Recording Songs & Poems by Ivor Gurney

Recording Gurney in Powys with Gavin Roberts

Recording Gurney in Powys with Gavin Roberts

Earlier in the year, in a programme note for a recital I was giving as part of the English Music Festival, I got on my soap-box about the matter of programme planning:

Planning a recital programme can one of life’s great delights: How best can one fill an hour and a half of silence? One could put down old favourites, presenting one song or cycle after another; or one can endeavour to create something that hopes to enlighten not only its audience but also the works themselves by presenting them in a new context. The vocal recital presents more scope for a cohesive programme than an instrumental recital, being able to bring together a procession of not only music, but also of poetry, without which it can be easy to forget song would not exist.

Recitals are ephemeral things, and while the programme book may sit on the shelves of one of those attending, given the often specific requests or preferences of the respective promoters it is rare, in my limited but growing experience, for one to be able to repeat a programme.

When in November 2011 I was invited by Andrew McNeillie to record a CD of songs and poems by Ivor Gurney for Clutag Press, there came an opportunity to nail my colours to the mast in a medium that would, for better or for worse, be permanent.  As with a recital, it would be easy to lump together a series of songs and poems without too much thought – and indeed many such recital discs of a stream of single, apparently unconnected songs are in the catalogue.  But when programming the CD I sought to do something unique; something that took you on a journey akin to that such as Schubert’s Winterreise.

For six or seven years now I have been researching the work of Ivor Gurney, initially producing the first complete catalogue of his musical works, editing some of those musical works for performance, broadcast, recording and publication, and am in the process of editing, with Tim Kendall, Gurney’s complete poetry for publication in 3 volumes by Oxford University Press.

Being commissioned by a poetry press, poetry was always going to play an important role in the programme, and Gurney, being both composer and poet, was ripe for this treatment.  So when it came to the programming of this disk I had a plethora of material available to me: those of Gurney’s 330 songs that have been published or edited for performance, and all of the c.1500 poems and fragments, only a third of which have so far been published. And explored Gurney’s work in my research more extensively than perhaps any have been able to do so to date, I was in a unique position to create something that reflected his ideas and artistic preoccupations.  In selecting the songs and poems I sought to create connections between those original poems he wrote and those by others that he set to music.  For instance, an unpublished poetry fragment from 1921-2 almost exactly reflects Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Lights Out’, which Gurney set to music in 1918.  And so in the CD programme we encounter in both Gurney’s poetry and his musical settings his love of tales and Border Ballads; his love of the Severn vale, its river and environs; the war and its aftermath; and Gurney’s unfulfilled desire to go to sea, particularly as told through his affection for the Irish poets and their native land.  Within this programme there are recurrent motifs that I hope bind the programme together and create something quite unique; a programme that, while not a true narrative, is bound by a continuous thread.  For those who know Gurney’s work well, it should be of particular interest in that it includes several premieres: five songs that have not previously been recorded either at all or in the version presented, and eight as yet unpublished poems.

We finally went ‘into the studio’ last week – a week in which I also completed my doctoral thesis on Gurney – when pianist Gavin Roberts and I ventured into frost-bitten Powys to a place of great beauty and isolation in which is was our great pleasure to bring the programme, that had for some months been settled on paper, to an audio reality.

Whilst preparing for the recording I began to have doubts about some of the poems I had selected.  I then revisited the context in which those poems would be read, and was reassured; but when it came to the recording, and we began to bring the songs and poems to performance or reading, the selection was more than vindicated.  If all comes out in the wash, I hope the disc, provisionally entitled ‘The Far Country’, will be very special.  Fingers crossed that the first edits live up to our hopes and expectations.  In due course, do visit either my own website ( or the Clutag Press site, where details of the recording will be posted, once available, which we hope will be in May 2013.