Ivor Gurney (1890 – 1937) saw himself as a composer first and a poet second but he clearly was equally gifted in both disciplines. The son of tailors, he grew up in a modest household that afforded him the opportunity to learn piano and would later attend the Royal College of Music. His teacher Charles Villiers Stanford considered him to hold the greatest promise of all his students (which included Arthur Bliss, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland). It was a mark of his genius that depression plagued him before he enlisted as a Private in the First World War in 1915, but war left a permanent mark on the composer poet. Following the war regular employment proved difficult and he did several short bursts of manual labour and indulging his penchant for night walks. The exertion was never enough to quench his inner angst and he would spend the last fifteen years of his life in mental hospitals longing for death to end the strain of life.
‘Sleep’ is one of Gurney’s ‘Five Elizabethan Songs’ (composed December 1913-January 1914) setting a text by John Fletcher. Gerald Finzi heard the song performed in 1920 and ‘felt it to be one of the finest things of its type’ (Anthony Boden). Finzi and others would later champion the work of Gurney and ensured his continued acknowledgement as one of the finest English composers of his generation.
His dual artistry as a poet and composer exists in synergy in ‘Sleep’; the long vocal line soars over the gentle rocking of the accompaniment and it is not until after the true climax of the song (‘let my joys have some abiding’) do we feel that the insomniac of the poem has finally achieved sleep. The unexpected harmonic shift makes the final cadence on D-flat even more compelling and restful.
You can see a page from Gurney’s manuscript for ‘Sleep’ on the Ivor Gurney Society homepage.