The Stourhead Follies – Ian Flint

The Stourhead Follies – An analytical appreciation
By Ian Flint

The Stourhead Follies represent one of the early artistic triumphs of the English composer, Ian Venables. Inspired by a visit to Stourhead House and Gardens in the early 1980’s, these sonic gemstones are in every way commensurate in stature with the horticultural and architectural apogee they seek to portray.

The first piece, Temple to Apollo, immediately evokes a timeless atmosphere with its delicately shifting metrical patterns and added sixth harmonies. However, even in the calm of the opening, something disquieting is injected by the quasi-neapolitan harmony in bar 6(4). The rocking 3-note melodic figure, D# – C# – D#, heard at the very outset (which we will call figure ‘A’) will assume motivic significance as the piece progresses. This short introductory section ends after nine bars on a note of hushed expectancy, ushering in the extended middle section of this essentially ternary structure.

Marked Andante semplice, the new theme unfolds with limpid innocence, floating initially on a delicious ambiguity between F# minor and B minor. This whole passage is vintage Venables (if such an epithet is not mis-placed given the chronological context of the work). Consider, for example, the cadential bars 22-24. The approach to the tonic is unusual enough in itself, as a third inversion of a dominant with minor 9th. For lesser composers, this 9th (G natural) would have resolved by bar 22(3), but Venables reiterates it in the second half of the following bar, adding pungency by the retention of the inner pedal note F# (tonic of the chord). As if this piquant semitonal clash weren’t sufficient, Venables’ masterstroke is to foreshadow the tonic with the astonishing B natural at bar 23(3), a real imposter in this context. It is this kind of instinctive brilliance that gives Venables’ music its exceptional emotional appeal.

Next (at bar 24) begins a developmental section initially founded on motif ‘A’. In the impassioned second statement of this extended phrase, beginning at bar 32, the composer imparts greater urgency by the rhythmic compression of each second bar into a ¾ time signature, climaxing eventually on the structurally crucial Neapolitan chord in bar 37.The left-hand texture in bb.32-35 and bb.39-40 is worthy of special mention: it is artfully contoured to foster maximum contrapuntal friction with the right-hand chords in a manner worthy of Rachmaninov. Another felicitous detail is the B natural in the right-hand chord at bar 34(2). A more literal transposition would instead have produced a C#. While a prosaic analysis might infer that Venables favoured the B natural to avoid the implicit (albeit transitory) doubled third, the more viable likelihood is that the composer was much more concerned with the enhanced emotive impact of the B natural.From bar 39, the composer unfurls a passage of spellbinding beauty, with tritonal or semitonal clashes characterising each strong beat until bar 42(1). The second half of bar 41 is a particularly striking instance of how displaced timing within the voicing (in this case, the left-hand accented passing note C# sounded, achingly, against the harmonically essential D natural in the right-hand) can produce moments of sublime tenderness. Similarly the pianissimo minor ninth A# against the root A natural at bar 42(1) seems almost too precious to touch. Yet within a bar we are back in the maelstrom. Polyrhythms, rapid fluctuations of time signature and moments approaching bitonality (notably bar 45) play their part as we are whirled inexorably, poised somewhere between rapture and desperation, towards the grim reaper that is the E minor of bar 52-53. Stricken, the music collapses in on itself, false relations tumbling over each other (bb. 54-58). It is worth dwelling on some other features of this extraordinary passage. The principal melodic cells in the ‘imperioso’ section (e.g. the first three crotchets of bar 47) are related to motif ‘A’. From the harmonic perspective, although the E minor scythe of bar 52 comes as an emotional shock, it is nonetheless not too fanciful to perceive a linear continuity in the harmonic fundamentals of bb.48-52: Ab – G natural – F natural (‘tenor’ voice) – E natural. Connoisseurs of harmonic integration will also observe that the chord sequence in bb.54-56 (on E, C and C#) is an augmentation of the progression first heard in bar 6. However, on this occasion we don’t settle back into the calm of B major; instead the music is ratcheted down a semitone into the Sheol of A sharp minor. Despite the deliberate harmonic fuzziness of bar 56 (in which the last 6 notes of the left-hand are, astonishingly, an enharmonic version of Eb major, quite at odds with the prevailing C# ninth context), nothing prepares the ear for this disintegration in the following bar. The impact on the receptive listener is overwhelming: it is as if we have reached an abyss from which there is no escape.Then, as if by some strange conjuring trick, the purity of the opening re-emerges. Although this is a note-for-note restatement of the opening musical paragraph, its former chasteness is inevitably transfigured by what has now gone before.

The second piece of the cycle, Palladio’s Bridge, immediately sets in motion a hypnotically lilting rhythmic figure, which suggests the ceaseless motion of the stream beneath the structure in question. The melodic fragments are consciously fluid, and the music tends to eschew settling on any kind of harmonic fundamental. Instead, the rhythmic nodal points twinge with major seconds and sevenths, minor ninths, tritones and superimposed chord structures – all indicative of the absence of aquatic repose. It is not until the 20th bar of the piece (bar 88 in the score) that an underlying tonality, F minor, is affirmed. By now we are cradled in one of the composer’s most bewitching inspirations. The lead-in to F minor (bb.86-87) evanesces with mesmerising beauty, distilled out of the false relation E (alto voice) followed by Eb (melody) and the magical spacing of the chord at bar 87(2), in which the root C and minor 9th Db collide in the heart of the texture. It should also be noted that the E naturals in bb.86 and 87 represent the first occasion the music strays out of a strict Aeolian mode. However, the modal sound-world is immediately re-established as the melodic line soars to the high Eb, heralding the new musical paragraph at bar 88. Another moment of heart-stopping pathos is the release to the ‘dominant minor’ (C minor) chord at bar 92. Assuaging? Sorrowful? Peaceful? Resigned? – no doubt slightly different for each listener upon each hearing: testimony to the power of this great music.

As Graham Lloyd(1) has pointed out, the uncannily profound effect of this progression is partly attributable to the fact that this is the first time a pure tonic triad is intoned in the whole piece. G flats start to intrude from bar 95, effectively switching the mode to Phrygian for a few bars. The arching melodic cell first heard in the second full bar of the piece is now sequentially treated and extended, building to an impassioned climax, which is further enlivened by one of those marvellous incidental details so characteristic of this composer in full flight: the dissenting C natural on the last quaver of bar 101, which bears no relation to the surrounding harmonies, and thus contributes another moment of sheer frisson.The music subsequently settles on Eb major in bar 104: little might we suspect now that this key is destined to take over as an underlying tonic from now on. After a period of calm, the music is thrown headlong towards its most agonised climax. Here, the defining ascending fourth of the motivic cell G – C – Bb first heard in bar 70 accrues intensity by stretching out to a perfect fifth in bar 123. The surrounding rhythmic asymmetry and harmonic astringency lead to a shattering bitonal culmination in bb.125-129. The harmony here defies easy analysis, but the aural effect is of a titanic clash between tonal centres a semitone apart: something akin to G# minor in the right hand against a version of G minor in the left hand (with the added spice of ‘foreign’ C sharps forging a link with the right hand tonal group).After a savage tritone at bar 129, the music subsides once again, leading to a mysterious lento incantation, which gives characteristic prominence (bb.141, 145) to the grating of perfect fifths (G natural) against diminished fifths (G flat), before descending to a profoundly bleak pedal chord at bar 150 which ushers in a veiled partial recapitulation of the opening melodic fragments. The composer’s unorthodox fingering at bb.158-9 leaves us in no doubt as to the remote, half-remembered effect he is seeking here. After a remarkable cadence (bb.163-166), again featuring fifths grinding against each other, not to mention a tritone resolution of the roots, the piece ends with haunting false relations suspended in the tonal mist.

The third piece, Pantheon, swaggers with a much more bustling, ebullient mood. The pervasive bare fifths are redolent of a bygone age. Meanwhile the insistent dance rhythms and frequent metrical displacements create an atmosphere of joyful abandon, although the minor key inflection of the prevailing Aeolian mode perhaps tempers the festivities to some extent. Various melodic fragments whirr around, jostling for attention. The exuberance reaches its zenith in the passage bb.205-212, with its infectious rhythmic dislocation and coruscating white-note harmonies at bb.207-8.(1) Precociously talented young British pianist, and dedicatee of ‘The Stourhead Follies’. This leads back at bar 212 to a partial recapitulation of the opening section. After a few moments of repose, the intensity builds again from bar 230, as a repeated fragment of the opening theme surges up to a bravura coda, with excitingly jagged off-beat accentuation. There is a sting in the tail with the impertinent penultimate chord – almost as if the gods are blowing us a gigantic raspberry, reminding us who is in charge.

The original version of ‘Pantheon’ was a semitone lower, in Ab minor. It is intriguing to speculate upon why the composer chose to re-cast the piece in A minor – perhaps he simply came to prefer the extra brightness of the higher key. Certainly, no pianist close to the composer would have required this modification for reasons of physical or tonal facilitation.

What is clear, however, is the impact this transposition has on the opening of the fourth and final piece in the set, The Grotto. Whereas previously there was a tonal continuity (Ab = G#) between the two pieces, now the opening of The Grotto emerges with an even darker sense of foreboding. One of the most astonishing aspects of this piece is that not a single note of it steps outside the claustrophobic orbit of the Aeolian mode. It is a tribute to Venables’ mastery that he can compel our attention throughout, despite the remarkable economy of means he elects to employ. Ruminative quasi-trill figures alternate between the hands, invoking a mood of oppressive languor. The rhythmic patterns are notated with surprising intricacy, yet ironically it is this very precision which imbues the music with its trance-like improvisatory quality. The whole first section (which concludes at bar 247) remains impaled upon an implacable tonic pedal. An ostensibly new theme begins its quest from bar 248, but closer inspection reveals yet another facet of the composer’s artistry: this is none other than a reworking of the opening material, albeit rhythmically transformed and with some variations of melodic contour. Twice the music reaches as far as a sonorous C# minor (bb.250, 254), only to subside again via a chorale-style theme of disarming simplicity (from bar 256) back to the sepulchral gloom of the opening. The ternary structure now concludes with an exact repetition of the first section, followed by the briefest of codas, at the end of which the music simply evaporates into the ether.

It is over twenty years since Venables gave us his Stourhead Follies, and inevitably his style has evolved over this period. However, the passage of time does nothing to diminish the power these exquisite pieces have to cast their spell over audiences. Ian Venables has a rare ability to communicate directly and instinctively with our hearts and souls: long may he flourish.

Ian Flint – July 2005