There are not enough words on the internet for me to express adequately quite why the story of Ivor Gurney attracts me so strongly. Of course, he was a schoolboy at my school and a chorister at my cathedral, also a composer, but then there is the poetry, the heroic and the overwhelmingly tragic in his life and the relative neglect in which he now sits.
The details of his life, especially post-war, continue to change. Where once his breakdown was attributed to shell shock and the after effects of mustard gas in the trenches, these days the view gaining most currency is that he had bipolar disorder, then, of course an unrecognised condition which might have been diagnosed as any number of things. This excellent little documentary presents another possibility, that of schizophrenia, and it may well be that Gurney suffered from this, although the evidence presented might also be down to the fact that he had to undergo electro-convulsive treatment, details of which are so graphically given in his asylum poems.
To focus on Gurney’s asylum years, breakdown(s) and eventual silence, though, is to focus on the wrong areas of this wonderful poet/composer’s life, and in that phrase we have the essence of his uniqueness. Where are the examples of other poets who were also such fine composers, or, in Gurney’s case, is it the other way around? I think of the troubadours and trouveres of the Medieval era, but think of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and so on, and you have writers of music, not texts. Part of Gurney’s greatness lies in that very uniqueness of his position.
Neither the poetry nor the music is always great, and we must admit that straight away, as did Finzi when he sorted through Gurney’s papers, realising that the chamber music was often slightly iffy, but the songs especially have the potential to traverse heights touched only by the greatest. The extra layer of vision Gurney has is that not only is his own poetry often exceptional, but his skills as a poet and as a musician put him in the perfect position to understand the music in other people’s writings, and to set them in an idiomatic, convincing and memorable fashion.
Sleep is probably his most well known song, a transcendental meditation on the desire for oblivion, setting John Fletcher’s text, but there are others too. After so many years of knowing his music, preceded by so many years of passing his memorial stone, day in, day out, at the entrance to the organ loft in Gloucester Cathedral, I think it is still the poetry of Severn Meadows, part of which is carved into that stone, which attracts me most:
Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.