Ivor Gurney

1890 1937

Ivor Gurney

Composer • Poet

Latest albums featuring Gurney as artist


A poet and a composer, a devoted friend and a rejected family member, a veteran of the battles of the trenches and the battle in his mind, Ivor Gurney was what could easily be called a tortured artist. Filled with talent and potential, his lifelong poor mental health, as well as added scarring from World War I, would stifle what could have been so much more, from a unique musical voice from Gloucestershire.

Ivor Bertie Gurney was born in Gloucester, England on 28 August 1890. He was the second of four children, the son of David Gurney, a tailor, and Florence Gurney. His mother was highly-strung and unstable and Gurney’s sister later stated that their mother controlled them as babies, and was not able to cope as the control slipped away as the children grew. His father on the other hand, was loving and supportive, but due to Florence’s controlling nature, he could not share his love as strongly as he felt it.

Gurney’s baptism that September was held with only his parents, a cousin who was the organist, the vicar, and the parish curate. Lacking anyone else, the family asked the curate, Reverend Alfred Cheesman, to be Ivor’s godfather. This happenstance introduction into each other’s lives was fortunate for Ivor. Reverend Cheesman took his role as a godfather seriously, and nurtured Gurney’s artistic talents. He gave the boy access to his personal library, introducing him to literature. While a student at the National School in Gloucester, Gurney was encouraged by Cheesman to apply for a choral scholarship at Gloucester Cathedral. The successful application gave Gurney a place in the choir and in the King’s School.

In 1904, already composing and writing poetry, he was encouraged by sisters Emily and Margaret Hunt and taken out of Gloucestershire for the first time. In 1906, he was articled to Herbert Brewer, the cathedral organist, with Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello, who also contribute a great deal to British music. He met F. W. Harvey in 1908. Though they attended the same school, their chance meeting on a tram in Gloucester led to a lifelong friendship.

Harvey took Gurney to his home at Minsterworth, outside of Gloucester. The Harvey family welcomed Gurney into their home and shared their interests and passions with him. He and Harvey would spend time sailing and reading, discovering the great Elizabethan writers together.

In 1910 Gurney attended the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester with Herbert Howells. They were told by Brewer there was ‘a queer mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea, something to do with Tallis’. The piece they were referring to, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallisby Ralph Vaughan Williams, would make an immense impact on both Gurney and Howells, strengthening the desires of each to become composers. They spent the evening after the concert wandering Gloucester deep in conversation about the piece.

Gurney began at the Royal College of Music in 1911, with fellow student Howells. He also became acquainted with Marion Scott, a young violin student who would became a major part of Gurney’s life and an important means of support later in life. His teacher at the College, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, declared Gurney to be potentially ‘the biggest of them all. But the least teachable!’ Gurney moved into a flat in Fulham and supported himself working as the organist for a church in Buckinghamshire. He developed a relationship with the churchwarden, Edward Chapman, and his family. He was welcomed into their home and was close to the four children. It was with the oldest however, with whom Gurney would fall in love. A proposal to the then seventeen-year-old Kitty was rejected.

Always susceptible to dark moods and depression, perhaps even bipolar, 1913 saw the first major sign of mental instability for Gurney as he suffered a nervous breakdown. He returned to Gloucestershire to recover and was able to resume his studies in July 1914. That year though, also saw the beginning of World War I. Like many other men his age, Gurney attempted to enlist, but he was rejected due to his poor eyesight. However as the war reached a stalemate and more men were needed, he was able to enlist in the 2/5th Battalion in the Gloucester Regiment.

In 1916 Gurney wrote to Marion Scott about a song he composed in a dis-used mortar emplacement in two sittings. The song wasBy the Bierside, based on a poem by John Masefield. It is one of the first songs he wrote while in the army. He set the poem from memory, so it is not one hundred percent accurate. Gurney believed the song could be grander and orchestrated, which was completed by his friend Herbert Howells, who then premiered it at the Royal College of Music on 23 March 1917 while the composer was still at war.

The song In Flanders is a setting of a poem by Gurney’s friend F. W. Harvey. The poem, which contrasts the beauty of their Gloucestershire home with the battlefields of Belgium, was first published in theGlosters Gazette, a trench magazine. It was completed 11 January 1917. The year before, Harvey went missing - presumed killed, which had a major impact on Gurney - though by October it was learned that he was captured instead.

In the War he was a signaler and for a time a machine gunner. Though he had problems with his vision, he was known to be a crack shot. He felt immense guilt though while providing covering fire, as he identified with the young enemy he was killing. He was able to continue his composing, writing his own song texts out of necessity in the trenches. He was shot in the shoulder on Good Friday in 1917 and a victim of a gas attack later that year. After the gassing his depression worsened and he was honourably discharged after a 1918 suicide attempt.

Gurney’s War Elegy was written in 1920. It is an orchestral piece premiered at the Royal College of Music. The piece is a musical expression of the pain Gurney felt from the War. It is a dark, slow march building from the orchestra, moving like a processional. The piece builds with the brass and then suddenly fades away. It is a clear and fitting picture of the war that took away so much from so many.

After his time in the army Gurney was able to return to the Royal College and study withVaughan Williams. He gained a reputation as a composer and poet with the publication of his works from the time, but his mental stability was almost gone. He worked unsuccessfully at several jobs after leaving the RCM. He lived for a time with an aunt and then with his brother, but both saw Gurney being asked to move on. It was after another suicide attempt in 1922 that he was committed for his own safety. He would remain in institutions for the remainder of his life, though he made several escape attempts.

Once, he was able to break out and get himself to Vaughan Williams’ home. Vaughan Williams was forced to call the police for Gurney’s own good, and have him returned to the hospital. It was a decision that would haunt the older composer, making him feel like ‘a murderer’. Through the efforts of friends like Vaughan Williams and Scott he was transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital in Kent where he was able to work on the farm. He continued composing and writing, his war poetry giving the impression of immediacy, as though the war were still occurring in his own mind.

On Boxing Day, 1937, Ivor Gurney died of tuberculosis, aged 47. His body was returned to Gloucestershire for burial. His funeral was officiated by his godfather, Reverend Cheesman. Harvey, weary from years in a German prison camp, walked from his home in the Forest of Dean. Also in attendance wasGerald Finzi <>, having become a fan of Gurney’s in 1920 after hearing a performance of his song ‘Sleep’. Finzi would devote much of his life championing and cataloguing Gurney’s works, possibly saving the composer from fading into obscurity.

Ivor Gurney was ravaged in his own mind by depression and thoughts of suicide. His music remains however, and is still performed and recorded. It could have disappeared after his death in an asylum, but the work of Gerald Finzi with Marion Scott and societies like The Ivor Gurney Trust and The Ivor Gurney Society ensures that his work is preserved for future generations, both his poetry and his music.