Four Songs

I have never consciously heard any piece of music by Ian Venables before discovering the fine ‘Severn & Somme’ CD recently issued by Somm. I was delighted to see that Roderick Williams has chosen some seventeen or so of Ivor Gurney’s songs – both well-known and less so. The Howells’s song, Goddess of Light was an unknown quantity as were the works by John Sanders and Christian Wilson. But it was the Venables pieces that caught my attention – at least in the ‘non-Gurney’ part of the recital. Here are four songs, which well serve as a fine introduction to his music.

The first thing that caught my notice was my immediate impression that Ian Venables has a claim to be part of the ‘apostolic succession’ of English lieder writers. I asked him about his models – and suggested to him that the style of these songs was largely conservative. I guess what I meant was that they appear to be in a direct line from Gurney himself, Ireland, Finzi and Britten. I wondered if this apparent ‘conservatism’ was a deliberate decision or ‘just happened.’ The earliest song, Midnight Lamentation was the composer’s first song written in 1974 when he was about 19 years old. I suggested to him that at that time (we are similarly aged) I was dabbling with Serialism as presented in Richard Brindle Smith’s book ‘Serial Composition’. I would have regarded Boulez and his integral serialism as the ‘way forward.’

Ian explained to me that at that time he had no obvious models in mind – although he did tell me that the first English song that he heard was RVW’s Linden Lea – sung by Dame Janet Baker. It had a huge impact on him. He explained that back in 1972 he was an organist and choirmaster at his local church. So obviously he knew the standard repertoire of choral and organ music that was in vogue at that time. This included works by Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar. Around this time he was making use of the local lending library and was ‘devouring’ scores and records of music by these two composers and also Mahler and Shostakovich.

Interestingly Ian notes that he was left to his own devices with no formal musical education to steer him towards the avant garde. He developed in his own way although he admits that he explored a little. Ian denied that he had ever dabbled in free atonality, serialism or any other post-modernist models: Pierre Boulez leaves him “emotionally bereft.”

Midnight Lamentation was written by the Georgian poet and Poetry Bookshop owner Harold Munro. There is no doubt in my mind that this is an extremely satisfactory Opus One. Michael Hurd has described this song as being ‘near perfect’. To this I would add that it is quite lovely and moving too. The song is critically regarded as having a number of the Venables ‘fingerprints’ – a strong melodic element, a good fusion of words and music and finally a relatively straightforward piano accompaniment that does not submerge the sense of the text.

I mentioned to Ian that I had noted some disparity between the text of Monro’s poem and the words of the setting! He said that “…today, I do not subscribe to changing the words of any poems I set.” Perhaps it was youthful enthusiasm? But interestingly Michael Hurd has suggested that some of the verbal changes were for the better!

The poem is really rather pessimistic for a young composer to set, yet, in spite of this, Venables seems to have got the balance about right. He gives a sensitive setting that does not loose sight of the poets despair at losing his beloved in death:-

I cannot find a way
Through love and through;
I cannot reach beyond
Body, to you
When you or I must go
Down, evermore,
There’ll be no more to say
But a locked door.

Whatever our religious views on life and death, Monro’s is certainly a viewpoint we cannot ignore and need to bear in mind. It is one that vitiates much of the literature of the period.

The second poem in this recital is one of my favourites – The Kiss by Thomas Hardy. I am not sure if it has been set before – at least I could not find any reference to it 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. In many ways it is arch-typical Hardy – the contrasting of a rustic view of a great subject and a more universal interpretation.

The song setting itself is a fine balance between a largely diatonic melody with a complex and largely chromatic accompaniment – it “borders on the discordant, but never at the expense of resolution.”

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.

Ian Venables told me that this song is “perhaps stylistically the closest I get to Finzi.” 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 leave it at that.

Flying Crooked is perhaps the most enchanting song in this selection – it is certainly a foil to the bleakness of Monro and the passion of Hardy. The evocative words are written by Robert Graves:-

The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has- who knows so well as I? –
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and there by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying crooked gift.
Who has not watched this pantomime acted out on a summer’s day?

Ian Venables tells a tale about the composition of this piece. He explains that over the past 14 years he has had the great pleasure of knowing Lady Bliss. When they first met, she quite naturally wanted to hear some of Venables music – most especially the songs. She listened to a wide variety of them and later, during one of their conversations remarked that “most of your songs are very serious.” She wondered if he had written any “levitious ones?”

Quoting Venables, “…up to this point I hadn’t. So a few days after this meeting a letter arrived in the post, and in it were two poems by Robert Graves. They were ‘The Snail’ and ‘Flying Crooked.’” He continues to explain that although Lady Bliss did not make any overt suggestions, reading between he lines “there was an implicit challenge!” After some study Venables rejected attempting to set The Snail – but admirably rose to the challenge with Flying Crooked.

He showed the finished work to Lady Bliss who was delighted with it. She insisted that Ian perform it there and then: she asked for an encore, but not before insisting that Venables did not ‘ham it up’.

Flying Crooked was one of two songs set in 1997. The other was At Midnight to a text by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The last of the four pieces is called Easter Song by the ‘Midland’ poet Edgar Billingham. The CD sleeve notes point out that, not only was Billingham an accomplished poet, he was also an artist and a “well respected school-master.” Ian told me that he has known the poet’s widow for many years. It was Sybil Billingham who commissioned the setting as a part of a celebration of her late husband’s life. The poem is taken from a collection entitled ‘Midland Poems.’ The last lines surely sum up the dichotomy between the Christian and a Pagan interpretation of the world as might be imagined from somewhere like Painswick Beacon or Chosen Hill on a spring day – with the Severn spread out below and the distant view of the Malverns:-

“For when comes April with its holocaust
And down the tall sky gallivants the sun,
Then resurrection’s miracle returns
Lo, Jesus and Persephone are one.”

The song opens with an affirmative chord before turning to a less confident figuration. The soloist gives a beautiful reflective vocal line. The range is quite extensive for a baritone and the piano has an important constructive part to this song. The mood changes for the second stanza – the begins with a quiet figure – but soon builds up into quite an intense and heavy accompaniment The work ends positively with powerful, sparse chords and a high note for the soloist. Ian told me that he believes the conclusion to this song is one of the most powerful moments in his output.