Home > M-P >

LONG REMEMBERED HILLS ("Music and Place")

2002 / BBC2 Open University.

Summary: Documentary about how the English composers Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells were influenced by the Gloucestershire countryside.

Ivor Gurney (1890 - 1937) and Herbert Howells (1892 - 1981) were childhood friends whose careers took very different turns. Gurney (one of England's finest composers of classical song), after great initial promise, had his career cut short by madness and ill health. Howells by contrast lived long and was musically prolific. Both were musically driven by their passion for the Gloucestershire countryside and in particular the hills around Gloucester itself, and are considered to be important figures in the renaissance in English music that took place in the early 20th century.

Both Gurney and Howells were organ scholars at Gloucester cathedral (along with Ivor Novello). In 1910 they attended the premier of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis" in Gloucester cathedral (pictured left), an event which left an indelible impression on both young men and convinced them that they were destined to become composers.

Another source of profound musical inspiration proved to be their walks on the nearby Cotswold hills. They would often sit on Chosen Hill (image above and right), half way between Gloucester and Cheltenham, and take in the grand view of the Malverns. It was there that Gurney urged Howells to allow this landscape to become the inspiration for his future musical work. There is no doubt that the natural beauty of the Gloucestershire countryside was also absolutely fundamental to Gurney's artistic vision, both musically and poetically.

Both won scholarships to study at the Royal College of Music in London (Gurney in 1911, Howells, a year later) where they studied under Sir Charles Stanford. It was there that Gurney wrote his first song cycle, the Elizas, which included one of his finest songs "Sleep". However, despite Gurney's great musical talent, signs began to emerge of the incipient madness that would later consume him.

During World War I, Howells was exempted from service on the basis of ill health (Grave's disease). Gurney, on the other hand volunteered for the front, serving in the Royal Gloucester regiment. Here he wrote poetry based on his war experiences, and this was eventually published in a collection called "Severn and Somme". He also managed to compose some music including a setting of F W Harvey's poem "In Flanders", which included the words:

I'm homesick for my hills again,
my hills again,
To see above the Severn plain,
unscabbarded against the sky,
the blue high blade of Cotswold lie.

In 1916, Howells wrote his first major piece, the brilliant (Piano) Quartet in A minor, inspired by the magnificent view of the Malverns visible from his beloved Chosen Hill. It was dedicated to his friend Ivor Gurney.

Gurney returned from the war, wounded and shell-shocked, resuming his musical studies this time under Vaughan Williams. However his psychological decline was becoming steadily more apparent, and eventually he dropped out of the Royal College altogether, returning to live with his family in Gloucester. Here, between 1917 and 1922 he wrote much of his best music, despite the deterioration in his mental health. Eventually he was certified insane and committed to an asylum in Kent.

The career of Howells, by contrast, went from strength to strength. He became a teacher at the Royal College of Music and a brilliant and prolific composer, particularly of sacred choral music. His life was not immune from tragedy, however, and in 1935 he suffered the devastating loss of his 9 year old son, Michael, from Polio. Howells's grief eventually found expression in his critically acclaimed "Hymnus Paradisi", premiered at Gloucester cathedral. Later he wrote the Missa Sabrinensis (Mass of the Seven), again inspired by the Gloucestershire countryside, in particular his childhood memories of the River Severn.

Ivor Gurney continued to write poetry in the Asylum although no more music flowed from his pen after 1925. He pined constantly for the Gloucestershire hills, refusing even to walk in the asylum grounds because they were "no substitute". He died in 1937 and was buried in the churchyard at Twigworth in the shadow of Chosen Hill.