To celebrate, to commemorate: Marion Scott and Ivor Gurney

Breast pin formerly owned by the composer from the Marion Scott Haydn collection.

Breast pin formerly owned by the composer from the Marion Scott Haydn collection.

A few days ago I was leading a “Behind the scenes” tour of the UL Music Department. I’ve done quite a lot of these over the last 5 years or so, and I’ve now got a fund of interesting stories to tell interspersed with all the statistics and backlog gazing. One of the stories concerns Marion Scott. Scott, musicologist and violinist, bequeathed us the Marion Scott Haydn collection – MRS. 1, the first of our “named” collections (collections that were donated by a specific person or group).

During the Second World War, Marion Scott left London and moved to Bridgwater, Somerset. While staying there she was visited by the local evacuation officer in search of a spare room to house a child. He was stunned to discover that one of the rooms belonged to “Dr. Haydn”, not an émigré Austrian, but the room housing Scott’s extensive collection of Haydn memorabilia; all of which is now housed here at the University Library.

Perhaps it’s appropriate in the run-up to Remembrance Day that there should be memories – happy this time – of a Second World War, for the First World War was to have a devastating impact on the life of Scott, and her great friend, the composer, Ivor Gurney.

Gurney and Scott met at the Royal College of Music in 1911. Scott was a violinist, and after a performing career had returned to the RCM to found the Royal College of Music Student Union in 1906. She stayed on there lecturing, writing, and maintaining a busy performance schedule. She became close to Ernest Farrar, and they performed regularly together. Scott was devastated when in January 1911 he announced his engagement to Olive Mason. They never spoke again. Farrar died in action in France in September 1918. A young Gerald Finzi was shocked by the death of his beloved music teacher.

After Gurney joined the army in December 1914, Scott became a regular correspondent. Their (at first brief) correspondence soon became more frequent, as Pamela Blevins reveals in Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of pain and beauty (M501.c.200.99) “Ivor became increasingly dependent on her, and she became dependent on him. Together they formed a singular, unspoken partnership that remained in place for the rest of their lives.”

Gurney’s letters to Scott reflect his experiences of trench life. There was little sanitation, and the weather was appalling “The cocoa-dregs freeze in the mess-tins”. Marion Scott worried about Gurney, and her own health took a turn for the worse. In the meantime she took refuge in writing war poetry and keeping up her correspondence with Gurney.

During March 1917, Ivor’s regiment spent 3 weeks under constant fire, and short of food. In April Gurney was shot, Marion learning the news a few days later, when she discovered that she was listed as his next of kin. Returning to the Front, Gurney, who had become the best shot in his platoon, was transferred to a Machine Gun Company, a particularly perilous post. By September he had been hit by shrapnel twice, had a near miss from a sniper, and went through his first gas attack. His letters to Scott were increasingly bitter: “It is not fit for men to be here – in this tormented dry-fevered marsh where men die and are left to rot because of snipers and the callousness that War breeds…”. The effects of the gas at first appeared to be mild, but Gurney’s health rapidly worsened and he was invalided home, to a hospital in Edinburgh.

It’s not altogether clear what happened next. It appears that Gurney had a brief romance with a young nurse, Annie Drummond. Annie ended the relationship, possibly because she realised that Gurney was becoming increasingly mentally unstable. The letters to Scott which had become more infrequent during the relationship with Drummond started to become distinctly peculiar – Gurney claimed that he had developed supernatural powers, and was in communication with Beethoven. And then, shockingly, she received a suicide note from him. Marion was incredibly calm, phoned the hospital and the police immediately, and then rushed with her mother to be at Gurney’s side.

In the years immediately following the war, it looked as though Gurney might recover. In 1920 he composed 60 songs and was working on a piano sonata and a War Elegy, which was premiered at the RCM in 1921; but there was to be no happy ending. His behaviour became ever more erratic, he slept on the streets, became prone to violent outbursts, and was obsessed with cleanliness – surely a response against the conditions of the trenches. When he asked his sister-in-law if she had a revolver so he could shoot himself, he was committed to an asylum.

Marion was on holiday and only heard the news when she returned. “Rescue me while I am sane,” he begged her. But it was too late. Gurney would spend the rest of his short life in mental institutions. He died of tuberculosis in 1937, aged 47; the tuberculosis may have been related to the gas attack, as it left lung tissue badly scarred and susceptible to tuberculosis attack.

Marion Scott and Gerald Finzi, despite their differences, worked tirelessly to promote Ivor Gurney’s work. Much of Gurney’s music and poetry is available at the UL or the Pendlebury.



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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3 Responses to To celebrate, to commemorate: Marion Scott and Ivor Gurney

  1. Thank you for posting this and giving Marion Scott so much attention. Very well done.


  2. Pingback: The Marion Scott Haydn Collection | MusiCB3 Blog

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