Interview by Robert Hugill

Everything comes from the words: composer Ian Venables talks about his approach to song writing

The composer Ian Venables has a new disc of his songs out on Signum Classics, the fourth disc on the label to include his songs, an impressive testament to Ian’s significant voice as a writer of contemporary British art song. The disc, Love Lives Beyond the Tomb features the cantata Remember This setting a poem by Andrew Motion, the song cycle Through These Pale Cold Days which is inspired by World War I, and a selection of solo songs, performed by Mary Bevan (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), the Carducci String Quartet and Graham J Lloyd (piano). Earlier this year, I met up with Ian to chat about the works on the disc, and about his approach to song writing in general.

We started by comparing notes about our approaches to setting and selecting text; Ian’s choice of poet for the songs on the disc is quite diverse, Sir Andrew Motion, Jennifer Andrews, Francis St Vincent Morris, Wilfred Owen, Robert Nichols, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, John Drinkwater, James Joyce, Edward Thomas, and John Clare. Ian enjoys poetry and reads a lot of it, but the hunt for suitable texts for songs takes up a lot of his time.  Many of Ian’s texts come from 20th century and 19th century poets, and he admits to finding a lot of contemporary poetry somewhat too conceptual to use for song, a point that we come back to later in our discussion.

This means that the centrepiece of the disc, the cantata Remember This, is relatively unusual in Ian’s output as it uses a contemporary poem. The work was written in 2011 and came about somewhat by accident. Ian met Andrew Motion at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. They got on, and Ian asked Andrew if he was interested collaboration. The answer was yes, but unfortunately the projected commission did not bear fruit. Then Ian was seriously ill for a year, and whilst recovering he started reading more of Andrew Motion’s poetry, and discovered the poem Remember This in the book Public Property.

Ian’s cantata, Remember This was premiered in 2011 at the Cheltenham Music Festival by Allan Clayton and Caroline McPhee, both BBC New Generation Artists at the time, and the Elias Quartet [You can read a review from the Gloucester Echo on Ian’s website]. Afterwards Allan Clayton said how pleased he was with the piece and offered to record it, but as can happen ‘things got in the way’. And it is only now that the recording is being released, and that has taken nearly three years to bring to fruition. The cantata was chosen for this disc partly because it has not been recorded, and as Ian commented, most composers are keen to have their work documented. The other works on the disc were chosen both to complement Remember This (providing solo items for both Allan Clayton and Mary Bevan), and to record works of Ian’s that had not so far been recorded.

What appealed to Ian about Andrew Motion’s poem Remember This was its structure; into a narrative based on two line couplets, Motion inserts a series of sonnets, and as you read on you only gradually become aware of the subject of the poem. For Ian, it was the final line, ‘with a wave of your hand’ which confirmed the poem was about Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Ian enjoyed the fact the poem dealt with metaphysical ideas but was rooted in history, using the Queen Mother to explore eternal ideas.

Ian refers to Remember This as a cantata, rather than a song cycle, because it has a single narrative and every movement is linked, you could not take a single one out and perform it separately. The result is a work which takes the listener on a journey, from beginning to end, something which is relatively unusual in Ian’s output.

Ian’s song cycles are usually built around themes (Through These Pale Cold Days looks at the First World War) or around single poets (such as his A.E. Housman cycle, Songs of Eternity and Sorrow).  When constructing a cycle, Ian likes the idea of the construction mirroring symphonic structure, with a powerful first movement, a contrasting lyrical second, then a scherzo with a poem full of energy and drive, and then a final large-scale movement. For Ian, this creates a cycle of contrasting moods and musical contrasts, and gives him the ability to bring back musical ideas in later movements.
For Through These Pale Cold Days he was concerned to look at war in a slightly different way. He hasn’t experienced war himself so did not feel he could take the traditional route, and instead found other themes, loss, lost love, the role of women, the role of Jewish people (Isaac Rosenberg, the poet of the title song in the cycle was bullied during the war for being Jewish) and suicide; these are all themes which resonate and which have not been extensively covered.

Ian has lots of poetry anthologies and when choosing poems to set he ‘reads and reads’. A first pass through and if a poem appeals then it gets a tick, there are then further passes through and if a poem finally gets three ticks then it is in. Usually it is the opening line which grabs him, and then he carries on reading, seeing if there is hidden music in the text which a setting might bring out. He always has an eye to the structure of the poem, will it allow itself to be opened out with music, could he bring the opening music back, or must it be through composed.

Though it is not deliberate, his songs are usually long, and he thinks this is perhaps because he looks for poems that take you on a journey. In his words, ‘he doesn’t do ditties’!

Now that he is experienced with song, having been composing them for over 30 years, he has ventured into areas that he would not have done earlier. He is now more attracted to blank verse, rather than being constrained by the structure,  and chooses looser structures. He is even venturing to set the long lines of Walt Whitman, a poet who certainly does not help the composer. Ian comments that A.E. Housman’s poetry looks easy to set but that it is tricky, deceptive and difficult to do well.

One area of poetry that he still admits to finding difficult is that from the 16th century, he isn’t sure that he still totally understands it. Foreign language poems are something he eschews, but he has set foreign poetry in translation, though he adds that sometimes you find alternative translations that are hideous. He would also be interested to hear what his songs sounded like in translation.

He enjoys reading contemporary poetry, but generally cannot set it, and he imagines trying to set T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, and feels that a composer could not add anything as the poetry operates on so many levels. For Ian, a song has to be integrated when sung, so he is looking for poetry which has a strong narrative and a strong emotional context. Some poems are so complete in themselves that music cannot add anything. For Ian, great poetry is complete in itself and does not need setting.

There are also false beginnings, when he knows that a song isn’t working. He was trying to set a  poem for Through These Pale Cold Days; it was a wonderful poem, but there was a word that didn’t quite scan in the metre, and he just couldn’t get past it. He made many attempts but ended by giving up on the song. All for a word. Another poet sent him some poems, he set one and the others were wonderful poems but there was one involving a shed, and he just couldn’t set the word. He then tells a story, partly against himself, about telling someone that he had never set the word ‘shed’ when his partner, pianist Graham Lloyd, piped up and pointed out that Ian has indeed set the word, though in that case it was ‘siding-shed’! It is just that some words do not work for him.

If he knows that someone has already set a poem well (A.E. Housman is often a problem in this case) then he does not set it, feeling what is he going do with it.

Then of course, there is the vexed question of copyright and permissions. Many contemporary composers have stories to tell in this area. In 2005 Ian was on a sabbatical in the USA and met the poet Robert Frost’s daughter who suggested him setting her father’s words. He found it a lovely idea and back in the UK, Ian set Frost’s Reluctance. It was part of a song cycle which was recorded by the tenor Andrew Kennedy. Ian set about getting permission, assuming that it would be straightforward given his contact with Frost’s daughter. In fact, the Robert Frost Trust said no, there was an embargo on setting Frost’s poetry, and this despite that fact that Frost himself had been enthusiastic about settings of his words. The recording was released, without that song, but now Ian has got a friend to write new words and the revised song is part of the cycle. And after 2033 (when Frost comes out of copyright) singers will be able to put the original words back!

Ian learned the piano when young, and started writing his own music, mainly piano music. He did music at O-level, but the school didn’t offer music A-level and so he took economics and mathematics. He found he enjoyed the concepts and large ideas, being less good at detail. He took an economics and politics degree, then had a career teaching.

At the age of 19 he wrote his first song, but in a way which was exactly how not to write a song. He set the first stanza, but found that subsequent ones did not fit the music, so he altered the words. He did not set another poem for over 20 years.

In 1978, whilst living in London he started studying composition by accident. He invited someone to dinner who worked at Trinity College of Music, and the visitor saw Ian’s music on the piano and was impressed enough to arrange for Ian to have an interview with the college’s then principal, Richard Arnell (1917-2009), a composer who had studied with John Ireland. Arnell looked at Ian’s music and agreed to take him on, so in his 20s Ian went for a weekly lesson with Arnell. Arnell was reaching the end of his tenure as principal, and his tonal music had been sidelined with the advent of modernism. Ian feels that he was lucky, being able to develop without preconceived ideas. Ian had enjoyed music as a youngster, but did not know or understand the music of the Manchester group (Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle). Ian took his line from the English tonal tradition, and in this Arnell supported him. It was only in his late 30s that he returned to songs, he discovered Gerald Finzi’s songs and realised that everything comes from the words. And writing songs just happened for Ian, and he realised ‘I enjoy this’.  Initially he wrote simply for piano and voice, but then started adding other instruments, string quartet and more, he enjoys settings that use chamber ensembles. For Ian, writing songs is the art of bringing music and words together to create something else, something that is neither words nor music. And he likes the compressed emotion which song can bring.

Ian has recently ‘branched out’ into writing sacred music, his Requiem was premiered last year [see my review], but even here his approach is word based. And he has been commissioned for a secular motet, so is currently hunting for a suitable text