Ivor Gurney (1890–1937): Soldier, of a Sort, Poet & Composer

Meeting chaired by Janet Cunfille-Jones

Richard Carder

Editor of Ivor Gurney’s Songs, Music, & advisor to the Ivor Gurney Society

Chairman of the English Poetry & Song Society

27 April 2005

Richard Carder’s talk about Gurney was illustrated with pictures, and much recorded music.

There has recently been a renaissance of interest in Gurney. A biography by Michael Hurd, published in 1978 has done much to arouse interest.

The first song played, Severn Meadows, to which Gurney wrote both words and music while at the war in France, showing quintessential qualities of his:

Only the wanderer

Knows England’s graces,

Or can anew see clear

Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he

That dwells in shadows?

Do not forget me quite

O Severn meadows.

Gurney was born in 1890, to a literal ‘tailor of Gloucester’. He showed musical talent early, and joined the cathedral choir under Dr. Herbert Brewer. After his voice broke he was articled to Dr. Brewer as apprentice organist and music student. Canon Cheeseman, his Godfather, of Gloucester Cathedral did much to encourage his musical and literary work. His fellow music students were Herbert Howells and the future Ivor Novello. Howells was a quiet, modest student, but Gurney was argumentative.

Two songs then played showed contrasting moods, a setting of a light-hearted poem by Robert Graves, and one of the grim border ballad The Twa Corbies. At this time Gurney wrote to A.E. Houseman, asking permission to set some songs, and giving his address as Gloucester Cathedral. Houseman replied with dry humour

Gurney won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. He met a musician and secretary there, Marion Scott, who became a very supportive friend, and one who later did much to save Gurney’s unpublished work from destruction. He also got a job as organist at High Wickham. One of the Churchwardens was a Mr. Chapman, who had three daughters. Gurney became friendly with the family, and fell in love with the eldest girl, Kitty, but when he proposed he was told her family considered her too young..

A setting of Sleep by the Elizabethan poet John Fletcher, one of a group of songs written in the winter of 1914, shows the first development of Gurney’s true musical voice. Gerald Finzi, hearing it some time in the 1920s, recognised its greatness. Gurney always loved Elizabethan poetry, but was unusual among composers of his time in using contemporary poetry as well.

His unsuccessful love affair with Kitty Chapman may be reflected in his setting of Down by the Sally Gardens, which has been set by many composers, including Ireland and Britten, but Gurney’s version stands up to comparison.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Gurney tried to enlist, was rejected on some health grounds, but tried again and was accepted (in the Gloucesters) early in 1915, and became a member of a military band. Receiving a letter from a committee of the Royal College of Music, offering help to maintain his musical career while he was in the army, he replied humorously, as his career was scarcely existent. He was sent to France in the following year. In a picture of Herbert Howells and Gurney standing together, Howells is neat, dapper and formal, Gurney has his hands in his pockets, careless of appearances. He had trouble in the army keeping his kit in order, and was not a favourite of sergeant-majors.

Richard Carder has been working on about two hundred of Gurney’s songs, which have never been published. He said that there was much worthwhile material among them, and played an example from a group of songs written in the optimistic early period of the war – a marching song, to words by James Elroy Flecker.

It was after joining the army that Gurney really started writing poetry. Carder read a grim wartime poem, The Ballad of the Three Spectres, which could perhaps be seen as prophetic of Gurney’s fate after the war. A gentler poem is addressed to his friend, F W Harvey, who was a prisoner of war in Germany. Ypres – Minsterworth describes how the autumn wind

left behind

Leaves strewn on pastures, blown in hedges,

And by the roadway lined.

He hopes the same wind will bear comfort to his friend,

and tell

Of comrades safe returned, home-keeping

Music and Autumn smell.

Gurney spent only about a year in France, being wounded in the arm, and later gassed. He was sent home, and was in hospital in Edinburgh, where he fell in love again, with a nurse, Annie Nelson-Drummond. He wrote five songs for her, but by now his mental problems were becoming apparent, and he was subject to mood-swings. When Annie refused him, Gurney plunged into deep depression. He was sent to a gloomy mental hospital at Warrington in Lancashire, where he became nearly suicidal. He wrote an extraordinary letter to Marion Scott describing a meeting and conversation with the spirit of Beethoven.

Nevertheless, most of Gurney’s best musical work was written in the two years, 1919 and 1920. Carder played ‘A classic song, one of his best’, called All Night under the Moon. Another, perhaps reflecting his heart-break over Annie Nelson-Drummond, was a setting poem by Yeats, The Folly of Being Comforted.

Gurney was discharged from the army, and his friend Will Harvey returned safely from Germany. In 1919 they went together to Oxford, to visit John Masefield. Here Gurney met Robert Graves, as well as Edmund Blunden and Robert Bridges, and he subsequently set several of Graves’ poems. He returned to his job as organist at High Wickham, and for a while to his studies at the Royal College of Music, where his tutor was now Vaughan Williams, with whom he got on well. But his mood-swings became more erratic. He lived for a while with an aunt near Gloucester, on a small war pension, and casual jobs, but it became clear that he could not cope with regular work. In 1921–1922, his output of songs was diminishing.

He moved in, uninvited, with his newly married brother, Ronald, who had no belief in Ivor’s musical ability, and later nearly destroyed all his music. He was not an easy guest, and at the end of 1922 Ronald had him committed to a local asylum. After a few months Ivor’s friend and supporter Marion Scott arranged for him to be transferred to an asylum in Dartford, Kent, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. He continued writing both music and poetry during this time; some of the poetry, especially, being considered as good as any he had written earlier. The last song which can be definitely dated was written in March 1926, a setting of a poem of his own, showing once again his nostalgia for the beloved Gloucestershire countryside.

The playing of many songs had greatly added to the interest and pleasure of this talk, but had also taken up a good deal of time, so there was limited opportunity for questions and discussion.

Asked about Gurney’s parents, Richard said he was fond of his father, who died in 1921, but his mother was reputedly ‘a bit of a shrew’ who showed little affection. She visited Gurney in the asylum but it was not a happy relationship. There was some discussion of Gurney’s relationship with Edward Thomas, and allusion to two other poets who had periods of mental illness, William Cowper, and especially John Clare, whose years in Northampton asylum most paralleled Gurney’s.

The convenor asked what books, by or about Gurney, were available. The list below is a partial answer:

Hurd, Michael. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, (out of print, but may be re-published).

Boden, Anthony Stars in a Dark Night (based on Gurney’s letters)

Gurney, Richard. Collected Poems (ed.) P.J. Kavanagh (& a cheaper collection published by Everyman).

A new biography was published in the Writers & their Work series (British Council, 2001).

Gurney’s Collected Letters are also available.

Only two collections of poems, Severn and Somme and War’s Embers were published in Gurney’s lifetime, but a number have published been since (ed. by RKR Thornton & published by Carcanet).

Many CDs of his music have been and are being produced.