Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
INGLIS GUNDRY 8 May 1905 - 13 April 2000
I first met Inglis Gundry in 1967 when he was giving a talk to the London Cornish Association. I volunteered to sing in the chorus for a new opera he was recording, called The Three Wise Men. This was a spin-off from one of his main interests at the time: the performances of the Sacred Music Society which he had founded in 1960.
It seems he had always been attracted by the stage, relishing the Savoy operas as a boy, (as I did myself) and finally becoming fascinated by the mediaeval dramas in the French Fleury MS. Their language was of course, Latin, but Inglis, (rightly, in my opinion) wanted the audience to understand the action and become involved so he fitted the words to the text of the (17th Century) Authorised Version of the Bible. I remember him once telling me that if one of his own operas was ever performed in, say, France or Germany, he would prefer it to be performed in a good translation of French or German. This is exactly what I feel myself, despite having heard the original language so many times. Personally, I want what tho Count is saying to Susanna to be intelligible to me while he is singing - not because of having read it before or reading it on tho way home! Perhaps the invention of surtitles points to a definite need for audiences.
The SMDS have survived into the new century, and it still performs the medieval dramas in churches (and some cathedrals) all over the country at Easter and Christmas wherever possible.
Returning to The Three Wise Men, I travelled with a friend, to King's Langley in Hertfordshire in 1967 to attend the first performance of the opera in the church - a humble venue in an out-of-the-way place - for the premiere of such an exceptional work. The boldness of the whole conception amazed me: opening with a brief unaccompanied carol, the spotlight then fell on a singer in the pulpit, in modern dress, holding a telescope. The three Magi each come from different disciplines: the first is an astronomer, the second a Philosopher, and the third a Doctor. The Astronomer is baffled by the appearance of a new star - brighter than all the others, the Philosopher finds that the works of all the learned men cannot give him the answer for which he is searching, and the Doctor realises that perhaps a true cure for the sick lies outside the scope of medical science.
Meeting and journeying together through the biblical lands, their search leads them to a country with a strict authoritarian regime under the dictatorship of Herod; who is suspicious of the foreign 'spies', only allowing them to continue accompaniod by an 'Officer' and an 'interproter' to keep an eye on them - whom they eventually manage to shake off. This bald summary of the basis of the plot may not sound very plausible, but this is where the imaglnatlon of a true composer for the theatre comes in.
The opera is punctuated throughout by the beautiful traditional carols from Cornwall (sung by the chorus) in a way similar to the use of the chorales in the Bach passlons. The music for Herod and his underlings however, is based on a twelve-note tone-row, and is harsh and unyielding. By contrast, the music for the Wise Men, and for the nativlty scenes is warm, human, and deeply moving.
Rather than giving a list of Gundry's fifteen operas (yes, fifteen!) I have concentrated on one that I know well, which I have conducted myself, and which was my introduction to his music. Unfortunately, with the changes in fashion he was never really taken up by the establishment, and his operas have usually been staged (if at all) on a shoe-string budget. I have in my mind's ear the sound of an adequate performance of this and his other operas, given by first-rate singers and good professional instrumentalists, under a far better conductor than I, and with plenty of rehearsal time. I honestly believe that such a performance could win him the place he deserves in British music.
The details of his life are available in his autobiography Last boy of the family, and his enormous range of musical knowledge is enshrined in his book Composers by the Grace of God both available from Thames Publishing). The latter is the crown of his many years spent lecturing on music for the WEA and the extra-mural departments of London, Surrey and Cambridge Universities. It is an immensely readable book, never dry, but entertainingly written, and one the reader can browse in. 'Let's what he says about so-and-so and it will always be worth finding out!
As a student with Vaughan Williams at the RCM, and later as a personal friend, he absorbed some of the wonderful qualities of that great man, but without ever being derivative of his music. RVW championed Gundry's work, going to performances (sometimes several times) and generously contributed financially towards the performances of Gundry's opera Avon in 1949.
It is interesting to me that, unlike many of our distinguished composers, he did not come up through stained glass and the organ loft, but went straight towards the theatre with Naaman, the Leprosy of War (1938) and The Return of Odysseus, the first act of which was performed at the RCM in 1940 (during the blackout!) with Maggie Teyte as Penelope and Boyd Neel conducting a section of the LSO. After that Gundry went into the Navy for the duration of the war, editing the Naval Songbook among other things.
In many ways all this reminds me of another friend of his, Rutland Boughton - who was able to beat the establishment by putting on his own operas at Glastonbury. and good luck to him! Gundry (like Wagner) has always written his own libretti, his creative facility with words served him well. He has also kept going - (and this is important) - in the face of disappointment and neglect: his last opera, Galileo, dating from 1992.
In one of the last conversations I had with him, I asked if there was something which could be taken from this opera and performed alone in concert. He suggested Galileo's final aria, voicing all the great disappointments and frustrations of that father of modern science. By the time you read this, I hope that that aria, which he never heard, will have had an airing. Is there a similarity here, perhaps, between Gundry and Galileo?
William Lewarne Harris
FOR ALL that he lived long enough to give fashion the chance to catch up with him, Inglis Gundry never had the satisfaction of seeing his music gain the currency its advocates insist it deserves. Yet a world that has rediscovered the Celtic mystery-operas of Rutland Boughton and returned them to esteem will surely still find room for some of Gundry?s 15 operas, some of them anchored, like Boughton's, in Cornish myth.
Gundry was born in 1905 in Wimbledon, south-west London, of Cornish ancestry: in his 1998 autobiography Last Boy of the Family (which, though published in book form, can also be found in its entirety on the web, he explains that the name means 'the house on the down' in Cornish; and, despite his origins in comfortable London suburbia, Gundry insisted, 'I always felt I was a proper Cornishman'.
After studying classics and philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, Gundry yielded to parental pressure and went on to study law at Middle Temple. Although he qualified as a barrister, he refused to practise and so embarked briefly on a teaching career, first at Bromsgrove School, as a private tutor and as librarian at Mill Hill, the school he had himself attended. The musical ambitions of his adolescence now began to emerge more emphatically, and he applied to the Royal College of Music, where he was assigned to Ralph Vaughan Williams; Gundry stayed there until 1938, studying also with R.O. Morris (counterpoint) and Gordon Jacob (orchestration).
An early set of Three Chinese Pictures, for baritone, clarinet and piano, was well received, and a Phantasy String Quartet received the Cobbett Prize, both in 1936. Before long Gundry was composing Naaman, the Leprosy of War, the first of what may be the longest series of operas by a British composer since the 18th century. The last of them, Galileo, was composed when he was 87.
He had a ready pen, having concentrated on literature as a teenager, when it looked as if music was going to be forbidden to him, and he had published a novel, The Countess' Penny, in 1934. So it was entirely natural that, like Wagner, he should write his own libretti.
Gundry's budding career was interrupted by the Second World War: in 1940 he was called up, to the Royal Navy. Before leaving he mounted a performance of the first act of his second opera, The Return of Odysseus. His two years of duty on HMS Welshman involved mine- laying and running supplies into Malta; just after the Navy assigned him to safer, educational work, Welshman was torpedoed. Meantime Hinrichsen had published his choral naval suite Five Bells and the orchestral suite Heyday Freedom, which in 1943 was performed at a Prom, conducted by Basil Cameron.
His Balkan-inspired third opera, The Partisans, was commissioned and presented by the Workers' Musical Association in 1946, and he continued to lecture for the WMA for almost four decades, initially earning the suspicion of Marxist sympathies. In truth, Gundry was a committed Christian, writing a book, Composers by the Grace of God (1998), that examined the role of religion in the composition of great music. The title, he explained, 'does not suggest that all composers, even those greatly worthy of the name, believe in God. They clearly do not. But it seems to me a proof of God's sense of humour that He sometimes gives the gift to people who deny His existence.'
In 1949 Gundry presented his fourth opera, Avon, through his own efforts (as he had with The Return of Odysseus) and with support from friends, including his old teacher Vaughan Williams. A school opera, The Horses of the Dawn, after Euripides' Rhesus, followed a year later; it is still unperformed.
Under the influence of the ethnomusicologist and Celtic specialist Peter Crossley-Holland, Gundry returned to his ancestral roots for his sixth opera, The Tinners of Cornwall, in 1953, which the London-Cornish Association mounted almost immediately. And in 1956 the seventh, a comic chamber opera called The Logan Rock, was presented on a shoestring at the open-air Minack Theatre, built into the rocks at Porthcurno in Cornwall 'within sight of the Logan Rock itself 'though the weather interrupted every performance after the opening night.
Gundry continued to receive support for his composing not from the established opera companies but from friends and small-scale amateur associations: in 1970 his 10th opera, The Prisoner Paul, was indeed performed at Covent Garden 'not in the Royal Opera House but in St Paul's Church, on the other side of the market.
Other works include song-cycles, choral music, and considerable quantity of music for harp, not least a concerto, and a handful of other orchestral pieces. There are several books, on opera, music in general, and religion and science. And for half a century he lectured for the extramural departments of London, Cambridge and Surrey universities.
Gundry's regard for things Cornish took practical forms: he edited several collections of Cornish hymns, songs and dances; and he was elected a bard of the Cornish Gorsedd and Vice-President of the Cornish Music Guild. Similarly, his enthusiasm for the Christmas and Easter trilogies from the 13th- century Fleury manuscript was a productive one: working from a photocopy of the original, he translated them from Latin into King James English and arranged them without disturbing the original rhythms. In 1960 he founded the Sacred Music-Drama Society to perform them and conducted them himself every year until 1986.
Crossley-Holland offers a precise characterisation of Gundry's style: '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'. These traits, suffused through Gundry's predominantly lyrical style, impart a timeless quality that should ensure a life for his music if ever it gets a chance to be heard. His biggest non-operatic work, the full-scale oratorio The Daytime of Christ (1978), has yet to be performed.
Inglis Gundry, composer: born London 8 May 1905; married 1957 Peggy Maggs (two daughters); died London 13 April 2000.
"Reprinted by permission from The Independent, Obituaries, 11 May 2000"
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