The Songs of Gurney and Ireland

A talk given by Ian Venables to the Ivor Gurney Society on the 11th May 2000

Of the many composers represented on today’s recital programme I was immediately drawn to Ivor Gurney and John Ireland. Both composers approached the setting of words from a different perspective and so it seemed to me that a brief comparison might shed some light upon the key elements involved in the art of song writing. Although the urge to create is intimately bound up with psychology and thus beyond the scope of this talk, I think that it is generally accepted that creativity is rooted in both the ‘personality’ of the artist and in the external forces that act upon them. These two forces are themselves mutually contingent and subject to change and evolution throughout the lifetime of the artist. What I am suggesting is simply that an artists personality acts as the ‘engine of creativity’, but it is in turn, being directed and shaped by the times in which they live and the intellectual atmosphere they breathe. Clearly the link between personality and creativity is a contentious one, especially so when one is talking about such complex individuals as Ivor Gurney and John Ireland. Nevertheless, I think that it needs to be addressed if we are to get a better understanding of the creative impulses that drove these two composers to write music. Whatever its ultimate significance, I do believe that personality plays a central role in stamping that hallmark of “uniqueness” that differentiates one artist from another. At the very least personality is reflected in a creative individual’s natural inclinations, desires, interests, and their own particular claim upon reality. It is this quintessential uniqueness that will guarantee an artist’s place in the roll call of posterity.

In terms of ‘personality’ Ivor Gurney was certainly striking. To those who knew him, he was by nature, outgoing, enthusiastic, and sociable. The composer Herbert Howells described him as ‘a lovable egoist’ and his literary champion Marion Scott talked of his boyish qualities, and of his sudden and ‘alternative outbursts of shyness and self-reliance’1. Of course, all creative people present contradictions, and so these same friends note that Gurney could be self-absorbed and downright unpredictable. His biographer Michael Hurd pointed out that Gurney was often ‘muddled and inhibited’ 2. Taken together, these personality traits combined to produce a romantically inclined individual who was passionately aware of life’s possibilities, and one who was eager to exploit its boundless opportunities. In fact, one feels with Gurney a real sense of that ‘will to power’ that Nietzsche believed to be the essence of being. When such a responsive and open personality is nurtured in a rural environment surrounded by the natural beauty of the Gloucestershire countryside, it was no wonder that ‘Beauty’ was to become the guiding force in his creative life. Indeed, Gurney made ‘Beauty’ his artistic creed. In ‘Beauty’ he saw something of the eternal and of the sublime – it was for him deeply spiritual and life enhancing.

Gurney’s innate sensitivity and receptiveness to ‘Beauty’ sharpened his artistic vision and it pervades all that he created. He wrote, ‘I cannot live with Beauty out of mind/ I search for her and desire her all the day’ 3. And in a proselytising letter to Marion Scott, ‘What the artist needs is not so much technique, as a greater appreciation of beauty so generally overlooked….The Artist must learn to feel the beauty of all things and the sense of instant communion with God that such perception will bring. ‘To feel Eternity in an hour’. Blake knew that to attain to this height, not greater dexterity, but greater humility and beauty of thought were needed. And the composer must judge his work by this standard – that his work be born of sincere and deep emotion controlled by the intellect to be coherent and clear’ 4.

Gurney’s response to ‘Beauty’ brought him visions – or ‘vistas’ – as he called them. He made this explicit in his essay, The Springs of Music (1922). Looking back upon his experiences in the trenches, he wrote, ‘There it was one learnt that brighter visions brought music, the fainter verse’.

So how does this psychological profiling inform our understanding of Gurney’s approach to song writing? Well in the first instance, it drew him to particular kinds of poetry. Even a casual glance across Gurney’s vast output of songs reveals the centrality of ‘Beauty’ as the motive force behind many of the poems that he chose to set. On just has to recall such songs as In Flanders, Severn Meadows, You are my sky, Desire in Spring, An Epitaph – and so the list goes on. For Gurney, all poetry brought visions, but the brighter visions he translated directly into music. He was, as it were, trying to discover the ‘hidden music’ that lay behind the words. As Micheal Hurd perceptively observed, Gurney was ‘drawing out the music that the poet could only find words for’ 5. By capturing in music the very essence of a poem, he hoped to recreate the actual experience the poet had when first writing the poem. Gurney intuitively understands this, and says as much in a letter to Marion Scott. In talking about the possibility of setting Keats, he wrote, ‘If I can set ‘La Belle Dames Sans Merci’, well the reason is, that there is something in me of Keats, able to live in the same atmosphere as that in which he wrote his poem, only being musician, to have told my thoughts in another language’. 6. T.S Eliot made a similar claim in his 1942 Glasgow University lecture entitled ‘The Music of Poetry’. In it he argued that, ‘the poem comes before the form, in the sense that a form grows out of the attempt of somebody to say something’. A poem he said, ‘may tend to realise itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words, and that this rhythm may bring the idea and the image’ 7.

As fortune would have it, Gurney gave us a glimpse into how he turned an actual vision into music through a series of letters, written to Marion Scott relating to the composition of his song ‘By a Bierside’ – a setting of John Masefield’s poem. 8. During the summer of 1916 Gurney was stationed in France, and from the trenches he wrote to Marion Scott on 27th July asking her to send him a copy of Masefield’s poem. Then on the 16th August he announced – ‘I have just finished a setting of Masefield’s By a Bierside’. ‘I hope you will like it. I will praise it so far as to say that I believe there was never anybody could have set the words ‘Death opens unknown doors’, as it is set here. The accompaniment is really orchestral but the piano will get all that’s wanted very well. It came to birth in a disused Trench Mortar emplacement, and events yesterday gave one full opportunity to reflect on one’s chance of doing this grand thing’. 9 Masefield’s poem inspired in Gurney a strong vision. He wrote, ‘In my mind I saw a picture of some poet-priest pronouncing an oration over the dead and lovely body of some young Greek hero’. 10. His musical response to this vision came quickly, as he sketched out the opening bars – ‘No song writer ever wrote a better phrase for Beauty than the one at the beginning. At least I begin to fulfill some part of my desire to see and tell the ultimate truth of things, and especially of the primal things; what H. Belloc calls ‘sacramental’. 11. For Gurney everything flowed naturally from his opening musical statement or what one might call the ‘inspired idea’. It is I think the key to understanding his general approach to composition. As Herbert Howells, astutely observed, ‘In one song after another there lies, in its first sentence, the whole source of ultimate unity’12.

As Gurney himself explained to Scott, regarding the song ‘By a Bierside’, ‘I had only the first two lines in my mind, or perhaps three, when I began to write, and did not finish till my idea was complete. I did not trouble about balance or anything else much; it came’. 13. But of course, music is more that an inspired idea, it has to be shaped and controlled by the intellect; as Gurney was all too aware. This moves us away from the internal and subjective world of visions to the objective world of structure and compositional techniques. As with most composers of song Gurney’s starting point is the poem itself. He clearly choose poems with great care, and it is perhaps here, that his own poetic intuition may have guided him towards poems that had the right form and rhythmic pacing for the development of his musical ideas. In a revealing letter to Marion Scott, upon receiving a copy of Housman’s The Shropshire Lad, Gurney wrote, ‘once again I feel rather incapable of setting them. Such precise and measured verses are too easy to set; do not give the scope that R Bridges [songs] offer one’. 14.This letter was written in 1917, but by the end of 1923 Gurney had set no less than 19 of Housman’s poems, equalled only in number by his Edward Thomas settings. Nevertheless, at this stage in his career, this letter does at least provide us with a clue to why he was attracted to his contemporary poets – the so-called Georgian poets. Not only did such poetry, as Gurney wrote, ‘saturated with the very spirit of England bring visions’15 but their realism and modern approach in matters of verse structure were ideal for a composer to set. Vaughan Williams, explained this point well, when he said, ‘It was for the Georgian composers to let their music flow unconstrained and spontaneous into channels laid down by their contemporary poets’ 16

As with the best of Gurney’s songs ‘By a Bierside’ exemplifieshis general compositional methods and characteristic fingerprints. It opens with two solitary chords in C major, followed by a chorale like accompaniment that evoked the poem’s opening mood of elegiac solemnity. The voice enters with a perfectly poised melodic phrase that sensitively portrays Masefield’s words – ‘This is a sacred city, built of marvellous earth’. There is a wonderful naturalness of line to this opening that mirrors marvellously Masefield’s vision of a noble life lived to the service of truth and beauty. Gurney followed closely throughout the song the poem’s formal structure, which is essentially, a kind of dramatic recitative, interlaced with moments of lyrical repose. In compositional terms, it is a ‘through composed’ song, in which Gurney subtlety weaves and reworks material derived from his opening ideas. But the light of beauty is extinguished by Gurney at the end of the first stanza, with a abrupt modulation into the bleak sound world of F Sharp minor, heralding a harrowing vocal declamation on the words ‘Death is so dumb and blind’ and its answering phrase ‘death does not understand’ This now gives way to a contrasting lyrical section, as the song works up to its first vocal climax, on the words, ‘strength a traveller’s story’, underpinned by an equally weighty piano accompaniment. At this pivotal moment, Gurney magically transforms the songs prevailing mood with a spellbinding melodic phrase on the words ‘Death makes the lonely soul to wander under the sky’ – heightening its transcendental significance by using one of his longest melismas on the word ‘wander’. A short accompanimental bridge passage prepares the way for the all-important line ‘Death opens unknown doors’. This is followed by the poem’s true climax ‘It is most grand to die’. Gurney evokes this powerful image with sustained and extended vocal crescendo, starting at mf and rising through to fortissimo, underlined by a grand accompanimental gesture that mirrors wonderfully the words triumphant heroism. The music then winds down to a tranquil coda, reinstating the reflective atmosphere of the songs opening, and introduces Gurney’s masterstroke – a barely audible vocal echo of the words ‘most grand’ is heard, pianissimo – a poignant afterthought that seeks to question the very basis of the poems lofty sentiments.

Given the scope of this talk, I have unfortunately not the time to cover the many other technical skills that Gurney brought to song writing, such as his harmonic fluidity, his intricate cross rhythms, and independent vocal lines. But I do hope that with my brief analysis of the song ‘By a Bierside’ I have at least been able to illustrate some of his general compositional procedures. You will of course, be hearing in today’s recital a number of contrasting and less familiar songs by Gurney that will incorporate some or all of these techniques. However, before moving on, I would just like to say in passing that although Gurney was writing principally art-songs he was clearly capable of writing a good rollicking ballad. We shall hear this kind in the song in Captain Stratton’s Fancy, which incidentally is also a Masefield setting.

If Ivor Gurney’s personality could be described as complex, then John Ireland’s was certainly ellusive. A ‘janus’ like figure, John Ireland projected two sides of his nature. On the one hand there was the public persona, as seen in many of his studio photographs, displaying a school masterish expression – someone who showed little emotion to those who were not part of his intimate circle. Then, there was the other side, only revealed to his close friends – of a deeply insecure and highly emotional man. One of these close associates, Thomas Dunhill, in a candid letter to Gerald Finzi, wrote that Ireland was ‘an almost pathetically sensitive human being’ and his biographer John Longmire presented yet another picture, of a man who was loyal and kind, possessive of his friends and one who had a quirky sense of humour.

In the introduction to a recently published book on Ireland, Fiona Richards argued that Ireland’s music was an expression of a particular state of mind –‘There is a sombre side and a rapturous side, intensity and utter gaiety: he could produce lightweight, charming pieces, but also music that was darkly oppressive’ 17. Eleven years Gurney’s senior, Ireland was born in 1879 into an affluent middle class family – a stark contrast to Gurney’s working class background. Ireland’s childhood was spent in artistic surroundings, doted upon by his mother who taught him to play the piano, and who introduced him to her great passion for English Literature. Like Gurney, Ireland went to the RCM where he was also taught by Stanford. However, unlike Gurney he responded well to the rigid discipline imposed upon all Stanford’s pupils. Indeed, Ireland’s command of compositional methods and his consummate craftsmanship contrasts well with Gurney’s more spontaneous but less finessed approach. John Ireland’s early compositions are all indebted to his training with Stanford and pay homage to the Germanic tradition, and to Brahms in particular. But by the age of 30 he was beginning to explore some of the new musical developments across the channel, principally, of the French Impressionist School led by Debussy. By 1913, with his orchestral masterpiece “The Forgotten Rite” behind him, he had practically reinvented himself; absorbing many of the key features of ‘impressionism’ within his own musical language and so producing a new composite style of his own. But why did Ireland feel the need to forge a new musical language? I think that the answer lies, in his inner need to express a wider range of moods and emotions than his formal training would allow. The more personal these feelings were, the more he saw song writing as a way of articulating these feelings and expressing his true self. And as with many other composers, it is the medium of songthat is seen as a more intimate a less public art form.

John Ireland’s song writing spanned some 35 years of his creative life. They reflected his principle artistic concerns and mirrored closely the tensions and turmoil that dominated his private inner world. His songs were nearly always associated with specific events, places, or people. Out of the 90 or so songs he composed, there are a significant number that do show Ireland’s more public side. These songs hark back to the English folksong tradition and are generally of the strophic ballad type. Perhaps with a backward glance to his teacher, and certainly to his musical inheritance, Ireland like Gurney, could certainly be inspired to write a strong and memorable Folk song melody, as we shall hear in the songs Sea Fever and The Bells of San Marie. In Masefield’s poem Sea Fever Ireland makes use of the contemplative, and characteristically English Dorian mode, adding subtle changes in the accompaniment to each verse – combined with a simple unchanging vocal line to capture Masefield’s wistful and nostalgic narrative. Ireland also adopts a similar formula in the song ‘The Bells of San Marie’, in which a basically tonal framework is followed with a lyrical vocal line underpinned by a simple chordal accompaniment. Both these songs, as I have suggested belong to his public world. However, he adopted an altogether different approach to express his innermost feelings. Here, Ireland used the musical language that he had forged in his orchestral work ‘The Forgotten Rite’. This musical vocabulary allowed him explore a whole new world of impressions, images and sensations. Taking his lead from the French Symbolist movement he was able to develop a system of musical symbols or metaphors that could be employed to evoke particular moods, feelings and emotions. Just as the Symbolist poets used words to effect certain sensations in the reader, for example to evoke a particular smell or colour, so Ireland attempted to do the same in music. This kind of musical symbolism was not new. Wagner uses it in his Wesendonk Lieder and we ever hear an example of it in Vaughan Williams’s Mystical Song’s composed in 1911. However, Ireland exploits it to the full and develops it into a highly personal system of symbols.In Professor Stephen Banfield’s book ‘Sensibility and English Song’,he argued that Ireland’s songs use some four of five such personal symbols. The chief ones being the ‘pastoral’, ecstasy and ‘passion’ symbols. Their function is, ‘to connect the external world with the internal realm of the self’ 18. For Ireland ‘word painting’ was essential to his approach to setting poetry – in other words, he used music incorporating his particular system of symbols to enhance the meaning of words or comment upon the narrative. As Stephen Banfield further explained, Ireland was ‘submitting himself to the images in his texts and expressing in music, not the images themselves but the state of mind and feelings that they inspired’ 19.

This is fundamentally a different approach to that of Gurney, who was trying to express in his music, the actual thoughts and feelings that the poet had: that is, the very essence of the poem itself. Ireland, on the other hand, wanted the listener to feel what he himself had experienced when reading the poem. This is an altogether very subjective way of writing.

Perhaps, the best way I can show these points, is by playing a song that illustrates Ireland’s general approach. In his setting of Aldous Huxley’s poem ‘The Trellis’ Ireland uses an oscillating triadic figure as heard in the songs opening piano accompaniment to act as the symbol to convey the ‘pastoral’ imagery in the poem. Combined with his impressionistic harmony, built out of 7th and 9th chords, Ireland has evoked a heady and sensuous atmosphere. The poem’s narrative describes a blissful moment enjoyed by two lovers who are sequestered behind a thickly flowered trellis. Here away from ‘prying eyes’ they can exchange their ‘silent kisses’. Ireland uses his pastoral symbol as a backdrop for what is going on between the lovers. It is a perfect example of his ‘restrained ecstasy’, in which he attempts to express not the essence of the beauty of nature, but rather the feelings that such an image evokes when combined with a personal recollection of some past amatory tryst. I am sure is not too fanciful to suggest that Ireland may well have imagined himself in the role of one of the lovers. It is certainly one of the most affirmative expressions of love to be found in his entire output of songs.

I hope that you will agree, that this song comes from a very different sound world from that of Gurney, despite the fact that both these song were composed at the about the same time. The difference lies chiefly in the wider harmonic palette that Ireland adopts. Interestingly, Gurney himself made this same observation in the only documented comment that we have by him on Ireland. In referring to Ireland’s Violin Sonata, he wrote, ‘I admire it though – wish I had such an harmonic range’ 20.

In making this comparison between Gurney and Ireland I hope that I have been able to show some of the salient features in their approach to song writing. I also hope, that through my general discussion on ‘personality’ I have been able to access the sources of their creativity. For Gurney, it was his heightened perception of ‘Beauty’ in its many forms that provided the musical impetus for a great number of his songs. Of course, I am not suggesting that Gurney did not deal with other aspects of human experience, but simply, that he placed ‘Beauty’ centre stage. In a letter to Marion Scott, he wrote, ‘perfection is not a thing I value, but only Truth and Beauty’. 21. This also sheds light upon why he reserved some of his deepest and darkest thoughts about humanity in verse, rather than in music. This he makes clear in another remarkable letter to Scott – ‘What is happening is that my real groove lay in Nature and Music, whereas Pain and Protest forced the other book into being’ 22.

For Ireland, song writing was closely bound up with the complexities of his private inner world. If Beauty was the motive force behind Gurney’s song writing, then for Ireland it was the theme of ‘Love’, and all its associated modes of expression: sensuality, ecstasy and passion. Once again, I am not suggesting that Ireland did not explore other themes, but even when he expressed ‘Beauty’ he seems to be using it as a metaphor for something else – correlating nature with mysticism or with freedom, or, as in the song the ‘Trellis’, ecstasy in a pastoral setting. Ireland was once asked whether he considered himself to be a great composer. He replied that he may not be a great composer, however, he may be a significant one. I would go as far as to say that although Gurney and Ireland may not be great composers, they are certainly great composers of song.


1. From Music and Letters, January 1938, Volume XIX, No. 1. P. 3

2. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Michael Hurd, p. 34

3. Collected Letters p

  1. Letter dated 15th December, page 114 of War Letters, edited by Kelsey Thornton.
  2. 5. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Michael Hurd, p 39.
  3. 6. L 128 of Collected Letters, edited by Kelsey Thornton.
  4. 7. Pages 26 and 28 of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Music of Poetry’. An occasional lecture delivered at the University of Glasgow, 24th February 1942. (published by Jackson, Son and Company 1942).
  5. 8. The history of the poem is interesting. In 1909 Masefield contributed a number of poems to the periodical ‘The English woman’ issued in April 1909. His poem ‘By a Bier-side’appears on p236. In 1910 the poem is published in ‘The Tragedy of Pompey the Great’ and given the title ‘the Chief Centurions’ .The poem was reprinted in the anthology Poems for Today (published by Sidgwick and Jackson,1915). It is very likely that Gurney would have become familiar with anthology and therefore this version of the poem. There are a number of important textural differences between The Chief Centurions and By a Bier-side. The words in square brackets [ ] indicate Masefield’s words as they appear in the poem ‘The Chief Centurions’.

Line 1. [Man] is a sacred city, built of marvellous earth.

Line 2. Life was lived nobly here to give [this body] birth.

Line 3. [Something] was in this brain and in this eager hand.

Line 4. Death is so [dumb] and [blind], Death [cannot] understand.

Line 6. Death makes [woman] a dream, and [men] a traveller’s story

  1. L 133, Collected Letters
  2. L 146, Collected Letters
  3. Ibid
  4. Music and Letters, January 1938, Volume XIX, No. 1. Page 15,
  5. L 128, Collected Letters
  6. 14. L 195, Collected Letters
  7. 15. L 111, Collected Letters
  8. 16. Music and Letters, January 1938, Volume XIX, No. 1. Page 16,
  9. 17. The Music of John Ireland, Fiona Richards, (Ashgate 2002) Page 1.
  10. 18. Sensibility and English Song, Stephen Banfield, Cambridge University Press 1985. Page 164,
  11. 19. Ibid, p 164/5
  12. 20. Collected Letters, p 491
  13. 21. L 141, Collected Letters.
  14. 22. Collected Letters, p 412