part until this morning. Fingers crossed, that first part should go in fine, should not disappear, and should be on the public server following an update on Monday. I'll keep you posted!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Revelations and Psalms

The Three Choirs Festival is entering its final days, and what an exciting one it has been for Gurney! As has been said elsewhere on this blog, this week is in part a mini Gurney festival, with rare and first performances of orchestral, choral and chamber works, as well as works in the area regarded as Gurney's metier: song.

The opportunity to have works performed by professional ensembles is truly reaping rewards this week. On Wednesday the slow movement of Gurney's A major quartet was performed by the Dante Quartet in St. Mary's Church, Painswick. I was uncertain as to whether I would be able to get there, having been singing for a morning workshop, but I finished in time to take a taxi from Gloucester and reach Painswick in time for the concert, and I was glad I did so. The perfect, clean and sensitive execution of the movement proved the work to be everything I had imagined it to be in my mind's ear whilst preparing the edition. An often chromatic work, it is structurally coherent (something Gurney is often accused of lacking) and its argument clear. Perhaps most gratifying, talking to members of the quartet afterwards, was the passing comment about how they are sure the work will grow, interpretively and in understanding, as they perform it more. I hope they will indeed perform it more - and perhaps even add the other two extant movements, one of which - a molto allegro scherzo which probably belongs to the quartet, although it isn't titled as such - is a wonderful, if fiendishly difficult movement.

The great excitement yesterday was the premiere of A Gloucestershire Rhapsody, ninety years after its completion, in Cheltenham Town Hall. Prior to the performance, my co-conspirator in preparing the edition, Ian Venables (chairman of the Gurney Society and Trust and a composer in his own right) gave an insightful lecture on the work, placing it in the context of his other orchestral works, describing where Gurney is coming from in what he is trying to say, and also giving a few insights into the musical influences upon the Rhapsody. The latter was particularly interesting: although I know the work intimately in a textual sense, and I have my own views as to what Gurney is expressing in the work - many of which correlated with Ian's, I have not identified any specific potential progenitors in the music of the piece. Ian's suggestions were inspiring (Richard Strauss, the nature motif from Also Sprach Zarathustra) and perhaps, for me, a little provocative (Gustav Holst's Turn back O man, which I am not convinced he would have known).

Something that did occur to me during the talk, however, is that we have yet to consider the influence of Gurney's playing of the baryton in the Gloucester Battalion band. These are the sorts of lines of research which can take over rather: what was the repertoire of the band, and given the dominance of marches in Gurney's orchestral work (notably in the War Elegy, which marching songs/tunes did they play? One wonders whether Gurney's baryton experience might have also influenced his use of brass in the Gloucestershire Rhapsody and War Elegy. Interesting things to be mulled over indue course.

But, returning to the performance: some of the tempi were slightly swifter than Ian and I had envisaged, but the work was terrifically executed (what a joy English orchestral musicians are, being able to pick up these works so quickly and play with such conviction!), and conducted with understanding by Martyn Brabbins, who we discovered afterwards to be a closet Gurney fan! (He has previously recorded Herbert Howells's orchestrations of two Gurney songs for Hyperion.) Having been working on the piece for the last seven or eight months, preparing the scores for this premiere, it was really quite emotional to be hearing it in the flesh. More gratifying was the general reaction to the work by the public, most of whom found it a remarkable and enlightening piece, with so many questioning why it had never been performed before. Perhaps it is that the time appears now to be right for Gurney, when tonality and melody has come to the fore, after the preponderance of interest in more modernist music; and perhaps too, the growth of Gurney is now coming to a head, from the procession of proselytising of his work by Gerald Finzi, Leonard Clark, Michael Hurd, P.J. Kavanagh, Anthony Boden, Kelsey Thornton and George Walter, Pamela Blevins, in the founding of the Gurney Society fifteen years ago, and in the current band of happy Gurnites... One should also mention Adrian Partington, Artistic Director of the Gloucester Thee Choirs Festival: one can produce editions galore of unperformed Gurney works, but if no-one is willing to programme them, then there is only so much we can do! It is to him that Gurney will be most grateful, I am sure, for giving him the opportunity to be heard.

Yesterday Anne Boden reminded me of something Gurney said to Winnie Chapman: that his time will come and his work will have its day; it will take time - perhaps many years - but its time will come. And so it has.

I have this morning learned one further excitement: a premiere of which I was not aware until now. In the service of Choral Evensong tomorrow, Gurney's chant to psalm 23 will be given what may be its first performance. Composed in 1914 whilst at the Royal College of Music, the chant is not at all musically remarkable, but it is important in that Gurney used to sing the psalm to himself to this chant whilst serving in the trenches at Fauquissart in 1916 to steady his nerves.

And so to today: I am off to the archive to continue getting the first part of the new archive catalogue live online; then The Trumpet this evening (see my post earlier this week), and songs and psalms tomorrow. I look forward to seeing you there!

Monday, 9 August 2010

The Trumpet

It has been very pleasing to hear how much the Three Choirs Festival chorus have been enjoying Gurney's choral setting of Edward Thomas's The Trumpet, which they have been preparing for performance this Friday, 13th August as part of the Gloucester Festival - a festival that also sees the first performance of Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody for orchestra, which I talk about here.

This is the third performance of The Trumpet, which received its premiere a few years ago in Herefordshire as part of Paul Spicer's English Choral Experience, following which I undertook the orchestration of the work for the second performance a year later in Cumbria, conducted by Ian Jones.

Composed by Gurney in around 1921, the setting is quite distinct from that composed four years later for solo baritone and piano as a 'finisher' to his song cycle, 'Lights Out', published in 1926.

Edward ThomasIvor Gurney composed a score of settings of the poetry of Edward Thomas (pictured left), which, on his discovery of his work on his return from the war, also had a lasting and distinct influence upon Gurney's own poetry. That 'The Trumpet' was one of Thomas's poems to which Gurney might turn for setting was perhaps foreseen in comments like that in a letter to Jack Haines: ‘Dear things like “The Trumpet” hang long in the mind’. In spite of this enthusiasm, Gurney wrote of the poem's difficulty: “The Trumpet” is incoherent and its image not clear, but it is good.’

Certainly, the imagery of the poem is not clear. When I came to publish the piece in time for the second performance, I wrote of Thomas's words:

The poem was written in 1916 whilst Thomas was on army training in Trowbridge. He wrote to Eleanor Farjeon that he had 'written some verses suggested by the trumpet calls which go all day. They are not well done and the trumpet is cracked, but the Reveille pleases me (more than it does most sleepers).' The poem is perhaps itself a reveille, calling men to rise up against the world new-born – that is the world created by the devastating First World War. The call to ‘scatter the print of last night’s lovers’ could refer ironically to the earthly scars of the new, mechanical warfare – the trenches and shell holes – possibly even drawing a parallel in that war of man on man to a lovers’ feud. Thomas calls us to spurn that new world and return to the world that was before the war; perhaps to the older, simpler ‘wars’ fought between man and earth in our cultivation of the land.

However, Kelsey Thornton saw it differently and wrote to me suggesting it was more probably a plea for a brutal honesty in observation; to be clear-sighted, unswayed by sentiment or mystery. The opening calls one to awaken, getting rid of starry imaginings and romantic notions; ‘banish it!’. This notion continues into the next stanza [bringing a wonderful unison melody from Gurney] in which one is urged to listen to the clarity of the trumpet, forgetting all else – all prejudices and dreams – except for the truth that the world is more beautiful than any delusions about it might suppose: truth is better the imaginings.

Lasting but five minutes, Gurney's setting of this difficult poem is truly uplifting, balancing the vigour of shaking off the old with the lyricism of beauty and truth.

Although the manuscript of the work is written for choir with piano accompaniment (viz. short score), the accompaniment is in parts so dense and impractical that it must surely have been intended for orchestra. I have therefore realised the work, orchestrating the piece using Gurney’s two mature orchestral works as reference points, as well as the works of Vaughan Williams such as A Sea Symphony, which he so admired, and of which there are echoes in The Trumpet.

If you happen to be in the audience I should be glad to hear your thoughts on this piece. I hope you will agree that it is a marvellous work, which, as the first of Gurney's choral works to be performed in modern times - if not the first ever to be performed - brings to public attention a new facet of a composer who is principally known as a composer of song.