Last weekend Emily (my wife) and I headed out to Ludlow to the Fourth Weekend of English Song, organised by the Finzi Friends, with that organisation's president, Iain Burnside, as Artistic Director.
With a lineup of singers including Elizabeth Watts, Andrew Kennedy and Roderick Williams, it couldn't fail to be a wonderful experience. Gurney's presence at the weekend, however, made it more particularly interesting. (His presence would obviously be spiritual, musical and poetic rather than physical!)
On the Friday of the Festival, Pamela Blevins spoke on Marion Scott, Howells and Gurney. However close I might be to Gurney - his work and his story - hearing aspects of his life recounted still has the power to move me very deeply, and Pam succeeded in doing so here. Immediately following this, Kate Kennedy gave a talk/workshop on Gurney's song cycle Ludlow and Teme. This is a work I have had a close association with over the last four years, bringing Gurney's revised version to publication by Stainer & Bell (currently at second proof stage!). However, her ideas about Gurney's Housman settings in this cycle brought a surprising new insight to the work, reaffirming the importance of this piece and its status as one of Gurney's masterpieces. The workshop concluded with a full performance of the cycle, in its original version. This again affirmed thoughts in my mind that Gurney's revisions, although completed in the mental hospital - a time when some have suggested he was incapable of sustaining coherent ideas and arguments - were truly an improvement, and that it is right to be bringing the revised version to publication.
In the evening, Gurney featured once again, with his Five Elizabethan Songs, performed by Liz Watts, with Iain Burnside at the piano. These songs were wonderfully performed. Whilst seated at the page-turning stool I couldn't help wondering how the set might work in Gurney's original orchestration - 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, harp and 2 bassoons. Only the full score for the last song, Spring, is extant.
Gurney's presence at the weekend continued the following evening in Iain Burnside's powerful Guildhall School of Music and Drama dramatic production, performed by a group of students from that place, 'The lads in their hundreds'. Amidst the extraordinarily varied tapestry of songs and texts, one noticed Gurney's poem 'First Time In', subtly dropped in, giving the poem a perfect context for appreciating its genesis and situation more fully.
Finally, in the festival's finale, on the Sunday - a recital exploring songs with 'A Sense of Place' - Gurney appeared both under his own name and under another. The first was the West Sussex Drinking Song, vigorously performed by Roddy Williams with the male students of the Guildhall joining in with the refrain: something with which Gurney would have been well pleased. He would almost certainly have thought of the song being sung in an inn with the regulars at the bar joining in with the chorus: "I am singing the best song ever sung, and it has a rousing chorus" - which indeed it did!
Gurney's final presence at the weekend was in Roderick Williams's wonderful song 'Spirits of Festival', commissioned by the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 2007, which celebrates the ghosts of Three Choirs festivals past, their spirits still wandering the cathedral close. With words by Roddy's father, Adrian Williams, we met George Dyson ("Safe"! ...how Paul Spicer, Dyson's biographer, baulked at that!), Gerald Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells and others, both in words and in music, Roddy's music subtly quoting various works by all the composers mentioned (how I love that opening of Vaughan Williams's Fifth symphony which recurred throughout the song!) and a very amusing parody of the Festival's 'new commission'. The transition from Howells's Collegium Regale into Take Him Earth into King David was wonderfully subtle. Gurney, of course, was seen, 'still not right'; and rather nicely, his music was to have almost the last word, in (if I remember rightly!) a quote from 'Severn Meadows'. In the dressing room before the concert Roddy had joked that he was laying claim to the Gurney being heard, having scrubbed out Gurney's signature and put his own in place. I thought it was a joke, but no, it was entirely serious, and in performance was one of the highlights of the recital.