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Ivor Gurney

(1890-1937 / England)

Biography of Ivor Gurney

Ivor Bertie Gurney (28 August 1890 - 26 December 1937) was an English composer and war poet.

Born at 3 Queen Street, Gloucester in 1890, Gurney sang as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral, from 1900 to 1906, when he became an articled pupil of Dr Herbert Brewer at the cathedral. During this time he met composer Herbert Howells, also a pupil of Brewer, and, in 1908, he met the future poet F. W. Harvey. Gurney began composing music at the age of 14,[1] and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911. He studied there with Charles Villiers Stanford, who also taught Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Marion M. Scott, Rebecca Clarke, Frank Bridge, Arthur Bliss, Howells and many others. Stanford told Howells that Gurney was potentially "the biggest of them all", but he was "unteachable".

Gurney's studies were interrupted by World War I as he enlisted as a private soldier in the Gloucestershire Regiment. He was wounded in April 1917 and gassed in September the same year. "Being gassed (mildly) [Gurney’s parenthesis] with the new gas is no worse than catarrh or a bad cold” Gurney explained in a letter to Marion Scott on 17 September 1917. The gas had no lasting effects on him and was not a factor in his bipolar illness. After his release from hospital he was posted to Seaton Delaval, a mining village in Northumberland, where he wrote poems including 'Lying awake in the ward'. His first volume of poetry, Severn and Somme, was published in November 1917, followed by War's Embers in 1919.

By March 1918 Gurney was in the Gallery Ward in Brancepeth Castle, County Durham, where he wrote several songs, despite the piano sounding like "a boiler factory in full swing because of the stone walls". After the war, he returned to London to resume his music studies at the RCM with Vaughan Williams.

Gurney suffered from bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness, which showed symptoms during his mid-teens and led to his first documented breakdown in 1913, followed by a major breakdown in the spring of 1918 while he was still in uniform. His 1918 nervous breakdown was triggered by the failure of his relationship with VAD Annie Nelson Drummond whom he met when he was a patient at the Edinburgh War Hospital.(September to October 1917). The notion of Gurney as a victim of shell shock derives from Gurney's close friend, the critic-musicologist Marion Scott, who wrote the initial press releases after Gurney's death suggesting that his illness was connected to the war. She also wrote the first Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians entry on Gurney using the term "shell shock".

Although Gurney seemed to thrive after the war when he was regarded as one of the most promising men of his generation, his untreated bipolar illness continued to worsen.By 1922, his condition had deteriorated to the point where his family had him declared insane. He spent the last 15 years of his life in mental hospitals, first for a short period at Barnwood House in Gloucester, and then at the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford, where he was diagnosed as suffering from "delusional insanity (systematized)". He continued to write poetry and a scattering of music, which was collected and preserved by Scott and later edited by Edmund Blunden, Gerald Finzi, and others.

PoemHunter.com Updates

April Gale

The wind frightens my dog, but I bathe in it,
Sound, rush, scent of the Spring fields.

My dog's hairs are blown like feathers askew,
My coat's a demon, torturing like life.

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