Ian Partridge tenor
IVOR GURNEY (1890-1937)
"Author, Composer, Soldier-of-a-sort"
with Malcolm Sinclair
Ivor Gurney was born in Gloucester in 1890, the eldest son of a tailor. He became a chorister of Gloucester Cathedral where his fellow pupils included Ivor Novello and Herbert Howells, who was to become one of his closest friends. In 1911, he won an open composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music. It was during those early years that he began to compose seriously and, in 1914, he wrote to his friend and fellow poet F.W. Harvey - "Willy, Willy, I have done five of the most delightful and beautiful songs you ever cast your beaming eyes on. They are all Elizabethan - the words - and blister my kidneys, bisurate my magnesia if the music is not as English, as joyful, as tender as any lyric of all that noble host..."
Sir Charles Stanford, who taught him composition, maintained Gurney had more genius than anybody he had ever taught, but that he was absolutely unteachable. He was described as the English Schubert. His obituarist in the Sunday Times spoke of him as having the gift of "an exceptionally sensitive feeling for the spoken word and the sung phrase, an instinct for their fashion, which is rare and the most coveted gift of the song writer..."
On the outbreak of the Great War he volunteered, but was not accepted until 1915. In May 1916 he went to France as a private soldier in the 2nd/5th Gloucesters, and fought in the Battle of the Somme. As a First World War poet, he ranks alongside Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, for whom he had such an admiration and with whom he shared his passion for the Gloucestershire countryside.
It was Marion Scott, his friend and mentor, to whom he wrote most frequently from the trenches, and to whom he sent his music and poetry, written with mortars flying overhead. It was she who collected his work and was the instigator of their publication and performance.
That he managed to produce work of such quality in so short a working life leaves one wondering what he might ultimately have achieved if mental and physical illness, exacerbated by his being gassed in 1917 at Passchendale, had not always been part of his life. At the age of 32 he was put in a mental hospital after a suicide attempt with what nowadays would be recognised as schizophrenia. He remained in an institution for 15 years, until he died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 47.
This celebration of Ivor Gurney includes reminiscences and letters, from his immediate family in Gloucester and from friends literary and musical, as well as the poetry and songs, some of which have hitherto been unseen and unpublished. 1997 was the 60th anniversary of his death. 1998 is the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
In "Music and Letters", J.C. Squire wrote in 1938:
I have known composers with a fine literary sense and poets who loved music but could neither compose nor play. I have known no man save Gurney who had the double creative gift that Rossetti had in his two arts. His poems are few, young and troubled by war; but they are full of promise and maturity. The practice of the art has made him all the more sensitive to the quality of the lyrics which he set as songs. He has never set bad words.
I suppose it will come to light some day. But the best in the arts still have the old struggle.
Details of the Ivor Gurney Society on request from William Marshall, Secretary. By post: William Marshall, The Ivor Gurney Society, 4 Myton Road, London SE21 8EB
Recital by Ian and Jennifer Partridge
St Mary de Lode Church, Gloucester
featuring music by Ivor Gurney, Peter Warlock and John Jeffreys.
Recital in Brussels
including songs by Ivor Gurney and other World War I composers.
English Poetry and Song Society
A recital of English Song
at St Cyprian's Church, Marylebone, London
including songs by Ivor Gurney.