Ivor Bertie Gurney (1890-1937), English composer, poet and writer, was one whose promise was interrupted – like so many of his generation – by the the Great War before succumbing to mental illness – probably paranoid schizophrenia - exacerbated by his experiences in France.
He began his musical life as a choir boy at Gloucester cathedral, before becoming assistant organist there. He was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied under Charles Villiers Stanford. His studies there were interrupted by the War but not before he had written his “Five Elizabethan Songs” and had discovered the poetry of A.E. Housman.
He joined a Gloucester regiment and was in France by 1915; was injured, suffered a gas attack at Ypres and traumatised, but survived; continuing his studies after hostilities ended. The time immediately after the War under the tutelage of Ralph Vaughan Williams was the most creative of his career, however, during 1920' mental instability that had troubled him since his teens recurred and, after 1921, he wrote very little. In 1922 he was entered into a mental hospital in Dartford, London and would spend the rest of his life there , smoking heavily despite his injured lungs and annoying other residents with his incessant piano playing; ignored by most, especially the Army in which he had faithfully served. He died there on Boxing Day 1937 his works largely unknown except to a small group of friends and fellow composers - Gerald Finzi. Herbert Howells and others
He wrote some delicate piano works (mainly preludes some chamber music and songs - some 300 songs, many of them as exquisite as any written, to the words of poets from the Tudor to the contemporary. While he was still at the Royal Academy, his teacher, Stanford had written that he, Gurney was “the one who most fulfilled the accepted ideas of genius…" He was admired by Gerald Finzi who had a similar capacity to marry the words to the singer to the accompaniment and would later champion both Gurney’s songs and his poetry..
Nearly everything he wrote was completed in the nine years between 1912 and 1921, including songs of war poets. (Gurney himself is considered one of the three greatest poets of World War I although he rarely set his own words to music.) His poetry was hardly known until many of them were published in 1954 at the urging of Finzi,). His “Collected Poems” - latest edition 2004 - is still available.
In France he concentrated on words, not music. As well as poetry he corresponded with friends and family. His letters are of such volume and literary merit that they have been collected, published and are still available.
These days he is well served in recordings of his songs and his poems appear in many anthologies of English verse as well as dedicated editions. Various editions of his correspondence from the front are available.
"Ivor Gurney - War Letters" Selection edited by KKR Thornton Hogarth Press 1984. Introduction