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War and madness color a Gurney song cycle

Trustees of Ivor Gurney Estate/Please acknowledge the Trustees of the Ivor Gurney Estate.

This Sunday, in Brookline, New England Light Opera presents music and poetry marked by World War I. The program, previously performed on Nov. 9 and 15 in Lexington and Melrose, includes “The Western Playland (and of Sorrow),” Ivor Gurney’s cycle for baritone and string quartet on poems by A. E. Housman. When he wrote it, in 1920, Gurney was seemingly on his way to an extraordinary dual career as composer and poet. Wounded and gassed while serving in France, Gurney had recuperated enough to resume studies at the Royal College of Music. His second book of poems, “War’s Embers,” had been published the previous year; his previous Housman cycle, “Ludlow and Teme,” had been successfully premiered. But by the time “The Western Playland” was published, in 1926, Gurney had been permanently committed to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford.

Both “Ludlow and Teme” and “The Western Playland” were published after winning a competition for British composers sponsored by the Carnegie Trust. But the 1926 version of “The Western Playland” is far different from the original manuscript. Gurney, at Dartford, undertook thoroughgoing revisions to the piece, sowing errors and confusion that made their way into the published score. (Sunday’s performance utilizes a recent, corrected edition by Gurney scholar Philip Lancaster.) Gurney also added the “(and of Sorrow)” to the title; the Gloucestershire landscape Gurney loved, the inspiration for much of his poetry and music, was now far away, inaccessible.


Gurney’s madness was, at the time, attributed to his war experiences, but hints of Gurney’s schizophrenia had surfaced before he enlisted, and there is evidence of a hereditary basis for his affliction. Nevertheless, the manifestation of his madness reflected changes, technological and demographic, that the war came to symbolize. His primary delusions were that sinister forces were torturing him with electrical currents and wireless radio.

Gurney eventually refused to leave his room, finding the Dartford grounds too distressingly pale an imitation of the Gloucestershire countryside to bear. Instead, in the last years of his life — his creative faculties having completely withered — Gurney would receive visits from Helen Thomas, the widow of Edward Thomas, a poet Gurney particularly admired. She would bring her husband’s old ordnance maps of Gloucestershire; Gurney would unroll them on his bed and, tracing the paths with his finger, walk the familiar hills and valleys in his mind.


New England Light Opera presents “The Great War at 100: Great Britain in Song and Verse,” Sunday, Nov. 16, at 2 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline (tickets $25 in advance, $28 at the door, free for active-duty military and veterans; 866-811-4111; newenglandlightopera.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.