Gurney Choral Works in the Recording Studio

Ivor Gurney is known principally as a composer of song, and the recorded catalogue of his works is almost entirely of that genre, for which reason he has never been featured on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week series.  Five hours of programming of just songs – even if alleviated with a little of Gurney’s poetry – makes for poor programming.  During the last eight years I have been working with the Ivor Gurney Estate to rectify this, in part made possible by my extensive work in the archive and my collation of the first catalogue of Gurney’s musical works.  With all this work it has made the prospect of a Gurney Composer of the Week much more realistic, and this is exactly what is happening: he will be featured in the week of 23rd-27th June 2014.  To this end, the BBC orchestras have now recorded all three of Gurney’s extant orchestral works, which the Lead Trustee of the Estate, Ian Venables, and I have been editing and bringing to performance.  With these key works having been set down and lined up for broadcast in June, it is exciting that in this coming week the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra will be recording three Gurney choral works for the Composer of the Week series.  One of these recordings is particularly exciting for me, as the BBCSO will be getting their mouths/fingers around my orchestration of Gurney’s choral setting of Edward Thomas’s The Trumpet – a setting of the poem entirely different from his 1925 song setting of that poem.

I first undertook the orchestration of this work in 2008, for performance in Kendal at Ian Jone’s ‘Cumbrian Choral Initiative’ as part of a Vaughan Williams weekend (there are elements of RVW’s A Sea Symphony in Gurney’s Trumpet, and RVW also taught Gurney at the Royal College of Music between 1919 and 1921).  The orchestration was given a further outing in 2010 at the Three Choirs Festival, with the Philharmonia Orchestra.  I wrote two blog-posts about the work at the time of that performance, which you can read here and here.  Following this performance (and the musings of the second of these blog-posts) I made a few small revisions to the score, and so will be listening with especially keen ears on Tuesday as it is being performed, under the baton of Paul Brough.

The other two works to be recorded in the coming week by the BBC Singers are:

  • his chant to psalm 23 – a work of relatively little musical interest, perhaps, but poignant for the fact that he sang that psalm to his chant whilst serving in France at Fauquissart to steady his nerves under bombardment;
  • a remarkable setting of Robert Bridges, Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty, for unaccompanied double choir, composed in June 1925 whilst incarcerated in the City of London Mental Hospital.  This is one of two pieces of Gurney that I am particularly proud of having brought to light.  It was first given by Gloucester Cathedral Choir in May 2012, who have performed it a number of times since, and was recently also performed by Tenebrae in a particularly rich rendering, which truly convinced me of its power.  The work has its weaknesses, and is not an easy sing, but it is powerful work and is enormously worthwhile.  Listen out for it on Radio 3 in June!

The recording of my Gurney orchestration on Tuesday comes at a time when I am again spending many idle moments musing texture and instrumentation.  I have recently been commissioned to undertake the orchestration of a movement of Cecil Coles’s suite Behind the Lines, which was left unfinished on his being killed in the First World War.  More significantly, however, is the impending writing of my chamber oratorio, The Passion of War, the texture/ensemble for which is critical and is uppermost in my mind at the moment.  I can find no precedents for that which I wish to create (a good thing!), and I am trying to be sure that I get it right.  For the moment, fingers crossed that all goes well on Tuesday, and that the singers and orchestra think the piece a worthwhile undertaking!

[Corrected: the original posted stated the recordings were to be conducted by David Hill, not by Paul Brough. Apologies to both for this initial misattribution.]


Fulcrum into Creativity

This week has seen a great landmark for me: the completion and submission to the printer of the copy for the book that will stand as the first formal mile-stone in my original creative work: a short collection of poetry titled Fulcrum.

The title of the collection has a two-fold intention, reflecting both some of the key subject matter considered within the volume and also the fact that this is a pivotal point in the balancing of my work, with a desire to put greater emphasis on my own original creative ideas, musical and poetic, than on the editing and commentary of/on the works of others, which labours have for more than ten years dominated all that I am.  I first wrote of these intentions in a blog post of late December 2012, The Name and Nature of the Poet, and so it is an enormously pleasing moment to have reached the point of completing my first book (although in poetry publishing terms it is only a ‘pamphlet’).

The collection consists of thirteen poems, or rather two bookending poems between which are set eleven that are the meat of the book.  It is being hand printed by John Grice at the Evergreen Press, Gloucestershire, and will be a beautiful thing.  I have taken great care to select, with John’s advice and assistance, papers, colours and typefaces, and have also designed and executed the illustrative material for the book, so I hope will be a worthwhile volume if only as an object of some beauty, irrespective of the content.

I am publishing the volume by subscription in a limited edition of 100 copies, and at £15 a copy it is a very real bargain.  If you would like to order a copy prior to its formal publication on 1 June 2014, please do get in touch – details given below.


WW1 Poetry & Music Events & Conferences

The start of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is bringing with it a plethora of events, public and academic, with some of which I am going to be involved in the coming year.

Oxford Poetry School

Firstly, in April I am delighted to be speaking at a Spring School devoted to British World War One Poetry, which will take place at Wadham College, Oxford from 3rd to 5th April 2014, organised and hosted by the University of Oxford Faculty of English.  Full details of this event can be found at:  The list of speakers is quite extraordinary, so do sign up for this!

Later in April (28th), I am speaking at the Edward German Festival in Whitchurch, giving a pre-concert talk on Music and the Great War – details here:

A few days later, on 3 May, I am giving a recital of Gurney songs and poems, with Ben Lamb, titled ‘The Far Country’, for the Ivor Gurney Society at St.Andrew’s Church, Churchdown.  Details will be available here shortly:


There are two major conferences taking place at the end of August and beginning of September, one on the music of the War, and one on the poetry – at both of which I am presenting papers.

The first, ‘The Music of War, 1914-1918’, runs from 29-31 August 2014 at the British Library.  I will be giving a paper titled ‘Establishing the War Composer in a world of War Poets’.  The conference website is at, where the conference programme will be announced in due course.

The second, ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, is the major centenary conference devoted to the poetry, organised by the English Association, and taking place at Wadham College, Oxford, 5-7 September 2014.  I will be speaking on Ivor Gurney’s war poetry as a whole, including the numerous poems as yet unpublished.  The conference programme is now available here:

. . . For now, I am busy completing the editorial work on a Gurney song volume, finishing off a big funding application, finessing my poetry collection, Fulcrum, ready for press and publication in June, and otherwise trying to clear my desk in readiness for my taking up the Finzi Scholarship I was recently awarded in order to write The Passion of War  (– see preceding post).  This has become a very interesting year!

War Passion : I. Birth & Progress

Painting by Isabel Dryburgh.

Painting by Isabel Dryburgh, who has kindly allowed me to associate this enormously powerful picture with The Passion of War.

In March 2013 there arrived in my brain one of those ideas that grabs you and will not let go.  In the February I had started once again to read William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman, in the 18th passus of which is his unique recounting of the Christ’s Passion.  When a week or so later I attended a Lent lecture in Lichfield Cathedral given by Paul Spicer on the musical settings of the Passion, I had in mind the seed of an idea to develop the notion of an ‘English Passion’, with the Langland as its basis.  However, a week or so after the lecture, in the last full week of Lent before Holy Week, I was reading some Isaac Rosenberg when I was struck forcibly by the notion of setting the Passion with a commentary in the form of poems by those figures now known as the War Poets – the poets who fought and in some instance lost in the First World War: a War Passion.

To my mind the idea was one with enormous potential and strength, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for the salvation of Man having the potential for a powerful and evocative parallel in the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the war to similar ends.  This was, of course, contingent upon my identifying poems suited to the task by the broad body of First World War poets, which poems would aptly reflect and give a parallel purpose to the narrative.  I immediately went to my various WW1 anthologies and to the individual volumes of poems and other writings by as many soldier-poets as I could muster.  In the midst of my preparations for a Three Choirs Festival recital, I could only snatch the odd moment here and there in which to scour these volumes, but over the course of ten weeks I managed to complete the libretto, knocking the last bits into shape during the few idle moments I had at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song, with which I was involved.

The libretto is based upon the gospel narrative according to St. Mark, within which is set poems by Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney (a yet unpublished poem), Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas.  It is cast in four interconnected movements:

  1. Gethsemane
  2. Trial
  3. Calvary
  4. Epilogue: The Seven Last Words

The climax of the work comes at the end of the third movement, following Christ’s last breath, through which there is the promise of redemption and rebirth.  The Epilogue is not, as the title might suggest, the traditional Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross, but the last words of the soldier to Christ on the Cross, which conversation brings the work to a  conclusion of bitter despair; the despair of one who has lost all hope in any god, and in Man.

Whilst preparing the libretto, I had a large-scale ambitions for the scoring of the work.  However, I was reminded (if I really needed reminding) of the power and potential of a chamber ensemble in a large-scale vocal setting whilst listening to the premiere at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song of Julian Phillips’s remarkable new Pessoa cycle, Cantos de Sonho.  This turned my mind in a slightly new direction for the music, but a direction which will undoubtedly intensify the experience of the work – as well as somewhat more practicable than a large-scale work.  The War Passion is set for four soloists, with a small choir (c.12 voices) and chamber ensemble.  With other commitments to fulfil, and the very real need to earn a reasonable living in order to support my family, I have necessarily had to put the composition of the work on ice.  However, I am simply over-the-moon to have been awarded a Finzi Scholarship by the Finzi Trust for the purposes of getting the music down on paper.  Musical ideas have been present from the outset, but, aside from a couple of sketches for key motifs in the work,  I have had neither the time nor space to work them up to anything more, and to set down much of the rest that has been taking shape in my mind.  In March, therefore — once I have cleared a few things from my desk — I shall be embarking upon the final stage of this work, working full time on the composition, which should ‘break the back’ of its writing.  I hope that the Passion be completed over the summer.  Watch this space for updates.

[Updated Feb.2016 to reflect the change in the title of the work from ‘The Passion of War’ to ‘War Passion’]