Ivor Gurney

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Ivor Gurney (August 28, 1890 - December 26, 1937) was an English composer and poet.

Born at 3 Queen Street, Gloucester in 1890, Gurney sang as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral, from 1900 to 1906 when he became an articled pupil of Dr Herbert Brewer at the cathedral. During this time he met two important friends, composer Herbert Howells, also a pupil of Brewer, and the future poet F. W. Harvey. Gurney began composing music at the age of 14 and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911. He studied there with Charles Villiers Stanford who also taught Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Marion Scott, Rebecca Clarke. Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, Arthur Bliss and many others. Stanford told Howells that Gurney was potentially "the biggest of them all", but he was "unteachable". Gurney's studies were interrupted by World War I where he was wounded in April 1917 and gassed in September the same year. But his poetic gift also revealed itself at this time, resulting in two volumes of poetry, Severn and Somme (1917) and War's Embers (1919). After the war, Gurney returned to London to resume his music studies at the RCM with Vaughan Williams.

Gurney suffered from bipolar disorder, which showed symptoms during his mid-teens and led to his first documented breakdown in 1913, followed by a major breakdown in the spring of 1918 while he was still in uniform. He was never shell-shocked nor did he suffer from schizophrenia, the label often used to describe his illness. The 1918 breakdown was triggered by the failure of his relationship with VAD Annie Nelson Drummond whom he met when he was a patient at the Edinburgh War Hospital. Although he seemed to thrive after the war when he was regarded as one of the most promising men of his generation, his untreated bipolar illness continued to worsen. By 1922, his condition had deteriorated to the point where his family had him declared insane. He spent the last 15 years of his life in mental hospitals, first for a short period at Barnwood House in Gloucester, and then at the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford. He continued to write poetry and a scattering of music, which was collected and preserved by his friend Marion Scott and later edited by Edmund Blunden, Gerald Finzi, and others. Gurney died of tuberculosis in the City of London Mental Hospital on 26 December 1937 at the age of 47. He was buried in Twigworth, a small village to the north of his beloved Gloucester.

Gurney wrote hundreds of poems and more than 300 songs as well as instrumental music. He set only a handful of his own poems, the best known being Severn Meadows. His best-known compositions include his Five Elizabethan Songs (or 'The Elizas' as he called them) and the song-cycles Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland, both settings of poetry by A. E. Housman. Gurney was "a lover and maker of beauty", as it said on his gravestone (now replaced, and stored inside Twigworth church), and there is something of Schubert and Schumann, but considerably less of the prevailing folk idiom of the time, in the intensity of his musical language.

Gurney is known both as a poet and composer and his reputation in both arts has continue to rise. Edmund Blunden, at the urging of composer Gerald Finzi, assembled the first collection of Gurney's poetry which was published in 1954. This was followed by P. J. Kavanagh's Collected Poems, first published in 1982 and reissued in 2004. It remains the best edition of Gurney's poetry. Gurney is regarded as one of the great English World War I poets, and like the others of them, such as Edward Thomas whom he admired, he often contrasted the horrors of the front line with the beauty and tranquillity of his native English landscape.

Ian Venables is chairman' of the Ivor Gurney' society and is currently working to achieve the publication of some previously un-published works from Gurney.

  • P. J. Kavanagh (ed.) (2004 [reprint]). Ivor Gurney, Collected poems. Fyfield Books. ISBN 1-85754-709-8. 

Pamela Blevins, "New Perspectives on Ivor Gurney's Mental Illness", The Ivor Gurney Society Journal, Volume 6, 2000, pp,29-58. Pamela Blevins, "One Last Chance: Dr. Randolph Davis and Ivor Gurney", The Ivor Gurney Society Journal, Volume 9, 2003, pp. 91-99.

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