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RODERIC DUNNETT writes about landscape and music


When the 24-year-old Ivor Gurney arrived in High Wycombe, England to take up the post of organist at Christ Church, Crendon Street (sadly the city centre church is now demolished) the Great War had just broken out. Declined in l9l4 for military service on the grounds of defective eyesight, Gurney had already experienced the emotional ups and downs that were to dog his double career as composer and poet, and that led ultimately to the asylum. A year earlier he had suffered his first physical and mental breakdown while studying at the Royal College of Music in London; yet before he arrived in Buckinghamshire he had already written his five 'Elizabethan' songs, including his masterpiece, 'Sleep', which were to prove the cornerstone of his reputation as an English composer.

Ivor Gurney

Gurney, although most closely associated with Gloucestershire, found another home in the country around High Wycombe. 'If ever I come to write music', he wrote in l9l5 to Mr Edward Chapman, whose family home, up the steep hill from the present Castle Museum, provided a weekend bolthole for him during military training, 'some of it will be around Totteridge, Keep Hill and that Macbeth-like wood that lies beyond it.'

Although Gurney retained his High Wycombe organist's post until Easter l9l5, in February that year he was finally accepted and drafted into the 2/v Gloucester regiment. Gurney served as a signaller and -- unusually for war poets (Isaac Rosenberg was a rare fellow-exception) as a private at Ypres and the Somme, and was wounded and gassed. Invalided home, he recuperated in various war hospitals before returning to his musical studies and to High Wycombe, where he was again organist at Christ Church from l9l9-20.

Gurney's own familiar hills were not Chilterns but Cotswolds, his familiar views not Downley, Deangarden and Desborough, but Maismore, May Hill and the Malverns. Strangely, in his poetry and letters Gurney never (as I recall) actually mentions the Chilterns by name. But he adored them, and his love of Buckinghamshire stayed with him : 'Walked through lovely avenues of green and gold in Penn Woods. Saw in the distance my favourite earth view of curving ploughland and rounded woods (an F major Brahms effect); then after half a pint of beer once more here to finish your letter, and send you the Slow Movement long promised.'

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Copyright © 17 July 2001 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK






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