A Brief Biography

Ivor Bertie Gurney was born in Gloucester on the 28th August 1890. His musical talents were quickly recognised and in 1900 he enrolled as a chorister in the Gloucester Cathedral Choir. In 1906, Gurney became an articled pupil to the cathedral organist, Dr Hebert Brewer and together, with fellow pupils Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello, he underwent a rigorous apprenticeship. In 1911, Gurney won an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music and began composition lessons with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, in which he served as a private with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters. During his time in France, Gurney’s poetic gift revealed itself and his first book of poems, Severn and Somme was published at the end of 1917. In September of that year, during the Passchendaele offensive, he was gassed and invalided home. Following his discharge from the Army in October 1918, Gurney returned to the RCM and resumed his studies, but this time under the tutelage of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Over the next four years Gurney composed music at an astonishing rate. These works included, a Symphony (now lost), two major orchestral essays, ‘A Gloucestershire Rhapsody’ (1919) and ‘War Elegy’ (1920), three string quartets, a piano trio, three violin sonatas, fifteen preludes, two sonatas for solo piano and 185 songs. Tragically, Gurney’s underlying bi-polar illness was exacerbated by the pressure of this immense creativity. Indeed, the composer Gerald Finzi, noted presciently something of this fragility, when, after hearing a performance of Gurney’s song ‘Sleep’ in 1921, wrote, ‘[O]ne can feel the incandescence in this song that tells of something burning too brightly to last, such as you see in the filament of an electric bulb before it burns out’ By 1922, Gurney’s increasingly unstable mental condition reached breaking point and his extreme behaviour led to him being declared mentally insane. He was committed to Barnwood House Asylum near Gloucester and later moved to the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, Kent where he would spend the rest of his life. During the early years of his incarceration Gurney continued to write both poetry and music, but as his mental decline accelerated, his ability to compose tailed off and he fell musically silent in 1926. He died on Boxing Day, 1937.