‘A Kiss’, by John France

‘A Kiss’ by Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite poems by that author. I have never come across a setting of this text before, nor could I find any references to one on-line. The poem is taken from the last of the poet’s volumes, ‘Moments of Vision’ which was published at the height of the Great War in 1917. ‘Wessex Poems’ which is perhaps the poets’ most famous collection had been published some nineteen years previously in 1898.

In many ways ‘A Kiss’ is arch-typical Hardy – the contrasting of a ‘rustic’ view of a relatively trivial incident with a more general interpretation. The opening stanza defines the poem’s argument, the second is effectively a commentary upon it. All of us have special places in our lives – whether it is a garden or a café or a seaside promenade. Who does not recall a trysting place , whether it be under Waterloo Station clock or by the lytch gate of St Swithun’s Church or the imposing fountain at Butlins in Filey? But few of us would invest a sense of universality into such a meeting. It is to Hardy’s credit that his art allows this very conversion.

Ian Venables told me that the overriding reason for choosing a poem is his “personal identification with the subject matter…” It is as if he is relating to the text in a subjective rather than objective manner. He would, he says, find it difficult to set a poem where he was not impressed by the theme and the poet’s expression of it. His own experience must in some manner ‘chime’ with that of the poet. It is in this response that he feels he can capture the essence of the poem. He insists that he is not “trying to express my own emotional response to the poem” – that seems to him to be a “rather skin-deep approach and one that tends to over personalise the music” – rather, he is attempting to “reach a deeper level of meaning – one that touches upon the universal.”

By a wall the stranger now calls his,
Was born of old a particular kiss,
Without forethought in its genesis;
Which in a trice took wing on the air.
And where that spot is nothing shows:
There ivy calmly grows,
And no one knows
What a birth was there!
That kiss is gone where none can tell –
Not even those who felt its spell:
It cannot have died; that know we well.
Somewhere it pursues its flight,
One of a long procession of sounds
Travelling aethereal rounds
Far from earth’s bounds
In the infinite.

This is a song that is perfectly capable of standing on its own – yet it could easily be part of a recital of Venables songs or could even conceivably be an integral element of a song-cycle.

The composer pointed out to me that “what made this poem difficult to set was its prosody. Each eight-line stanza is subdivided into five lines, followed by three. This unusual verse structure, while being something of a challenge, did however give me the opportunity to develop an imaginative musical response.” The setting of this poem at first hearing would suggest that Venables has used the same vocal line for each stanza. True, the mood of the music is little different between the particular and the universal parts of this poem. However on closer study the vocal line does vary – a little more than subtly and somewhat less that considerably! Interestingly, one critic suggests that the song shows Venables ability to “write a diatonic melody that is accompanied by a highly chromatic language. It is bordering on the discordant, but never at the expense of resolution.” Yet, I disagree with this assessment. There are few accidentals in this song: in fact it is only in the piano part that an occasional Db and on Cb is found. The seeming discordance is derived from added notes, I guess, rather than chromaticism. Yet this reviewer is correct in one thing – the discords, such as they are, always resolve: the tension is always relieved.

The impulse for the entire song is given by the melody assigned to the first line – “By a wall the stranger now calls his.” However there is a major contrasting theme which is given in as a dotted quaver/semi-quaver figure which lends a respite from the serious business of the main tune. Both phrases are used as an integral part of the opening piano ‘prelude’. Ian Venables told me that this long introduction was “needed in order to establish the right kind of mood to the song.” It was completed after the majority of the song had been composed.

There is little formal criticism of this song in the musical press, but perhaps the most percipient is by Piers Burton-Page. He suggest that Venables songs, including A Kiss “are set in a craftsman like, tonal mid-century English idiom.” It is not the place of this essay to argue for or against the use of a ‘historical’ idioms, save to suggest that the final work of art is what is important, not the tools used to create it. Venables told me that this song is “perhaps stylistically the closest I get to Finzi.” However he insists that any “aural references were not conscious ones.” Of course there is a Finzi feel this song, in spite of the fact that he does not use that composer’s ‘note per syllable’ approach to word setting.Interestingly this song represents a key moment in Venables’s journey as a song composer. He states that “this was not an easy setting and it certainly had a long gestation period. However, it taught me a great deal about how to set words and it unlocked the secret to composing art-songs.” It is certainly a masterpiece – both in the composer’s catalogue and in the corpus of music that could be defined as English Lieder.

Finally, I wondered what stirring of the young heart had made him pick these verses and, alas, at first he rather prosaically suggested that “I decided to set myself a challenge to see whether I could find a poem by Hardy that was not bleak!” After hours of reading through the very large volume of collected poems he discovered this one. However it was more than a challenge – apparently he did have a personal empathy with the poem! Let us be content to leave it at that.

The song is dedicated to the tenor Kevin McLean-Mair who sang on The Songs of Ian Venables CD which was issued in 2000. It was composed in 1992 for tenor and piano and was given its first performance the following year at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hall, Deansway, Worcester, given by Thomas Hunt and Graham Lloyd.

John France, October 2008