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Born at 3 Queen Street, Gloucester in 1890, the second of four surviving children of David Gurney, a tailor, and his wife Florence, a seamstress, Gurney showed musical ability early. He sang as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral, from 1900 to 1906, when he became an articled pupil of Dr Herbert Brewer at the cathedral, where he met fellow composer Herbert Howells who became a lifelong friend. Alongside Gurney and Howells, Brewer's third pupil at this time was Ivor Novello then known as Ivor Davies. He also enjoyed an enduring friendship with the poet F. W. Harvey whom he met in 1908. The most significant adult figures in Gurney's early life were the Reverend Alfred H. Cheesman and two sisters, Emily and Margaret Hunt who nurtured Gurney's interests in music and literature. Gurney began composing music at the age of 14, 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 possessed a dynamic personality but had been troubled by mood swings that became apparent during his teenage years. He had a difficult time focusing on his work at college and suffered his first breakdown in 1913. After taking a rest, he seemed to recover and returned to college.
Gurney's studies were interrupted by World War I when he enlisted as a private soldier in the Gloucestershire Regiment in February 1915. At the Front, he began writing poetry seriously, sending his efforts to his friend, the musicologist-critic Marion Scott, who worked with Gurney as his editor and business manager. He was in the midst of writing the poems for what would become his first book Severn and Somme when he was wounded in the shoulder in April 1917. He recovered and returned to battle, still working on his book and composing music including the songs In Flanders and By A Bierside. Sidgwick & Jackson accepted Severn and Somme in July with publication set for the autumn. In the meantime, Gurney was gassed in September the same year and sent to the Edinburgh War Hospital where he met and fell in love with a VAD nurse, Annie Nelson Drummond, but the relationship later failed. There remains some controversy about the possible effects of the gas on his mental health, even though Gurney had shown some signs and symptoms of a bipolar disorder since his teens. "Being gassed (mildly) [his parenthesis] with the new gas is no worse than catarrh or a bad cold”, Gurney wrote in a letter to Marion Scott on 17 September 1917. 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'. Severn and Somme, was published in November 1917.
In March 1918, Gurney suffered a serious breakdown, triggered at least in part by the sudden loss of Drummond. He was hospitalized in the Gallery Ward at Brancepeth Castle, County Durham, where he wrote several songs, despite the piano sounding, he said, like "a boiler factory in full swing because of the stone walls". In June he threatened suicide but did not go through with it. He slowly regained some of his emotional stability and in October was honourably discharged from the army. Gurney received an unconventional diagnosis of nervous breakdown from "deferred" shell shock. The notion that Gurney's instability should primarily be attributed to "shell shock" was perpetuated by his close friend Marion Scott, who used this term in the initial press releases after Gurney's death, as well as in his entry for Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Although Gurney seemed to thrive after the war, when he was regarded as one of the most promising men of his generation, his mental distress continued to worsen. He studied for a brief time with Ralph Vaughan Williams upon returning to the Royal College of Music but he withdrew from the college before completing his studies. His second volume of poetry, War's Embers, appeared in May 1919 to mixed reviews. He continued to compose, producing a large number of songs, instrumental pieces, chamber music and two works for orchestra, War Elegy (1920) and A Gloucestershire Rhapsody (1919–1921). His music was being performed and published. However by 1922, his condition had deteriorated to the point where his family had him declared insane.
There has been speculation that his mental health problems were a result of syphilis contracted either as a music student before the war or perhaps while serving as a soldier in France. This theory is discussed at length in a 2001 article for Musicweb by Pamela Blevins. The article concludes that Gurney did NOT suffer from syphilis.
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 (systematised)". Gurney wrote prolifically during the asylum years, producing some eight collections of verse. His output inclused two plays in Shakespearean style - "Gloucester Play (1926) and "The Tewksbury Trial" (1926), although during this time he appeared to believe that he was Shakespeare. He also continued to compose music, but to a far lesser degree. An examination of his archive suggests that up to two thirds of his musical output remains unpublished and unrecorded.
By the 1930s Gurney wrote little of anything, although he was described by Scott as being "so sane in his insanity".
Gurney died of tuberculosis while still a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital shortly before dawn on 26 December 1937, aged 47. He was buried in Twigworth, near Gloucester. His godfather, the Reverend Alfred Cheesman, conducted the service. Gurney was "a lover and maker of beauty", as it said on his gravestone (now replaced after it was damaged—the original stone now stored inside Twigworth church). Marion Scott preserved Gurney's manuscripts and letters and worked with composer Gerald Finzi to ensure that his legacy should not be forgotten.
On 11 November 1985, Gurney was among 16 Great War Poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by a fellow Great War poet, Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." A memorial to Gurney was erected in 2009 near Ypres, close to the spot where he was the victim of a mustard gas attack in 1917, and a blue plaque on Eastgate Street in Gloucester, commemorates his life.
In April 2014 BBC Four broadcast a documentary about Gurney, entitled The Poet who Loved the War, presented by Tim Kendall, which focused on how the First World War had in some ways helped Gurney through the periods of depression he suffered and had helped him become one of the war's foremost poets.
In June and July 2014 Gurney was the subject of BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week, as part of the station's "Music in the Great War" series. The programmes included a number of Gurney's pieces especially recorded by the BBC.
Gurney wrote hundreds of poems and more than 300 songs as well as instrumental music. He set only a handful of his own poems, the best-known being Severn Meadows. His best-known compositions include his Five Elizabethan Songs (or 'The Elizas' as he called them) and the song-cycles Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland, both settings of poetry by A. E. Housman. There is something of Schubert and Schumann, but considerably less of the prevailing folk idiom of the time, in the intensity of his musical language.
Gurney is known both as a poet and composer and his reputation in both arts has continued to rise. Edmund Blunden, at the urging of composer Gerald Finzi, assembled the first collection of Gurney's poetry which was published in 1954. This was followed by P. J. Kavanagh's Collected Poems, first published in 1982 and reissued in 2004. It remains the best edition of Gurney's poetry. Gurney is regarded as one of the great World War I poets, and like the others of them, such as Edward Thomas whom he admired, he often contrasted the horrors of the front line with the beauty and tranquillity of his native English landscape - these themes were explored in the 2012 musical play A Soldier and a Maker.
Gurney set to music many of the poems of his contemporaries, including those by A. E. Housman. He composed settings for at least nineteen of the poems written by Edward Thomas and at least seven by W. H. Davies.