Gurney Motet published after 93 years

1:29, 28th September 2018

A motet by Ivor Gurney, Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty, has been published for the first time, writes Philip Lancaster.

Composed in June 1925, the motet for unaccompanied double choir sets a poem by the then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, which speaks of faith in the face of adversity. While Gurney is well known as a composer of song and as a poet of the first world war, he also composed in other forms. During the last decade, his orchestral works have been brought to recording and broadcast; his surviving chamber works have been trickling their way out of the archive, and likewise his few extant choral and organ works.

Gurney was a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral from 1900, taking part in the annual Three Choirs Festival, where his encounter with the works of Elgar, and seeing the man – ‘a live hero’ – turned him to writing music. Alongside Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello, he was articled as pupil to the cathedral organist, Herbert Brewer, and it was ‘in the midst of Gloucester’s imperturbable Norman pillars’ that he tried out his first works.

For one who was brought up in the cathedral tradition, and who achieved his ARCO in January 1914 while studying at the Royal College of Music, there are surprisingly few works for choir or organ, and of those known to have been written, even fewer are extant. Only four chorale preludes for organ survive complete (one of which, ‘Rockingham’, should be published in due course) – although there are tantalising glimpses of a late organ work within the manuscript of Gurney’s last known song, written in March 1926. Of the choral works, one secular piece, The Trumpet, was brought to performance in 2007 and has been recorded by the City of London Choir (Naxos); a major Whitman cantata, Anthem of Earth, is currently being completed.

But the most interesting by far of the few surviving sacred works is the newly published motet. Since I Believe is a rare survivor. It was written in the asylum, where Gurney would spend the last 15 years of his life; for this reason it has been overlooked and – as with the numerous other missing late works – the manuscript likely destroyed. The motet survived only because a copy of the score was made for a possible try-through of the piece by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, at the behest of Robert Bridges.

Whether this was ever achieved is unknown, but the piece was brought out of the archive by Philip Lancaster and given its first known performance by Gloucester Cathedral Choir, conducted by Adrian Partington, in 2012. In the few years since, it has swiftly gained some momentum, being recorded by Gloucester (Priory Records), The Sixteen (Coro), and Tenebrae (Signum), broadcast by the BBC Singers, and taken up by several choirs, including the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, who performed the work at the Snape Proms on 27 August.

Gurney likely had Gloucester Cathedral in mind when composing the piece. Great spaces in the work, and passages for just one or two parts, allow the acoustics of that building to sing. The two choirs at times shift against each other like tectonic plates, sometimes strange and uncompromising, but powerfully, melting with touching beauty into silence. The poem speaks of cherishing freedom of belief, but, from one incarcerated without hope, we can’t help but hear a vain desire for freedom from captivity.

Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty (ISMN 979-0-9002393-0-3) is published by The Ivor Gurney Trust, and is available at http://www.ivorgurney.co.uk/shop-publications.

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