‘Ring out the old, ring in the new’
Looking back on the many highlights of 2013 perhaps the two most memorable ones were the premiere of Ian Venables’ commissioned song cycle, The song of the Severn in May, followed closely by the release of a CD of his complete piano music on the Naxos label. The composition of the song cycle occupied the composer for nearly a year. Finding suitable texts posed the biggest artistic challenge, but living in Worcestershire gave him a head start, as A.E Housman was born in Bromsgrove and John Masefield just over the border in Ledbury. Both poets were prominently placed in this new work. For an ‘in depth’ look at the background to this cycle please read the composer’s article in ‘Musical Opinion’. In the final issue of 2013 Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley presented a roundup of his musical highlights of the year. This included a review of The Song of the Severn Op.43
Its peace again the river claims,
But now December on it rests,
Too late for all its battered flowers,
Too late, for all its abandoned nests,
Little mists of times long past,
Hide this summers ravage now;
An ancient solace steals along,
Broken bank and shattered bough.
Only God now lights the river,
Lights from stream to bank, to bark,
With the colours of the Kingfisher,
And returning rules the dark.
On such a day when I am gone,
Away to exile, still and free,
As quiet and steadfast flows the river,
If all is well, remember me.
‘Looking back on a year of celebrations’ (by Christopher Morley)
“There’s much to remember from the many valiant organisations around the region, ploughing a brave furrow in the face of spending cuts and grant depletions. So thank goodness for generous benefactors, such as the Kay Trust, funding new work for premieres in our immediate area, but coming up with exciting compositions which will surely find hearings further afield. One such was Ian Venables’ The Song of the Severn, a celebration of that great river, setting texts from local poets, hugely, engagingly communicative and memorable, and performed with distinction for Malvern Concert Club by Prince among baritones Roderick Williams, the Carducci string quartet and pianist Tom Poster.”
The release in May of a recording of Venables’ complete piano music proved to be a memorable occasion. “The music on the CD spans the greater part of my creative life and includes one of my earliest compositions – an ambitious Piano Sonata composed when I was only 20.The pianist, Graham J. Lloyd gives a masterly and powerful account of this early work and listening to it now, after all these years, I am still amazed at how I managed to put it all together. The impetus for the piece came as a result of the death in 1975 of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I had discovered his music a few years earlier and as is often the case with my passions I became totally absorbed by his music. Recently, I was asked by the marketing team at Naxos for a digital copy of the first page of the original manuscript. After trawling through my desk I finally found it and noticed, that I had written at the top of the opening page the date 10th August 1975. As I normally only write the month and year at the end of each new work I wondered why I had been so specific about the date. Then it occurred to me that Shostakovich may have died on that day. However, when I looked up his dates, I found that he had died the day before on August 9th 1975. So, it seems that not only did I begin the Sonata the day following his death, but I also decided to commemorate him by incorporating his own D.S.C.H motif throughout the work (it first appears in bars 3-5). When I heard the music again at the recording sessions last year the powerful memories of that time came flooding back. My Sonata is a young man’s heartfelt tribute to a great 20th century composer”.
“As a composer of art-song, Ian Venables is considered to be one of the most important writing today. The Songs of Ian Venables (8.572514), Volume 21 of Naxos’ critically acclaimed English Song Series, was the first devoted to a living composer. This new recording introduces us to his music for solo piano and brings together works written between 1975 and 2001. It is Venables’ singular melodic gift and highly inventive use of harmony that combine to give us works that range from the deeply reflective and wistful to those in a lighter vein, full of charm and joie de vivre”
Venables is certainly best known as an art-song composer, one of his country’s currently most acclaimed, but between 1975 and 2001 he composed a number of pieces for solo piano. They are tonal, sometimes nostalgic, rhythmically exciting and filled with the kind of lyricism that listeners will recall from his songs. Four of the pieces in this disc are heard in world première recordings.
Recommended” by Paul Ballyk at ‘Expedition Audio’
“I’ve listened to this CD many times and have enjoyed it more on each successive hearing. There is much beautiful music here. Poetic and highly evocative, the music is at turns, poignant, euphoric, wistful and whimsical. You feel as though there is a narrative behind it; a story is being told”
Following on from the initial reviews of the Naxos CD’s release, came two further reviews by John Quinn and Rob Barnett, both writing for MusicWeb international.
“The Piano Sonata, which was composed when Venables was twenty, is cast in three movements and it’s an impressive composition… You won’t find the searing intensity or fist-shaking that characterised so much of the Soviet master’s output; rather, the influence of his music has been absorbed, digested and then a suitable covering of English restraint has been added for good measure. This is, as I said, an impressive work and so far as I can judge – the piece was new to me – Graham Lloyd’s performance is equally impressive…There’s some highly accomplished music here and it’s all rewarding and consistently enjoyable. Those who warm to expressive, tonal, accessible and communicative music will find much to enjoy with this disc. It’s hard to imagine that the music could have received better advocacy than Graham Lloyd’s.
John Quinn (Full Review)
“I first tried to write about the works of English composer Ian Venables more than a decade ago…Since then other reviewers have written with greater acuity but similar enthusiasm about Venables’ music. My regard for his music has not faded with hearing this CD. My judgements and generalisations and above all my welcome for this life-benefiting music are confirmed… The 2001 Caprice belongs squarely and with high distinction among the finer works of British piano music. Its world is tonal, melancholy and pastoral with a lineage traceable back to Finzi, Gurney and Howells. From sixteen years before the Caprice come the four Stourhead Follies. They were written after a visit to Stourhead House and Gardens in Wiltshire. The music is gentle but not insipid, confident without any hint of braggadoccio. It is shot through with bell sounds both assertive and in their final decay into silence. Graham J Lloyd is a great advocate for this subtle, accessible and emotionally eloquent music”.
Rob Barnett – Editor of MusicWeb international (Full Review)
“The Grotto … is hauntingly beautiful and, for me, sums up much that Venables has expressed in succeeding years… I would commend this CD to all British music enthusiasts”.
“Any enthusiast for British music, or indeed for any modern or romantic piano repertoire, would get huge pleasure from adding this disc to their collection”
Roderic Dunnett (Full Review)
5* star review of the composer’s recent Naxos CD release of his complete piano music by the editor of ‘Musical Opinion’
“This is a refreshing surprise – contemporary British piano music, clearly several generations down from John Ireland and Alan Rawsthorne – being music written intelligently for the piano, essentially pianistic without tricks and always germane to the musical argument in hand. The early (19750 Sonata (Opus 1, circa 22 minutes) In Memoriam D.S.C.H is worthy of much wider exposure, as are every one of the varied. (in total six works on this very well recorded CD)
Rhapsody for Organ, Op.25
‘In Memoriam Herbert Howells’
(published by Novello/Musicsales America)
‘The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians
Review by Brian P. Harlow
As in many of Howells’ organ compositions, the musical climax is a grand restatement of the main theme on full organ that contrasts with the initial gentle, pastoral presentation.The denouement pulls the music to a quiet ending over a low C pedal point, with a haze of Lydian and Dorian inflections.
“This piece succeeds in capturing and sustaining the intense emotion and forward movement of Howells’ best works.
I think many of our members will want to take a look at this new addition to the repertoire”.
‘Celebrating English Song’ at Tardebigge
Sunday 18th August
In the final recital at this year’s song festival in Tardebigge, Ian Venables took part in a special pre-concert composers’ question time. Members of the audience were invited to ask the panel questions that explored their individual approaches to song composition as well as questions about music generally.
The panel included, John Joubert and Susie Self and the chairman was Graham J. Lloyd
The Fishguard International Music Festival
19th July – 27th July 2013
This year’s festival included two concerts that featured the composer’s music. The first, was a ‘Cello and Piano recital given by the distinguished duo Richard Jenkinson and Benjamin Frith. Flanked between the Poulenc and Britten cello sonatas their programme presented Venables’s complete music for ‘cello and piano. In addition to his ‘Elegy’ Op.2, ‘Poem’ Op.29 and ‘The Moon Sails Out’ Op.41, the duo also gave the first public performance of ‘It Rains’ Op.33a and the world premiere of ‘At Malvern’ – the composer’s own arrangement of his Op.24 song, which was commissioned by Richard Jenkinson. The second concert was given by The Frith Piano Quartet, with Giles Francis and soloist Clare Prewer. This chamber concert showcased the composer’s ‘Songs of Eternity and Sorrow’ Op.36 which was given its first performance by a soprano. Ian Venables introduced his works at the beginning of both concerts.
A new publication from Novello and Co (Music Sales)
‘Remember This’ Op.40
A Cantata for tenor, soprano, string quartet and piano
‘Remember This’ was commissioned by the Limoges Trust.
It received its first performance at the The Cheltenham Festival of Music performed by Caroline MacPhie (sop), Allan Clayton (ten), The Elias String Quartet, Tom Poster (piano) and later broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
The cantata is a setting of Andrew Motion’s elegiac poem written to commemorate the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
Although, cast in one continuous movement, the cycle’s eight sections are interleaved with narratives that describe her final journey from death, to her public lying in state, funeral and ultimately her burial. The work is 30 minutes in duration.
This newly published score is now available as an individual study score or as a score with parts and can be purchased online from Musicroom.com
Review of “Bells across the Severn” by Roderic Dunnett in The Church Times, 17th May 2013
‘The Song of the Severn’ Op.43 at Forum Theatre, Malvern
“Ever a master of structuring, Venables again artfully leads his performers to a huge climax
in the third stanza, at “In the dear green earth, the sign of the joy of the Lord”…
But Venables is also a master of fun: the final, reiterated, almost parroted
“Be you merry. . .”, is – coincidentally – a dead ringer for Tippett’s flitting Ariel: “Where the bee sucks”.
5* Review: ‘The Song Of the Severn’ at Forum Theatre, Malvern
(The Birmingham Post)
The composer’s new song cycle for baritone, string quartet and piano received its premiere at the Malvern Concert Club on Thursday 2nd May in recital of chamber music performed by Roderick Williams, the Carducci String Quartet and pianist Tom Poster.
Writing for The Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley said:
“Ian Venables has always been courageous, unafraid to bare his soul in music which speaks so communicatively to the listener”.
“Impressive Venables Premiere Marks 110 Year of Music in Malvern”
John Quinn’s Review for ‘Seenandheard-international.com‘
“The cycle and the performers were accorded an extremely enthusiastic reception by the audience and I’m not surprised. This is fine music that communicates most effectively with the listener”.
In the latest edition of Musical Opinion Ian Venables discusses his new song cycle
‘The Song of the Severn’ Op.43
Premiere of The Song of The Severn Op.43
Thursday 2nd May
Venue: The Malvern Concert Club,
Forum Theatres, Malvern
The composer’s new song cycle for baritone, string quartet and piano will receive its premiere in a recital of chamber music performed by Roderich Williams, the Carducci String Quartet and pianist Tom Poster. The song cycle was commissioned by the Malvern Concert Club and the Kay Trust and it celebrates the landscape and cultural heritage of the county of Worcestershire.
‘A Major Song Cycle Celebrating Worcestershire’
John France discusses the composer’s latest song cycle
‘The Song of The Severn’ Op.43
Ian Venables tells me that the first half of 2012 has been dominated by an important commission from the Malvern Concert Club. They have asked for a ‘chamber’ song cycle for Roderick Williams, the Carducci String Quartet and pianist, Tom Poster. The committee’s remit was for a major work celebrating the poetry and poets of Worcestershire. Venables has suggested that although a great deal of poetry has been written about the county, and especially the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire-born poets are somewhat thin on the ground! A.E. Housman, who was born in Bromsgrove, is probably the county’s most famous literary son. However, the remit wanted a greater breadth of literary achievement. Given the dearth of topographical subject matter, it has taken him some considerable time to find the right texts to set. The composer suggested to me that ‘the heart of the county is the River Severn’. Personally, he enjoys spending time walking or cycling along its banks. He is particularly fond of the ‘reach’ at the village of Kempsey, which lies between Worcester and Tewkesbury: here the river broadens into a majestic sight with a fine view of the Malvern Hills beyond. In arranging the songs for this cycle, Venables has chosen to use the river as both a narrator and as a linking theme throughout the work. The Severn over the centuries has been witness to the changing scenes in the county’s human drama. One of the earliest is the battle between the Roman and the Ancient Britons. John Masefield’s dramatic poem, ‘On Malvern Hill’ will open the cycle:-
A wind is brushing down the clover,
It sweeps the tossing branches bare,
Blowing the poising kestrel over
The crumbling ramparts of the Caer.
It whirls the scattered leaves before us
Along the dusty road to home,
Once it awakened into chorus
The heart-strings in the ranks of Rome.
There by the gusty coppice border
The shrilling trumpets broke the halt,
The Roman line, the Roman order,
Swayed forwards to the blind assault.
Spearman and charioteer and bowman
Charged and were scattered into spray,
Savage and taciturn the Roman
Hewed upwards in the Roman way.
There in the twilight where the cattle
Are lowing home across the fields,
The beaten warriors left the battle Dead
on the clansmen’s wicker shields.
The leaves whirl in the wind’s riot
Beneath the Beacon’s jutting spur,
Quiet are clan and chief, and quiet
Centurion and signifier.
The central section of this poem recalls the onslaught of the Roman legions as they attempt to capture Caractacus. The cycle will then move into a more reflective mood for the second song. For this lyrical ‘intermezzo’, Venables has set A.E. Housman’s poem ‘How Clear, How Lovely Bright’ [No. XVI from More Poems]. This begins with the anticipation of a new dawn when a vow will be made: one that the poet intends to keep. However, in the final stanza we are told that it was in the end, a false dawn and the vow dies:- Ensanguining the skies How heavily it dies Into the west away; Past touch and sight and sound Not further to be found, How hopeless under ground Falls the remorseful day. The third song, acts as the cycle’s slow movement. This is a setting of John Drinkwater’s ‘Elgar’s Music’. This is a poem I do not know and cannot find in my copy of the poet’s collected works. The Malvern Concert Club was founded by Elgar in 1903 so Venables wanted to mark this occasion while at the same time paying his own tribute to Elgar’s music. The fourth song is a setting of Masefield’s ebullient poem, ‘Laugh, and be merry’:-
Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with a song,
Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong.
Laugh, for the time is brief, a thread the length of a span.
Laugh and be proud to belong to the old proud pageant of man.
Laugh and be merry: remember, in olden time.
God made Heaven and Earth for joy He took in a rhyme,
Made them, and filled them full with the strong red wine of
The splendid joy of the stars: the joy of the earth.
So we must laugh and drink from the deep blue cup of the sky,
Join the jubilant song of the great stars sweeping by,
Laugh, and battle, and work, and drink of the wine outpoured
In the dear green earth, the sign of the joy of the Lord.
Laugh and be merry together, like brothers akin,
Guesting awhile in the rooms of a beautiful inn,
Glad till the dancing stops, and the lilt of the music ends.
Laugh till the game is played; and be you merry, my friends.
This song acts as an energetic ‘scherzo’ movement and presents a lively and bucolic commentary upon the gifts that the landscape gives to humanity. The final number, ‘December on the River,’ is a setting of a poem by Phillip Worner; the river becomes a metaphor for the landscape’s eternal and ceaseless flow upon which a lone human voice is heard to reflect on their mortality. I understand that Venables has completed the ‘short score’ and is currently working on the scoring. Based on the composer’s previous song settings, such as The Pine Boughs Past Music and On the Wings of Love , this promises to be an impressive work that may well stand beside Ralph Vaughan William’s masterly On Wenlock Edge. After completion of this song-cycle Venables will make a start on another commission from both the Droitwich Concert Club (of which he is a Vice-President) and the Bromsgrove Concert Club, This will be a short work for clarinet and string quartet. It will be premiered in the autumn of 2014.
‘Liedermatinee’.Mendelssohn-Haus – Leipzig
Sunday 28th April 2013
Kristian Soerensen (tenor), Andreas Lehnert (clarinet) and Hsiao-Lan Wang (piano) perform Ian Venables’ song cycle ‘On the Wings of Love’ Op.38
BBC Radio 3 broadcast of ‘Easter Hymn’. Saturday Classics, 30th March
In the first of four editions of Saturday Classics the broadcaster and composer Richard Sisson presents an alternative musical view of Spring. This programme featured ‘Easter Hymn’ – the opening song from Ian Venables’ cycle ‘Songs of Eternity and Sorrow’ Op.36
The Australian Premiere of ‘Songs of Eternity and Sorrow’ Op.36
The Australian premiere of Ian Venables’ Songs of Eternity and Sorrow Op.36 was given by the acclaimed young baritone Michael Lampard and the pianist Karen Smithies in a Song Recital at St George’s Anglican Church, Battery Point, Tasmania on Saturday 9th February. The concert was reviewed by Peter Donnelly for the Mercury Newspaper, Hobart
“Venables’s [Songs of Eternity and Sorrow] contain music that is dark and full of unease, reflecting the brilliant texts by A.E. Housman. Lampard’s rendering of the first song “Easter hymn” had a searing intensity, amply demonstrating the level of confidence and range of expression he has latterly attained in his singing”.