The Springs of Music

by Ivor Gurney

This extraordinary essay was first published in the journal Musical Quarterly in July 1922.

Since the springs of music are identical with those of the springs of all beauty remembered by the heart, an essay with this title can be little more than a personal record of visions of natural fairness remembered, it may be, long after the bodily seeing.

It is the fact that these visions were more clearly seen after the excessive bodily fatigue experienced on a route march, or in some hard fatigue in France or Flanders – a compensation for so much strain. One found them serviceable in the accomplishment of the task, and in after-relaxation. There it was one learnt that the brighter visions brought music; the fainter verse, or mere pleasurable emotion.

Of all significant things the most striking, poignant, passioning, is the sight of a great valley at the end of the day – such as the Severn Valley which lies hushed and dark, infinitely full of meaning, while yet the far Welsh hills are touched with living and ecstatic gold. The first breakings of the air of night, the remembrance of the glory not all yet faded; the meeting of the two pageants of day and night so powerfully stir the heart that music alone may assuage its thirst, or satisfy that longing told by Wordsworth in the ‘Prelude’; but that telling and outpouring of his is but the shadow and faint far-off indication of what Music might do – the chief use of Poetry seeming to be, to one, perhaps mistaken, musician, to stir his spirit to the height of music, the maker to create, the listener worthily to receive or remember.

The quietest and most comforting thing that is yet strongly suggestive – the sight which seems more than any to provoke the making of music to be performed on strings, is that of a hedge mounting over, rolling beyond the skyline of a little gracious hill. A hedge unclipped, untamed; covered with hawthorn perhaps, showing the fragile rose of June, or sombre with the bareness of Winter; the season makes no difference. so that the hedge be of some age and the hill friendly enough of aspect, smooth, strokable, as it were, there is no end to he quiet suggestion, the subdued yet still quick power of the sight.

What may not be taken from a road winding over against a West clear beneath, above crowned with dark angerful clouds? To walk there, having seen sunset pass – ‘the brands of sunset fall, flicker and fade from out the West,’ as a poet has said – to top the hill and take on his face the last of the sunset wind, the first of the night. And to pass on, see groups of quiet voiced cottagers talking at gates not iron but of friendly wood, surrounded by peace and a fragrance of honeysuckle or some such tender thing. This is to know where so much of Schumann’s music had its source.

Beethoven comes with the majesty of a wide plain on a blowy day, ruled imperiously by hills but afar off – kingly-wise but in temperate fashion. A plain roofed by the blue and cloud dappled, gloriously changing, swept clean by wind loving yet rough, austere yet friendly. Or his is the sight of a heaven of stars, seen from high above the world; alone at midnight one must stand where long ago the Romans kept their watch, and knew either bare slopes or beech boughs sawing backwards and forwards against the dim blue and the starry points thereon. It is right that one who should wish to understand at least one of Beethoven’s moods should wrap himself in one of the Master’s moods on such a place as Painswick Beacon, when nothing human is abroad, not a light in the valley save in the distant town; when no sound comes to the bodily ear save that ghostly one of the owl.

A copse is full of infinite suggestion of Schubert, and if it were threaded by some tiny dancing stream running sunlit water like some strange and splendid metal. . . .

Birds talk and sing there, and the Unfinished Symphony confirms one in wonder at the day’s hotter hours.

Brahms has more of Autumn in him – the full coloured new ploughed earth also; rich-tinted, strongly fragrant soil unplanted. He has given us even the smell of leaves, it seems to myself at least; as in the Piano Quintet in F minor.

Orchards are the inspiration of so much; blossom has borne blossom of song so many times in so many men. ‘Adelaide,’ the First Rasoumoffsky Quartet, Schubert’s songs, Schumann’s songs and short pianoforte pieces, the songs of Brahms. . . . Who has not felt the spell of Spring so strongly symbolised herein?

As for the Sea, it has too little influenced or inspired the Makers of Song. Vaughan Williams alone has worthily expressed his mood of glory at the scent, sound, sight of that infinite and unweakening wonder. The Germans seem to care little for the sea, and anyhow the centres that drew their great musicians were far enough from blue water. The mountains must supply that need of complete grandeur which thrusts a snowy peak high out of the score, even the notes read merely, of Eroica or Coriolanus.

In Bach is fairy tale, firelight, Cathedral space (of this a great deal), much human friendliness. The common intercourse of life, but raised high. An almost unparalleled grandeur is his at times, but seeming to come rather from ordered stone than the free majesty of mountain places, the sky or the sea. Yet such a man made out of talking sunlit water the Italian Concerto, and – as for the Chromatic Fantasia, of what was such a huge wonder born? Of sheer cliffs or a thought of the battle of good and evil in some mighty hear? None can say; it is with far more than the common gratitude that we accept such things. The Ninth Symphony begins with the mightiest of battle gatherings, and has the most tremendous of onslaughts in the few pages of its first movement. There the sky rages also as in King Lear; there the spirit of man realises its impotency yet eternal power of defiance before the forces of Nature. Challenges, accepts and both powerfully, with dignity, and though certain in the end of doom, looks up at the ordered troops of dark cloud, and says, ‘We are, but I shall be.’

From poplars has come much: the larch has given grace to thought in many of the smaller forms. The oak as strengthened many, and in the shady chambers of the elm many have found peace. Trees are the friendliness of things, and the beech with its smooth A major trunk, its laughing E major foliage; the Scotch fir which passionate or still is always F sharp minor, cannot have been without influence on men.

Autumn is strongest in memory of all the seasons. To think of Autumn is to be smitten through most powerfully with an F sharp minor chord that stops the breath, wrings the heart with unmeasurable power. On Brahms it is so strong, this royal season; has given him much, worthily and truly translated. What! do you not know the Clarinet quintet, the Handel Variations, the C minor Symphony? And do you not smell Autumn air keen in the nostrils, touch and wonder at leaves fallen or about to fall? Have you not hastened to the woods of the F minor Quintet?

Perhaps you are too enamoured of the April of Mozart, in which you are both right and wrong. His is ‘the cascade of the larch.’ The young heavens forgetful after rain. Arcady is his, and in the springing season.

Children are always a delight, but the large eyes and innocence of them are not Mozart’s only, but of Schubert, Schumann, Haydn, and almost supremely of Bach, when he chooses to be fascinated by them. What is the little Prelude and Fugue in G major in the second part of the ’48’, but a fairy tale for children?

And who but a child brought the A major Concerto to us, or the F sharp Piano Sonata? (Of Mozart and Beethoven.)

Firelight is infinitely strong on us all, but on Schumann preeminently. One would think that man to have known Cotswold, and to have sheltered from its winter air in a house built of the stone most worthily used for Cathedrals, and as perfectly built. To have watched the dance and interlacing of shadows on the dim walls, but most to have gazed and lost himself in the deepest heart of the log-fire roaring upwards towards the vast chimney and the frosty stars.

This queer discursive essay-thing has come from remembrance of natural beauty which has brought music, and of music that opened suddenly a pathway through to show some picture, long ago seen, it may be, but passioned, made mystic and far more dear from the unexpectedness of the gift. A beauty out of beauty suddenly thrust unasked upon a heart that dared not want more; had not dreamed of asking more, and was suddenly given completely eternal right in Cranham, Portway, Redmarley, Crickley – before, the Paradise of Earth; after, as things unearthly, not to be thought on without tears, nor a fear of loss known deep in the spirit to be unfounded, unbelievable.

Worse nonsense has been written about such things as we all believe, and though truth is better treated more honestly, yet even through this mist of pretty words may show some of the plainness of the truth as it may have seemed to the makers and receivers.