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THE GLOUCESTERSHIRE GROUP: composers and poets of Gloucestershire

"The Gloucestershire Group", a three-part feature about the history of Gloucestershire and the composers and poets, including Gurney, Howells and F. W. Harvey, associated with it, Christian Science Monitor, 26 July, 2 August and 9 August 1919



The Home

Specially for the Christian Science Monitor

LONDON, England - In studying musical history it is a commonplace of experience to find that composers have often appeared in groups. One of the best known examples is the great Viennese school of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert; but it is no less natural to speak of the Elizabethan madrigalists, the contrapuntists of the Netherlands, the old North German organists, or to refer with admiration to that coterie of friends who did such marvellous work for Russian national music. What is true of music is also true of poetry. Lovers of English literature have long been familiar with the Lake school of poets. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, with Grasmere, Helvellyn, Rydal, Skiddaw, as their background, stand for a whole epoch of poetry and form a scarcely divisible unit.

But to reverence the past is easier than to recognise the significance of the present. Artistic developments come not by observation; public recognition is partial, interest is slow to kindle. Even today quite a number of Britons can be found who still aver that England is an unmusical country. Oh the bitterness of it! when during the last 60 years, such a renaissance as any country might be proud of has taken place in English music; this renaissance led by Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Charles Stanford, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Frederic Cowen with (later) Sir Edward Elgar, and carried on by men of the caliber of Walford Davies, Granville Bantock, John Ireland, Frank Bridge, and many others. Then, in literature only a section of the reading public has yet realised the Georgians, - those poets who by their sincerity and keenly experimental methods, have brought a new ideal and technique into contemporary English poetry. Or again, how many readers could give a succinct account of the Soldier Poets - the New Elizabethans as they are sometimes called - those young men who poured out poetry as spontaneously as the birds their songs among the guns in France and Flanders.

Distinguished Collaborators

But all these artistic movements are of common knowledge compared to what will, in future history, probably be referred to as the Gloucestershire Group - that circle linking all the other three, composed of men who are prominent figures in each. Up to the present hardly any one has realised the interest and significance of this group, so diverse in its lines of work. so unanimous in its deep feeling for the Border country between England and Wales. Yet, in course of time, it will probably be regarded with as much admiration as the Lake Poets; perhaps even more so, for in Cumberland there were but poets alone, in Gloucester there are composers also. This is not a single but a double rainbow - the arc of music formed by Sir Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, and Ivor Gurney; that of poetry by John Masefield, Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfred W. Gibson, James Elroy Flecker, John Drinkwater, F.W. Harvey, Ivor Gurney with John Freeman, W.H. Davies, Edward Thomas and others closely associated.

At first sight it may seem strange that so much genius should be focused upon one county; and in point of fact, it is not Gloucestershire's sole prerogative, but is shared to a considerable degree by the other counties on or adjacent to the Welsh border. Worcester can claim Sir Edward Elgar; to Shropshire belong Walford Davies and Edward German while another musician, who, at one remove, is of the Border, is Harold Darke, a highly gifted young composer whose father came from Worcester. Poetical associations also cluster thickly here, dominant among them being that little book of poems which has the very tang and color of Western earth, which come closer to genuine folk poetry than almost any other English verse, and which has exercised an immense influence on contemporary poets - A.E. Housman's 'Shropshire Lad'.

In and About Gloucestershire

No fitter home could be found for the arts of music and poetry and all they stand for than these border countries. Here hills, plains, and rivers have that tranquil beauty which comes from accomplishment; an insistent, an immense antiquity broods over the countryside; but it is also a land of happy youth, for nowhere is English spring more beautiful than in these glades and meadows. Young daffodils play in the wind like children, watched over by hills that were old before the Alps began - those Malverns, set in Worcestershire, but dominant afar to the vision throughout Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, their 1300 feet of height rising sheer from the plain with a dignity all their own. To a musician's fancy their steep, clear curves seem like a model on which olden folk singers shaped the melodic lines of British folk songs.

What is true of the Border Country in general is so of Gloucestershire in particular. Not a land to arouse amazement, but to accumulate love. It amply deserves the music and poetry which have sprung from its soil. For it is wonderfully varied. Possessing a bit of seaboard and the great trading port of Bristol, its true quality yet lies further inland, where the tidal bore floods up the Severn, bringing a breath of ocean to that plain, 'rich, blossomy, and sweetest of airs', lying between the lovely Cotswold hills and rugged mining district of the Forest of Dean. A land with the hills round it ''like a great imprisoning O', as a Gloucester poet has said.

In the First Century

But besides these aesthetic considerations, there are plenty of geographical and historical reasons to explain the phenomenon. From early times Gloucestershire was very happily situated as regards continuity of civilisation. The Cotswolds were a prehistoric route of travel; the Severn, to this day, is one of the most useful waterways in the Kingdom; and after the coming of the Romans with their magnificent roads, elaborate system of fortifications, and mining industries in the Forest of Dean, the county seems to have settled down to real prosperity not but that it took the Romans almost as much trouble, with elephants (the tanks of those days), before they could conquer it.

Glevum, Gloucester itself, the ancient city, dates from about A.D.47, and was the strategical center of the West. Here ran the great roads; here came the legionaries; here was the flux of commerce. Here lived men to whom the poetry of Virgil and Horace was familiar, while all the time away among the Welsh hills were bards and druids, adream with ancient celtic lore and legends. Surely, in course of time, the two streams of thought met and joined.

Countryside Protected

Even after the West Saxon conquest in 577, there is good reason to believe that no violent break in civilization occurred at Gloucester, though higher up the border at Deva and Uriconium (Chester and Wroxeter) the land was laid waste so that for 300 years only wild animals lived in what had been large Roman towns. And later again, owing partly to the valor of its inhabitants, and partly to its geographical position far from the East coast and buttressed by Wales, Gloucester suffered less from Danish pirates than most other parts of England, while in Norman days it resumed the military and commercial importance of Roman times.

All these considerations go far towards explaining Gloucestershire's artistic excellence; but another, and perhaps the most powerful factor in the situation, is that here, for close on 200 years, there has been continuous musical education.

A Community Undertaking

In medieval times all great ecclesiastical foundations were centers of light for their districts, drawing the arts into their service; but with the spread of secular learning and the Reformation this ceased - not perhaps in outer semblance, but in inner actuality. Then in 1724, the cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford relit a pure fire of music in their midst - they established the Three Choirs Festivals. They began with one day, gradually expanding the scheme until by 1836 it had grown to four, both sacred and secular works being performed. Also a most valuable feature grew up - that of commissioning new works for performance; and, for a long time, these festivals offered the only regular opportunity open to British composers of getting a hearing for large new works.

But perhaps the greatest blessing of all was that the inhabitants carried through the bulk of the performance themselves, under the conductorship of the cathedral organists. They formed the chorus, they helped in the orchestra, and those who neither sang nor played crowded to listen. There has been nothing comparable to it elsewhere in England, and the educative advantages were immense. For though at times people have doubted the value of these provincial music-makings in quiet, half-sleepy towns, though the pace of education has been slow, though the kindly folk of these western counties had a large tolerance for time in their natures, yet in the long run the great work has been achieved.  That it has been done unconsciously does not detract from its value. Collectively there is a wealth of artistic ability stored in the hearts of the Gloucesterians as was proved by the amazing Hymn Festival held by Sir Henry Hadow a year or two ago at Cirencester. Individually the Border counties have given to British composers who are an honor to that country and to music.


The Poets

Readers of these Articles may very pertinently enquire what the landscapes, poets and associations, have to do with the music. In the pedantic sense, not much, perhaps; but in actual practice they are indissolubly bound up with music and the world of thought in which composers move. For nature is the finest teacher that exists. Beethoven tacitly admitted this when he went to the woods and meadows for his inspirations; Debussy attested it when he wrote of the musicians of 20 or 30 years ago that 'they will only listen to music written by clever experts; they never turn their attention to that which is in nature. It would profit them more to watch a sunrise than to listen to a performance of the 'Pastoral' symphony'.

Now alike in nature and art, backgrounds are often as important as foregrounds, and poetry and music are of all arts most companionable to each other. Far more things go to the making of a composition than even composers are aware of, and a historical perspective is very necessary to anyone desirous of following the trend and meaning of modern developments. So it seems wisest here not to dissociate Gloucestershire and its composers, and vice versa.

Some landscapes have no subtlety; at a glance they lay bare their character. But others imply far more than they reveal, forever conveying their hints of what lies beyond. Gloucestershire has this unuttered beauty to the full. The sea, the hills of Wales, the Warwickshire meadows where once Shakespeare walked, are often visible to the eye, and always present even when unseen; their influence is felt flowing from beyond the sky line as surely as the Teme and Avon flow to enrich the Severn.


Land of Arthurian Romance

And just as there is an awareness of these things in the actual landscape, so in the background of thought their poetic associations are apparent. For there in Wales are the "dim, rich" legends of King Arthur and the knights with their superhumanly human types; and there in Warwickshire lie all the rounded glories of Shakespeare and his plays. Culture and civilisation have been almost continuous in Gloucester and Worcester from Roman times, and it is interesting and significant that what King Alfred wished to gather round him at his court - a circle of learned men, practically all he could find in England came from this district, the rest being foreigners brought from abroad.

These things then lie in the background. In the middle distance of history, and more closely connected with Gloucester, rises that first really fine English poem "The Vision of Piers Plowman", written during the reign of Edward III, the opening passages of which recount the visions that came to the poet as he lay upon the Malvern hills gazing out over the wide country beneath. It is of little moment that the poem is by three different authors, as recent authorities aver. What gives it a peculiar interest for anyone well acquainted with the composers of the Gloucestershire Group is the way in which certain characteristics appear and reappear, both in the earlier and later work, bridging the centuries at a bound. A profound feeling of pity and human brotherhood, a passionate democracy, a hatred of shams, a love of liberty, a sturdy opposition to all oppression or injustice - these alike are shared by the writer of "Piers Plowman", Sir Hubert Parry and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Or in the matter of meter, there again is the direct contact; for, with the difference that the old plan of alliteration appears as the linking quality of the verse instead of the the later one of rhyme Piers Plowman uses what is essentially the most modern conception of meter, a system in which the controlling unit of a line is the number of stresses and not the number of syllables.

Langland and Modern Verse

To a musician it is clear that this stress system approximates closely to the rhythms of music; but to the worthy professors of a hundred years ago it was a puzzle and the following explanation appeared in a manual of English literature: "The meter of 'Piers Plowman' is not very regular as the author's earnestness led him to use the fittest words rather than those which merely served the purpose of the rhythm." The very same thing might be said today of the poems of Ivor Gurney by persons unacquainted with recent developments since he constantly employs this stress method, handling it with a boldness derived from his double experience as a composer and poet.

During the last two centuries poetical associations have thickened about Gloucestershire. Though no man of letters has dedicated himself to the service of the county as Hardy and Barnes have done to Worcestershire, many poets have dwelt and worked in the district. Chatterton, Southey and Beddoes were all natives of Bristol - the port from which Cabot and his sons sailed to discover America. Wordsworth's famous 'Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey' may quite justifiably be claimed for the Gloucestershire bank of the Wye. W.E. Henley, one of the pioneer poets of the later Victorian times was born in Gloucester city. Thomas Hardy has written a long poem 'The Abbey Mason' on Gloucester Cathedral and its superb perpendicular architecture. F.W.H. Myers and Adam Lindsay Gordon had connections with Cheltenham.

The Bells of Gloucestershire

One of the best poems in Housman's 'Shropshire Lad' touches on Gloucestershire and deals with Bredon Hill:

In summer time on Bredon

The bells they sound so clear:

Round both the shires they ring them

In steeples far and near

A happy noise to hear

This bell music is very characteristic of an English countryside, and particularly so of this region, since for hundreds of years a famous foundry existed at Gloucester and there are over 1600 bells in that county alone. They are not organised into carillons as in Belgium; yet these 'rings' (to give them their technical name) are among the sweetest sounds of home to an English ear. Herbert Howells has unconsciously reproduced the lovely combinations of their overtones in the coda to the first movement of his violin sonata in E flat.

The most recent associations of Gloucestershire, however, those with the Georgian and soldier poets, bid fair to play the largest part in its musical history, since composers are turning more to contemporary poetry for lyrics to set.

John Masefield is one of the most notable Georgians and also singularly closely connected with the county, for though his first home was Ledbury, just across the border of Hereford, many of his finest plays and poems have their location in Gloucestershire, and its countryside colours his inmost thoughts. The last scene in 'The Everlasting Mercy' provides an example of this, and evidently refers to May Hill - a beautiful eminence which rises to the West of the city of Gloucester.

Retain Home Memories

James Elroy Flecker's poems are saturated with splendor and glowing hues of the Orient, but he retained loving thoughts of the Cotswolds and their tender tints long after he had left his boyhood home at Cheltenham, as readers may prove for themselves, in his 'Oak and Olive'.

In 1911 Lascelles Abercrombie, the well known poet, settled at Ryton, one of the loveliest parts of Gloucestershire. He was soon joined by Wilfred Wilson Gibson, and a little later a third poet followed the other two - Robert Frost, the distinguished American. These few drew round them a most brilliant circle of men of letters: John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, W.H. Davies, Edward Thomas, and John Freeman - all were frequent visitors. Many of their best poems were written either in or about Gloucestershire, and it was at Ryton that the now famous periodical, "New Numbers", was issued, in which Rupert Brooke's 1914 sonnets were first published.

Another member of the circle must be mentioned - John W. Haines, a very able man of letters. To him, and to a lecture he delivered before the Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological Society on 'The County of Gloucester in Modern English Literature', the present writer is indebted for helpful data.

The War-Camp Bards

Most recent of all are the two soldier poets, F.W. Harvey and Ivor Gurney, both Gloucestershire born. Gurney has been already referred to. Harvey's verses are full of charm, and he, like Gurney, has sung the beauties of his county in many delightful and virile poems.

Nowadays the artsong has become a vital thing in English music, and it is therefore important that composers should have a mass of fine contemporary poetry to draw upon when choosing words to set. While no-one can establish a monopoly in classic lyrics, it is obvious that unless a man feel very sure he has something new to say, he will hardly challenge comparison with Schubert, for instance, by resetting "Hark Hark the Lark" or "Who is Sylvia?" Also there is this to be remembered in the choice of words - the quality of a poem permeates all the music set to it. Though in certain cases the genius of the composer may override inferiority in the words, yet, generally speaking, the more highly gifted he is, the more does his music reflect the poem set. The ideal art song should be a perfect lyric, perfectly re-expressed in the kindred language of music.

Modern poets have already provided a wealth of notable and 'settable' poems. If - as seems the case - as English song literature is being built up which will equal the glories of the German lieder, this Gloucestershire Group of composers and poets will certainly prove to have a large share in the achievement.


The Composers

In the earlier articles of this series Gloucestershire and its poets have already been considered in relation to music. It remains, therefore, to speak of the composers themselves, the men who form what may be called the musical section of the Gloucestershire Group - i.e. Sir Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, and Herbert Howells. With them must be linked another composer, who, though not actually belonging to the group, yet seems to stand behind it watching in silent approval - Samuel Sebastian Wesley, born in 1810, who appears to the imagination like the figure of some pontiff, such as one may see pictured in old stained-glass windows, his gaze full of encouragement, his hand held uplifted in benediction.

Wesley was not a Gloucesterian himself, but his connection with the Border counties began early, on his appointment as Organist of Hereford Cathedral when only 22. It was his first big opportunity. Later he passed through a series of distinguished posts in other places, since he was easily the finest church musician of his day; but he returned at length to the Border country in 1865, when he accepted the organistship of Gloucester that no musician can think now of the cathedral - without thinking also of S.S. Wesley, his character proud and stormy as that of a Norman noble, yet withal sensitive, ideal and tender as a child.

Chopin was not more wholly the composer, par excellence, for the piano than Wesley was for Anglican church music; and his work, restricted in scope though it be, is of the finest quality. He alone, among English composers of the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, possessed that same fire of national genius which burned in earlier times in Henry Purcell, and which has re-emerged in such men as Parry, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams during recent years. In speaking of Parry, the greatest figure of the Gloucestershire Group, it is only possible, owing to limitation of space, to allude to such features of his work as are linked with his county.

A Thorough Genius

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry came of a Gloucestershire family, and inherited from his father, Mr Gambler Parry, the beautiful estate of Highnam, near Gloucester. He loved the place; and the present writer remembers how he delighted to go off there for weekends, passing straight from his duties as Director of the Royal College of Music in London to those of a country squire, displaying in each capacity an imaginative grasp and thoroughness which were characteristic of all he did. He knew every corner of Gloucester Cathedral, the very stones seemed dear to him, and many of his finest compositions - those which marked definite stages in his own career or in the progress of English music - are intertwined with the Gloucester meetings of the Three Choirs Festivals.

'Prometheus Unbound' (a setting for soli, chorus and orchestra of Shelley's poem) was produced here in 1880, when Parry was 32; and though it was not a success, it was something more unusual - a prophecy. Mr Fuller Maitland says of it in Grove's Dictionary of Music, that "the type of composition of which it was the first specimen has had great consequences in the development of our national art. The dramatic monologue of Prometheus had a new note of sincerity in it; besides the wonderful faithfulness of accentuation in which Parry has always been unrivaled among modern composers."

Parry's next big choral composition, also done for Gloucester, was a setting of Shirley's Ode "The Glories of Our Blood and State", a work for which he himself always had a special liking, and one which brought to the public a conviction that a new composer had arisen destined to do great things. Other works of his were produced at Gloucester in the years that followed, among them Job, one of the noblest of his oratorios and the beautiful sinfonia sacra "The Love That Casteth Out Fear".

Reference has already been made to Parry's faithfulness of accentuation in word setting. He brought to bear upon the task his double powers as musician and poet, and the result is something to marvel at in its truth and the delicacy of adjustment between words and music. His now famous series of songs, "The English Lyrics" are a fine example of his art in spanning "words with just note and accent" (to quote the phrase that Milton employed about a lesser song writer, Henry Lawes). Parry's greatness as a composer has perhaps, rather obscured the fact that he was also a gifted poet; though he never put forward any volume of poems, much poetry of his own is imbedded in the various cantatas and in some cases he arranged his librettos entirely.

Remainder of the Group

The three other composers of the Gloucestershire Group, Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells, are all men who came directly under Parry's influence at the Royal College of Music. Vaughan Williams was Parry's pupil' at one time and the others are pupils of Sir Charles Stanford. All three show their indebtedness to Parry by sturdy independence of thought and unswerving artistic sincerity, rather than by any adoption of his individual methods of technique - which is as he would have wished. Ralph Vaughan Williams, who in point of time stands between Parry and the two younger composers, was born at Down Ampney, on the borders of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. His genius is of the type which develops slowly, and he traveled widely and studied under masters of diverse schools while he was acquiring the technique which has since enabled him to express some of the most powerful and moving things that have yet been uttered in English music. Parry, Stanford, Max Bruch, Ravel - these are the men from whom he has learned, and his individuality has only glowed the brighter for contact with theirs.

Such splendid works of his as the "Sea Symphony" and "Toward the Unknown Region" (both settings of poems by Walt Whitman, with whom he seems to have a remarkable affinity) and the "London Symphony" leap to one's memory on the mere mention of his name; but his song cycle "On Wenlock Edge" has a special claim to be mentioned here, since the words are taken from A.E. Housman's "Shropshire Lad", and therefore belong to the Border country. Many composers have set these poems to music, but no one has more successfully reproduced their atmosphere than Vaughan Williams. Indeed in nearly all his songs, he sets the mood of a poem, rather than its exact words.

This "Wenlock Edge" cycle is laid out for tenor voice, string quartet, and piano, and the very first song in the set - that which gives its name to the work - is perhaps the best of them all. It is certainly one of the most vivid songs in English music.


Compositions of a Soldier Poet

Ivor Gurney, born at Gloucester, has already been referred to as one of the soldier poets. He has published two books of poems, 'Severn and Somme' and 'War's Embers'; but music is equally, or even more, his 'stunt', as he would probably say himself. When he won an open free scholarship for composition at the Royal College of Music, the examiners were struck by a certain power in his song which reminded them of Schubert.

It is as a composer of songs and chamber music that Gurney is known at present in musical circles. Four years spent in the army, where he served as a private in the Gloucester Regiment on the Somme, at Arras, and Ypres, have somewhat delayed his public career; but three at least of his finest songs were composed in France, one in a dugout and two others in a single day in a front line trench in July, 1916.

Herbert Howells, born at Lydney, has been written of so recently in these columns that there is no need to recapitulate the main facts of his career or his principal works. But one additional thing, connected with Gloucestershire may be mentioned. In 1916 he wrote a 'Gloucestershire Quartet' for strings, in which he painted his impressions of his beloved county - a work which he felt to be one of his best. The score was not many weeks old when it disappeared, lost, probably upon a train journey; and the most stringent search has failed to find even the least trace of it. The loss was a severe one, as Howells could not remember the quartet sufficiently to rewrite it.

The foregoing sketches have been necessarily brief, but perhaps they have served to show that the Gloucestershire Group has already done much fine work and has every prospect of achieving still more. Floreat Gloucestrensis! or as the Irish would say, 'More power to their elbows!'.

by Marion M Scott


This article appears here with the kind permission of Pamela Blevins


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