Saturday 12 May 2012

An Anniversary and a Poetic Centenary

Although it was raised a few months ago by some members of the Gurney Society Committee, it has sort of passed me (and others!) by that this year marks the 75th anniversary of Gurney's death, passing away on Boxing Day, 26 December, 1937. Part of me thinks that the anniversary thing is rather a red herring: why can't composers and poets be marked at any time? – there is no requirement for there to be a calendrical accident to warrant putting on some sort of commemoration or celebration. A few ideas have been mooted for the December date, but falling on the day after Christmas rather limits options. I shall post on here with details of anything that happens.

One anniversary that is perhaps worth drawing attention to is the centenary of Gurney's first poetry, which falls about now. A squib of a verse dating from Easter 1907 has recently come to light in a book dedication in a volume presented by Gurney to Alfred Cheesman. However, the first 'proper' attempt at poetry that we have is a short thing called The Irish Sea:

The after glow slid out of Heaven,
Heavily arched the vault above,
Then round my bows, and in my gleaming
Wake, dim presences ’gan to move.

My boat sailed softly all the night,
Through wraiths and shapes of mystery,
But dawn brought once again to sight
The friendly and familiar sea.

This poem was sent to Gurney's boyhood friend F.W. Harvey in an undated letter, and a manuscript (again undated) of the poem is extant in the archive, which is annotated as being a homage to one of Gurney's great literary influences, Hilaire Belloc. While undated, the letter contains valuable internal evidence that allows us to put a date on the verse. Kelsey Thornton's invaluable volume of Gurney's Collected Letters - a book permanently at my side - dates the letter to June 1913, on account of a mention of Gurney's having just been to see the Abbey Theatre performing J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World at London's Court Theatre, which production ran at this theatre in the first week of June 1913. A few weeks ago I was preparing this poem for its inclusion in Tim Kendall and my edition of Gurney's complete poetry for OUP. Gurney's letter notes that the poem had just been rejected by The Eyewitness - a journal edited by Hilaire Belloc, to which fact Gurney draws attention on account of the poem having been written in homage to Belloc. When looking into Belloc I discovered that Belloc handed over the editorship The Eyewitness in June 1912, shortly following which it changed its name to The Witness. This didn't quite tally with the Abbey Theatre evidence, so I went back to the Court Theatre listings for 1912 and found that the same company presented the same play in the same week of that year: so we can now be sure that it was June 1912 in which Gurney was writing to Harvey. If by early June the poem had already been rejected by Belloc's Eyewitness, it must have been written some time before this, so this poem must have been written in around May 1912.

SO: while there may have been other poems before this first extant poem, and while Gurney's poetry began to flow in earnest whilst on army training in 1915, on the evidence we have we can say that around this time must fall the centenary of Gurney's first serious attempts to write poetry.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

A Soldier and a Maker: A Gurney play at London's Barbican

Opening this week: Iain Burnside has written a play by Iain Burnside based upon the songs, poems and other writings of Ivor Gurney, which tells the story of his life. It is being presented at the Barbican's Pit Theatre between 20th and 28th April, performed by students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Further details are available here: The play was previewed on Radio 3's In Tune programme just over a week ago, and it sounds like it presents a unique and fascinating insight into Gurney's life and creativity.

If you can't get to London this coming week, the play will also be presented as part of the Cheltenham Festival in June. Watch this space for details!

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Major Gurney Event, Bristol, 21 January.

A hugely important event is taking place in Bristol Cathedral on the evening of Saturday 21 January 2012, which will see the premiere of an award winning film on Ivor Gurney, produced by Redcliffe Film Productions, Severn & Somme, as well as the performance of all three extant orchestral works by Gurney - the Coronation March, War Elegy and A Gloucestershire Rhapsody, and four orchestrated songs (orch. Herbert Howells and Ian Venables).

This will be the first time all three of these works will have been heard together, and will be only the second performance of both the Coronation March and A Gloucestershire Rhapsody. The works will be performed by the Bristol Classical Players, cond. Tom Gauterin, with a cameo performance by myself for the orchestrated songs: By a Bierside, In Flanders, Ev'n Such is Time and Severn Meadows.

This is an event not to be missed! To view the flyer, which includes contact/booking details for tickets, click here!

Also, an advance warning: a Gurney Study Day is being organised by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on 25 March, and the Gurney Society's Spring Event will take place in Gloucester Cathedral on Saturday 5 May, including opportunity to view some Gurney manuscripts, a song recital, talks, an organ recital and choral evensong, incorporating various Gurney works (including premiere performances and unpublished poems) along the way. Put these dates in your diary now.

Friday 18 February 2011

Gurney's true love: Margaret Hunt

During the last few days I have been finalising the catalogue for the poetry and appeals written between September 22 1922 and the end of 1923, double checking the rationale for the dating of those manuscripts and making sure the catalogue entries are complete. Just occasionally one gets thoroughly diverted in the act of cataloguing and starts reading something more fully than intended. The poem that grabbed me as I was reading it through yesterday was written in (possibly late-) February 1923 and is titled 'On a memory'.

I have been totally engrossed by the poem, which, putting it into biographical context, is all about Margaret Hunt - a woman about relatively little is known (although Pam Blevins is currently on her trail, notably hoping to find a photograph of her), but who was a great inspiration to Gurney, encouraging, with her sister Emily (both private music teachers in Gloucester, playing violin and piano), his music making, and introducing Gurney to the Cotswolds.

It is known that Gurney fell in love with Margaret, and is said that Gurney wanted to marry her, but we have no correspondence with her, and Gurney only occasionally mentions her in his correspondence. However, Margaret is the dedicatee of numerous works by Gurney - works for violin and piano, as well as the song 'Lights Out' and the cycle Ludlow & Teme.

However, Margaret's place in Gurney's life is described in this long poem. He describes all she meant to him, inspirationally ('it was she who ruled my Making'), the pain of their being apart once he went to London ('But love can carry across a hundred miles'), her many letters - writer of many letters both whilst in London and at the front - 'bright patches of love', (how very sad that we have none!) and then her end in 1919, when, having been ill for some time, she died on 3 March:

'She was iller now, but dear, but dear, and her name
Thrilled still on lips. My work was meant for her.
I turned to work, and returned to playing there
The piano as of old - then her ending came.
I stood by her coffin, and smoked, there was no shame.
Now after four years, I look back and see that she
Has been best inspiration, or that beauty she loved [...]'


'I did not go visit her cemetery grave,
But walked in quiet places that she loved,
Or on hill roads far from crowds or noise removed.
The spirit of green wood, the heart of music was she.'


It is remarkable to know how very much she meant to him; a love and inspiration which is otherwise unspoken except obliquely in those several dedications. It leaves one wondering how the nurse to whom Gurney was engaged in late 1917, Annie Drummond, fitted into all of this. Was she just a passing thing, or did Gurney seek solace elsewhere, his love being unrequited by Margaret Hunt? Perhaps we shall never know, but we can now put Margaret in her rightful place as Gurney's muse.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

New Gurney Website

On behalf of the Ivor Gurney Society, in my spare moments between editing the Coronation March, to be premiered in June, completing the Gloucester archive catalogue and writing the PhD, I have recently been developing a new website, expanding the resources to include sample pages of manuscript, examples of Gurney's music and poetry, articles by and on Gurney, details of archives, and many other resources. Some of this is yet to be fully implemented, but the website as it stands has today gone 'live'.

Visit to explore the new site, and visit it again in the near future to take advantage of the developing resources. You can even take advantage of the Society shop, through which editions of the Society Journal can be purchased, and should you not be a member already, you can join online.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Gurney at Remembrancetide

In today's Guardian is published one of Gurney's several previously unseen poems on the Armistice, The Bugle, the only source for which is an exercise book used by Gurney during January and February 1919, at which time Gurney, like many others, was returning to civilisation from active service. The poem betrays some of the thoughts of those returning, wondering how it is that life has continued apparently unchanged and uncaring in spite of what the soldiers have witnessed and been a part of.

There have been a couple of other interesting posts about Gurney in the last couple of weeks.

On All Hallows Eve Tim Kendall, my supervisor and co-editor in the edition of Gurney's complete poetry, posted on Gurney and All Hallows/All Saints – something Gurney keeps returning to in his poetry, from the early Toussaints of September 1918, quoted by Tim, to the late work of 1926. Gurney refers to the occasion numerous times during the late poetry; a day in the church's calendar which he commemorates specifically in an unpublished poem titled 'All Hallows', describing it as 'The day of honour and all love / The all-hallowed day of all friendly dead', on which occasion he celebrates Shakespeare amongst that saintly host, calling for the singing of 'Gloria and Eleison', 'Agincourt' and 'David’s songs' [viz. the psalms].

A calendar of days/commemorations pervades Gurney's late work. He writes many poems in honour of Saints Peter, Michael and others, of Good Friday (the day on which Gurney was shot in 1917), around the time of Lady Day (25 March), as well as on more secular anniversaries, such as the day of Johannes Brahms's death, and the anniversary of battles of the American civil war.

And latterly, blogger 'Classical Iconoclast', has posted that wonderful poem of November 1916, Bach and the Sentry.

Sunday 17 October 2010

The National Trust's Ode to the Countryside

The National Trust have published an anthology of poems on the countryside, from which ten poems have been shortlisted and taken to the public vote to announce Britain's favourite poem of the countryside.

Whilst I consider such polls to be gimmicky and meaningless, it is gratifying to see one of Gurney's poems in the pastoral decalogue: 'By Severn'.

If England, her spirit lives anywhere
It is by Severn, by hawthorns, and grand willows.
Earth heaves up twice a hundred feet in air
And ruddy clay falls scooped out to the weedy shallows.
There in the brakes of May Spring has her chambers,
Robing-rooms of hawthorn, cowslip, cuckoo flower –
Wonder complete changes for each square joy’s hour,
Past thought miracles are there and beyond numbers.
If for the drab atmospheres and managed lighting
In London town, Oriana’s playwrights had
Wainlode her theatre and then coppice clad
Hill for her ground of sauntering and idle waiting.
Why, then I think, our chieftest glory of pride
(The Elizabethans of Thames, South and Northern side)
Would nothing of its meeding be denied,
And her sons praises from England’s mouth again be outcried.

Short of the general public knowing the entire poetic oeuvre and bringing it to a national election there is no way of knowing whether a better poem exists that hasn't been considered, and whether the small proportion of the population who deem (or know) to vote are representative of the 62 million people in the country.

However, since it would be nice to see Gurney being considered amongst England's more important poets, do take a look at the National Trust's page and vote for your favourite (as long as it's the Gurney!). Click here to go to the relevant National Trust page.