‘Poem for Cello and Piano, Op.29’, by John France

At the recent launch of Ian Venables’ new CD of chamber works, Graham Lloyd, the pianist on a large part of this recording including the present work, made an interesting comment. He suggested that the Poem for ‘cello and piano was so ‘bleak’ that it had been mooted that the record company provide a ‘Helpline’ for any listener suffering from depression after listening to this work. I take his point, but have to suggest that from a personal point of view, although I do agree that this is a dark and introverted work, I do not find it depressing.

The Poem for ‘cello and piano was composed by Venables in 1997: it was as the result of a commission from Thomas and Doreen Somerville for their son Bryce. Now, as I understand the matter, this was not an elegy for the departed, but was a straight forward celebration of life beginning at forty! So it is a little surprising that the composer has chosen to write what on face-value may appear to be despairing music. The CD liner notes suggest that the remit given to Venables was to write any work he chose for that particular combination of instruments: stylistic or ‘mood’ considerations were not stipulated. Furthermore he was granted the freedom to ‘not feel constrained by the celebratory nature of the commission.’

There is no suggestion that the composer had any particular literary poem in his mind as the inspiration or keynote for this piece: it may well be that the idea was simply to create mental images and symbolism by way of a non-verbal musical poem. The structure of the work is relatively straightforward. An ambiguous chordal opening on the piano is followed by a wide ranging, but introverted, tune on the cello, which is supported by an elaboration of the opening piano figure. Soon the melody opens out a little – with a much more positive mood. There is considerable beauty in these pages, even if the music is of the darkest hue. The central section of the work becomes much more passionate, with dialogue opening up between the piano and cello expressed sometimes in imitation. This is intense music that fortunately does not persist too long. Soon this passion closes down again and after three enigmatic pizzicato chords the opening material is recapitulated. However this time the melody is played without vibrato giving a haunted feel to the music. But then I feel that a typical Venable fingerprint emerges. The music moves from depression to being valedictory. It is saying goodbye to the world, to relationships and beauty, perhaps, but it is positive. There is not negation at the end of this work but engagement with the human condition. I believe that far from needing counselling the listener will be challenged to appreciate that life is a mixture of emotions, good and bad, positive and negative and that it is a composer’s job to interpret each and every one of them in their music.

The Poem for cello and piano is a short work, lasting a little less than seven minutes. It was given its first performance in March 1997 at Hagley Hall, Warwickshire, with Judith Cary, cello and Graham Lloyd, piano.

The Poem can be heard on SOMMCD 0101