A Review of the Composer’s CD of Songs
By Colin Scott-Sutherland
Graham Lloyd’s expansive sleeve note for this excellently recorded disc containing all the songs (so far) of Ian Venables, claims the composer “views of his song writing as a form of relaxation: a break from the larger abstract compositions which can often dominate the creative mind”. I suggest that this is a modest understatement – for these fine songs express a mind deeply involved in the understanding of philosophic argument and in the perennial problem of ‘words for music’. The songs, like the poetry contain much dark stuff.
Apart from Warlock’s enchanting but trivial (in this context) “Little Trotty Wagtail”, no British composer has to any extent the poets John Clare and John Addington-Symonds. The two cycles on this recording of these poets are full of thoughtful poetic music – the accompaniments rich in harmonic colour with which the vocal lines, with their characteristic figuration of augmented intervals – declamatory and introspective rather than lyrical – blend into an integral organic whole.
The first of the cycles “Invite to Eternity”, takes four poems of Clare and sets them for voice and string Quartet – an inspired choice of medium for the vacillating emotions of the poet. The throbbing pedal note of the important string introduction conveys the intensity of mood and the essential characteristics of the voice of both poet and composer are epitomised in what amounts to a ‘motto’ theme at the words ‘the thought that cheers this heart of mine is that of love’ – the music recalling the metaphysical Finzi of ‘Dies Natalis’. This characteristic identity recurs at the end of the final song “I am”, evoking a deeply shadowed introspective world suffused with Clare’s melancholy in ‘I am the self-consumer of all my woes’. It is noticeable that the music throughout follows the poetic thought, translating and heightened the emotive idea almost to the point of horror (in, for instance, the title song). The final song ‘I am’ (the very last poem that Clare was to write), with its breath-catching modulation on the final ‘sky’ proves, despite ending on a monotone, the culmination of high personal drama.
The choice of John Addington Symonds for the second of the cycles is an unusual. Here again there are strong emotions at play – and although ‘Invitation to the Gondola’ is more impressionistic, intensely visual with its ‘city seen in dreams’ as the poet evokes a twilit impression of his (and Sargeant’s) beloved Venice, the scene is peopled with spectral shades. Throughout the cycle the music is threaded through with expressive melody, the poet’s ever conscious obsession with unrequited love awakening in the composer a very personal identification with the poet. I can think of no composer writing today that might reach the heart of Symond’s very individual voice as Venables has done here.
The remaining songs on the disc are more lyrical – yet by no means light weight. Hardy as a poet is no less introspective – and in ‘A Kiss’ pursues the love element to the infinite. ‘Flying Crooked’ – as succinct as a Haiku – is very reminiscent of John Ireland (Venables studied with Arnell – I am reminded of Ireland noting with surprise the influence of Corder extending to a third generation in a pupil of Dale’s – and of course Ireland, in a mood of later unfulfilled optimism set lines in ‘These the pantheon of English song that began with Parry in the early 1900’s.
One of the most immediately beautiful of the songs of Venables’ early setting (at age 19) of Harold Monro, the protagonist of the Georgian era. The melody, with its echos of ‘Danny Boy’ is most appealing – and yet the almost Housman-ish sentiment ‘You without met, I without you’ colours the music. But it is intensely beautiful – I’d recommend the disc for that one revelation! And I must pursue the John Ireland connection, through ‘Easter Song’ where the imagery of ‘The tendrils of the Spring’ – the young shoots stirring in the quiet dark earth – is one that pervades Ireland’ work. But Venables has an individual voice. If this disc is an earnest of his music then his chamber works – which on this sleeve invites interest in such as a Piano Quintet – ought to be known.