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Donald Macleod discovers how Ivor Gurney's early promise came to fruition and then unravelled, as Gurney struggled with the horrors of World War I and serious mental illness.

The horrors of the trenches forge a war poet

It's a story that begins full of possibility and hope; Gurney was one of the brightest musical lights of his generation. He imagined himself as Schubert's heir; a fresh, young genius whose music and poetry would revolutionise British society. Donald Macleod discovers how that early promise came to fruition and then unravelled, as Gurney struggled with the horrors of World War One and serious mental illness. Gurney expert, Dr Kate Kennedy, joins Donald to uncover the man behind the tragedy and explore the art he produced in the face of enormous adversity. Much of Gurney's output is still rarely performed, and several works have been specially recorded for these programmes.

Ivor Gurney had been accepted to study music at the Royal College of Music. One of the first things he presented to his tutor, Stanford, was a delicate setting of the poem by Robert Bridges, I Praise the Tender Flower. Soon however, Gurney found that life in London was not for him and he started to get periods of depression.
By 1915, Gurney had been recruited into the army and, after training, found himself serving in the trenches. He was able to compose some music while at war, including one of his most famous songs, By a Bierside, although it was poetry that occupied more of his attention during this period. In the wall of his dugout, Gurney erected a little shrine to his beloved Gloucestershire with a picture postcard. Amid the mud and squalor, a tune kept running through Gurney's mind - it was his own setting for Psalm 23, recorded here by the BBC Singers especially for Composer of the Week.

1 hour

Clip

Music Played

  • Ivor Gurney

    I praise the tender flower for voice and piano

    Singer: Benjamin Luxon. Performer: David Willison.
    • Chandos: CHAN8831.
    • Chandos.
    • 26.
  • Ivor Gurney

    In Flanders, orch. Howells for baritone and orchestra

    Orchestra: BBC Scottish S O. Singer: Christopher Maltman. Conductor: Martyn Brabbins.
    • STANFORD: Two Songs of Faith (Op 97/4-5).
    • HYPERION.
    • 12.
  • Ivor Gurney

    By a bierside, orch. Howells for baritone and orchestra

    Singer: Christopher Maltman. Orchestra: BBC Scottish S O. Conductor: Martyn Brabbins.
    • STANFORD: Two Songs of Faith (Op 97/4-5).
    • HYPERION.
    • 13.
  • Roderick Williams & Susie Allan

    Dreams of the Sea

    • SOMM.
    • SOMMCD057.
    • 4.
  • Ivor Gurney

    Chant to Psalm 23 for chorus

    Choir: BBC Singers. Conductor: Paul Brough.
  • Ivor Gurney

    Sehnsucht [Longing] for piano

    Performer: Mark Bebbington.
    • Somm: SOMMCD038.
    • Somm.
    • 2.
  • Ivor Gurney

    Song of the Summer Woods for piano

    Performer: Mark Bebbington.
    • Somm: SOMMCD038.
    • Somm.
    • 2.
  • Ivor Gurney

    Sonata in E flat major for violin and piano - Lento

    Performer: Rupert Marshall luck. Performer: Matthew Rickard.
    • EM Records: EMRCD011.
    • EM Records.
    • 3.
  • Ivor Gurney

    Sonata in E flat major for violin and piano - Introduction: Lento - Allegro

    Performer: Rupert Marshall luck. Performer: Matthew Rickard.
    • EM Records: EMRCD011.
    • EM Records.
    • 3.

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