‘SEEN AND HEARD’
The Premiere of an Important Setting of the Requiem Mass by Ian Venables
United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ian Venables, Requiem (first performance: sung during the All Souls’ Requiem Eucharist, Gloucester Cathedral): Jonathan Hope (organ), Choir of Gloucester Cathedral / Adrian Partington (conductor), 2.11.2018. (JQ)
This is not a review in the conventional sense: given that this music was sung during the liturgy a ‘review’ would be inappropriate. However, Ian Venables’ new and, as yet, not quite complete setting of the Requiem Mass, which tonight received its first performance, is sufficiently important as to warrant drawing attention to it.
Ian Venables (b.1955) has gained a very considerable and well-deserved reputation as a distinguished composer of chamber music and songs. However, his forays into other genres have been limited and choral music is one field that he has not tilled frequently. He wrote an exciting anthem for mezzo solo, choir and orchestra, Awake! Awake! The World is Young, Op 34 in 1999 to a commission to mark the Millennium. That’s a fine piece though, as I know from taking part in a few performances of it, the music is not without its challenges. His website lists two other choral works, neither of which I’ve heard: the anthem O Sing Aloud to God, Op 19 (1993) for SATB and organ; and a solitary Christmas carol. Now, however, there’s another work – and a substantial one at that – to add to the list.
Venables was commissioned to write a Requiem Mass by Bryce and Cynthia Somerville in memory of their parents. The work has emerged slowly. The first movement, the Introit ‘Requiem aeternam’ was first heard in September 2017 when, I believe, it was sung at a memorial service for the Somerville’s mother in Birmingham. The Gloucester Cathedral Choir then took it up and gave the piece its second performance during the cathedral’s All Souls Day liturgy in November 2017. Recently, that piece has achieved a first recording – a very fine one (review) – but only now has most of the rest of the Requiem been unveiled. Two more movements remain to be finished but it’s intended that these will be completed this year so that the Requiem can be heard in full during 2019.
The recording of the Introit had whetted my appetite – already strong – to hear the other movements. I was keen to learn more about the new work, so in advance of the service on 2 November I caught up with Ian Venables to ask him about the piece.
I asked him if the Requiem had been designed primarily for liturgical use or whether it will be, like Fauré’s, equally well-suited to a concert environment. Ian told me that the work had indeed been conceived for liturgical use and therefore with an organ accompaniment. ‘However, as the Requiem progressed it began to take on a life of its own with various musical ideas reappearing in the later movements. This is beginning to give the work a more cyclical feel and perhaps one that might well (if orchestrated) lend itself to the concert hall. The cyclical elements of the work are a particular feature of the ‘Libera me’ where ideas from the opening Introit are reprised.’ It
would appear that because the Requiem is first and foremost a liturgical composition that has had implications for the nature of the writing, as Ian explained. ‘From the outset I was mindful of keeping the complexities of choral writing at a level that could be managed by a good parish choir. The work is very contrapuntal and where it has been necessary to divide the choir I have tried to keep the part divisions to a minimum.’
I asked Ian if his acceptance of the invitation to write the Requiem indicated a desire on his part to explore further the choral genre and has this composition whetted his appetite to give us more choral pieces in the future. Ian’s response was telling, revealing the pressure that a composer can be under. ‘Initially, I was reluctant to accept this commission, partly because of the daunting task of writing such a large- scale work but also because I was acutely aware of the huge artistic expectations that come with writing a Requiem. I don’t think I have ever written a work before that will be put under the microscope and compared to the many great Requiems in the repertoire. I will have to see how this work is received before I consider embarking upon another choral work.’
Ian Venables’ songs always show a great sensitivity to the chosen text. Usually, of course, he can select the words which he wants to set but in this instance the text was prescribed. Even then, however, it seems that Ian delved beneath the Latin text to ensure that the marriage of words and music was just as he wanted it. ‘My approach to composing this Requiem is exactly the same as my approach to setting any text. The music flows from the text and I have followed the liturgical narrative quite closely but given that the text is in Latin and that there are multitudinous variations in the translations I have had to make my own decisions regarding some textual cuts and repetitions. In addition, each section of the Requiem inhabits its own world, and this too is reflected in the music.’
When I heard the recording of the Introit I thought I detected something of a French accent in the music so I asked Ian if the Requiem as a whole is, like the Introit, essentially consolatory in tone, in a similar vein to the settings by, say, Fauré or Duruflé. ‘Ravel once said, that a composer who does not declare his inferences is not a composer. So, I will come clean and say that my approach is more akin to Duruflé than Fauré. There are clearly elements of modality and plain song in my work that chimes more with Duruflé. Nevertheless, beyond this generalised sound world I hope I have furrowed my own musical path in this Requiem.’ The movements sung tonight by the Gloucester Cathedral Choir were ‘Requiem aeternam’, ‘Kyrie’, ‘Offertorium’, ‘Sanctus’, ‘Pie Jesu’ and ‘Agnus Dei’. The remaining movements, yet to be completed, will be ‘Libera me’ and ‘In Paradisum’. On this occasion the corresponding movements from Fauré’s Requiem Mass were sung in order to complete the service.
I asked Adrian Partington, who had prepared the choir for the service and who, of course, conducted them, what he thinks of the as-yet incomplete Venables Requiem. He explained that the decision to sing the last two movements of the Fauré Requiem was very carefully considered. ‘The link between Venables and Fauré is a good one, because to my ears, the Venables work is decidedly French in character. I would cite the following as evidence for that statement: a ‘modal’ harmonic ambience, spiced with chromaticisms and dissonances, in the manner of Debussy and his successors; a
melodic style frequently based on plainchant, or plainchant-derived phrases; and an expansive organ part, using the colours of a French Romantic instrument.’
Mr Partington’s enthusiasm for the music so far composed is palpable. ‘The movements are each between 2 and 6 minutes long, and are full of contrasts, and beauty; a use of almost spontaneous counterpoint, (‘ars est celare artem’), and a continuously changing choral texture are other notable features of Venables’ style. The ‘Sanctus’ is a sophisticated, extended movement, with a thrilling climax (‘Hosanna!’); the ‘Pie Jesu’ is an exquisite miniature, with a most affecting simplicity; the ‘Agnus’ is a movement of suppressed passion, suffused by a rather Gallic melancholy.’
In this performance the opening Introit (‘Requiem aeternam’) unfolded spaciously and with due solemnity. My only previous encounter with this music had been through a recording, expertly engineered. I found that hearing it now in the intimate setting of the Cathedral quire and with the benefit of the resonant acoustic and the cathedral’s organ, expertly played by Jonathan Hope, the music came cross even more atmospherically and persuasively. There was another crucial difference between this performance and the recording. The CD performance was sung by a very fine SATB choir; here, however, the sound of boy trebles and (mostly) male altos added a distinctive and far from unwelcome edge to the choral texture, especially in the urgent climaxes. The ‘Kyrie’ followed seamlessly; here the music had great beauty, not least when the concluding ‘Kyrie eleison’ took the form of a plangent tenor solo.
The next movement we heard, a little later in the service, was the ‘Pie Jesu’. This lovely movement is unaccompanied throughout. The verse is first sung by a solo treble – a taxing assignment, it seemed to me, but here despatched very well and confidently. The material is then twice repeated by the full choir. This struck me as an exquisite little movement, deceptively simple in design but requiring finely controlled singing to bring it off. The ‘Offertorium’ (‘O Domine Jesu Christe, rex gloriae’) made a deep impression. Introduced by an unaccompanied plainchant-like episode for the lower voices, this movement had an urgent, supplicatory tone. Chant-like passages recur from time to time and one noticeable feature was that in this movement Venables made significant changes to the word order, often going back to words that had already been set in order to heighten the dramatic import. This, the longest movement, contains some of the most intense writing in the whole work.
The ‘Sanctus’ began with an extended passage for the upper voices, delicately accompanied by the organ. The treble and alto lines undulated and intertwined and the whole effect was that of an angel chorus. It was only at ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ that the tenors and basses became involved. These words were set to exciting music that was complex in terms of the harmonies and, as I heard it, the counterpoint. Eventually, the section ended with a sustained and very harmonically interesting chord. As I listened, I expected, perhaps naively, that this chord would resolve into a major-key ending. But Venables sprang a surprise here: the chord ended abruptly and, in something of a coup, he returned to the angelic music with which the movement began. The ‘Benedictus’ is not set. Finally – for now – comes the ‘Agnus Dei’ which was set to music which, though often subdued in volume, was nonetheless intense and very expressive.
It is always difficult to judge a piece of music on a first hearing. When eventually I have the opportunity for further detailed listening to Ian Venables’ Requiem – and I hope that once it is completed a way will soon be found to make a recording – then I’m sure I’ll find much more in it. However, even on just one hearing I’m in no doubt that this is a work of considerable importance and stature. The music is often urgent and at all times it is compelling to hear. As we know from his songs, Venables is a very fine melodist and it’s no surprise to find that the melodic inspiration behind this score is very strong. The harmonic language is full of interest and always apt for the words that are being sung. I would be confident that when it is completed and published this Requiem will be a major addition to the concert and liturgical choral repertoire. Up to now choral music has not been a significant element in Ian Venables’ output. I hope that this Requiem will encourage him to write more music for choirs, both liturgical and secular (some part songs perhaps?) On this evidence I think he would be a significant contributor to the choral genre. The Choir of Gloucester Cathedral did this new score proud. Under Adrian Partington’s incisive direction they sang the music with great assurance and commitment.
This new Requiem is clearly a work of significance for Ian Venables. When I asked him what, if anything, had influenced him in the composition of the Requiem and whether the World War I centenary had had any bearing. His answer was emphatic. ‘Composing this Requiem has taken me on a personal and spiritual journey, one that has not been influenced by any external events. My dual intention is to write music that will console the living while commemorating the dead.’ This eloquent score clearly fulfils those twin objectives.