A survey by Colin Scott Sutherland
The British Music Society Newsletter, no 107, 2005.
Some time ago the issue of a CD of songs by this young composer met with critical acclaim. And now the publication of a book of thirteen songs enables us to look more closely and to judge whether what was then considered as a new and fresh voice in English music is a true estimate.
Venables at 50 is now an established composer, and though not prolific, has some 40-odd opus numbers to his credit which include not only songs, but a variety of works of considerable maturity – pieces for piano and solo instrument (violin, cello, viola, oboe, flute and clarinet), organ music, an orchestral triptych, an expansive ‘Millenium’ Anthem, four substantial song-cycles, music for brass, a String Quartet, and perhaps his greatest and most characteristic achievement to date – a fine Piano Quintet. (1) Until these works are recorded and more widely known he must, for the moment, be considered on the basis of this representative collection of songs which are drawn from op 6 to op 37. I would suggest with what I know of his other work that his is not so much a ‘new’ voice in English music but a significant reincarnation of that English lyric voice from the early years of the twentieth century. Leaving for the moment the early song ‘Midnight Lamentation’ which he wrote age 19, and is numbered op 6, his first 15 opus numbers contain only one song. Nevertheless the quiet voice of this selection of songs shows his development over some thirty years. It does not include the song-cycles op 22/31/36. What it does disclose is a mature and original voice showing awareness of a cultural line through the development of the English lyric voice from the heritage of English song – a poetic tradition that stems from Campion, Dowland and Purcell, via Parry, Elgar, Ireland, Howells and Finzi – all of whose influence can be heard in Venables. While he recognises the inexhaustible power of the system of tonality, this does not mean that he is following dated or well-worn paths, but that he shares what Trevor Hold said of the poet Edward Thomas “a fresh vision on old deep-rooted subjects, a new way to express ageless thoughts”.
In a personal letter to the composer (2) Professor Stephen Banfield (3) wrote “you have a genius for melancholy” and in this informal but penetrating assessment of the recorded songs he went on to say that his [Venables’] genius extended to “the understanding [of] melodic, harmonic and poetic tradition for speaking to the heart, not least in the refined gold [my italics] of the poems you have sought out”, thus underlining what must be the principal character os Venables’ expression – the awareness of that tradition, following none of the ‘isms and ’alities of so much present day expression, and a gentle melancholy that attends the expression of Beauty and its transient nature. (4) English poetry, from the earliest Anglo-Saxon to the voices of the 20th Century is, in the words of Peter Ackroyd (5) “suffused with melancholy …. That long sweet note of pathos can be heard equally in the music of Delius and the poetry of Keats, in the plangent harmonies of Purcell and the stately threnodies of Spenser ……….” Venables choice of poets is therefore illuminating – in this present publication the names of Dowson, John Clare, John Addington Symonds, Hardy and Edward Thomas surely reflect this assessment – and yet reflect a vein of deeper experience than simple lyricism? It is significant that three of the cycles are settings of Clare, Symonds and Housman: it is even more significant that he has chosen late poems, and in the main, poems that have not been set by others. (7) The present volume must therefore be taken to underline Venables’ raison d’etre as a composer which, as with so much English music has a literary rather than a musical impetus. There are and always will be, disagreements on the vexed question of ‘words for music’ (8) Purcell acknowledged Poetry and Music as sister arts: Dryden took the opposite position –“ ’tis my part to invent and the musician’s to humour that invention”. (9) Yeats was more vicious – “the concert platform has wronged the poets by masticating their well-made words and turning them into spittle” (10) Certainly the early ‘fugues of words’ that sufficed the era of Handel (which Baddeley calls ‘the anaesthesia of poetry’) would have provoked the poet’s wrath! What has Venables to say on the subject?
“Well, I have already suggested that poetry and music are sister forms. But I would go further than this to suggest that when a composer’s music is in complete accord with the poet’s intentions then a transformation takes place that results in an altogether new art form. This new form is called ‘Art Song’ and as such I think it has to be approached on its own merit. Both music and poetry become one synergistic effect, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. AS composer of art-song I therefore trying to find the hidden music that lies beneath the words [my italics] It is a kind of recreation of the poet’s essence in musical terms ……ultimately it is the poetic theme and the underlying structure that are the determining factors. This inspired idea has then to be developed within the limits imposed by the poem’s structure, metre and natural rhythms and cadences of the lines…the more sensitive and empathetic the composer is, the more he is able to evoke the poem’s overriding mood, atmosphere, imagery, and ultimately to distil its essence” (11)
The first impression one gets from Venables’ settings is that he succeeds in this , and that it is the inner vision of the poet to which he is responding and not simply the imagery. The emotional power of that impact readily seen here in the first song to words by Harold Monro , may well in its urgency distort the shape/words/syntax of the poet – yet at the same time capture the elusive image that is in the poet’s mind.
Venables does indeed take liberties with the verse. The first song in this album is \ setting of ‘Midnight Lamentation’ by the Georgian poet Harold Monro (12). This song, although marked op 6, is possibly the earliest acknowledged composition (written at age 19) and is a perfect example not only of his treatment of the text, but also illustrative of that melancholic element which the poem expresses so strongly. Monro’s poem has eight stanzas. Venables sets the first and the third with minimal restructuring of the words and rhythm using merely repetition. He then turns to the final stanza, omitting the others, where he wrings the utmost emotion from the poet’s essential idea and substitutes Monro’s almost banal ‘I cannot reach beyond/ Body to you’ with his own words ‘And in death and darkness/ no way leads me to you – repeated three times over in an agonising despair with a repeated triplet figure (one that recurs emotionally as a recognisable fingerprint later in his work – and specifically in two pieces ‘Elegy’ op 2, and ‘Poem’ op 29 both for cello and piano). This song is a remarkably powerful expression for a 19-year old composer – the anticipation of love eclipsed by death and the awful realisation that the end is also separation. If, in the end, it requires the text to crystallise the emotion, the music alone is unbearably poignant.
Many facets of the composer’s musical language emerge in the opening bars where the piano sets the emotional scene in terms that are heard elsewhere in his work – including the instrumental pieces. Apart from the recurring triplet figure (which has echoes in Ireland’s Cello Sonata) there is a suggestion of bells – a seeming ambivalence of tonality (here C sharp minor and E major) – the plangent open fifths – and the fact that almost all his discords are suspensions, resolving, if at all, to a minor chord. One hears also the false relations that recall Finzi. There is a brief reference to a dotted figure which, at later moments, seems to suggest the slow passage of time or, as with Housman, Howells, Gurney and Clare, that many thoughts were drafted when walking.(13)
With the exception his setting of Edward Thomas’s “It rains”, I suggest that Venables has chosen poems that are not intrinsically musical in themselves. Yet they almost always suggest a musical idea – ‘a long procession of sounds’ (Hardy) – ‘in the thickets still the breezes blow’ (Symonds) – ‘that summer sang in me’ (Millay) – ‘he sings in his boat on the bay’ (Tennyson. There is too a conciseness in his settings true to the lyric as defined by Palgrave ‘ that each poem should turn upon a single thought, feeling or situation’. None are ballads (although the cycles are more declamatory and whose thought processes are more expansive). There is a simplicity about his melodic lines – on their own they suggest very subtly an appropriate harmony which has a quality both brooding and elegiac There is one characteristic phrase – a curiously Celtic leap of a seventh, followed by a fall of a third – which is both a cry of despair and a surge of emotion.
This is also heard in many of the instrumental works, and therefore is clearly the personal language in which he expresses himself and is not entirely generated by the textual implications. This is not to imply that there are no lighter moments – the op 11 three pieces for violin and piano are gorgeously romantic and full of warm lyricism – and in the present volume of songs few writers have captured the spirit of the whimsical as has Venables in his setting of Graves’s ‘Flying Crooked’, a capricious and enchanting portrayal of the erratic flight of the humble cabbage white, recalling the John Ireland of ‘Merry Andrew’ or ‘Ragamuffin’. ‘The Hippo’ too shows the composer’s lighter side – a mere 21 bars in the idyllic life of the pachyderm!
One of the finest songs in this volume is the setting of Addington Symonds’ “At Malvern”. Here the open-ended melody is suspended in a breathless languor, over unresolved harmony of distant bells, a hint of the tritone, with the reflection in dark waters of the melody in canon. “Beauty and stillness brood over everything”. A reference to Catullus introduces a relaxed moment of hedonism before a return of the opening, the earlier canonic reflection being replaced by Ireland-like 4ths. In very similar mood the setting of Dowson’s familiar lines “They are not long/the days of wine and roses” evokes in a brief 40 bars centred firmly on the mediant, a fatalistic acceptance of the transience of Beauty. The setting of Tennyson (whose words ‘Ring out the old, ring in the New’ Venables chose for the Millennium anthem) again expresses the dark mood – seeking, in an almost Elgarian phrase, “ the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still” The bold descending triplets suggest the implacable element. Also hung on suspended harmony the setting of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “At Midnight” is certainly illustrative of Palgrave’s ‘single feeling’ being poised ‘at midnight with a cry’ all stemming from the opening obsessive falling second, the lonely tree no longer decked with green. Another masterpiece of a song is ‘A Kiss’ to words of Thomas Hardy the poet himself equating the flight of the kiss with birdsong. It opens also with an eleven bar introduction incorporating both the drop of a 3rd, the triplet figure and the quasi-stately rhythmic pattern (suggestive of dance) that seems here to evoke the fluttering butterfly-like flight of the kiss as it is wafted through the air. It is scarcely surprising that Venables’ antecedents in English music should show themselves clearly – for instance at bars 27/28 “There ivy calmly grows” and a hint almost of Delius in the final few bars?
There is a static quality about ‘At Midnight’ – the persistent alternating 5ths and 4ths expressive of the ‘quiet pain’ carrying the resignation of the poet through a drifting skein of grey – the melody a quiet plaint – to an unresolved conclusion. In strong contrast there is drama in ‘Easter Song’, the poet seeing in the reburgeoning Spring a recurring of both Nature and spirit. ‘The Way Trough’ to words of Jennifer Andrews, who also designed the cover illustration evokes the idea of Robert Frost’s ‘The road not taken’ – hesitant at the ‘hot road forked’ capturing beautifully in the syncopated bell-like piano figuration the nostalgia of the first song in the volume. Possibly the most enigmatic song is that of Edward Thomas – a poet notoriously difficult to set successfully. Rain is a potent image in Thomas’s work – both verse and prose – a soft rain, a quiet rain, a grey mist that diffuses the vision of the poet where, out of the wood, on the carpet of rain the song of a thrush recalls ever the brief happiness, the kissing, and the present loneliness. – ‘nothing stirs within the fence’. Venables picks out the salient images – the fallen petals, the poet’s happiness and the present nostalgia – all expressed subtly within the first three bars – the yearning of the melodic phrase repeated by the voice – then, as the memory returns the phrase returns in inflected thirds, and growing in intensity with the fading vision/ I am not entirely sure that in this setting the poet’s and the composer’s vision coalesce. But I am certain that the composer will return to the poet, as both deal in deep thoughts.
I have argued that the main influences directing Venables’ expression are to be found in that “heritage of Englishry” – and it is scarcely surprising that obvious and specific musical influence should be seen in his work. I have already suggested the influence of John Ireland (Venables studied with Richard Arnell, himself a pupil of Ireland) and that of Gerald Finzi. But such indications of ‘influence’ should generally be regarded as little more than dippings into the common pot of the development of artistic expression in this country – or at least little more than allusions.
In dealing with the songs in this isolated way and the relation of melody and harmony to the words of the poet, the question of structure and form is subjugated to the demands of the text. Much of Venables’ instrumental music is in a fairly straightforward ternary form except where (particularly in the two works for ‘cello and piano already cited above) the emotional tension forces the music into a very concentrated organic expression. It is perhaps not unreasonable to imagine that environmental influences stemming from the black and white surroundings of the great city of Liverpool where much of his young life was spent might to some extent dictate formal considerations derived from the architecture – for as early as opus 4 there is a threefold set of pieces (written originally for piano but later orchestrated) – an impressionistic evocation of the Palladian Follies at Stourhead in Wiltshire. These pieces are unlike anything in the songs? “Creativity is rooted in both the personality of the artist and in the external forces that act upon them” Thus the composer himself in an article on ‘The Music of Poetry’ (14) It is my belief that the personality of this composer as clearly discernible in these varied songs will, when the rest of his music (particularly the song cycles and the Piano Quintet) is better known, assume a stature in the pageant of English music in the 20th Century. V C Clinton Baddeley should have the last word:
“Song will not rise again in these islands until the poets and musicians
will combine to create a contemporary art.”(15)
Ian Venables has a part to play.
1. web site: www.ianvenables.com
3. Author of ‘Sensibility and English Song’ Cambridge 1985
4. It was Housman who wrote “It is the function of poetry to harmonise the sadness of the world”.
5. Peter Ackroyd “Albion – The origins of the English Imagination’” Vintage. 2002 pp 55/56
7. Clare has been set only by Gurney and Warlock. Symonds by Cyril Scott. (Ireland uses words by Symonds in his choral “These Things Shall Be”.
8. The most reasoned argument on the subject is probably that undertaken by V C Clinton Baddeley in the early 1940’s – a case of acting as referee between poet and composer. (Words for Music – Cambridge 1941).
9. Preface to “Albion and Albanius” 1685.
10. Broadsides – Yeats and Wellesley 1937.
11. Talk The Art of Songwriting Ledbury Poetry Festival The Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson usefully confirms “every musical motif or theme contains the germ of its own development” words to it and the development of the musical idea has to be subjugated to the development of the verbal idea. The music has to yield to the words: like a creeping plant it has to be trained to a trellis. This problem can be overcome partially by a careful selection of the text” (‘Composing a Song Cycle’ Stevenson Society Newsletter Vol 3/2 Autumn 1996).
12. Collected Poems ed Alida Monro Cobden-Sanderson 1933 pp 16/18
13. I once asked Ronald Stevenson how he went about setting a poem. He replied, “I go about with it……….”
14. Ian Venables The Music of Poetry The Ivor Gurney Society Journal Vol 8 2002
15. op cit p 163
Contents: Song album (high) available from Novello and Co.Ltd (see Scores)
Midnight Lamentation op 6 Harold Monro
A Kiss op 15 Thomas Hardy
Easter Song op 16 Edgar Billingham
At Malvern op 26 John Addington Symonds
Flying Crooked op 28/1 Robert Graves
At Midnight op 28/2 Edna St Vincent Millay
The Way Through op33/1 Jennifer Andrews
It Rains op 33/2 Edward Thomas
Vitae Summa Brevis op 33/3 Ernest Dowson
The November Piano op 33/4 Charles Bennett
Break, Break, Break op 33/5 Alfred Lord Tennyson
The Hippo op 33/6 Theodore Roethke
Love Lies Beyond op 37/1 John Clare
Cover Design by Jennifer Andrews with an introduction by Graham J Lloyd