Ivor Gurney: Composer & Poet
By Contributor Fiona McVey
Whist it is uncertain whether or not Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney ever met, it is clear Thomas’ poetry had an undeniable impact and influence on Gurney’s own writing. Following the death of Thomas in 1917, John Haines wrote an essay of appreciation, thereby finally introducing Gurney to Thomas’ writings. Although Gurney had been made aware of the work of the Dymock Poets in 1914, again by Haines who was a fellow Gloucestershire native, Lascelles Abercrombie was the only member of the group that he actually met, despite their relative localness.
Comparisons can be made between Gurney and Thomas, both of whom were widely influenced by their environment, particularly the local countryside – for Thomas it was the southern English countryside whilst for Gurney it was the West Country and specifically Gloucestershire. Both men were also diagnosed as being sufferers of “neurasthenia” (bouts of acute depression), both perhaps lacking the mental strength to deal with the fast-changing world in which they lived. It is perhaps, therefore, not that surprising that of all his fellow war poet contemporaries, it was Thomas’ writings that Gurney felt most compelled to set to and compose music.
Poetry has its own distinct sound, defined by its syllabic flow, rhythm, expression and sound of the words, creating an innate musicality. The setting of poetry to music, therefore, should add to its expression and enhance its meaning. Even before the onset of the Great War, Gurney was recognised as a musically gifted talent. Described later by Edmund Blunden as “a free but far from anti-social being, who felt life in terms of melody and song, equally glad to honour it with musical tunes or those of verse”, Gurney was one of those rare individuals, equally talented as poet and musician. Whilst music was his first and enduring passion, the First World War had forced Gurney to channel his creative energies into another more practical format, namely poetry. Post-war, Gurney continued to write poetry, but he also resumed composing, resulting in a prolific output. He would go on to compose music for the poetry of a number of his fellow war poets, including that of Rupert Brooke and Robert Graves as well as Edward Thomas.
Although Gurney produced a score entitled Five Songs of Rupert Brooke, which included completed settings for four of Brooke’s poems, Gurney himself told Edward Marsh that he did ‘not think very much’ of the songs and intended to add a fifth setting for ‘The Pacific Clouds’ to complete the work. Yet he seems to have abandoned the project.(1) The composer and musician, Williams Denis Browne also set a number of Brooke’s poems to music, although these settings did not survive the cull of Browne’s work after his death.
Robert Graves, following in the steps of his father Alfred, had a keen interest in setting his ballad-type poems to music. Graves had grown up listening to his mother play and sing, inspiring both he and his sisters to compose their own songs. He engaged the assistance of Ivor Novello, a contemporary student of Gurney’s with Dr Herbert Brewster, in setting a number of his poems to music although this project was abandoned when Novello lost interest. Although that particular project proved unsuccessful, the poems in question would eventually be published as The Penny Fiddle (1960). Gurney, however, was to succeed where Novello had failed, and produced settings for seven of Graves’ poems, although one has been lost. Graves himself, in collaboration with his daughter Jenny, went on to compose the never performed Song of Songs, a Broadway musical based on the biblical lives of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
When it came to Edward Thomas, Gurney was prolific in setting his poems to music, managing at least twenty. The song cycle ‘Lights Out’, published by Marion Scott in 1926, used a number of originals compositions from 1921-22. Composed for voice and piano, Lights Out incorporated six of Thomas’ poems. Gurney also produced a separate choral setting of ‘The Trumpet’ which had featured in the Lights Out song cycle.
Whilst Gurney set multiple poems to music for Thomas, Brooke and Graves, he also produced settings for another two of the writers featured in this anthology, namely Francis Ledwidge (‘Desire in Spring’) and Edmund Blunden (‘The Idlers’).
Francis Brett Young is recognised as a prolific and extremely successful writer, but music was an integral part of his life. His mother was a gifted and artistic woman and Brett Young grew up listening to her play Mendelssohn and Beethoven which left a lasting impression on him. His first published work was not literature, but rather the setting of lyrics by Robert Bridges to music (Songs of Robert Bridges in 1912). The musical setting of Bridges work was followed by publication in 1914 of Robert Bridges, written with Brett Young’s brother, Eric. Brett Young’s wife, Jessie, was an accomplished singer who he often accompanied on the piano, and for whom he had also composed two sets of songs (Songs for Voice and Pianoforte published in 1913)
In 2006, Roderick Williams wrote that “Gurney achieved so much in the expression of English texts, setting so many of his contemporary poets. His songs are individual to an incredible degree. He has the gift of setting English song instinctively” whilst Ian Venables identified that “Gurney was one of the first … to produce real English ‘art songs’ in the sense not just of providing an accompaniment to words, but of reacting to them by word painting, something far greater than merely evoking mood”.(2) Gurney was not the only writer who had some talent as a musician, although he is considered by many to be one of the best.
Read Fiona’s previous post Edward Marsh: Patron of the Arts
Fiona McVey is a local historian. She was born in Sutton, Surry, and after serving in the Royal Air Force at a number of locations worldwide settled in Portchester. In 2018, she was awarded an MA in History focusing on the workhouses in Portsmouth. Fiona currently works in Human Resources at the University of Portsmouth.
Header image compilation of archive images © Jacky Dillon – Centre – Ivor Gurney (Gloucestershire Regiment c1915) – Circular: Marion Scott, Ivor Gurney 1917 (Richard Hall, Ivor Gurney Estate/Gloucestershire Archives), Rupert Brooke, Ivor Gurney c1920 (Richard Hall, Ivor Gurney Estate/Gloucestershire Archives), Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, Ivor Novello, Ivor Gurney c1914
(1) Scores of ‘Five Songs of Rupert Brooke’ held at Gloucestershire Archives, Gloucestershire County Council
(2) Roderick Williams in Independent article – ‘Ivor Gurney: Song of the Soldier’07/02/2006