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----- An article by Jane Lofthouse -----

On 8th May 1995 one of Cornwall’s most distinguished composers celebrated his ninetieth birthday. However, despite numerous outstanding performances of his works by first class artists, including such legends as Maggie Teyte, Wilfred Brown and Edith Coates, with performances conducted by distinguished musicians such as Basil Cameron and Geoffrey Corbett, and despite the support and patronage of no less a composer than Ralph Vaughan Williams, and with a Prom performance to his credit, Inglis Gundry is now largely overlooked by the music establishment.

Though keen to devote his life to music at the age of fourteen, it was not until relatively late in life that Inglis finally made the commitment when, aged thirty, he entered the RCM to study with Vaughan Williams and later, also with R.O. Morris and Gordon Jacob. There he won the Cobbett Prize for his String Quartet. By this time Inglis had already been called to the Bar, though he never actually answered the call, and had written two novels, one of which had been published.

Inglis has never abandoned his literary career: apart from writing the libretti for his fifteen operas, Inglis has also written books and articles on musical subjects including, Composers by the Grace of God which is a study of the relationship between music and profound religious belief, and The Calling of the Cleeves, a time-picture of history from its beginnings in legend through to the ancient civilisations, including the early Celts, and from thence to modern times.

Two of the strongest inspirational forces in Inglis’s life have been his fervent religious beliefs and his love and fascination for Cornwall. A number of Inglis’s works have religious subjects: The Three Wise Men speaks for itself, as do titles such as, The Prisoner Paul and The Visit to the Sepulchre. In 1960 Inglis founded the Sacred Music-Drama Society which during its long life has performed these works side by side with the medieval music-dramas that inspired them. Inglis had been given a photocopy of the thirteenth century manuscripts of the Christmas and Easter trilogies from Fleury and translated them into English, taking especial care to preserve the original rhythm of the words.

Though born in London into a family that had left Cornwall over one hundred years before his birth, Inglis has always felt very much that his roots are in Cornwall. He was made a bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1952, taking as his Bardic name Ylewyth-Musician, and studied the Cornish language and dialect. One of my first memories of Inglis is of him laying the wreath at the An Gof ceremony at Marble Arch in 1985. He gave a very impressive speech in Cornish lapsing only at the end into Latin, which, he confessed, came to him a little more easily. For someone who had read Classics at Oxford and had made his own translations from Homer’s Greek texts this is, I suppose, not surprising!

It was not long after this meeting that Inglis accepted the invitation to be a Vice-President of the Cornish Music Guild, continuing his long and close involvement with music in Cornwall. Two of Inglis’s works most directly inspired by Cornwall are his operas The Tinners of Cornwall, performed, with the help of the London Cornish Association, at the Rudolf Steiner Hall in 1953, and The Logan Rock, performed at the Minack Theatre in 1956. A revival of one of these in Cornwall to celebrate Inglis’s ninetieth would indeed have been a boon. Other compositions have been inspired by Cornwall or based on Cornish themes: Hail Sacred Day - A Celebration of Cornish Christmas Carols tells the Christmas story using arrangements of Cornish carols for choir and harp; also, arranged for voice and harp, are Peder Can Kernow, Four Cornish Folk Songs. Inglis has made a special study of Cornish folk songs. In 1966 Canow Kernow, a collection of traditional Cornish songs and dances edited by Inglis, was first published. For this great feat Inglis was awarded the Gorsedd Shield "for Services to Cornish Music". He has since produced a collection of Cornish carols, including the first published editions of the Padstow carols, and, following his years as adjudicator of the Gorsedd competitions, an edition of successful entries published in the volume Cornish Folksongs of Today - Canow an Weryn Hedhya. Inglis also edited the Cornish section of Peter Kennedy’s book, Folksongs of Britain and Ireland.

After the Second World War, following his work in the Royal Navy, Inglis gave music appreciation classes for the Workers’ Educational Association. Now, fifty years later, Inglis still gives these classes. It was planned that later in 1995 Inglis’s Harp Concerto would be performed in Cornwall and that other concerts would include some of his songs and Hail Sacred Day.

The London celebration took place on the afternoon of 7th May 1995, the day before his ninetieth birthday, at St. John’s, Smith Square. A number of old friends were involved including the harpist, Brian Davis, who has long been an advocate and performer of Inglis’s music, and Inglis’s fellow composer and friend, Bill Harris.

Inglis has had a life-long "relationship" with the harp, an instrument for which he writes most sympathetically. His grandmother’s harp, an Erard 1849, inherited by his mother, shared the family home. Inglis’s grandmother, A.J. Rexford, who played and taught both piano and harp, had some of her harp compositions published. It was this instrument that inspired Brian Davis to study the harp and he has since performed all Inglis’s harp compositions.

At St. John’s Brian played Inglis’s Concerto in A flat Minor for Solo Harp and, changing to the clarsach, his Variations on an Old Cornish Christmas Carol, In These Twelve Days, an ingenious piece rhythmically, progressing through all the /4s up to 12/4. The programme also included the song cycle for voice and harp, Ruth and Naomi, which Brian performed with Andrée Back. Four Songs of Experience, settings of William Blake’s poems Hear the Voice of the Bard, Ah! Sunflower, The Sick Rose and The Tiger, received their first performance in a BBC broadcast made by Wilfred Brown and Frederick Stone in 1957. These metaphysical texts, not surprisingly, appealed to Inglis’s psyche and have drawn from him intensely expressive music. They were performed by myself accompanied by pianist Michael Dussek. Michael also accompanied Ian Partridge CBE who sang the song-cycle, Songs of Friendship: among the seven songs dedicated to his friends, are settings of Burns’ John Anderson, my Joe John, and, more unusually, a setting of Cassius’ words to Brutus from Act IV scene III of Julius Caesar. In conclusion Bill Harris accompanied Donald Francke, another old friend, in The Black Mountain Songs and in Chinese Pictures, in which they were joined by clarinettist Andrew Sparling.

Inglis has always loved the colours of the human voice, which he finds most inspiring and which his "melodious habits" suit admirably; though he makes demands he never asks the impossible and, when those demands are realised his music is always very rewarding to sing and his sensitivity to words always satisfying. This understanding of the singer can, in part, be attributed to what Inglis rather amusingly refers to as "his initiation into the singer’s art" (and what singers might call "the singer’s revenge"), an initiation effected by the singing teacher Antony Benskin, who felt that Inglis should know something of life on the other side of the baton. Inglis says,

"I shall never forget the shock of realising that one, like myself, who had so often pulled singers up for failing to keep time, could become a sinner along exactly the same lines once he was involved in the inner absorption of the singer; and the experience of hearing my own grand piano suddenly reel out of tune as I sang with it (keeping perfect pitch myself, of course!) was one of the most devastating I have ever had."

Inglis, himself, feels that modern styles have left him in something of a backwater but, nothing daunted, confides that, as fashions change, music which is sincere and good of its kind will ultimately survive. In celebrating Inglis’s ninetieth year, this is a confidence which we can all share.

© Jane Lofthouse

[first published: Cornish Worldwide & Cornish Music Guild Newsletter No 11 (1995) then in issue No. 69, 1996 British Music Society Newsletter]

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