Song cycle – ‘Venetian Songs’ – Love’s Voice Op. 22

Composed: 1995
Duration: 16 minutes
Commissioned: The title song Love’s Voice, was commissioned by Mr Andrew Milner and premiered by Ian Partridge and Jennifer Partridge on 22nd August 1995 at the Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester.
First complete performance: March 1995, at Clifton Hill House, University of Bristol, performed by Kevin McLean Mair (Tenor) and Graham Lloyd (Piano)
Available from: Novello and Co

  1. Fortunate Isles
  2. The Passing Stranger
  3. The Invitation to the Gondola
  4. Love’s Voice

When the composer Gerald Finzi was asked why the poetry of Thomas Hardy was so important to his song writing, he talked about a ‘compulsive chosen identification’ – the need to express something of his inner life by linking it with that of the poet’s. From Venables’s first reading of the poetry of John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), he was confident that he too had found that ‘chosen identification’. It was an empathy borne from a shared philosophical outlook on life and a common conviction about the nature and purpose of artistic endeavour. Symonds was a deeply introspective man who was naturally drawn to existential reflection. He was acutely aware of the transience of life, and, as his poetry reveals, he believed ardently in such things as eternal and spiritual values. In particular, he handled with uncommon sensitivity the universal themes of love, and death. Venables illuminates this point: “As a composer, I believe as Vaughan Williams did, that ‘the object of art is to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty. The duty of the composer is to find the mot juste. It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before as long as it is the right thing to say at the right moment’. The song cycle Love’s Voice is my attempt to express something of these ‘ultimate realities’ through the words of another”.

The first song in the cycle is a setting of a poem entitled Fortunate Isles, whichcomes from Many Moods – Symonds’s first volume of verse.The poem’sdreamy atmosphere and allusions to water and golden sands, strongly suggests that Venice may well have been the source of its inspiration, in spite of the fact that in this setting it is given a more turbulent treatment: the rippling piano accompaniment that sustains the mood is more akin to the drama of sea sprays dashing against a headland rock. Above this accompanimental figure a sensual vocal line plays out a wistful narrative that tells of a remote and sequestered island, where ‘the honey-scented silence broods above the halcyon’s nest’. The two outer stanzas flank a central one that is both slow moving and more contemplative in character.

The Passing Stranger heralds an altogether different sound world: one that seeks to express the poem’s sense of mystery and ‘other-worldliness’. Symonds’s theme is one of disorientation as related by the narrator, who, caught momentarily by a ‘fleeting glance’ is transported to an imaginary past world, where the tale that is ‘too deep for utterance’ can be acted out. To capture the poem’s elusive quality Venables uses an austere harmonic language full of uncompromising dissonance, which heightens the power of the vocal line.

In The Invitation to the Gondola,Symonds, lost in reverie, evokes Venice as a ‘city seen in dreams’. His fervent invitation is proclaimed in the opening stanza: Come forth; for night is falling / The moon hangs round and red / On the verge of the violet waters, / Fronting the daylight dead. His penumbrous imagery is used skilfully to evoke a highly charged atmosphere in which expectancy and amatory desire coalesce. In setting this poem, the six stanzas provided an obvious ternary structure, where, in the outer sections, the rapid semi-quavers of the piano accompaniment conjure up the anticipatory nature of the poem. By contrast, the mood of the middle two stanzas changes to one of tranquillity as ‘Bells call to bells from the islands’. Here the harmonic language is enriched, and the introduction of a rocking figure provides just a hint of ‘a breeze from the sea’. The vocal line is much more intimate and reflective, as if in a dream-like state.

Love’s Voice’ was the first song in this cycle to be written and was commissioned by Mr Andrew Milner in 1993. The poem is a paean to love in which Symonds re-works the Tennysonian message, ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. Throughout the poem, Symonds’s subtle use of alliteration, as revealed in the line ‘Here where with silvery silent sound the smooth oars fall’, evokes a strong intimation of its ‘hidden music’. This is mirrored musically in the piano’s delicately undulating accompaniment, capturing before it the shimmering light as it dances upon the water. This gives way to a more anguished section – a vocal outpouring that tries to express something of the despair felt by one who realises that their love is unrequited. In the intentionally understated climax of the fifth stanza the sheer intensity of the dénouement is starkly conveyed. After a restatement of the song’s opening musical idea, the return of the principal melody leads us into the final verse.
Fortunate Isles

There are islands, there are islands
On the ocean’s heaving breast
Where the honey-scented silence
Broods above the halcyon’s nest;Where the sands are smooth and golden,
And the flowers bloom, one by one,
Unbeloved and unbeholden
Save by the all-seeing sun.

I shall ne’er with friend or lover
Wander on from glade to glade
those forests, or discover
Silvery fountains in the shade:

But another’s foot shall linger
Mid the bowers whereof I dream,
And perchance a careless finger
Strew the roses on the stream;

Happier men shall pluck the laurel
For the tresses that they love,
And the passionate pale coral
Wreathe round brows I know not of.

The Passing Stranger

Of all the mysteries where through we move,
This is the most mysterious – that a face,
Seen peradventure in some distant place,
Whither we can return no more to prove
The world-old sanctities of human love,
Shall haunt our waking thoughts, and gathering grace
Incorporate itself with every phase
Whereby the soul aspires to God above.
Thus are we wedded through that face to her
Or him who bears it; nay, one fleeting glance,
Fraught with a tale too deep for utterance,
Even as a pebble cast into the sea,
Will on the deep waves of our spirit stir
Ripples that run through all eternity.

The Invitation to the Gondola

Come forth; for Night is falling,
The moon hangs round and red
On the verge of the violet waters,
Fronting the daylight dead.

Come forth; the liquid spaces
Of sea and sky are one,
Where outspread angel flame- wings
Brood o’er the buried sun.

Bells call to bells from the islands,
And far-off mountains rear
Their shadowy crests in the crystal
Of cloudless atmosphere.

A breeze from the sea is wafted;
Lamp-litten Venice gleams
With her towers and domes uplifted
Like a city seen in dreams.

Her waterways are a tremble
With melody far and wide,
Borne from the phantom galleys
That o’er the darkness glide.

There are stars in the heaven, and starry
Are the wandering lights below;
Come forth! for the Night is calling,
Sea, city, and sky are aglow!

Love’s Voice

Love, felt from afar, long sought, scarce found,
On thee I call;
Here where with silvery silent sound,
The smooth oars fall;

Here where the glimmering water-ways,
Above yon stair,
Mirror one trembling lamp that plays
In twilight air!

What sights, what sounds, O poignant Love
Ere thou wert flown,
Quivered these darksome waves above,
In darkness known!

I dare not dream thereof; the sting
Of those dead eyes
Is too acute and close a thing
For one who dies.

Only I feel through glare and gloom,
Where yon lamp falls,
Dim spectres hurrying to their doom,
And love’s voice calls:

Twas better thus toward death to glide,
Soul-full of bliss
Than with long life unsatisfied
Life’s crown to miss.

Music Sample: The Invitation to the Gondola Op. 22 no 3.

 

Music Sample: Love’s Voice Op. 22 no 4.