Ivor Gurney was born and grew up in Gloucester where he showed an early talent for music.
In 1911 he won an open scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music, when some of his early works were composed.
Determined to go to war despite initial rejection by the army due to wearing glasses, he joined the 5th Gloucester Reserve Battalion in 1915 and fought on the Western Front. He survived there two years and during this time wrote some startling poetry but was sent home after being gassed at Passchendaele.
He was having mood swings as a teenager but his mental health suffered during the war. After Passchendaele he had a mental breakdown but recovered and resumed his musical studies, producing some notable music and poetry. Then in 1922 he was admitted to Barnwood, a private asylum in Gloucestershire. He never fully recovered and was moved to the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford where he died from Tuberculosis. The nature and cause of his mental disorder has been debated.
During his life, including 8 years in hospital, he composed some remarkable music and wrote hundreds of poems and songs. Most of this went unpublished and his work has only really been recognised in the last 70 years.
Ivor Gurney's music and poetry
Written in July 1916
Little did I dream, England, that you bore me
Under the Cotswold Hills beside the water meadows,
To do you dreadful service, here, beyond your borders
And your enfolding seas.
I was a dreamer ever, and bound to your dear service
Meditating deep, I thought on your secret beauty.
As through a child’s face one may see the clear spirit
Your hills not only hills, but friends of mine and kindly,
Your tiny orchard-knolls hidden beside the river
Muddy and strongly flowing, with sky and tiny streamlets
Safe in its bosom.
Now these are memories only, and your skies and rushy sky-pools
Fragile mirrors easily broken by moving airs
But deep in my heart for ever goes on your daily being
And uses consecrate.
Think on me too, O Mother, who wrest my soul to serve you
In strange ways and fearful beyond your encircling waters
None but you can know my heart, its tears and sacrifice
None, but you, repay.
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 chiefest glory of pride
(The Elizabethans of Thames, South and Northern side)
Would nothing of its needing be denied,
And her sons praises from England's mouth again be outcried.
I cannot live with Beauty out of mind.
I search for her and desire her all the day;
Beauty, the choicest treasure you may find,
Most joyous and sweetest word his lips can say.
The crowded heart in me is quick with visions
And sweetest music born of a brighter day.
But though the trees have long since lost their green
And I, the exile, can but dream of things
Grown magic in the mind; I watch the sheen
Of frost, and hear the song Orion sings.
Yet O, the star-born passion of Beethoven,
Man's consolation sung on the quivering strings.
Beauty immortal, not to be hid, desire
Of all men, each in his fashion, give me the strong
Thirst past satisfaction for thee, and fire
Not to be quenched . . . . O lift me, bear me along,
Touch me, make me worthy that men may seek me
For Beauty, Mistress Immortal, Healer of Wrong.
For more information see the Ivor Gurney Society who hold the rights to his work and promote it.
Examples of his music: