Friday, 23 October 2009

Recording radio programmes

Yesterday morning Sebastian Field, Andrew Fox (Heritage and Museums manager for Gloucester) and I were receiving curious glances from bemused passers-by as we were interviewed by a lady from BBC Radio Gloucestershire at the site of the recently unveiled memorial plaque to Ivor Gurney, outside Boots on Eastgate street.

Prompted by the recent re-siting/installation of the plaque commemorating the site of Gurney's birthplace, Radio Gloucestershire wanted to do a feature on him. We discussed his Gloucestershire background, his association with Gloucester, his poetry and music, and also flagged up what is effectively a mini Gurney festival during next year's Three Choirs Festival (see my previous blog about this and the plaque unveiling)

As and when we know when the programme is to be broadcast, Sebastian and I shall post the details on our blogs.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

In the Cathedral Archives

The excitement of today, in Gurney terms, was a visit to Gloucester Cathedral library and Archives to meet the recently appointed Archivist, Christopher Jeens. Chris has been in post a few months now and has a lot on his plate in the archive, which, due to the illness of his predecessor, has been mostly untended for some time. The archive has seen little in the way of cataloguing since the late 1960s. There are piles of things about the place, and the temptation to riffle through the piles must be suppressed for the fear of spreading mould spores, which are infesting parts of the library, now being painstakingly removed by the Archivist and his volunteers.

Sebastian Field and I ventured up to the library in the hope of gleaning what is in the archive - certainly as far as can be seen at present, before much organisation has been undertaken and the contents of the library learned by the archivist.

A few documents were known about and readily locatable; some others were as yet unsighted but were located during my visit; other things that may be of interest will have to wait for another day.

The first item I saw was the school admissions register. 1900 saw 8 pupils admitted to the Kings School, four of whom were admitted as choristers. This volume is all in Latin, but Gurney's was the only name not Latinised: perhaps Ivor is to Celtic to bear it. Gurney's entry, like that of the others who were admitted as probationary choristers, was appended with the phrase 'ch[oro] Eccl[esiasticus]: Cath: G[loucester]'. The most interesting entry in the admission list for that year is one Eric Harvey: the brother of F.W. Harvey, Gurney's close boyhood friend and fellow poet. It makes one wonder whether it was through Eric that Will and Ivor met. Eric was to fight alongside Gurney in the 2/5 Gloucester Battalion, until he was invalided home in April 1918, five months before Gurney was sent home following his being gassed. By the September in which Gurney was sent home, Harvey had returned to the front, where he earned a Military Cross shortly before he was killed by machine gun fire.

One of the objectives of my visit to the Cathedral archives was to discover more about Gurney's time as a chorister, and the Chapter minute book yielded a little information about this:

The probationary period for a chorister was a long one, for despite joining the school in 1900 Gurney was not admitted as a full chorister until the beginning of 1903. The choir generally consisted of ten boys, four of whom were solo boys, who were paid more than the other boys. Gurney was admitted as fourth solo boy, receiving a sum of £9 per year (as reported in the cathedral salary register), being £2 a year more than the next three choristers and £5 more than the lower three. This was paid in installments at Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas. In 1904 - the year of his Three Choirs Festival success as the youth in Elijah, alongside Madame Albani - Gurney was 3rd chorister. At the beginning of 1905 he was second chorister, and from Michaelmas of that year until the end of his chorister career in the summer of 1906, was made 1st chorister.

The chapter minutes also include the specification of chorister regulations and also some talk of the school curriculum, with the regular inspections often reporting the poor knowledge of scripture and church Catechism when examined - something concerning for a church school.

Another objective of my visit was to glean some information about Gurney's role as articled pupil and organist in the cathedral: he claims to have been 'assistant organist' at the cathedral for a time. However, if he was so it was an entirely honorary role since there is no salary drawn for such a post, nor any mention of such appointments in the minutes (there is talk of Herbert Brewer's terms of service, as Organist and Master of Choristers, and much talk of the Lay Clerks, but no assistant organist is mentioned.) One piece of information is interesting though: In 1906-7 the Cathedral was undergoing electrification, and by December 1907 the organ was in receipt of a new electric blower. In the Chapter meeting of 7 December 1907 Herbert Brewer put forward a proposal that his pupils be allowed to use the organ for practice. This was agreed, for a period of one year, provided that 'Dr Brewer is responsible for its proper use and that proper payment is made for the amount of Electric current consumed.' As Articled Pupil to Brewer, alongside Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello, Gurney now had the freedom to do as Howells reported in his 1938 recollection in Music and Letters, of Gurney composing 'organ works which he tried out in the midst of Gloucester’s imperturbable Norman pillars.'

I hope that in time photographs may emerge of the choir, or perhaps other documents may be found - music lists, choir administration documents and all. At present we just have to be patient while Christopher Jeens undertakes his painstaking and in some ways enviable task in the voyage of discovery that will be the restoration and cataloguing of the cathedral library.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Cirencester tonight

If you happen to be passing through Cirencester later on today, pop into the public library where I shall be giving a short introductory talk on Gurney at 7.30pm as part of the celebrations to mark the first birthday of the refurbishment of the library. See you there!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Exoneration of a cinema organist

Today I had a visit in the archive from Gurney's great-nephew: the grandson and grand-daughter-in-law of Gurney's sister, Dorothy. They were over in England on holiday from Australia, to where Dorothy emigrated following her marriage.

In readiness for their visit, I got out the photographs held in the archive, some examples of his music and poetry, and also some of the correspondence between Don Ray and the visitors' other great-uncle and great-aunt, Gurney's brother Ronald and sister Winifred. I haven't yet got to these in my cataloguing, and had a browse through some of those items I hadn't yet been through. In this part of the collection - the Don Ray gathering of recollections during 1950-51 - two letters grabbed my attention. The handwriting was so poor that I thought it to be that of Ralph Vaughan Williams. However, on inspection it turned out to be John Haines who, by the time of writing in 1951, was almost blind and his handwriting had deteriorated with this loss of sight.

One of these letters from Haines had been partially transcribed - perhaps by Don Ray - but there were numerous gaps where words were indistinguishable, and the transcriber obviously gave up two thirds of the way through the letter. Where the transcriber stopped, I endeavoured to continue, and was rewarded with an interesting nugget of information I thought I'd share here. It arose from what must have been a question from Ray to determine whether, in his capacity as solicitor, Haines had ever acted for Gurney. Haines's letter cites just one instance relating to the period of 1921-22, during which Gurney moved from job to job, unable to keep any for a great length of time.

One of the posts Gurney sought was that of cinema organist. He wrote to Edward Marsh that such posts were 'hard to get, fearful to retain, easy to lose.' (December 1921, Collected Letters p.523). He was successful in obtaining two such posts, one in Plumstead, London, and one in Bude, Cornwall, neither of which he retained for long; only a matter of days. In the brief words of Michael Hurd on the subject in The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, these jobs 'eluded his grasp'. He elaborates no further, and one is left to presume that either Gurney's erratic tendencies at this time or perhaps the unsuitability of his music were to blame. However, Haines's letter perhaps refutes this in some way: he writes that he was successful in obtaining the then not insubstantial sum of '£10 for him out of a cinema company for wrongful dismissal.' He doesn't note which cinema it was, although earlier in the letter he states that he was employed as a cinema organist in Cornwall. Perhaps it was therefore the Bude cinema that had terminated his contract on weak or insubstantiable grounds. In Haines's action against the cinema Gurney found absolution, a little money; but he may rather have continued in post, working and making music to earn his living.

Monday, 5 October 2009

'New' musical works

Today I have been mopping up the last of the asylum correspondence and writings, scattered around the archive, completing the chronologisation of this very extensive section of the archive (it fills several large box files) prior to the final cataloguing. A very large proportion of these date from one of Gurney's anni mirabilis, 1925; the writings after this time can be held in just one of the files. The letters and poems are often undated, sometimes difficult to read, and, in the case of the letters of appeal, rather pointeliste in their content. I am therefore relying on the paper types, handwriting, and anything that can be gleaned from the content.

When I compiled the catalogue of musical works, 3 or 4 years ago, I spent a lot of time trawling through all of Gurney's letters endeavouring to locate all references to his music. This yielded information about a number of works for which manuscript material is no longer extant, some of which were verified by Gerald Finzi's catalogue of works collated in 1937, more than thirty works in which are missing presumed destroyed.

However, in my reading through the correspondence at that time I obviously missed a few letters/references, for I can now add some further works to that catalogue:

There is new song setting of Longfellow, being one of the sections from The Saga of King Olaf, 'Einar Tamberskelver', written at around the same time as the Longfellow/Heine setting, 'The sea hath its pearls', of 21 April 1925, which this letter also mentions, alongside the Frederic Mistral setting from this time, 'A la Raco Latino'.

In my original catalogue, a reference in a(n unposted) letter to Edward Elgar yielded the fact that there were further settings of Walt Whitman were made for what was one of Gurney's preferred vocal/instrumental combinations, baritone, string quartett and piano, over and above the two I knew about: 'Ethiopia Saluting the Colours' and 'In Cabin'd Ships at Sea'. To this can now be added what Gurney titles 'By the Bivouac's Fire', which must be his misremembering of 'By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame'.

A letter of 3 April [1926] notes that he has just completed two movements of an Organ Sonata in F# minor. Finzi lists a sonata slow movement in this key for 1925. This could be one and the same work, Finzi perhaps approximating the date, but it could be that this is a new work. It would also correlate with a page of sketches from around March 1926 in F# minor which I had hitherto suggested might be related to other known but missing organ works from this time: an 'Heroic Elegy' for organ and an 'Easter Rhapsody'. This letter also makes reference to the second of Gurney's symphonies: the 1925 Symphony in E major. Here, in April 1926, he writes that, 'Ivor Gurney, whose Symphony in E major would make Brahms gasp, is in Hell, and where that MS is (and how) he knows not.' The work is already out of his hands, a work of which, in September 1925, he had noted the completion of the first and second movements, with the scherzo being in progress. Finzi's catalogue notes the existence of a piano score of this work, but this is now missing.

The final addition to the catalogue is a curious reference to a 'MS Anthem (E. Dolber) of war truly, written 1920 (with New College Oxford).' No title is given; just the fact that it is a manuscript anthem. I am sure the letter reads 'Dolber', although I haven't yet found a poet of this name. The date would correspond with a time when he was making other musical works embodying, if not commemorating the war, such as the War Elegy for orchestra of November 1920. It would be nice if this work did indeed find its way into the hands of New College, who might perhaps have forgotten about it in some dusty corner of the music department...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Gurney war poetry manuscripts online

July this year saw the launch of a major new resource which brings to public access some 1200 pages of Gurney manuscript, which can be viewed on the internet, free of charge. The First World War Digital Poetry Archive has been developed over the last few years by Oxford University Computing Services, and was initially launched at the Imperial War Museum in November 2008, making available manuscripts by poets including Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. Other poets are being added to the site, and July saw Gurney's turn, becoming one of the most represented poets on the site, with the manuscript pages that we at the archive had digitised in the latter part of 2008.

The online collection includes letters, many of which included poems, being sent home to Blighty, to Marion Scott, notebooks containing drafts of poems, typescripts, typescript and handwritten transcriptions by Scott, as well as Gurney's own copies of the two volumes published during his lifetime, Severn & Somme (1917) and War's Embers (1919), annotated with amendments made some years after they were published, when Gurney was having his extraordinary last flurry of creativity in the asylum before he turned to silence, musically and poetically speaking.

To explore this fantastic new web resource, go to