Ivor Gurney: Song of the soldier

Ivor Gurney bore witness to the First World War as composer and poet. Ninety years on, his voice is being heard again.
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The Independent Culture

When the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme is commemorated this year, there will be the chance to remember those who experienced the carnage. The poet and composer Ivor Gurney was one such soldier.

Gurney has always been respected as a war poet, but few of the 300 or so songs that he composed are well known. The baritone Roderick Williams, however, hopes to change all that. His recording of Gurney's music, Severn & Somme, is due to appear shortly on the Somm label. Featuring several unpublished and unrecorded "new" songs, it is a celebration of a composer whom Williams feels has been unjustly overlooked.

"Gurney has a gift of producing incredible textures," he says. "'The White Cascade', his unpublished setting of a WH Davies poem, seems to me to evoke the sound of Rachmaninov: it's the same kind of aesthetic, the same sound world... I have no doubt that Gurney is an important song composer. Not in the sense that he set a benchmark for others to follow, although I think that he and [Gerald] Finzi had a lot in common. But 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, much as [Benjamin] Britten did."

Although some of the new items are early songs, dating from 1907-08, most were written post-war, and you can detect the trenches in them, says Williams: "'Lights Out' recalls Gurney's setting of Fletcher's 'Sleep', which is out of this world. Edward Thomas's poem evokes that feeling of being almost asleep, yet not able to cross over - of 'going where no one else can follow', but of not quite managing to get to the other side. Gurney does something astonishing: he sets it so that towards the end the song just kind of unravels. It's a wonderful effect, and it gives me goose-pimples just to hear it. One is reminded, too, how Gurney himself was frequently unable to sleep after the war: instead, he would get up and tramp across fields at night for 20 miles or more."

"Dreams of the Sea" (1914) is another first recording. "It's an inspired poem by WH Davies, a bit like Masefield's 'Sea Fever'," says Williams, "and Gurney sets it with distinctly Romantic gestures in the piano part, and in the vocal line, too. It's about being haunted by the sea and longing to get back to it - just as 'In Flanders', Gurney's setting of his friend, the Gloucestershire poet FW Harvey, is about being in the trenches and longing be back in the Cotswolds."

Gurney never recovered from the war. Although much of his finest work was completed after 1919, when he enjoyed three years of phenomenal creativity, in 1922 his manic depression confined him to an asylum in Dartford, London. He remained there until his death, from tuberculosis, on Boxing Day 1937. "We follow a chronological path on the disc," says Williams, "starting in 1908 and ending with 'Western Sailors'. That dates from 1926, and is seemingly Gurney's setting of his own words. When he composed it, he had been in Dartford Asylum for almost four years. There's a good chance that no one has ever heard it sung before. To be reviving it really does give me a sense of elation - and of responsibility, too.

"The thing that hits you hardest, both with Gurney and with the other Great War song composers I've across lately, is the 'might have been' factor. Gurney survived, but in a pretty parlous state. Maybe the war didn't cause his suicidal lows, perhaps he was always doomed to suffer from mental illness. But it's what else he might have written that's so tantalising. So many of those fantastic voices, one way or another, got snuffed out."

Ian Venables, chairman of the Ivor Gurney Society and a respected song composer himself - four of his songs appear on Severn & Somme, along with others by Herbert Howells, Christian Wilson and the late John Sanders - is also proud to be part of the project.

"Of course," he says, "it's conceivable that performing 'new', hitherto forgotten songs might not add greatly to Gurney's reputation. Yet even Finzi, when he made his first selection of Gurney songs in the late 1930s, may have overlooked some. Indeed, several that he actually approved of have still not been published."

Venables certainly rates Gurney's talents high enough to have produced some hidden masterpieces. "Gurney was one of the first, possibly 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," he says. "His setting of [John] Masefield's 'By a Bierside' is masterly because he really understood the nuances of the poem, and had the skill to paint the words in musical terms. Stanford and Parry never achieved that. It's a matter of getting behind the words, finding the hidden music in the text."

'Severn & Somme' will be released by Somm; Gurney's 'War Elegy for Orchestra' will be recorded in 2006 by the BBC SO on the BMS label

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