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Music Webmaster Len Mullenger



When the public wishes to know something about a composer beyond what may be sensed from listening to his music, it is a sure sign that he has made an impact. It was Inglis Gundry’s third opera, The Partisans, first performed in 1985, which more than any other work of his proclaimed the emergence of a new creative mind. Commissioned by the Workers’ Musical Association, and based on the kind of events that took place wherever there was a resistance movement during the 1939-45 war, the opera takes the mountains as its setting and these, in effect, become its principal character. In an aria of inspired lyrical beauty the partisan chief sings

Mountain, you who are higher than I,
Mountain, you who have the further view,
What has become of the men that adorn us?

The placing of human life in a larger perspective in this way throws the character painting into a new relief. Gundry is clearly interested in the masque of life-the parts which people play and the people who play them-and his philosophy is expressed nowhere more objectively than in his own words to The Madrigal of Life, which appears for the first time in these pages.

From the musical standpoint an outstanding feature of The Partisans is a wealth of effective choruses, a number of which make free use of Balkan folksong material. The predominantly harmonic style is well suited to opera; the lyrical idiom, neither aggressively modern nor obviously derivative, is well calculated to appeal to the new and growing opera public.

Conceiving music and words as ideally springing from one and the same creative source Gundry, an experienced writer with a published novel to his credit, always writes his own librettos. Even the most up-to-date British opera is not wholly emancipated from “librettist English”, and it is refreshing to find here simple colloquial language used without a trace of stylisation and wedded to music having an equal directness of expression. Strong also is the composer’s dramatic sense, which was fertilised by his experience of acting with the O.U.D.S. during undergraduate days. Similar qualities are found in his earlier operas. Of these Naaman, the Leprosy of War (1938), a one-act work in the form of a Greek play, already shows that the composer follows neither the Mozartian plan of non-recurring themes nor the Wagnerian ideal of the leading motif, but rather combines the two methods-a process begun, but not fully explored, by Verdi.

The Return of Odysseus, of which so far only the first act has been performed, was, in point of time, written between the two operas already described. Unlike others who have treated the theme of Ulysses, the Latin name by which Odysseus is more commonly known, the composer examined the original Greek sources, and has based his libretto closely upon his own translations from them. The atmosphere of the story is successfully evoked through the use of a more complex idiom than is usually found in Gundry’s music, and the conception has a dramatic intensity unusual in contemporary British music-drama.

Although Gundry’s expressed preference is for the writing of opera, his operas are not alone among his works in achieving a happy partnership of music and words. This is also found in the extended work for chorus and orchestra called Five Bells (1942). Describing itself as a Naval Suite and written largely during the composer’s year at sea in the Royal Navy, the work employs bugle calls and naval expressions actually in use, in which he found much unconscious poetry. From such data one might be led to infer that the work is of a light nature, but this is very far from being the case. Whilst happily contrived lighter moments are not wanting, the pivot of this drama of the sea is deeply serious. The climax is reached in the last movement, Pipe Down, which opens as it were with the relentless throb of engines, in a curious sense of apprehensiveness:

Echo of land - echo ahead - faint echo starboard beam.

Then, with unerring sense the composer gives the excitement a new dimension by bringing an almost cosmic perspective to bear:

Echo of stars - pointing down their light years.

Then we are reminded of the microcosmos, of the navigator who holds the lives of hundreds in the turn of his helm. The tragic atmosphere, cogently conveyed in the music, as of a ship, mist-bound passing out to be lost “ in the waste hours of the sea-borne night”, might almost have been prophetic of the fate which finally overtook H.M.S. Welshman, to the members of whose crew the work is dedicated. In music built so largely around short verbal phrases there is naturally little extended choral writing, although continuity of expression has been achieved by a skilful working of the fragments into a mosaic. This moving music has at times an almost Nordic flavour which, although he is primarily of Cornish descent, is also found in the composer’s name.

A number of works were inspired by Gundry’s experiences at sea. One of the most interesting is the orchestral Overture, Per Mare, Per Terram, in which the two main groups of themes seem to reflect the strange psychological differences and relationship between life at sea and life on the land. This overture is one of many orchestral works, which include Variations on an Indian Theme, inspired by the visit of Uday Shankar to London before the war. Then there is the Comedy Overture, first performed in a broadcast in 1939, and a Suite, Heyday, Freedom, first heard at a Promenade Concert in 1943 and first broadcast in 1947.

The title of the last mentioned work was suggested through comparison of the mood of a man on leave from the forces with Caliban. In the titles or texts of other works, the topical allusions or implications can be misleading at first glance, and this may be partly responsible for the undeserved neglect of one or two of them. I have, however, tried to show that few composers have been more sincerely preoccupied with the relationship of the particular to the general, and of the human drama to that other drama of which it is but a reflection. Inspiration is taken not so much from ordinary life, as from that which is behind ordinary life and which we are missing. An interesting Song Cycle for Baritone, Clarinet and Piano, called Three Chinese Pictures and written after a visit to the Chinese Art Exhibition, has something of this feeling towards the supernatural. It is one of the composer’s very few essays in the field of chamber music, which also include an early Fantasy String Quartet which was awarded the Cobbett Prize in 1936.

The earlier works already make use of the traits which appear regularly in the composer’s later music, e.g. chords based on the pentatonic and whole-tone scales, consecutive diminished fifths, the augmented fourth of the Lydian mode used melodically, and extended use of pedal-point. But during the last five or six years these features have become closely knit in a more consistent idiom which points in an individual direction.

Apart from the chamber music and songs written during Gundry’s studentship at the Royal College of Music (1935-38), where he was a pupil of Vaughan Williams, his output to date, which includes also three operas, a ballet, two works for chorus and orchestra, and eight orchestral works, has been produced entirely during the last ten years, a number of which were spent on active service. The composer, born in 1905, was not able to turn to music as a profession until he had passed his thirtieth birthday, six years after he was called to the Bar. The size of his accumulated output is encouraging, and interesting developments are to be expected if his musical language continues to develop with its present momentum.

The potentialities of microtones apart (in which, by the way Gundry is deeply interested), the age of pure experiment in harmonic combinations has already passed its zenith; many composers writing now are, like Gundry, more concerned with making secure the new freedom won by the pioneers of the early part of the century. But other types of experiment await a more complete trial. Some must claim especially the attention of the English operatic composer; and questions of form and of the setting of the English language, to mention but two, present problems enough. With these problems Gundry is much concerned at present; he is already in the process of writing a new full-length opera on an Elizabethan subject. Every serious attempt at opera by a British composer is of especial interest and significance today, when the problems of building a native tradition have enjoyed such recognition as to enjoy considerable subsidy from public money. More’s the pity that opportunities for adequate performance are still so few.

Though the age of poetic drama has probably already reached its peak, the full flowering of music-drama belongs to the future. To clothe drama with music which shall be the equal in aptness of that supreme poetry which has clothed great drama in the past: the aim of British composers of serious opera can be nothing less than this. His realisation of the psychological possibilities of opera, wide literary scholarship and a keen dramatic sense should enable Inglis Gundry, guided by his emotional warmth and humanity, to play a significant part in the emancipation of British opera from extraneous influences, and in the building of our own native tradition.

© Peter Crossley-Holland

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