Ivor Gurney

WW1 soldier poet and composer Ivor Gurney shines bright at the BBC Proms

Archival research brings to light previously unheard, as well as rarely performed chamber, orchestral and choral works by World War One soldier, poet and composer Ivor Gurney.

As part of a dedicated series of broadcasts, Gurney's D minor String Quartet will premiere on BBC Radio 3 on 24 June. The following week Gurney features as Radio 3's Composer of the Week and on 1 August the BBC Symphony Orchestra will perform his War Elegy at the BBC Proms.

Gurney was from Gloucestershire and was inspired both by his love for the West Country landscape and his experience of war. From a mud splattered music manuscript written in the trenches, to his last poem composed during his final incarceration in a mental hospital, Gurney was a prolific writer. Although his work gained some recognition and critical acclaim during and immediately after the war, he soon fell from public consciousness.

The Gloucestershire Archives holds numerous manuscripts of unpublished, unperformed works in addition to those few favoured poems and scores, all of which have now been mapped in a detailed and extensive catalogue which makes up the Gurney archive. As a result of meticulous examination and reorganisation of the archive during Philip Lancaster's PhD at the University of Exeter, Gurney's music will be heard and recognised on a far greater scale than was previously possible.

The string quartet to be broadcast on Tuesday is the first of Gurney's quartets to be recorded, and is notable for having survived. The score of the work was destroyed, along with numerous late chamber and other works, in a tragic act of censorship. The works were thought to be 'incoherent and useless' and therefore unworthy of Gurney's memory. His 'madness' and incarceration in an asylum for the last fifteen years of his life has cast long shadows and questions over the validity of Gurney's work. 

Philip Lancaster explained:"We are now looking past this perception and coming to realise that there is a body of unique work of intense meaning and importance, which is now receiving the attention it deserves. He devoted himself to his arts and never compromised in his pursuit of beauty, a pursuit that was not in any way lessened by his health and mental difficulties."

Although the score of this string quartet was destroyed, a set of copied string parts survived the purge and remained in the archive, and was reconstructed and edited by Philip during his PhD. He worked with the Gurney Trust and the Bridge Quartet to bring the work to recording. According to Philip, of all the manuscripts that he has looked at and brought to performance there have only been a handful that he believes to be so special.

He said: "This is the most important chamber music movement to be so far brought to light in the archive. The greatest reward of archiving is when you find what you think to be one of these really special pieces and are able to bring it to performance.  Hearing that work is thrilling. The quartet movement being broadcast on Tuesday is one such piece. Another is the motet for double choir, 'Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty', another asylum work, which is one of the pieces that has been specially recorded by the BBC Singers for Composer of the Week."

Gurney's War Elegy was also dug out of the archive and co-edited by Philip with Gurney Trustee and University of Exeter Honorary Fellow Ian Venables and will be performed live at the Proms. Such unprecedented public exposure for Gurney is the result of eight years of Philip's research – work which is to continue during the next three years as Philip takes up the post of British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter's English department – making these performances viable and ensuring that Gurney's music and poetry gains the recognition that it deserves.

The Composer of the Week series will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 between Monday 30 June and Friday 4 July, daily, 12-1pm and repeated 6.30-7.30pm.

Date: 23 June 2014

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