Sermon preached at Evensong to remember the Fallen Choristers of St Paul's on the Fifth Sunday of Easter (14 May 2017) by the Right Reverend David Conner KCVO, Dean of Windsor.

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Sermon preached at Evensong to remember the Fallen Choristers of St Paul's on the Fifth Sunday of Easter (14 May 2017) by the Right Reverend David Conner KCVO, Dean of Windsor.

Remembering Choristers of St Paul's who fell in World War One, the Dean of Windsor says that although this 'confronts us with the fact that life can seem hopelessly unfair and tragic...Nor yet, however, do we deny that frequently the very music that they sang can take us to that silence which is the brink of faith; faith that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'


The words of Samuel Bordoli’s anthem that we heard just now are those of an eight line poem by Ivor Gurney given the title Song and Pain. The poem was first published in Severn and Somme, Gurney’s first book of poetry, in 1917, one hundred years ago. What I have to say this afternoon will constitute a kind of reflection on the two main words of the title: ‘Song’ and ‘Pain’, and on Gurney’s insistence that:

“Out of my sorrow have I made these songs.”

Ivor Gurney is known as a poet, and even better known as a composer of songs, generally using the poetry of other people. He was born on 28th August 1890 at 3 Queen Street, Gloucester. By the age of ten, he was singing in the choir of Gloucester Cathedral. With the help and encouragement of others, he began to learn to play the organ. In some ways, a rather complicated young man, he arrived as a scholar at the Royal College of Music, having been examined by Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Charles Stanford, Dr Walford Davies and Dr Charles Wood. His musical talent was to flourish.

However, on 4th August 1914, just before Ivor Gurney’s 24th birthday, peace in Europe was shattered, and the First World War began. Gurney volunteered immediately but was turned down because of poor eyesight. By February 1915, things were more desperate, and he was accepted at his second attempt to join the Army. He arrived in France in the May of 1916. There he stayed, caught up in the conflict, until the end of 1917, reading, writing letters, making poems and composing music, until, having been wounded and then gassed, he was shipped home to England.

Mentally scarred by his experience of war, he appears to have suffered something of a psychological breakdown, but was discharged from hospital in 1918. The following four years mark the main period of his composition of poetry and music, but he began to hear voices, fear ‘electricity’ and ‘radio waves’, and threaten suicide. In September 1922, he was committed to asylum at Barnwood House in Gloucester. In December, he was moved to The City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford, where he was to remain until his death, from tuberculosis, fifteen years later, in 1937.

Those fifteen years were dark years. In one poem written at that time, a poem given the title To God, Gurney asks: “Why have you made life so intolerable / And set me between four walls, where I am able / Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible / Only by annoying an attendant.” Yet the darkness was lightened by visits from friends. One who came to visit him was Helen Thomas, widow of the poet Edward Thomas who had been killed at the Battle of Arras, on Easter Monday 1917, just over one hundred years ago for us who sit here this afternoon.

In 1960, Helen Thomas wrote of a visit she had made. She felt the place to be like a prison, and Ivor Gurney’s room to be like a cell. He was deluded, talking of ‘them’ getting at him through ‘the wireless’. Later, he took her into a large room. Helen Thomas writes: In the room was “a piano and on this he played to us and the tragic circle of men who sat on hard benches against the walls of the room. Hopeless and aimless faces gazed vacantly and restless hands fumbled or hung down lifelessly. They gave no sign or sound that they heard the music.” Yet, out of that kind of hell, music had been played. It is a very powerful image. There is a hint of mystery here.

“Out of my sorrow have I made these songs.”

That “hint of mystery” flavours much of the work of Ivor Gurney. He was of course a poet. All our ordinary attempts in language to understand, to try to gain some purchase on life’s meaning, struggle towards poetry. There are no crisp prosaic explanations. But even poetry cannot quite achieve its aim. Somewhere, Ivor Gurney himself wrote: “The chief use of poetry (seems) to be…….to stir (the) spirit to the height of music.” Perhaps music is able to enshrine, express, convey the mystery. Perhaps! But I wonder if there might not be one more step to take. In a book on twentieth century song-composers one writer has written: “Gurney had the ability to allow (the) poems (that he had set to music) to breath. He is not afraid of silence: ‘those silences that amount to genius’, as Howells perceptibly put it”. It is the silence that somehow expresses otherwise inexpressible thoughts. As we confront the apparent contradictions of life, we move from prose to poetry, from poetry to music, and from music to silence.

There are of course many kinds of silence, not least the silence of grief. But I think that the silence that is the culmination of music is a contemplative silence; one that takes us often to the brink of adoration, awe and worship, and which speaks of ultimate harmony and hope; a weaving even of life’s deepest pain into a ‘good’ pattern.

“Out of my sorrow have I made these songs.”

When, after the First World War, people gathered at the Cenotaph in silence, they filled that cenotaph (the word means ‘empty tomb’) with all their memories of departed loved ones; with all their grief; with all their sadness; with all their sorrow; with all their pain. But some would have been reminded, by the Cenotaph, the ‘empty tomb’, of the Easter story and the discovery of an ‘empty tomb’ by those who looked for the dead body of Jesus Christ; in the silence, would have been reminded that all our pain, all our Good Fridays, might be turned to joy through some mysterious alchemy working at the heart of things.

That intuition appears to have been one that was harboured silently in the heart of Ivor Gurney. It is certainly an intuition that seems to be ubiquitous wherever human beings tread this earth. I suspect that, in the hearts of those choristers whom we today remember, in the hearts of those who loved such music as paved the way to silent adoration and to hope, that intuition stirred and sustained.

“Out of my sorrow I have made these songs.”

To remember the loss of the young lives of those who had been choristers here, confronts us with the fact that life can seem hopelessly unfair and tragic. We neither glamorise nor sentimentalise. Nor yet, however, do we deny that frequently the very music that they sang can take us to that silence which is the brink of faith; faith that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

From that place we might enjoy profound sympathy with the poet who wrote:

Someday, I trust, God’s purposes of Pain for me
Shall be complete.
And then – to enter the House of Joy ….
Prepare my feet.