Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ivor Gurney: War Poet, musician and composer

UK Disability History month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December and the theme for 2018 is disability and music. In the centenary year of the Armistice, Alice Bennett considers the life and work of Ivor Gurney - war poet, musician and composer - and his lifelong battle with mental illness.

At the centenary of the Armistice, there has been renewed focus on the arts produced during the First World War. When thinking of arts from the war, many of us would name Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Fewer would name Ivor Gurney, a poet and composer, despite his inclusion in the memorial naming 16 poets of the Great War at Westminster Abbey’s famed poet’s corner.

Photograph of Gloucester Cathedral Cloisters
The Cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral. Photograph by Michael D Beckwith. 
Although commemorated there for his poetry, Gurney was primarily a musician and composer. He served as chorister and organ scholar at Gloucester Cathedral, before winning a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music. His first major composition was the set of Five Elizabethan Songs, produced over 1913-1914, prior to his enlistment in 1915. He turned to poetry as an artistic outlet for expression as trench life made composition increasingly difficult.

Like fellow poets Owen and Sassoon, Gurney’s war service was marked by mental illness. Unlike them, his problems with mental health were not purely precipitated by the war. Gurney had suffered a breakdown in 1913 and despite the global chaos his war years were amongst those of his greater mental stability. It has been suggested that the camaraderie of war service and the shared suffering of so many during this time helped to give Gurney a sense of stability and support, which helped his mental health. He spent time in military hospitals following a bullet wound in the spring of 1917 and after suffering a gas attack in September 1917 but remained in the army. He was eventually discharged from the army on medical grounds in October 1918, on the basis of his mental instability following a suicide attempt in June earlier that year.

Following the war, Gurney’s mental health deteriorated further, causing him to abandon his studies at the Royal College of Music which he had resumed after the war. Erratic behaviour and further suicidal episodes eventually led to a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia in September 1922 and with it to his entry to Barnwood House Asylum in Gloucester. Gurney’s state continued to decline, seeing him transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital, near Dartford in Kent only a few months later.

Despite his situation, works of Gurney’s did reach a wider audience during his time in hospital. Two song cycles, based on the works of A E Housman, Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland, were included as part of the Carnegie Collection of British Music in 1923 and 1926, whilst small selections of poetry were also published. Gurney remained in the City of London Mental Hospital until his death. He died from tuberculosis on 26 December 1937 and was buried a few days later on 31 December in St Matthew's churchyard at Twigworth, Gloucestershire.

Gurney’s declining mental health inevitably affected his work. The music manuscripts produced during his time in hospital were cluttered and hard to decipher and only reached a wider audience through the patience and perseverance of his friend Marion Scott. Scott, a musicologist, had saved Gurney’s manuscripts and having preserved them, found editors willing to undertake the difficult task of creating a workable edition, notably Gerald Finzi, who did much to create and promote editions of Gurney’s compositions. This championing of his talent has ensured that his works not only survived but are still known today.

Portrait of Ivor Gurney as a young man in uniform, unknown photographer.
Ivor Gurney in uniform. Copyright The British Library. 
Gurney is often primarily considered through the lens of the First World War - recognition of the frank but moving accounts he gives of life in the trenches and a reputation cemented by his inclusion in the group of war poets commemorated at Westminster Abbey. But although the legacy of his way poetry is strong, it does not take into account his musical works or the influences and themes of his work. Gurney drew great inspiration from the natural world, writing evocatively but without sentimentality about the Gloucestershire landscapes which he loved. This rural inspiration worked across both his writing and musical composition, his choice of Housman for the libretto of his song cycles and the strong influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams on his work. Gurney looked to the Elizabethans for both literary and musical inspirations, writing in praise of Ben Jonson and resetting old English songs to his own compositions. This pre-industrial aesthetic was in part inspired by his love of the Gloucestershire countryside but was shared by composers like Vaughan Williams. It is difficult to separate his poetry and his music. Gurney set surprisingly few of his own poems to music but many more by Housman - notably in his song cycles - and also by other contemporary poets. Poetics do seem to have influenced Gurney’s musical life - few instrumental compositions survive, in contrast to a far greater number of songs, many of which were poems Gurney had set to music.

Posthumous diagnosis is always problematic when discussing historical figures, particularly so in mental health due to major changes in classification, diagnosis and understanding. Trying to definitively identify particular illnesses and conditions of individuals from history is tempting, it gives a feeling of more concrete connection, of better understanding of how they were. This is often the case in the study of notable historic individuals, with historians and biographers attempting to pinpoint any medical conditions.

Although some illnesses described in historical accounts and sources appear to be recognisable conditions, in many instances the information provided is too scant and vague to offer the basis of anything other than speculation. Even when the affliction appears to be identifiable, such diagnosis relies wholly upon the details provided and assumes that the symptoms recorded are both accurate and comprehensive. Similarly, any analysis of the incidence of named diseases assumes accuracy in not only the contemporary diagnosis but also classification. Ultimately, most posthumous diagnoses are theories. Some are coherent and have evidentiary support, whilst others are essentially speculation. It is extremely rare, if possible, to be able to prove the correct identification of condition suffered by an individual.

Soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme
Aftermath of the Battle of the Somme. Copyright Imperial War Museum. 
This is the case with Gurney, whose experiences were recorded in a time when mental illness was still little understood, his situation exacerbated by the trauma of World War I. It was during the war that there began to be a recognition of the post traumatic stress experienced by combatants, then termed shell shock. Shell shock was first described in print by Dr Charles Myers of the British Psychological Society in 1915. The term was used during World War 1 to describe a very wide range of symptoms, for which there was no obvious physical cause. Most of these would now be understood as forms of post traumatic stress disorder, some perhaps as nervous breakdowns. There was discomfort and embarrassment about mental health generally, as well as shell shock more specifically, which was often seen as an inability to cope with warfare and even as cowardice. To the right is an image showing a shell-shocked soldier being led away, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme. This photograph is from the collections of the Imperial War Museum. Gurney’s fist volume of verse was entitled Severn and Somme, published in 1917, the year after the battle.

Gurney’s mental health problems during the war were attributed to shell shock, an interpretation of his illness perpetuated by Marion Scott in her championing of his poetry and musical compositions. Shell shock is still referred to in discussion of Gurney’s mental health, but whilst the trauma of the war undeniably affected him, others have suggested genetic predisposition. Diagnoses of Gurney’s state through his own lifetime. He was diagnosed with neurasthenia following his breakdown in 1913, treated for shell shock during the war, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his own lifetime and more recently has been suggested as having had bipolar disorder. The emphasis on shell shock, during his own lifetime and to an extent afterwards, may have been partly an effort to protect Gurney’s personal and professional reputation. Perhaps it is easier to consider Gurney alongside fellow war poets suffering from shell shock, primarily damaged by the trauma of war, rather than dealing with chronic underlying conditions. In artistic terms, the place of a war poet is perhaps a more respected and celebrated reputation than that of a “mad” poet, as demonstrated by the discomfort around the interpretation and acceptance of poets like Christopher Smart.

In some sense, the Gurney’s diagnosis is immaterial - his lived experience and the art he produced are of greater interest than assigning a medical label. Gurney was a composer and poet inspired by the Gloucestershire countryside, with a deep interest in Elizabethan music and literature. He was a poet who captured life in the trenches for the ordinary soldiers of the First World War and with a gift for setting poetry - whether his own or that of other authors - to music. Gurney spent much of his life confined to hospitals but mixed in the literary and musical circles, remaining a lifelong friend of figures including Edmund Blunden, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells and Marion Scott. Just as his poetry defies easy categorisation, as Gurney shifts between pastoral poet, war poet, local poet and mad poet - so too does his life and legacy. He was never well known during his lifetime, but nor was he unknown. He has perhaps not had the artistic recognition deserved, but was never fully forgotten and his works are still known today. Gurney was a composer and musician who turned to poetry for convenience in time of war, but never abandoned the art form, who experienced greatly prolific periods of creativity but spells where he was unable to work. At its heart, Gurney’s work, both musical and literary, provides intense lyrical expression of personal experience.

To hear some of Gurney's compositions, check out our Ivor Gurney spotify playlist to accompany this blog post.

Find Ivor Gurney and his works in the University of York library collections:

Biography and criticism:

Michael Hurd, The ordeal of Ivor Gurney, MA 181.9 GUR/H
Daniel Hipp, The poetry of shell shock : wartime trauma and healing in Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, MA 181 HIP
Pamela Blevins, Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: song of pain and beauty, LM 0.92 GUR/B
Ivor Gurney, War Letters: a selection, MA 181.9 GUR

Severn & Somme and War's embers MA 181.9 GUR
Poems of Ivor Gurney, 1890-1937 MA 181.9 GUR

Five Elizabethan songs: for low voice and piano, LM 43.1 GUR
Severn meadows, LM 40 BUS
Ludlow and Teme : song-cycle for tenor voice, string quartet and pianoforte, LM 43.1 GUR
The western playland (and of sorrow) : a song-cycle to poems of A.E. Housman, LM 43.13 GUR

Audio CD Songs CD/LM/2550
Audio CD War’s embers CD/LM/2528

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