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Gurney, Ivor Bertiefree

(1890–1937)
  • Michael Hurd

Ivor Bertie Gurney (1890–1937)

by unknown photographer

© reserved; The British Library; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Gurney, Ivor Bertie (1890–1937), composer and poet, was born at 3 Queen Street, Gloucester, on 28 August 1890, the elder son and second in the family of two boys and two girls of David Gurney (1872–1919), proprietor of a small tailoring business, and his wife, Florence (1861–1945), daughter of William Lugg, house decorator. He was educated at the King's School as a chorister of Gloucester Cathedral, then as an articled pupil of the cathedral organist, A. Herbert Brewer, and finally, on winning a composition scholarship (1911), at the Royal College of Music under Sir Charles Stanford. During these formative years he owed much of his musical, literary, and intellectual development to his godfather, the Revd Alfred Hunter Cheesman (1865–1941), vicar of St Matthew's Church, Twigworth, near Gloucester. Cheesman, a philanthropic bachelor, made his large library available to the young Gurney and provided a stimulus and encouragement that was not available in his home and scarcely available at any of his official places of education.

Though rejected by the army in 1914 on grounds of defective eyesight, Gurney enlisted on 9 February 1915 while still a student and from 25 May 1916 served in France as a private with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters. He sustained a minor bullet wound on Good Friday 1917 and more serious gas injuries on or about 10 September 1917 during the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). He spent time in various war hospitals in England and, after showing signs of mental instability (including a suicide attempt on 19 June 1918), he was finally discharged in October 1918.

Gurney resumed his studies at the Royal College of Music, this time under Ralph Vaughan Williams, but could not concentrate. He returned to Gloucester and, failing to find permanent employment, had to live on a small disability pension and the charity of friends and family. Music now poured from him, but his behaviour (eccentric before the war) grew increasingly erratic. Further threats of suicide followed, and in September 1922 he was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and was committed to Barnwood House Asylum, Gloucester. On 21 December 1922 he was transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital, near Dartford, Kent, where he remained until his death.

Opinions vary as to the origins of Gurney's mental problems. Although it would be unwise to dismiss his wartime experiences as a contributory factor, the source seems more likely to have been genetic and stemming from his mother's side of the family. Signs of instability were evident before the war, while the companionship of his fellow soldiers seems, by virtue of their shared suffering, to have afforded him a rare degree of stability. This evaporated as soon as he was granted his discharge and had to face the world alone. As a composer Gurney found his voice in 1913–14 with the composition of Five Elizabethan Songs. Although he wrote chamber and orchestral music, songs were his true vocation. Manuscripts of more than 300 are to be found in the Gurney archive at Gloucester Public Library. Poetry was a secondary interest that grew only when conditions in the trenches made composition almost impossible (he nevertheless did write several fine songs in the trenches). After the war he pursued both arts with equal fervour.

Gurney's songs began to find publishers from 1920 onwards. His two Housman cycles, Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland, were included as part of the Carnegie Collection of British Music in 1923 and 1926 respectively. Both were scored for solo voice, piano, and string quartet and greatly enhanced his reputation as a composer of substance. However, it was not until the Oxford University Press issued two volumes of twenty songs in 1938 that his true stature could be appreciated. Further collections followed in 1952, 1959, and 1979, made possible by the faith and industry of Gurney's friend the musicologist Marion Scott (1877–1953), who had saved his manuscripts, and the editorial expertise of the composers Gerald Finzi and Howard Ferguson. His manuscripts pose great ethical and aesthetic problems because so much of his work is uneven, unpolished, and sometimes incoherent.

Similar considerations afflict his poetry, of which over 1700 items exist in the Gloucester archive. Two volumes were published during Gurney's lifetime: Severn and Somme (1917) and War's Embers (1919); and minor selections appeared in 1954 and 1973, edited by Edmund Blunden and Leonard Clark respectively. In 1982 the Oxford University Press issued a major selection of some 300 poems, edited by P. J. Kavanagh, and it was on the basis of this volume that his importance as a poet came to be recognized. Further evidence of the breadth of his literary abilities came with the publication in 1983 of his War Letters, and in 1991 of his Collected Letters, both edited by R. K. R. Thornton. In 1995 two volumes, Best Poems and The Book of Five Makings, which Gurney himself had planned and titled, were edited by R. K. R. Thornton and George Walter and issued under one cover by the Carcanet Press. A similar volume, 80 Poems or so, from the same editors and publisher, followed in 1997. Since 1995 the establishment of an Ivor Gurney Society, which issues an annual journal (vol. 1, August 1995), has provided a focus for research into his life and work.

Gurney's poems celebrate his love of the Gloucestershire countryside with the same unsentimental vigour as they report on the realities of trench warfare and chart his gradual descent into madness. His songs are equally forceful and direct, covering a wide range of emotional expression and empathizing with poets of every period, particularly his contemporaries, the Georgians. In both fields he was an individualist, and in both his successes mark him out as an artist of power and originality.

Gurney died from tuberculosis on 26 December 1937 at the City of London Mental Hospital, Stone, near Dartford, Kent. He was buried on 31 December in St Matthew's churchyard at Twigworth, near Gloucester. He was unmarried.

Sources

  • M. Hurd, The ordeal of Ivor Gurney (1978)
  • Collected letters: Ivor Gurney, ed. R. K. R. Thornton (1991)
  • Collected poems of Ivor Gurney, ed. P. J. Kavanagh (1982)
  • A. Boden, Stars in a dark night (1986)
  • b. cert.
  • records of Dartford Mental Hospital, 21 Dec 1922–26 Dec 1937
  • parish register, Gloucester, All Saints' Church, Lower Barton Street [baptism]

Archives

  • Gloucester Public Library, corresp. and papers

Sound

  • BL NSA, ‘Child of joy: an appreciation of Ivor Gurney’, NP7138WRTR1
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, ‘Ivor Gurney: the poet and his songs’, T2671BWBD1
  • BL NSA, oral history interview
  • BL NSA, performance recordings

Likenesses

  • R. Hall, portrait studies, 1921, Gloucester Public Library, Gloucestershire collection
  • photograph, BL [see illus.]
  • photographs, Gloucester Public Library, Gloucestershire collection

Wealth at Death

£43 0s. 11d.: administration, 26 Feb 1938, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]