About this Recording
8.572151 - GURNEY, I.: Songs (English Song, Vol. 19) (Bickley, Burnside)

Ivor Gurney (1890–1937)


[1]   On the downs John Masefield (1878–1967)
[2]   Ha’nacker Mill Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953)
[3]   The bonnie Earl of Murray Scots Ballad (17th century)
[4]   The cherry trees Edward Thomas (1878–1917)
[5]   By a bierside John Masefield
[6]   Orpheus with his lute William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
[7]   Tears Anon. (possibly John Fletcher)
[8]   Under the greenwood tree William Shakespeare
[9]   Sleep John Fletcher (1579–1625)
[10] Spring Thomas Nashe (1567–1601)
[11] The Apple Orchard (from Gurney’s Seven Sappho Songs) William Bliss Carman (1861–1929)
[12] All night under the moon Wilfrid Gibson (1878–1962)
[13] The Latmian shepherd Edward Shanks (1892–1953)
[14] I will go with my father a-ploughing Joseph Campbell (1879–1944) (Seosamh MacCathmhaoil)
[15] Last Hours John Freeman (1880–1929)
[16] Cathleen ni Houlihan William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)
[17] A Cradle Song W. B. Yeats
[18] The fiddler of Dooney W.B. Yeats
[19] Snow Edward Thomas
[20] The Singer Edward Shanks
[21] Nine of the clock ‘John Doyle’ (Robert Graves, 1895–1985)
[22] Epitaph in old mode Sir John Collings Squire (1884–1958)
[23] The Ship J.C. Squire
[24] The Scribe Walter de la Mare (1873–1956)
[25] Fain would I change that note Tobias Hume (c1569–1645)
[26] An Epitaph Walter de la Mare
[27] When death to either shall come Robert Bridges (1844–1930)
[28] Thou didst delight my eyes Robert Bridges
[29] The boat is chafing John Davidson (1857–1909)
[30] Lights out Edward Thomas


Ivor Gurney was one of the truly exceptional talents to emerge from the First World War. He was a poet as well as a composer, and one of the most prolific letter writers of all those who fought in the 1914–18 trenches.

Gurney’s talent was not fully recognised by the time of his death, in a mental institution, on 26 December 1937. Yet a few knew of his double artistic gift. Gerald Finzi who assessed Gurney’s music, remarked ‘There is so little one can really be sure is bad’. Stanford, Gurney’s teacher, said that of all his pupils, ‘the one who most fulfilled the accepted ideas of genius’ was Gurney. Whether this ‘tall, gaunt, dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown’, a heavy smoker who banged the asylum piano to the annoyance of others, then ‘several times managed to set fire to his bedlinen’; and who survived before that on a twelve shillings a week army pension, fitted that image, listeners to this disc must judge.

First clear signs of mental instability surfaced in 1913. Yet Gurney’s spirits and courage held up throughout the war. He served as a signaller with the Gloucestershire Regiment on the Somme and at Neuve Chapelle; and as a machine-gunner near Passchendaele, before being wounded and gassed, and sent back, in 1917, to a year’s tedious convalescence in British war hospitals. Yet these mixed, highly emotional experiences fired his most remarkably productive period, 1919–21. ‘To dawn often I laboured, and with keen cares/Kept sleep away with wary avoidance, till/Sun’s fire topped the steep of the Eastern hill.’ Night and day, traipsing along the Cotswolds’ ‘great Roman-trod hillsides’ or ‘walking the flint ways’ of the Chilterns, Gurney conceived song after song, sometimes roughhewn, yet almost all inspired, deploying his unique talent—being a poet also—for adapting each vocal line to the natural idiosyncrasies of ordinary speech.

In his ‘making-passion’, which embraced piano and chamber music also, we might liken Gurney to the Tudor lutenists, or the German Lieder-composers. Many of the poets he set were Georgian-era contemporaries, their poetry hot off the press; and we may sense the composer’s attraction to their subjects here: growth and loss; joy and kindness; memory; sleep; childhood; carefree playfulness; young love; mystery, desolation, abandonment, resignation; moonlit nights; the wind, and voyaging; land, and man’s relation to it; and the process of making.

Gurney was an avid admirer of John Masefield. His setting of [1] On the downs begins rather like a ballad setting, but its sheer variety reveals the fertile exuberance and originality of his musical lexicon. After he and his friend F. W. (William) Harvey made a fleeting afternoon visit to Masefield’s house at Boar’s Hill in 1919 he wrote to their fellow-poet and confidant John Haines: ‘Neither (of us) thought Masefield cared much for By a bierside, but Upon the downs pleased him’. Did Gurney’s fondness for psalm-like triplets perhaps owe as much to his years as a Gloucester Cathedral chorister and organist as to (say) Brahms?

The forlorn desolation of [2] Ha’nacker Mill is spelt out by the oblique, modal qualities of Gurney’s melodic line. Halnaker Mill in Sussex, first mentioned in 1540, was struck by lightning and badly damaged in 1905. Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), like Masefield, was one of the Georgian poets who gained favour after the Great War, and were highly esteemed (and soon joined) by Gurney

Intriguingly the Scots ballad [3] The bonnie Earl of Murray, taken from Thomas Percy’s Reliques, was set by Brahms (as Murrays Ermordung) in his Lieder und Romanzen, Op. 14: Gurney knew his Brahms and Schumann backwards, as his piano pieces testify. James Stewart, a ‘fair youth’ of royal descent, was murdered by George Gordon, Marquess of Huntly, a rival claimant to his estates, outside his castle in Fife. At home in Doune, near Stirling, his young wife looks in vain for her husband’s return.

Edward Thomas (1878–1917), killed near Arras, was arguably the poet to whom Gurney felt closest in spirit; Thomas’s wife was one of the few who visited—and captivated—Gurney later in the asylum. [4] The cherry trees contrasts aerated quaver triplets (denoting falling blossom) with weightier chordings: by stages, the initially blithe personification becomes more loaded and poignant.

Gurney composed [5] By a bierside in August 1916, while the Gloucester regiment was in reserve between periods of front line duty opposite the Germans in Aubers, and finished it ‘in two sittings, almost without effort’. ‘The accompaniment’, he observed, ‘is really orchestral’. Its conclusion, expressing sentiments more akin to Brooke or Grenfell, is truly magnificent. The song was orchestrated soon afterwards by Gurney’s friend, Herbert Howells (1892–1983).

The five Elizabethan songs (his ‘Elizas’) [6][10] are vintage, yet early, Gurney: they were composed in 1913–14, while he was a student at the Royal College of Music, adapted for a small ensemble and performed in London during the war. With them the young composer achieved an astonishing limpid fluency. [6] Orpheus betrays classic Gurney characteristics: a flowing, inquisitive piano accompaniment, a reluctance to start or pause on the tonic, syncopation, triplets, unsettled textures, chromatic key shifts; spare silences which culminate in a desolate rising sixth (reversing the opening’s optimistic fall); and the piano’s tender envoi.

[7] Tears and [9] Sleep—the latter fired Finzi’s devotion to Gurney’s music—are among the composer’s most exquisite creations. Some have pondered their likely source: the Tudor lutenists; possibly Bach’s (or Parry’s) organ preludes (when he ceased to be a chorister around 1906, Gurney was effectively an assistant organist at Gloucester Cathedral). There is arguably some kinship with Quilter’s Shakespeare settings.

The blithe [8] Under the greenwood tree, with its skittish ending, has the gaiety and verve of Arne’s Shakespeare songs; while the lulling, harp-like semiquavers and sentinel-like bass shifts of Sleep are as magical as Britten’s music for the sleeping Lucretia. Making music serve the words, Gurney here brilliantly extends, by stages, the voice’s upward reach. The lifelike birdcalls of [10] Spring are comic delight, while one augmented interlude (echoed near the close) feels like a Debussyan cakewalk. Could anything be more affirmative?

[11] The apple orchard comes from Gurney’s 1919 settings of the Canadian-American poet Edward Bliss Carman (1861–1929). Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics was a light-hearted reworking of fragments of the Aeolic Greek female lyric poet; again, Gurney’s syncopated 6/8 has the easy lilt of a Britten cabaret song.

Wilfrid Gibson’s poem [12] All night under the moon has a Yeatsian feel (compare Warlock’s The Curlew) and is one of Gurney’s most haunting nocturnal songs. Mt Latmos [13] lay near the mouth of the river Maeander in Turkey. The young shepherd Endymion was loved by Selene, the star-girt moon–goddess. ‘Tom O’ Bedlam’ signified a vagrant or beggar who feigned mental illness.

[14] I will go with my father a-ploughing is a folk-like setting of Seaghan (Seosamh) Mac Cathmhaoil, the republican sympathizer Joseph Campbell (1881–1944), one of several Irish poets to whom Gurney felt drawn. Gurney gives the melody a rich modal feel as lovely as the original folk songs Cecil Sharp, Moeran and others were collecting. Its joyous, affirmative character contrasts markedly with the next song.

[15] Last hours is a striking evocation of seasonal ennui. Gurney sets the Georgian poet John Freeman (1880–1929) using extensive chromatic colouring in both voice and piano part. Its passacaglia-like mood is wonderfully melancholy: the evocation of detail (‘oak, elm, thorn’, ‘grass, trees, grass again’; ‘drips, drips’) suggests a desolate or deprived landscape, quite the antithesis of those ‘Beethoven skies’ Gurney enthused about on his walks. The apotheosis, in music, of one of those long childhood days when nothing actually happens.

[16] ‘There is a setting of Kathleen ni Houlihan…which will knock you flat’, Gurney confided in March 1919 to his loyal ally, Marion Scott. He loved setting dark ballads, as Schubert, Loewe and Brahms did before him. Cathleen symbolizes Ireland’s rugged beauty and wild struggles. Cummen and Mt Knocknarea, topped by the massive neolithic cairn of Maeve, warrior queen of Connacht, are in County Sligo. An urgent thrumming accompaniment, the bleak vocal fall at ‘a black wind and dies’, stormy build-up, noble incantations of Cathleen’s name and almost plainsong quality of the redemptive penultimate phrase all lend the song impact.

By contrast, a rapturous calm informs the next W.B. Yeats setting: [17] A cradle song elicits from Gurney an unusually restrained berceuse: the upward tensioning at Yeats’s words ‘The Shining Seven’ suggests heavenly rapture, while the musical repetitions dwell on anticipated loss. The seven stars were probably the Pleiades. Gurney would have been especially aware of many constellations during his frequent night journeys on foot.

Another Yeats song, [18] The fiddler of Dooney took shape in 1918 when Gurney was recuperating near Durham: it has the apt feel of a fast-moving Irish jig. Dooney, Kilvarnet and Moharabuiee (now Maugheraboy) are places in Sligo, where a ‘Fiddler of Dooney’ competition is still held today.

[19] Edward Thomas’s Snow evokes a strange sense of ennui, with its striking Yeatsian image (‘a white bird’). Magically catching the mood, Gurney eagerly explores new territory, even veering towards a kind of primitive atonal note-row: this possibly reflects, as in Gurney’s piano Preludes, the influence of Scriabin.

For [20] The Singer by Edward Shanks (1892–1953), he uses wafting triplets to evoke the nebulous atmosphere of the poem. In an opposite, deliberately bravado vein is the next song [21] Nine of the clock. ‘John Doyle’ was a pseudonym of Robert Graves, another younger Georgian, who like Gurney served in the Somme trenches.

The tender intimacy he brings to [22], Squire’s Epitaph in old mode (1920), reminds us that Gurney himself had recently suffered loss and bereavement. [23] The Ship features another of Gurney’s ‘walking’ quaver accompaniments, which he clearly deemed elegant enough for aquatic travel too. Sir John Squire (1884–1959) was one of his sturdiest supporters, who used his position as editor of anthologies and journals to promote Gurney’s poetry.

The image of the poet ‘using its ink as the spirit wills/ To write of Earth’s wonders’([24] The Scribe) might easily describe Gurney himself, responding to dawn and a changing landscape after a nocturnal walk, and unleashing a flood of accidentals to catch its varying hues. Note the extraordinary, Brucknerian dying fall: ‘All words forgotten—Thou, Lord, and I’. Walter de la Mare remained one of Gurney’s loyallest allies after he was institutionalised in 1922, soliciting funds to help maintain him.

[25] Fain would I change that note (1918), cavortingly reminiscent of Gurney’s ‘Elizas’ [6][10], comes from The First Part of Ayres (or Musicall Humors) (1605), compiled by Captain Tobias Hume, a Jacobean composer and viol-player, soldier and wit. Its ebullience offsets the acute pathos of [26] An Epitaph, with its yearning for ‘that lady of the West Country’. Here Gurney subtly stages the octave’s rise and fall, artfully slows the melodic line, and (as in [6] Orpheus) favours the interval of a sixth, starting and ending as if in midstream. He himself (see [22]) lost both his father (to cancer) and the staunch lady friend of his youth, Margaret Hunt, to the influenza epidemic in 1919.

[27][28] These two settings of Robert Bridges (1844–1930) date from 1920 and 1921. Since 1913 Bridges had been Poet Laureate, and Gurney, like many, was influenced by his wartime anthology The Spirit of Man (1915), encountering there the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Bridges, in turn, quickly divined Gurney’s poetic potential.

The lovely [27] When death to either shall come, written when he resumed his studies after the war (under Ralph Vaughan Williams), reveals how Gurney often slightly misremembered the text of poems he set; while [28] Thou didst delight mine eyes reminds us that Ivor Gurney, too, looked for love and all too briefly found it, whether in Gloucester, High Wycombe or Edinburgh. It was composed the year before he himself became a ‘castaway’, incarcerated from 1922 with his brother’s approval (Gurney having attempted suicide) in first Gloucester and then the City of London Mental Asylum in Dartford.

Like [27], Gurney completed [29] The boat is chafing in 1920 at Minsterworth, the Severnside home of his lifelong friend Will Harvey, whose poetry he also set. The forward-looking Scottish teacher, journalist, poet and ballad-writer John Davidson (1857–1909), admired by T.S. Eliot, committed suicide in Cornwall due to depression, a detail which may not have escaped the composer. Thetis, the mother of Achilles, was a Greek sea-goddess. The ‘westward flight’ of the boat ‘to reach a land unknown’ would appeal to Gurney, who, thanks largely to Thoreau and Whitman, admired America and during his postwar illness went off to Wales in hopes of working his passage westward. The song is aptly buoyant.

[30] Lights out is the adagio of Gurney’s song cycle of that name, published by Stainer and Bell in 1926, by which time he was an inmate of the City of London Mental Asylum in Dartford, Kent. It strongly recalls his early masterpiece, Sleep [9]. His word-setting is again superb—an overall spaciousness is offset by subtle detail (‘ambition’, ‘trouble’, ‘bitter’, which tackle the problem of the unaccented English feminine ending; or his dwelling on ‘dearest’, marked teneramente). It is signed ‘Hucclecote, Christmas 1919’, and was composed scarcely a mile from his first asylum (from 1922), Barnwood House, in Gloucester. The ‘genius’ Gurney penned numerous masterpieces. This is unmistakably one of them.

Roderic Dunnett

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