The Englishness of an English Composer by Michael Bywater


by Michael Bywater

First Printed in Musical Opinion (Jan-March 2016, issue no 1506)

It was not exactly love at first sight when Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz (1873 – 1931) turned his attention to England, but more of a slowly-ripening affection. This itself was more encouraging than one might have expected from this upper-class Hessian Homburger turned Frankfurt BoBo (a term he coined in his near-unreadable novel Bourgeois Bohème). Schmitz lived the life with gusto, trailing behind him a record (like the fathoms of chain around Marley’s ghosts) a record of expulsions and sendings-down for lack of discipline, of dabblings in psychoanalysis, of Satanism, death-cults, sadism, amateur liturgy-making and (quite unironically) noise.

In 1904 (just seven years after the English, in what Macaulay called “one of their periodic fits of morality”, had seen Oscar Wilde off to two years’ hard labour, the ruin of his health and his life, a brief sad exile in France and a painful and premature death), Schmitz wrote, cheerily enough, that: Je öfter man nach England kommt und je länger man verweilt, desto mehr findet man zu bewundern. (The more often you come to England and the longer you spend there, the more you find to admire. But it couldn’t last. Ten years later, possibly because things were getting a bit sticky between Great Britain and Germany, Schmitz apparently produced what Boris Johnson described prettily as “a dithyramb of abuse of the English cultural scene . . . [including] a jibe from which we have never really recovered .”

The title of Schmitz’s essay made no bones about it: The Land Without Music: An English Social Problem. It sounds even more minatory in German; our alleged musical vacuum was an Englische Gesellschaftsprobleme. One feels the sting of the lash, and cringes in anticipation of the next. We haven’t forgotten. We English – even those who have no interest in music, but all the same have a vague feeling that it is a good thing, like a presentable wife and an American Express card – maintain humble silence, or respond with bitter aggression. “Purcell!” we cry; “Tallis! Elgar! Gibbon! Vaughan WIlliams! Britten! Finzi! The Berkeleys, père et fils!” Some cry out “Parry!” and others, “Stainer”. In extremis, I have heard Sumer is Icumen in cited, and, beyond extremis, Hildegard of Bingen, which counts somewhere between friendly fire and an own goal. Damn him! Damn Schmitz and all his works! Except “The Land Without Music” wasn’t one of his works at all. The famous and wounding phrase wasn’t his, and doesn’t appear in the book.

A bit of digging suggests that it was already a rather dated, commonplace attitude, and the nearest thing to the quote attributed to the hapless Schmitz seems to appear in the writings of Georg Weerth. Weerth was a friend of Heinrich Heine and of Friedrich Engels, who had travelled around England in the 1840s. Engels didn’t mention English music, but Heine did; the English, he said, were “the most awful of dancers [ . . . ] there isn’t one of them who can keep time [ . . . ] they have no ear [ . . . ] for music in any form, [which makes] their unnatural passion for piano-playing and singing all the more disgusting.”

The bit about dancers is hard to deny, as anyone who has ever been to an English knees-up or posh wedding will attest. But “disgusting”…? It was, however, Weerth, who wielded a far more subtle scalpel when he wrote, more gently and thoughtfully than the phrase he has been discredited with, that…”The English are the only cultured nation without their own music (apart from street-music). This isn’t to say that their ears are less sensitive, but that their lives are the poorer for it. To be immersed, even a little, in music, means to lose oneself, to bear discord which will eventually resolve in harmony. Music gives wings, so that all wonders become understandable, natural”. It embodies – or, rather, in its time embodied – a very German attitude: a heartfelt cultural identification with a version of Romanticism explicitly linked by Schiller with the naive and the sentimental, and decorated with all the trimmings: wings, resolutions, immersion, wonders and mountain cataracts.

Music, in this worldview, is a functional art, whose references are all extra-musical. The cultured Germany prizes music for what it can do; what it can conjure in the presumably infinite soul of the listener, in terms of provoking a sort of Brüderschaft, a swooning fit of sublimity. Here they are, with the Great War poised to strike, still transported under the spell of the schöne Gotterfunken. Richard Strauss’s lush, floral melodies will swoop like opening jasmine-flowers around their sixths and sevenths even as the conscripts move up to the line. Schmitz is writing just a year after Schönberg has run Romantic chromaticism, throttle wide-open, into the buffers with Gurre-Lieder but the average, musical, cultured German hasn’t quite noticed or doesn’t quite care, and Danilo Ilić hasn’t taken his (un)lucky second shot at Franz Ferdinand from outside the café where he’d scuttled to sulk after the failure of his first attempt… and the English, alone of all the cultured nations, have no music. Somewhere in an imagined dripping forest by a mist-stilled lake, Bruckner is still apotheosing the song of the bird, the clout of the rustic Ländler and the locked-stone architecture of the monastic basilica; somewhere in a gold-brocaded drawing-room, a drop of Persian attar lies coiled at the heart of a silver rose; and the English, alone of all the cultured nations, have no music.

It is, in that case, a wonder (not even an understandable, natural wonder) that this year marks the sixtieth birthday of a quintessentially English musician, the Worcester based composer Ian Venables. I write from the potentially compromised position of not just an admirer of his elegant, sinuous melodic lines, his understatedly gentle but piercing structures, his poet’s response to this most (superficially) intractable of languages; but also as a friend. Were this a scientific paper or a court case, I would have to recuse myself on the grounds of conflict-of-interest. But as it is, it’s not; and anyway I knew his music before I knew the man. Which, of course, means nothing; or which would mean nothing, except that it is, to me, crucial to something at the heart of Venables’s music. Were this a radio programme, I would now pause and play some of his music. It’s not; but instead I can exhort you, if you don’t yet know his work, to get hold of a copy of The Song of the Severn, the recent Signum recording of his songs and song-cycles, or their recording of songs and chamber music At Midnight, also from Signum. Having listened, consider this critically illegitimate assertion: that between Venables the composer and Venables the man, there is an absolute continuum. It’s a relatively rare phenomenon (another obvious example is Olivier Messiaen) but, I’d argue, an illuminating one, to which I will return. The other thing, of course, is that to say a composer is “quintessentially English” implies that he’s pretty damn good of his sort. I don’t mean that; I mean the word in its alchemical sense: the (literally) fifth element; aether. The point of aether was that, first, there wasn’t much of it around and, second, it was the (imaginary) element through which the music of the spheres was propagated. Fanciful? Yes, of course. But I mean that there is something in the form or substance of English music which is in direct opposition to high German Romaniticism; that that something is profoundly audible in Venables’s music and in the musical line which he carries on; and which Schmitz failed to see (or, rather, hear) because, to him, it wasn’t what music was like and it wasn’t what music was for. National or cultural boundaries are real. If we magically transport ourselves to 1914, we might crudely say that the French, when moved to transports of delight, experience jouissance; they want to laugh and embrace their lovers and sense the great ludic vivacity of God. The Germans, similarly moved, are stirred to their bones with a new grandeur of purpose and perception, in the great cathedral of Nature and brotherhood. Under those same compulsions, the English hope for a sense of quiet transparency and, feeling that, do not swell with emotion nor laugh aloud, but, instead, exhale gently and fall silent. And it is that calm intensity – the “still small voice” that John Whittier, the Quaker poet, set against the Romantic Sturm und Drang of earthquake, wind and fire – that lies quietly but inexorably at the heart of Venables’s music. To argue the importance or excellence of a composer is bound to be subjective, and to argue, as well, that a composer exemplifies something as nebulous (and, by some aesthetic systems, profoundly dodgy) as “English music” is to be faced by an almost indefinite number of possible lines of approach. In the case of Ian Venables, we might think of the man himself (illegal as it may be), his musical language, his response to the English language and in particular English poetry, and that crucial but almost impossible to pin down “sense of place”. The attempt will fail; of course it will. In the end only the music, and the way the music is received by the ear of each individual listener, count. But it’s still worth having a go.

Let’s start with the man.

Curiously, thinking about a composer’s art in the context of his personal life, the culture from which he springs, and the influences (acknowledged or subliminal) seems more often to shed not light, but darkness. Nor is it just historical speculations that cloud the issue. The great question “How on earth did Bach do it?” is only fascinating up to the point at which one realises that he did do it, and further speculation becomes a futile, though pleasant, indulgence. The knowledge that Ravel left the manuscript of the Introduction & Allegro in a shirt shop tells us little, nor does the realisation that Poulenc liked to have Mickey,his wire-haired fox terrier, stand in the kitchen sink to keep an eye on things while Poulenc cooked his omelette – not even on our understanding of Le Chien Perdu. Constance Bache’s report that Liszt’s funeral was spoiled by the “very inharmonious and discordant . . . inefficient organist” is only curious when one finds out that the organist was actually Anton Bruckner, and gets us no further in any direction.

From personal experience, (admittedly limited; how many composers can one person know in a lifetime?) I can call to mind composer of meticulous, highly-stressed postmodern filigree counterpoints, himself an affable, attentive, sociable embodiment of clubable charm; another whose expansive melodic lines, whooping exuberant harmonies and prodigious structural engineering is contained in a petite, stylish, impishly witty individual; and a third who is personally like an Agatha Christie maiden aunt, but put a pencil in his hand and he becomes an aerobat, pushing the musical envelope with an insouciance you’d more likely associate with an extreme-sports enthusiast in Oakley sunglasses, poised on the edge of a canyon.

Sometimes, though, there is a sort of through-composition of the man and the music, and, with the exception of the late Olivier Messiaen (so sui generis that any normal rules hardly apply), Ian Venables is the best example of a unity between life and art I’ve encountered. He is – and the comparison is intended as a compliment to both men – the musical equivalent of Ian Hislop, Editor of Private Eye, by which I mean that both possess a very rare quality of being entirely consistent men. They are the same in all circumstances. The Hislop of Have I Got News For You is the same as the Hislop at an editorial meeting; the Venables across the lunch-table is the same as the Venables of the Canzonetta (Op.44). It’s rarer than one might think (or hope). Most of us, in T S Eliot’s phrase, spend much of our time trying to “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet”. Their contrary consistency speaks of a deep honesty, as valuable in a composer as in a satirical moralist. Christopher Morley seized on the same word when he wrote in The Birmingham Post that Venables’ work was “honest, direct-from-the-heart” and “never fails to engage the spirit” before praising the composers’s “urgency”, “assurance” and “generosity of melody”. It’s fairly easy to specify what this through-composed consistency and honesty are not. Neither in Venables the composer nor Venables the man will you find that most grievous of sins against truth and beauty, pomposity. It is not the consistency and honesty of the zealot who knows he is right. It’s not a symptom of restricted imagination (the false consistency of the person who believes the world would be fine if everyone was just like him) nor of fear or a sombre melancholy. (Melancholy at the point it shades into a sweet yearning absurdity: that’s a different matter, and Venables can, and does, handle it with a gently assured precision; “The Hippo” (Six Songs Op33) on its own would be enough to guarantee his reputation. Hugo Wolf — the Wolf of “Wie glanzt der helle Mond” or of “Mausfallensprüchlein” – would have been enchanted to have done it.) Nor is it even the consistency and honesty of the smoothly-surfaced untroubled existence; a “life-threatening illness” in early middle age pushed him – “I had no choice really,” he says; “When something like that happens you discover the things which count; the things which are essential.” With the support of his partner, the pianist Graham Lloyd, Venables gave up teaching and devoted himself entirely to composition. When I asked him what the “essential” things were, he said: “Love, really. That’s all there is. Love is what we have, isn’t it? It’s what makes us human, and it’s what we create and share.” If it’s easy enough to dissect what Venables’ musical and personal integrity — the things which make one what a Yiddish-speaking Jew would call “a Mensch” – are not, it’s rather harder to anatomise why it should be so.

Poetical sensibility

Slightly more easy to address (because there are at least accepted critical tactics for engaging with it) is Venables’s profoundly poetical sensibility; or, rather, a profound senstivity to how poetry works, both in prosody and in rhetoric. This isn’t sensitivity as a sort of debilitiating tragic garment, of the drooping Death of Chatterton kind, but a pure and attentive response to the English language pushed to the point at which it becomes purely itself – perhaps as good a definition of poetry as any.

Venables’ understanding of English prosody (the ancient Greek root of the word – pros oīdē, ‘towards song’ – appropriately, means something like “singability”)   and his setting, for example, of Hardy’s “A Kiss” finds not only a “singability” in Hardy’s carefully artful artlessness, which for many composers would lead, after a few hours’ head-scratching, to a resigned shrug:

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!

It’s worth taking a slightly closer look at Hardy’s oddly tense prosody. Metrically, the poem is two octets, split 5:3 — five lines of five feet followed by three lines of three. But the rhyme scheme crosses the metre: a pattern of four unrounded vowels, then three rounded, and a final unrounded vowel. It’s a perfect example of Hardy’s ‘artful artlessness’, and while marking the point at which many, many composers have surely, on spotting it, stopped shrugging and started shouting, it shows why critics have described Venables as “one of the most important composers of vocal music of our time” and written of the “compactness, cogency and demeanour” of his work.

The tactical problem of poetry is that it can’t be paraphrased – or, as the “language poet” Veronica Forrest-Thomson called it, “naturalised”: in other words, turned into a sort of textual object with a clear set of gestures pointing at something else. “A poem should not mean / But be” wrote Archibald MacLeish in “Ars Poetica” (1928) and Venables’ work consistently exemplifies of how music can embrace, border and salute the poem’s own internal solitude without shining a sterilising or destroying light on its poem-ness. He respects, always, the integrity of the poem without attempting (to use the poet and critic Ian Patterson’s term) to “hallucinate” a more or less randomly-selected set of un-meanings on it. He lets it be so that it can continue to mean untouched.

There is, in short, no poem that’s been harmed, fixed or diminished as it has passed through Venables’ hands. That alone is enough to guarantee his place in the first rank of English lyric song composers.

But, of course, there is more.

Second would be his response to the sense of place. There is an audible eloquence of place not in Venables’s music. It is not entirely surprising. He is an Englishman to his bones, quite unmistakeably so when he speaks of the landscape of Worcestershire, where he has for many years made his home, and the adjoining cathedral counties of Gloucester and Hereford. There is something in that region that draws both poets – A.E Housman, Robert Frost, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, John Drinkwater, Ivor Gurney – and composers, too, from Elgar and the Holsts (père et fils) to Herbert Howells and Cornelius Cardew.

In is, in the end, a poetic response and an unassuming but unmistakeable technical virtuosity of harmonic structure and melodic line: a kind of gentle wit and quiet attentiveness central which is, I’d suggest, quintessentially English. It is neither urban/metropolitan nor is it galumphingly rustic; it is peaceable without being supine, supple without gymnastics, more given to the long and sinuous line than the bravura jeté or the jangling pyrotechnics of atonality, with its abandonment of cadence and resolution.

If there is such a thing as English Music, then Ian Venables is its foremost living master. And if you listen to his work, you will hear with your own ears that there is such a thing. Yes, that is begging the question. But the answer is as clear and as eloquent as his music, and we are lucky to have him amongst us.