THE MUSIC OF IAN VENABLES
By Roderic Dunnett
First published in the Finzi Journal, 2014
Those who cherish the songs of Gerald Finzi might be forgiven for thinking they were a late, possibly the last, flowering of an English song tradition which reached its zenith at the start of last century: the finale to a flurry of talent that embraced Parry and Stanford—both glorious, still unsung art song composers—as well as Vaughan Williams, Somervell, Dunhill, Quilter; the Great War composers Butterworth, Ivor Gurney and Denis Browne (and Bliss); and latterly E. J. Moeran, plus Finzi’s other near-contemporaries, Robin Milford and Armstrong Gibbs. Finzi did, it is true, draw an era to a close. It is not idle to liken this flood of English Song, so perfectly exemplified in the Finzi Friends’ Ludlow Festival of English Song—for which Iain Burnside has unearthed many less familiar song composers from the same period—to the flowering of German Lied spanning Schubert, Schumann and Brahms; and incorporating less well known figures such as Carl Loewe, Chopin and Liszt, right up to even early Webern. You could mistake Pfitzner’s Lieder for Schubert. Hans Pfitzner died as late as 1949: yet his songs are not derided as ‘past their sell-by date’, but seen as masterpieces of their day. Indeed in Germany the tradition unashamedly continues, with Lieder composers such as Aribert Reimann or Wilhelm Killmayer. What of our Gallic neighbours? French Chanson embraced Massenet, Fauré, Chausson, Duparc, as well as Debussy, Roussel and Ravel—these last the coevals of Stanford and his students; but it extended into the 1960s with Poulenc, very much a composer of our own age. The Scandinavian solo song, which we associate obviously with Grieg, reached across a wide spectrum of composers, some much later in date. The Russians have never not exploited the art song form, in a continuous line from Glinka via Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to, more recently, Sviridov or Denisov.
Art song, as some prefer to call it (distinguishing it from the Victorian ballad or Edwardian music hall repertoire) seems here to stay. Art Song is a genre that is both constant and changing, individual yet sometimes eclectic, avoiding cliché and having no truck with the banal or hackneyed. If there was a brief period when it went out of fashion, art song has made a comeback. If there are several composers who have sought to revive or reinvigorate or at least contribute to the tradition (one is Julian Philips, featured at the 2013 Ludlow Festival), the outstanding figure in this field, one who has made the regeneration of the early twentieth-century song tradition his métier and raison d’être, and who is supreme in the field of English song composition, is Ian Venables.
Venables is the composer of seven major song cycles, one full-blooded cantata, and of numerous individual songs and works for both chamber ensemble and solo instruments, notably the piano. Sometimes the genres meet: like Vaughan Williams, he has united the solo voice with a string quartet, small ensemble or (think of Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock) solo clarinet together with piano. Now widely recorded, his music has met with universal acclaim, not least from a wide spectrum of critical opinion. Acclaim for his music, and for the singers, came, not least, from the highest possible source: the veteran (now late) critic J. B. Steane, world expert on vocal music, historic opera and art song of every kind and era. That Venables has achieved such an increasingly impressive profile is also thanks to performances or premieres of his work at the Three Choirs Festival, the Cheltenham Music Festival, and the Celebrating English Song series at Tardebigge, near Bromsgrove, culminating in a newly commissioned chamber song cycle, The Song of the Severn, for the Malvern Concert Club. Recognised as one of England’s most accomplished composers, Venables’s standing has soared, and is now at its highest yet, both nationally and internationally. There is another factor: it has been vastly enhanced by the ardent championing of his music by two of the most eloquent singers of our age: the baritone, Roderick Williams and the tenor, Andrew Kennedy: both profoundly accomplished, beautifully expressive advocates and interpreters of English art song. With their support Venables’s reputation has blossomed. Roderick Williams has recorded several glorious, intensely involving settings, together with his accompanist Susie Allan, for the Somm label. On the Signum and Naxos labels, Andrew Kennedy has now recorded a clutch of individual Venables songs (including the impressive early Op.6 song, ‘Midnight Lamentation’ which more or less launched Venables’s career as a song composer, dating from when he was aged nineteen); and yet more importantly, four of his magnificent song cycles, including the grievingly expressive John Clare cycle Invite, to Eternity and the potent, expressive Venetian Songs (Love’s Voice): these comprise Angst-filled outpourings by the Victorian poet John Addington Symonds (1840–93), a poet who, with other writers of the 1890s, ranks high in the composer’s pantheon. Indeed, late nineteenth and early twentieth-century poets are of marked importance to Venables’s acute musical sensibility. Those authors include not just Housman and Symonds, but, John Masefield, Edward Thomas and one ‘incomer’ from that period, the American poet Robert Frost, who for a brief spell like Edward Thomas adopted middle England (Herefordshire) as his home, and whose compact stanzas are steeped in a not dissimilar tradition.
Venables’s discovery by Naxos continues to enhance his reputation. His piano output, interpreted with sensitivity and unique insight by Graham J. Lloyd, has been released on the same label (Naxos 8.573156): richly rewarding, intelligent, challenging and inspired, and with such profoundly beautiful, penetrating interpretations, it patently deserves to enjoy a like success. Equally on the Somm label, his instrumental works (of which more below) and Piano Quintet have been recorded by Lloyd, Mark Bebbington and members of the Coull Quartet. It is impossible not to notice that pain, or grief, emotional disappointment and the deprivation or termination of love form an integral part of Venables’s musical world. It is a recurrent feature of his art, a preoccupation—though not a morbid one—with the loneliness of a John Clare, the sexual ache and spiritual isolation of a Symonds or Housman, the resigned sigh of a Thomas Hardy (as with Finzi), the sad, pessimistic realism of Ernest Dowson: each epitomises the kind of deep emotional intensity Ian Venables feels most drawn to in his settings; a world that resonates with him, and to which he constantly returns; emotions he wishes to probe, and perhaps identify with. As he himself says, ‘I still come back again to the personal concerns of man, the intellectual and emotional struggle needed to deal with change, altered circumstances, and death itself.’ And yet—perhaps less frequent, but constantly cropping up too—are glimpses of a gleeful, naughty, more boyish, yet equally sophisticated Venables: witness the sparkling wit of his livelier songs: ‘Flying Crooked’ or ‘The Hippo’: audaciously funny, curiously poignant settings of Robert Graves and the American poet Theodore Roethke. One can relish the trumpeting summons of Symonds’s ‘The Invitation to the Gondola’, or the urgent thundering of Tennyson’s ‘Break, break, break’, dashing hopes as it does the boulders. Whichever end of the emotional gamut he explores, Venables is a no-holds-barred composer; a musician through and through, and one determined to get to the very roots of his chosen subject. But more than that and essential to his perception of what a song, or art song composer should espouse, he is utterly, unerringly, faithful to the texts he chooses to set.
How so? Venables surely has a lot in common with Finzi (and perhaps Schumann), in that ‘the words are everything’: in the sense that he sees his role as to explore, imbibe and carefully choose poetry in which a clear shape can be discerned; and then to mirror the mood, the prosody and the finesse of every line with a matching structure so that his setting allows the words to be heard with, if anything, a greater intensity; a new fire, a new ardour. Often, a new daring. Witness not just the intensity, the pain; the pessimism and periodic contrasting optimism; but also the striking, contrasting range of poetic metres to which Venables has turned his attention: taxing, testing, it is one of the many courageous, challenging features found in his work: ‘My friends forsake me like a memory lost; I am the self-consumer of my woes’. ‘But O for the touch of a vanished hand / And the sound of a voice that is still!’ ‘And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain / For unremembered lads that not again / Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.’ Or again, ‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter / Love and desire and hate / I think they have no portion in us after we pass the gate.’ The examples are numerous: Symonds’s pirating of Catullus ‘Let us live and love / Suns rise and set and fill the rolling year / Which bears us deathward . . .’ Monro’s ‘When you or I must go down evermore / There’ll be no more to say / But a locked door.’ Symonds’s ‘I dare not dream thereof: the sting of those dead eyes / Is too acute and close a thing / For one who dies’ or Sponde’s ‘I am well pleased if you consent to learn / My fire, till I am dead, will never die.’ Is there hope at the end of this tunnel? Is love ever redeemed by fulfilment? Is loneliness the lot of man? Is companionability almost a crime, to be punished by life’s merciless graveward march? And how does Venables seek to address all this, perhaps even occasionally to find an emotional catharsis, in his music: music that invariably pierces to the core?
Now in his fifties, and having recovered from a life-threatening illness, and freed of the demands of teaching, Venables is more buoyant, perhaps less pessimistic about life as he sees it: ‘It’s true that ‘loss’ is something that has informed my music; loss in all its shapes and forms is something I’m trying to grapple with, trying to articulate my feelings about. I try not to revisit the same emotional world in my songs. Although I do come back to certain themes, if they merely convey the same aspect, I don’t see the point. Different songs can provide a different reflection on loss. When I survey the various stages of my own life, it’s clear my response to loss as an eighteen-year-old is not going to be the same now, when I’m approaching sixty. But because I’m continuously evolving as a person, I’m more aware there is loss of many kinds: the loss of a loved one, loss of vitality, energy, physical loss and maybe the loss of freedom. I pick up on a different hue, or reflection, or colour of loss, and try to express something of that. So yes, loss is something that I’m still acutely conscious of. How do we deal with loss? That’s the human condition isn’t it? But I’d like to think my music also highlights something else, something more like affirmation. The joy and pathos of existence, life’s high and low points, is something composers are always looking at; and especially song composers’.
There is the interesting question of influences; or who has inspired Venables during his composing career, both early on and latterly. Do some composers mean more to him than others? ‘Samuel Barber is one of those composers I came across in my late twenties and he has played a big role in my composing life—not so much a direct influence as an inspiration. Barber was acutely aware of the fragility and transience of love. He was deeply in love with Gian Carlo Menotti, a fellow composer whom Barber met at college. In 1928 they went to Italy together and there Barber wrote the slow movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, which in its string orchestral form became the famous Adagio. If you look at many composers, you see how their music reflects their life. With Barber, you can map out through his music his inner life, his thoughts and interests. I think with my own life you can do the same. He had the issue of his sexual identity. He was gay, and that had a great influence on the texts he set. The problems with Menotti grew, and the relationship started to weaken and break up, but painfully slowly, and for the next thirty years Barber was trying to come to terms with the fact that he was losing that love. You detect these things in Barber’s work. Some of his songs explore the break up between the lovers, and of course there’s his opera Antony and Cleopatra, a subject with just these resonances. One of the reasons we’re touched by his beautiful songs is because they essentially deal with human concerns. Barber realised, quite early on in the relationship, that although the two of them were in love, their love was temporal and would never last. I too, was aware of this when I wrote my earliest song ‘Midnight Lamentation’. For me, Harold Monro’s poem explores exactly that: what happens when two people are in love, then one dies and it all ends’. But Venables pays the same scrupulous attention to the texts he is setting when the mood is very different: impertinent, lively, vivacious. ‘The problem,’ he warns, ‘is finding the right words. The trouble is when lines include mischievous or impishness wit: I often find such poetry facile. I remember reading the Penguin Book of Humorous Verse, and this deficiency was obvious. Whereas the wonderful thing about Robert Graves’s work—as in ‘Flying Crooked’—is that it’s not facile at all. He brings humour, levity and depth together. I think that’s what’s good about him. When I stumble across poems as good as Roethke’s ‘The Hippo’, I know instinctively I have to set it. I have no doubt I will write others in a similar vein. I would like to have set some Auden, but copyright issues got in the way.’
Amongst English art song composers, Venables points out, ‘you tend to find the melodic line follows directly from the ‘natural’ rhythm of the words—catching the cadences of each line. Finzi and Gurney, who was himself a poet, both had this precious gift of being able to catch words perfectly with their music. Word-painting is all about empathising with the meaning of words: appreciating what lies behind them and understanding the correspondences that go with each word. Ireland, Finzi and Gurney saw the piano and the voice not as independent, but as a duo: two or more voices working together, musically supporting each other. I never see the piano as merely an ‘accompaniment’: it’s essential that it fits the voice and the words like a hand does a glove—and vice versa’. The crucial thing, the key to it all, he insists, ‘is that the music comes from the poem, not the other way around. As a song composer, I am trying to articulate the thoughts and feelings behind the words and to add something more. I think that’s what art song can do; it can give poetry a different existence’. ‘Composition can be a form of therapy for an artist’, he suggests: ‘because if one has problems in one’s inner life, they need to be resolved in some way. All artists have this fortunate outlet through their creativity. For me, some of my concerns come out in the form of a composition. Creativity is sparked by that, I’m sure—the need to resolve problems in one’s emotional life. For me, anyway, it’s not just a case of, “I think I’ll sit down and write a string quartet today”’.
What about this phrase he keeps using, ‘art song’? ‘How do I distinguish art song? Primarily, by the extent to which a composer engages with the words. In an art song setting, the words are always placed centre stage and the music flows out of them. With many song composers it is the music that comes first. One example that springs to mind is that of Elgar. Although, he has written some very beautiful and memorable songs he tended to choose texts that would complement his music, and his engagement with the words was essentially to evoke mood’.
Does Venables’s own approach, and his set of priorities, hold good; does it bear fruit? The answer is very much ‘yes’. There are plenty willing to attest to it.
Among Venables’s finest advocates is the pianist Iain Burnside, a most articulate and accomplished interpreter of English song, its prime exponent on BBC Radio 3 and perhaps the moving force behind the Ludlow Festivals. Burnside is the pianist, with Andrew Kennedy, on an enticing Naxos disc; (Venables is to date, the only living composer to be featured on Naxos’s ‘English Song Series’) he teases out subtle textures from Jean de Sponde’s sixteenth-century verse, the exquisite third song from the cycle On the Wings of Love—part elegy, part eulogy ‘That loving you, I love without regret’—which for personal reasons is virtually Venables’s signature tune. Witness also the final, eponymous, song of the Venetian cycle Love’s Voice: ‘Where yon lamp falls, Dim spectres hurrying to their doom, And love’s voice calls’, where Burnside’s phenomenal gift for colouring, like an artist’s palette, and Venables’s astonishing musical vocabulary, unite to paint the guttering light, the ghosts, and the wan perishing and extinction in masterly quick succession. With artists such as these—Williams, Kennedy, Burnside, and with others less known (Nathan Vale or Kevin McLean-Mair, each eloquent, perhaps even more aching, in their way, in Love’s Voice), Venables’s songs cannot be said to have suffered from poor recordings. These song discs are one measure of what he has achieved: alongside the instrumental discs, they reveal the very essence of Venables’s art; and they show that his legacy is already one of a very high order indeed.
Does he feel that he and his music relate to Gerald Finzi? ‘Finzi is a kind of landmark for an art song composer. I do owe a great debt to Finzi. I have a debt to his songs, that’s there in my work, and I hope it shows, in both subject matter and the music.’ But there’s also the need, Venables posits, to establish a genre of English song that postdates Finzi, who sadly only just survived into the second half of the twentieth century. ‘Perhaps I’m one of the heirs, not the heir, to an English lyric art song tradition. I hope by my work I’m adding something to the genre. Not necessarily taking it in a new direction, but adding to it. I like to feel that I’m following my own creative path, and sometimes picking up on themes song composers preceding Finzi, or those of his generation, didn’t pick up on. For example, Finzi did not set any Housman, although he did try. Finzi shows himself the master when he sets, say, Thomas Hardy: great songs dealing with loss, landscape, and the past reaching into the present. I do identify with him there, though I can’t imagine him writing an opera about post-war politics. And I’m not going to write a piece about 9/11, even though I was deeply moved by it: it’s not something I would want to do. Is he averse, then, to dealing with things happening around him? ‘Although I am drawn to universal themes, I still feel I have a duty to my own age. Sometimes, as events happen, I do toy with the possibility of responding to them in some way. But so far such events have not figured in my work. By and large, I take a more personal and philosophical approach to my composition. Still, they might come out creatively in some way from time to time: the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 may well prompt me into doing something.’
Ian Venables was born in Liverpool on 25 July 1955. Is there something Leonine about him? Maybe yes, in the passion he pours into his life and works. By the age of nine, he was taking piano lessons from a local piano teacher and latterly with the distinguished pianist Ronald Settle, as well as studying the organ with Liverpool’s Cathedral’s Ian Tracey and the Royal School of Church Music’s Michael Fleming. It was while at Trinity College of Music, London (now re-sited to the former Royal Naval College Greenwich) that he began to engage seriously with composition, studying with Richard Arnell from 1980 to 1983, when he was in his mid-twenties. At the Birmingham Conservatoire subsequently, his composition teachers, all enabling and each an inspiration in his way, were Andrew Downes and John Mayer, and in due course he encountered the enriching influence of John Joubert.
Compositions began to emerge. Indeed they had already. His first acknowledged piece is a piano sonata; his Op.1, dating from 1975. Instrumental pieces, including some of the piano works recently recorded for Naxos by Graham J. Lloyd, were Venables’s priority at this time. With one notable exception, the songs came later. That exception was his Op. 6, ‘Midnight Lamentation’, the Harold Monro setting alluded to earlier; while in some ways a rehearsal for what was to come, it shows clear signs of the mature Venables, both in subject matter and in treatment; and in the autobiographical element it implied.
As Venables grew during those early student days, so his spectrum widened in his teens to take in, for instance, Bartók and Shostakovich. ‘I hadn’t realised,’ he acknowledges, ‘just how influential the Russians and twentieth-century East European composers have been on my music: those composers who use slightly folkish elements—such as employing the Lydian Mode or placing emphasis, as if quite naturally, on the Augmented Fourth (or Diminished Fifth). But you have to be careful not to use them slavishly. The spontaneity only comes once these influences have been absorbed into your being. Slightly later for me came the French school: I didn’t really discover those composers till I was in my mid-twenties; Ravel is and remains a special favourite.’ (I, by contrast, hear a lot of subtle affinities with Debussy in Venables’s music). ‘And quite early on there was Mahler too, perhaps as early as when I was sixteen. However the only thing I took from Mahler, I think, was his use of minor-major relationships’. But one should not forget, either, Venables’s huge admiration for Sir Michael Tippett, whom he and Graham Lloyd met in 1997, shortly before Tippett died, and to whom he dedicated his String Quartet. ‘Tippett had this wonderful humanity, and courage, and at the same time was intellectually acute and technically brilliant, in the Beethovenian sense’.
To hear the influence of Bartók, forceful and acerbic, on Venables, one should turn to his String Quartet, Op. 32 composed in 1998 (and recorded with considerable verve by the Dante Quartet). ‘I wanted to flex my muscles to see technically what I was capable of. I’d written quite a bit of string music, including a Piano Quintet, and I wondered if I could attempt something that stretched me musically. The Piano Quintet (here he admits a Brahmsian influence) began life as a string quartet; but at that time, I felt I didn’t have the technical means to compose a quartet. Afterwards, when I got back to thinking of writing a quartet, it just happened.’ It certainly worked, for the String Quartet is one of the most bracing, menacing and cogent works not just amongst his instrumental output, but of all Venables’s oeuvre. ‘It’s probably one of the reasons I’ve used a string quartet in several vocal works (his Clare cycle Invite, to Eternity, for instance). I enjoy the intimacy of the quartet, the sound and expressiveness and tension of those four instruments working together.’
When he adds a clarinet to the piano (as in Venables’s five-movement song cycle On the Wings of Love) the effect is magical: with a seeming effortlessness recalling Finzi’s Bagatelles, he weaves the clarinet around singer and keyboard alike, using touching imitation, exquisite prefaces and melting afterwords, to produce entrancing, beautifully judged effects. ‘Having three instruments,’ he says, ‘makes it seem almost orchestral! But I am now musing on doing something different: I’m thinking possibly of viola, voice and piano. I was struck by Frank Bridge’s Three Songs for those forces and my setting of Rennie Parker’s poem “Acton Burnell” is with a viola. I’m rather intrigued by this combination.’ Employing a viola—or, say, cello—would lie well within Venables’s compass. As well as the Quintet and Quartet, and indeed the Three Pieces for violin and piano that constitute his Op.11, he wrote very early on an Elegy for cello and piano (his Op. 2), and somewhat later, around the time of the Piano Quintet, not just the Poem, Op. 29—an equally mesmerising work for cello and piano, but also a Soliloquy for viola and piano, Op. 26, that is one of his most expressive works yet.
Each composer has his own working methods, his own preferred way of approaching the task in hand. How does Venables approach word setting?
‘Obviously, when one’s composing a song, everything centres on the text. When one is setting a complex poem that has a subtly shifting narrative, then you have to create an equally responsive musical template that follows closely the contours of the text. Although, I tend to favour a through-composed approach when setting words, I am also aware of the satisfying qualities inherent in a tripartite musical structure. I feel that a song should take one a journey, this is why many of my songs are between five to ten minutes in length. They may build to a kind of emotional apotheosis that ultimately winds down and comes full circle at the close. For this reason, I tend to avoid strophic settings, (although, I do on occasions use this form) in the sense of an identical pattern, repeating with each verse. If I do repeat music, it’s invariably done with variation— the music isn’t exactly the same, it has naturally evolved’.
A tonal sense, he says, is obvious in his work: Ian Venables does, by and large ‘write in keys’. But the music can be tonally ambiguous from the outset: his use of dissonance, to which he has frequent recourse, has a marked bearing on this; indeed, Venables makes considerable use of augmented fourths and the smaller intervals—major and minor seconds. His evocative, often chromatic, use of such intervals, is one of the features that make his music compact and intimate, and quite often immediately recognisable as Venables.
This is where modes come in: ‘I’ve noticed quite a lot of my music uses the Lydian and Aeolian modes which are not often found in English song; whereas I scarcely use the Dorian mode which is much more common. Perhaps, I have picked up the Lydian accent from my interest in Eastern European music, which often draws on that kind of sound world. I sometimes use the Lydian mode for special effects, e.g. at the start of Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, which opens “In that Syrian Garden, ages slain, you sleep, and know not you are dead in vain”. Because of ‘Syrian’— and perhaps also because of the challenge Housman here lays down to Christ—I felt this mode was apposite: there is something Middle Eastern in its inflection. Modes, or at least our knowledge of them, started life there, in Anatolia, and then crossed borders; maybe I’m trying here, specifically, to pinpoint the place, to locate the song. But curiously, it’s not as if I planned it: the notes simply came naturally in sequence. It might look as if I deliberately use a particular mode, but paradoxically it is quite spontaneous.’
What of the detail? As Venables’s friend and life partner, and also one of his finest keyboard interpreters, Graham Lloyd is also in a position to be one of his severest critics; more importantly, perhaps, his sounding-board, someone who has a total empathy with the music. He is also one of the best articulators in words of qualities that lie in, or under, Venables’s music: ‘simplicity of melody; sensual vocal lines; a strong sense of narrative; minimal(ist) keyboard figurations; delicate piano tracery underpinning a vocal line; intoxicating central passages; affirmation; subdued intensity’.
Lloyd’s talk finds apt adjectives too: not just wistful, or anguished, but ‘penumbrous’, ‘timeless’, ‘whimsical’; or of a ‘gothic austerity’, a ‘melody of limpid innocence’, ‘the naïve impulse of an innocent love’, a ‘questioning final chord’. One might add ideas, like ‘caprice’, ‘elegance’, ‘eloquence’, even ‘hedonism’. An expansive vocabulary is called for to describe and characterise Venables’s art: his music is rich in allusion, in undercurrents, in intuition, in insight.
Venables says, ‘I cannot emphasise too much how an art song setting hinges on the words. “A Kiss” (Hardy) called out for triple time, a kind of iambic, dance like feel—an almost Dowland-like lilt—so it floated and lifted “to take wing upon the air”. I am attracted to triplet quavers (a Vaughan Williams speciality?) or triplet crotchets (which Gurney favoured). I used 8/8 for “Oh who is that young sinner?”; four short beats (usually four semiquavers) and a longer one (quaver), forming a kind of extended anapaest, come into my music quite often. It can also be found in the third of my Three Pieces for violin and piano. The unusual prosody of the words may lead on occasion to some inventive writing. But all the time you’re trying to respond to the natural metre of the poem: you’re always going to be guided by that above all else.’
Housman was famously—and actively—homosexual (as one cheerful lad perks up in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys: ‘A. E. Housman, sir, wasn’t he a nancy?’). John Addington Symonds, on whom Venables has written and who remains one of the poets closest to his heart, was gay, and likewise pent up about the hopelessness of his yearnings. Venables has set both extensively: Symonds in the glorious Venetian Songs, one of those cycles that completely knocks you for six; Housman in his recent cycle for the Malvern Concert Club, The Song of the Severn; and before that in the four-poem Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, commissioned by the Finzi Friends.
Is there a pattern here? Is Venables primarily a setter of gay poetry? ‘No, not primarily, although it is an important element in my work. I believe that the gender of the object of love is immaterial. It is love that matters. ‘Gay poets’ are often trying to make a statement about homosexuality, so the form their work takes and the words used to express it may well be to do with their sexual identity. That’s quite understandable in a predominantly heterosexual world, where a minority has—or feels it has—been oppressed. But I think anyone can identify with these feelings.’ Homosexuality, Venables points out, is just one of a great many subjects his music picks up on. Another is religious doubt, as opposed to religious certainty. ‘I’m not attacking religion but questioning and searching, much as Vaughan Williams did. Thus, in my anthem ‘Awake! Awake, the World is Young’, I explored the relevance of religion and its role in the late twentieth century’.
Landscape, as with Vaughan Williams or Finzi, is an important theme running through his later work, particularly in The Pine Boughs Past Music, Venables’s homage to Gurney; he was till recently Chairman of the Ivor Gurney Society and is currently lead trustee on the Ivor Gurney Estate. ‘My latest work, a song cycle, entitled The Song of the Severn, for baritone, string quartet and piano, is a celebration of the Worcestershire landscape, its history and its people, and it is structured around settings by, A. E. Housman, John Masefield, John Drinkwater and Philip Worner’.
How far can Venables, like Vaughan Williams or Finzi, differentiate himself from the English Musical Renaissance? Clearly he is highly cognizant of, and perhaps indebted to, music of (say) the Edwardian era. However, when one listens closely to his songs, it’s clear Venables’s ‘Englishness’ is no more England-bound than Vaughan Williams’s (with his debt to France) or Elgar’s (with its roots in Germany).
‘Like some composers I love the ancient Classical world, and adore Greek and Roman poetry. But oddly it’s only in the past ten years that I have come to setting any. I particularly enjoy Greek poetry, and admire it hugely, although, I do find the rhythms rather difficult to set.’ Yet Venables need not worry: when he does so, he does it supremely well. One such is his setting of the Emperor Hadrian’s wan epigram, written as he mused upon what may lie beyond death. ‘Anima vagula blandula’ is one of the most famous short jottings of the Ancient World. Venables catches the starkness, the almost comic tenderness (implied in the diminutive ‘little’, the sociability (‘companion and guest’), the coldness (‘pale, stark and bare’), the tender irony (‘unable, as you used, to play?’) Yet just as cogent is the first poem of that cycle, Cavafy’s ‘Ionian Song’ (‘Just because we have broken their statues…the Gods did not die’): the metres (in George Barbanis’ translation) do not lend themselves naturally to setting, any more than other Cavafy translations do. Yet Venables manages to prise from this one of his most magical settings, in a song whose passage from tired resignation to rapt optimism the clarinet, too, so perfectly enhances. There is, in a sense, a Classicism about much of Venables’s subject matter. The Professor of Latin, Housman, is soaked in the Classical; Lorca, not least in the original, but also in translation, has the Mediterranean feel which infuses early Greek as well as Roman verse; the spirit of Sponde’s Renaissance Sonnet is even closer to Classical Antiquity than to Shakespeare. It is impossible not to notice the presence of bells, or sounds evoking bells, in Venables’s work: in the Venetian Songs, perhaps most obviously; but in his Housman settings too. One thinks of Vaughan Williams and Butterworth and Finzi; but also, surely, of Debussy and even Puccini. ‘Yes, the sound of bells is quite important to me’: in ‘Fortunate Isles’ (first of the Venetian series); or ‘The Invitation to the Gondola’ (the third song of the same cycle, where they are a direct response to the text: ‘Bells call to bells from the islands’). The third John Clare poem (from Invite, to Eternity) is actually entitled ‘Evening Bells’ and begins with bells in full flow (‘Sweet the merry bells’). It’s one of Venables’s most joyous songs— slick, witty, beautifully nuanced, amusingly syncopated. ‘At Malvern’ (an individual J. A. Symonds song) has bell-like figurations in the piano left hand: ‘I wanted to evoke the bells of Malvern Priory—a full peal of bells, chiming away—so as to create, I felt, an impressionistic wash, a sort of veil of sound’. ‘In Memoriam’ (a Tennyson setting) includes an aptly tolling bell.
‘Bells are a metaphor, aren’t they, for the passage of time, suggesting transition or transience—not necessarily in a pessimistic sense. We use bells for celebration, jubilation. They’re a kind of aural metaphor, and they are important to my work, part of the word-painting.’ Similarly sombre bells can also be discerned, Venables reminds us, at the end of the slow movement of his Piano Quintet. ‘But I more usually use bells to express affirmation, and joy: to colour and enhance the uplifting sentiments of a poem’.
As one looks back over Ian Venables’s song output to date—and it is a very substantial and satisfying one—you sense more and more that the critics, and the musicians and singers themselves, are right in their accolades. This is no meagre talent, no minor composer. In his chosen fields of chamber music and above all art song, Ian Venables has currently few peers. He has risked being seen as a specialist, and he has triumphed by taking that risk. The songs that bespeak it are legion. Witness ‘Easter Hymn’, from Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, with its aching fragrance; set against the different ironies and blistering anger unleashed in ‘Oh who is that young sinner?’ in the same cycle: Housman’s ‘the colour of his hair’ being of course a metaphor for the homosexuality that so long tortured him. Take, too, the tempestuous blasts of ‘The Wind’, from that tender and revealing tribute to Gurney, The Pine Boughs Past Music. Notice, too, the exquisite final tribute ‘In Memoriam: Ivor Gurney’, (again with its reference to bells, only this time pealing from Gloucester Cathedral), in that cycle, a poem by Gurney’s one-time editor, the poet Leonard Clark, that seems to echo the very pathos of Gurney himself, with its strikingly terse, painfully Gurneyesque, Elizabethan-sounding line: ‘An English singer’s dumb’. Venables had moved in this sphere before, setting much earlier one of Gurney’s most aching and tragic poems, ‘Pain’, as his Op. 10. There is so much else. Every song in Venetian Songs (Love’s Voice) is a polished gem.
It would not be wrong to say that the idea of commitment is focal to Venables, himself, and his output. He believes in dedication, in his life as in his work. He is himself dedicated to the beauty of words, to beauty in music, and to every delicate nuance of the poets he has chosen, as an artist, to live among. The texts that he sets are often about commitment: loyalty promised, loyalty compromised, love that is offered unreservedly, even where it is shaken, battered, destroyed or hopeless; love and commitment that last till the grave. But perhaps not survive, ‘after we pass the gate’ (Dowson ‘Vitae Summa Brevis’). When we set aside his joyous, chuckling scherzo songs, there is still, unavoidably, a measured pessimism in many of the lines Venables chooses. ‘I cannot find a way’, says Monro: ‘When you and I go down…To earthly mould, How lonely we shall be! . . . Must we then part, we part?’ ‘But O for the touch of a vanished hand / And the sound of a voice that is still! . . . But the tender grace of a day that is dead will never come back to me’ (Tennyson, in ‘Break, break, break’); and the isolated depths of Clare’s ‘I am’: ‘Into the nothingness of scorn and noise . . . the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems’. Bleak, agonised, crushed.
And the future? One might surmise that life, and creativity, have plenty in store for a composer as naturally gifted, as scrupulous a craftsman, and as shrewd a musician, one as serious and questing, as Ian Venables. ‘I recognise that I’m still evolving as an artist, and as a human being too. I like that: it means that something new is always waiting to surface. There’s a didactic element to which I must admit: composers can teach, artists can teach; both have something to say. I think that’s partly what I’m trying to do.’
‘I take things as they come, and mainly I just go on doing my own thing, as Samuel Barber said. And yes, I do believe that takes a certain courage, to be oneself in music, as, hopefully, in life itself.’