Gurney
Musical Authors As mentioned in a previous post, the poet Edward Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917 only ten weeks after being sent out to the front line. One of the last poems he wrote before embarkation was Lights Out, an evocation of the moments just before sleep (and by association, of course, death) overtakes us.

I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.

Ivor Gurney, another poet, but also a musician, survived the First World War, but the resultant shell-shock blighted the rest of his life, which ended in an asylum. The composer Michael Hurd has written on this period, and the accompanist and Schubert scholar Graham Johnson has suggested that “over-cautious censorship by his well-meaning musician friends anxious to spare him humiliation at the time” led to the initial suppression of many fine songs that they had not fully comprehended – and Lights Out is a prime example. At the end of Gurney’s setting the structure of the song itself starts to disintegrate as consciousness ebbs away:

The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And myself.

As Johnson says in the sleeve notes to his Hyperion recording with Alice Coote : “The song’s strangely inconclusive ending must have seemed incomprehensible to its earlier listeners, but it is almost unbearably moving to us now, and right.” And Roderic Dunnett, writing in The Independent, put it this way: “Gurney does something astonishing: he sets it so that towards the end the song just kind of unravels. It’s a wonderful effect, and it gives me goose-pimples just to hear it. One is reminded, too, how Gurney himself was frequently unable to sleep after the war: instead, he would get up and tramp across fields at night for 20 miles or more.”

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