Review by Roderic Dunnett
Published in ‘Musical Opinion’ – June 2011
Few present-day English song composers have drawn so much attention at the start of the new century as Ian Venables. A spate of first-rate recordings for Naxos, Signum and Somm all testify to the quality of Venables’ writing: not just the musical substance of his music, but the extraordinary gift he has for identifying with the poetry he is setting, reflecting the poet’s battered hopes, yearnings and aspirations, and catching the intensity and pathos of the moment.
Venables is as at home setting Tennyson or Hardy, Edward Thomas or John Clare (on whom he based a beautifully poignant cycle, Invite, to Eternity, Op.31) as he is treating those poets of the end 19th Century with whom he has a special affinity, notably John Addington Symonds.Yet he has also crossed the water: not just to Venice for his Symonds cycle Love’s Voice, Op. 22, but also with his cycle On the Wings of Love, Op. 38(2006), in which he sets Lorca, Cavafy, the Emperor Hadrian and a melting Sonnet by the 16th century poet Jean de Sponde, which Venables builds to an overwhelming climax of passion and rapture (‘That, loving you, I love without regret’). This song is indeed a love letter, and is one of several whose transparent textures suggest a lineage for Venables quite different from early 20th Century English Song: the French Impressionists, Debussy, Roussel and Ravel. However his voice is unmistakably his own: once you are familiar with his songs, they are easily identifiable as Venables. On the Wings of Love has a clarinet as well as piano accompaniment. He uses the former sparingly but beautifully: sometimes it adds poise, or acts as a kind of guardian deity, beckoning or pointing the way; sometimes it harks back to, or mulls over a salient passage of text. Three times already Ian Venables has enlarged the dimensions of a cycle or collection by employing a string quartet, lending extra bite, piquancy, lustre and transparency to its textures: first in Invite, to Eternity (John Clare); then in Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, Op. 36 (Housman), which uses a piano quintet; (and thanks to a memorable arrangement by Graham J. Lloyd, Four Songs with String Quartet). Venables’ use of the string instruments is subtle and shrewd: it makes available a wide range of nuance to support, not merely parody, the vocal line. A string quartet with piano is also central to Remember This, Op. 40, his substantial new ‘Cantata’, commissioned by the Limoges Trust for the 2011 Cheltenham Music Festival.
Many of Venables’ songs are slow-unfolding, languid even, allowing voice and accompaniment ample space to muse and meditate upon the text. Yet he is well able to deliver stanzas at a sizzling pace: two good examples are ‘Break, Break, Break’ (Op. 33, no.5), a Tennyson setting in which the waves dramatically crash onto the beach, and the third Housman song, ‘O who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists..?’ in which the growing anger (‘..they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair’) boils over in a vicious scherzo movement. ‘Flying Crooked’, Op. 28, no.1 (Robert Graves), witty and pointilliste, is a more whimsical example.
Venables’ choice of poetry clearly suggests certain recurrent ideas or preoccupations. First, with time and time’s fleetingness: we are only here for an all too brief moment: Harold Monro’s ‘Midnight Lamentation’ (‘When you and I go down/ Breathless and cold…’) and Ernest Dowson’s ‘Vitae Summae Brevis’ (‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter..’) are superb examples. Secondly, constancy and commitment: as in de Sponde’s Sonnet XI (‘All but my constancy I would forget….that, loving you, I love without regret’); a third, the journey from youth to age; another is the pain of unrequited love. This leads on to a further idea of partings, those aching, yearned-for moments that may never be recaptured. Some, like W. B. Yeats, have posed the perennial question whether music can really add anything to a poem. Ian Venables is in no doubt: ‘I think that’s exactly what a composer can do,’ he asserts. I would argue that when a composer’s music is in complete accord with the poet’s intentions, a transformation takes place that results in an altogether new art form. This new form is called ‘art-song’; and as such I think it has to be approached on its own terms.’
One of the first of his songs to survive is ‘Midnight Lamentation’, Op. 6, originally written for a soprano in the church choir he then conducted: ‘I found the Monro poem in an anthology and set it. ‘In some ways it anticipates my mature voice.’‘Young composers are like magpies, trying to synthesise elements which will ultimately be identifiably their own voice. I felt free to try out all kinds of styles. Originally it was English song I became interested in, but once I encountered Shostakovich my approach changed: he was a big influence in those early years (you can hear it in Venables’ forthright String Quartet, Op. 32); so was Vaughan Williams when I discovered him in my early 20s. Both have resonance in my work.’ Venables then also composed a Piano Sonata (soon to be recorded by Naxos), which he designated as his Op. 1, and ‘into which I worked the DSCH motif, as a homage to Shostakovich, who died at just that time.’ Encouraged by his teacher, the composer Richard Arnell, Venables tried writing for other forces. His Elegy for Cello and Piano, Op. 2, is in its own way a lament for unrequited love: ‘it was an emotional response to a situation, it poured out of me in a raw kind of way: I wrote it very quickly.’ Other pieces followed – a Suite for Piano, Op. 4, Three Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 11. Venables didn’t return to composing songs for some years. What really lit the spark of writing art-song was when he encountered the work of the poet and composer Ivor Gurney. ‘Gurney’s Angst-ridden war sonnet “Pain” is one of those things that jump off the page at you. It was so desperate and intense.’ ‘I’d also been listening to Finzi at the time: I remember poring over his songs, seeing how he approached setting the poetry, and that illuminated the process for me. He opened my eyes and ears to how it worked. What struck me was how he was able to map out perfectly a musical structure with a poetic structure, so they resonated together as one. He was always word-painting, going deeper into the poem, responding to its prosody. Then I bought the complete Hardy poems and discovered ‘A Kiss’. It then came naturally and easily: I’d found the key, the way in. After that I never stopped.’
Why are Venables’ songs so often elegiac? ‘The whole question of mortality and death is something I felt strongly as a child of 12 or 13. It was always at the back of my mind – until I had a stroke a few years ago, when it nearly became a reality. They are not so much about death as loss, perhaps that’s a better word. ‘The search for love, and the pain when it’s not achieved or unrequited, that’s something that’s really strong in Symonds’ poem ‘Fortunate Isles’. I’ve found love in my life, I’m very lucky, but I’ve felt unrequited love too. Symonds never quite found love, and I could identify with that, it touched me. For him, because of his sexuality, there was the tragic pain of realising that the kind of love he was searching for would probably never be found. As one evolves as a human being, so one does as a composer: I approach a song differently each time, and I try not to repeat. I do honestly believe that craftsmanship reflects certain underlying, eternal principles, in all the arts. Vaughan Williams said that he aimed ‘to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty’. I absolutely concur with that.’
The structure of the poem, Venables points out, necessarily dictates the treatment. ‘I tend to be attracted to one that offers the possibility of contrast: maybe in the central stanza. In some of the best songs composed, often the opening element comes back at the end. So I’m always on the lookout for poems in which that’s possible. ‘Viewing a song as a narrative journey for the listener is also important to me. That’s why some of my songs are quite long: it’s because I want to take the listener on a journey. ‘Also I’ve structured some cycles into a sort of symphonic work. Songs of Eternity and Sorrow has a symphonic opening, a slow movement, a scherzo – I consciously chose poems that offered the chance for a symphonic-type evolution. ‘I love the craft: shaping the raw material is like a labour of love. And that process of redrafting and polishing is hard work. I’m content for quite a lot to end up in the bin. I have to be happy with the result, second best is not on, especially as I now have a publisher, Novello and Co. ‘I love harmony: it’s like having an artist’s palette of colours and shades available to you. Howells, Ravel, Samuel Barber all share similar approaches, and so do I. Very often an unusual chord will suggest itself instinctively: that’s what word-painting is about. I think harmonic progressions are capable of expressing deep emotion: and I do believe melody comes from the soul; that it’s so individual it expresses who you are. Likewise with rhythm: the start of ‘Invitation to the Gondola’ has an energy which immediately conjured up a rhythm for me, one which propels the song along.’
Does Venables write with specific performers in mind? ‘I did write some of my early songs for the tenor Kevin McLean-Mair. I now have a close association with certain wonderful singers, notably Andrew Kennedy; and certainly I wrote The Pine Boughs Past Music with Roderick Williams very much in mind. Venables now has a 2012-13 commission to explore poetry associated with Malvern for the Malvern Concert Club. ‘That’s a voyage of discovery I will really enjoy. It will involve seeking out new poetry, new poets I perhaps haven’t come across.’ Venables’ Cheltenham premiere in summer 2011 is a setting of Sir Andrew Motion’s long poem ‘Remember This’. ‘Within it Andrew has created a narrative, but also individual poems that comment on, or reflect the narrative. So in that sense it’s like a cantata, for two solo voices (soprano and tenor). It’s in one continuous movement, but divides into 8 sections. Although the piece is ostensibly about the Queen Mother, it’s really using that context to examine the whole cycle of birth, life and death. It’s about nature and urban life, wildlife, trees, time, history; and deals with the great absolutes – love, death, the nature of reality. Those are things I’m obsessed by: as with Plato, they imply the need to get beyond the veil and see the world as it is.’
Ian Venables: Discography
IAN VENABLES: ENGLISH SONG SERIES, NO. 21 – Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Iain Burnside (pno), Richard Hosford (clar). Naxos 8.572514
ON WENLOCK EDGE – Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Dante Quartet. Signum SIGCD 112
SEVERN AND SOMME – Roderick Williams (bar), Susie Allan (pno). Somm SOMMCD 057
LOVE’S VOICE – Nathan Vale (tenor), Paul Plummer (pno). Somm SOMMCD 063
SONGS DISCOVERED – Judith Buckle (sop), Peter Bailey (pno). Wright Music WRIGHTCD 101 (available from MusicWeb International)
Songs and Chamber Music
AT MIDNIGHT – Andrew Kennedy, Dante Quartet. Signum SIGCD 204
PIANO QUINTET and other works – Mark Bebbington, Graham J. Lloyd, Coull Quartet. Somm SOMMCD 0101
RHAPSODY FOR ORGAN: English Cathedral Series, Vol. 1 – Adrian Lucas. Regent REGCD 159
A Naxos recording of Ian Venables’ Piano Music is planned for release in 2013.