Monday, 21 May 2012

Ivor Gurney - 'Sleep'

This year I am preparing to take my singing diploma. I've been singing since I was about 11, and every Royal College of Music syllabus seems to have had the same repertoire on it for about twenty years, and therefore is quite dated. Of course you can opt for the Musical Drama exam in which you can sing songs from musicals, but I chose classical. After taking my grade 8, I decided I wanted a break from exams so that I could sing something that I really enjoyed - rather than just to pass an exam and to get a certificate! The first thing I looked at was a book of songs by English composer and poet, Ivor Gurney. The collection of songs was immediately appealing to me, as I'd never come across his music before, and found the harmonies in particular to be truly beautiful.

Ivor Gurney
1890 - 1937
Gurney showed early musical ability as a chorister for Gloucester Cathedral, and met composer Herbert Howells - soon to become a life-long friend. Gurney began composing at the age of only 14, and received a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. There, he studied with Charles Stanford, also a teacher of other well-known composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and Frank Bridge. Unfortunately, Gurney suffered a lot throughout his lifetime. As a teenager, he suffered from bipolar disorder, and found it hard to concentrate on his musical studies. However, his career was interrupted by the outbreak of WWI when he enlisted as a soldier. After being victim to several gas attacks he suffered from shell shock. His mental health was never the same again, as he spent the last fifteen years of his life in mental institutions and hospitals.

Throughout his life, Gurney wrote hundreds of poems and songs, and even some instrumental music. His most well-known compositions are his Five Elizabethan Songs, (or as he called them, 'The Elizas'). Many critics notice the influences of Schubert and Schumann in his work, however note that his music didn't fit in with the popular genre of folk music at the time, and rather had a powerful and intense use of harmony and melody. This is true of one of his songs from The Five Elizabethan Songs: 'Sleep'. The text talks about Gurney's longing to live inside his dreams, as for him, reality was sometimes too much to bare, this is seen particularly in the phrase, 'lock me in delight a while'. The text reads:

Come, sleep, and with thy sweet decieving lock me in delight a while;
Let some pleasing dream beguile all my fancies; that from thence 
I may feel an influence all my powers of care bereaving!
Though but a shadow, but a sliding, let me know some little joy!
We that suffer long annoy are contented with a thought through an idle fancy wrought:
O let my joys have some abiding, o let my joys have some abiding.

The piece starts with the back and forth, longing motions of quavers on the piano, almost as if mimicking the motions of the singers eyes fluttering in and out of sleep. The minor key creates beautiful moments of light and joy when Gurney moves to the major. The simplicity of the piano accompaniment is constant throughout, and never takes away from the text or the singer, only enhancing it with Gurney's typical use of imaginative and yearning harmonies. The piece climaxes on the words, 'O let my joys have some abiding', even repeating the phrase once more before the end of the piece to emphasise the desperation of the singer. The very end of the piece really is the icing on top of the cake, as the piano pauses on a major dominant pedal, resolving onto a major chord - as if to imply that the singer has happily fallen asleep.

Ivor Gurney's 'Sleep' from The Five Elizabethan Songs, performed by Ian Bostridge


  1. Thanks alot for your analysis here!!! I love this song as well! The accompaniment are truly beautiful!

  2. I love Ivor Gurney. Thank you for this.