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.

1 comment:

Michael Lampard said...

I wish was there. How did it go?