Words and music in the trenches: Ivor Gurney

Behind the Lines: The music and composers of the First World War

Our penultimate Behind the Lines* adult music workshop looked at the relationship between poetry, music and war – this time through the work of composer Ivor Gurney (1890 – 1937).

First of all we explored two songs composed by Gurney while he was serving in the trenches, and then participants were invited to create their own music with members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), using poetry from the First World War. The workshop was brilliantly led by Tasha and we were lucky enough to have Clara, a poetry expert, on hand to help guide proceedings.

BTL Adult workshop on Ivor Gurney, Westminster Music Library May 2014

The first poem we looked at was Severn Meadows, a short work written and set to music by Gurney himself. We heard an excellent rendition of the poem from one of the participants before the musicians played an accomplished run through of the music in a hastily prepared arrangement for flute, violin and xylophone! There followed a discussion of both the text and the music, including some singing of the melodies. We looked at how the poem perhaps evoked a nostalgic idealised version of England through imagery. Gurney’s music, which features the interval of a falling third at the end of each line, was also commented upon, as it is so familiar to us from childhood onwards (such as in the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice), and so adds to the feeling of nostalgia.

One keen eyed participant highlighted the opening line ‘Only the wanderer knows England’s graces’ as something that could only have been written by a keen traveller, and our resident expert Andrew confirmed that Gurney had spent a large amount of time roaming through the English countryside, even walking from London to Gloucestershire! Clara suggested that the idea of the ‘wanderer’ often featured in pastoral poetry of this period and the writer ‘living in the landscape.’

BTL Adult workshop on Ivor Gurney, Westminster Music Library May 2014

The second song we looked at was Gurney’s By a Bierside with text written by English poet John Masefield. The RPO musicians played through the whole song, after which the workshop participants were invited to offer any thoughts and feelings invoked by hearing the music without knowing the poem. We then moved on to the text: did our view of the music change once we knew that the poem concerned changing attitudes towards death? The song was analysed in some depth from the despairing outlook at first – ‘Death is so blind and dumb’ – to a positive glorification of death at the end – ‘It is most grand to die’. The musicians showed how this transformation is cleverly supported by changes in the music. Looking at the text, our participants discussed notions of the afterlife and Christian attitudes of the day, and how death can be seen as a movement to a higher place. We all then made a valiant, and altogether successful attempt at singing some of Gurney’s tricky lines which make up this intensely powerful song.

BTL Adult workshop on Ivor Gurney, Westminster Music Library May 2014

After a welcome break for refreshments, Clara led a discussion on First World War poetry and explained how many of the poets who had gone through the public school education system were imbued with a strong sense of duty, and had been immersed in Greek classical literature which was often reflected in their work. But it was now time for the participants to get stuck into some music making, so they broke into three groups and chose a poem to set to music with the assistance of the musicians. After a remarkably short time of composing and rehearsing, each group performed their completed work.

  • The first group had chosen Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Decorum Est. One person narrated the poem over an improvisation on drums, chimes and piccolo, with the instruments falling silent at the end as the whole group read together the final lines in Latin.
  • The next group consisted of xylophone, glockenspiels and various other percussion instruments. The poem was Rain by Edward Thomas, and was again narrated against an extraordinary sound world created by the percussion. The woodblock kept a steady beat throughout invoking the falling rain.
  • Last but not least, the third group performed music they had written to accompany Futility by Wilfred Owen. Two violins and a glockenspiel accompanied three female members who sang, to a repeating melody, each line of the poem.

It was very moving to hear three very different but such heartfelt performances, and all after only about 15 minutes of preparation! It brought to a close a wonderful afternoon of thought provoking discussion, poetry reading and amazing music making.


*Behind the Lines is a year-long programme of participatory events run by Westminster Music Library in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to encourage local communities from across Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea to engage with the Library and its collections. The programme uses the centenary of the First World War as inspiration for a series of interactive workshops and creative projects designed for adult, family and school participants.

There are plenty of music workshops to come for all ages and abilities, check out our website: http://www.musicbehindthelines.org/ to find out more.


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