Duration: 24 minutes
First Performance: November 1997, at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hall, Worcester, by the Tenor Kevin McLean Mair and the Bochmann String Quartet
Commissioned: Patrick and Brenda Aydon.
Available from: Novello and Co
- Born Upon An Angel’s Breast
- An Invite, to Eternity
- Evening Bells
- I am
This commissioned song cycle Invite, to Eternity found its inspiration in the works of the Northamptonshire-born poet John Clare (1793-1864). Written in 1997, it departs from the composer’s preferred medium by using the string quartet in place of the piano. The emotional possibilities inherent in that combination of instruments allowed him a much wider and varied tonal palette in which to express the multiplicity of moods that are to be found in Clare’s four poems. The work’s genesis can be found in a letter written to the composed by Andrew Glazzard, to whom the final song in the cycle is dedicated. He introduced Venables to John Clare’s poetry in 1993 by sending him the poem ‘I Am’. He was then commissioned by Patrick and Brenda Aydon to compose a cycle of songs.
The four poems chosen by Ian Venables reflect the many facets of Clare’s unusual life. The son of a poor labourer, he developed keen powers of observation and an intense love of nature, and many of his poems reflect the variety of experiences to be found in country life. He spent the last twenty-three years of his life in the Northamptonshire Asylum, and it was there that he continued to write his lyrical poetry, including his most profoundly metaphysical poem ‘I am’.
Born Upon An Angel’s Breast opens with a lengthy introduction for string quartet, and leads to the first of three recitative-like sections which take up the theme of love as unsustainable, belonging ‘to sin and death’. These are pivotal sections in the movement and are broken by moments of exquisite tenderness where, amidst this harsh message, the listener is told that love is, in fact, the only saviour of the soul. Here we can see Clare as a spokesman for humanity: they lie, it is suggested, but he tells us not. The tender string writing at important points in the movement provides a sublime backdrop to some of Clare’s most profound words.
In contrast, An Invite, to Eternity opens with the question: ‘Wilt thou go with me, sweet maid…?’ The almost mocking mood is skilfully mirrored in the accompanying rocking figure which permeates the movement. Clare was adept at suddenly changing direction in his poetry, and what was seemingly innocent becomes existentially taut, necessitating sudden changes of mood. In the second stanza, Venables reflects the change of emotion by accompanying the more angular melodic writing with gritty viola figure, and pointillistic gestures from the other instruments. The third and fourth stanzas give balance to the overall structure and, by way of a coda, the quartet begins what seems to be a move into yet another verse, only to be halted by an augmentation of the opening chordal idea which end the movement as questioningly as the poem itself began.
Evening Bells evokes a landscape of rustic calm, broken only by distant bells and ‘zephyrs swelling’. It is lively, highly driven movement which uses intervals of the fourth and fifth, and an insistent rhythmic pedal, which dominates the texture. The latter’s relentless quality allows for an almost spontaneous interplay to occur between voice and string quartet.
I Am was the first poem of this cycle to be written, and it is without doubt a profoundly moving and poignant setting of Clare’s last creative utterance. Venables uses the string quartet in a masterly way, taking us through the emotions of fear and self-pity, to acceptance and longing. It opens with a solo ‘cello, which is soon joined by the other strings as they play what can only be described as a ‘cry’. The longest movement in the cycle, it begins with a desolate harmonic language, contrasting yearning vocal lines with tortured counterpoint, and reaches an almost atonal climax on the words:
“Even the dearest that I love the best
Despite the sustained mood of its closing bars, the composer returns to the opening ‘cry’ which breaks the feeling of resignation and longing momentarily before ending on a single sustained note. Devoid of any harmony, it ends unquestioningly, in complete contrast to the cycle’s angry and uncompromising opening.