Three Pieces for Violin and Piano Op.11, by John France

It would be both easy and lazy to describe Ian Venables Three Pieces for violin, Op.11 as an example of regurgitated ‘English Pastoral’. The composer himself has admitted the influence of ‘landscape’ on this piece. However, this work is not a parody of earlier composers from the so-called ‘cow-pat’ school of writing. It is certainly not an exercise in ‘bucolic nostalgia’ for a rural scene that has largely disappeared. There are no suggestions of clogs, Morris dancers or ploughman’s lunches.

Ian Venables explained to me the background of his Three Pieces for violin and piano. He had arrived in Worcester in 1986 to take up a new teaching appointment and soon began to explore the town and countryside around this great city. He was moved by the landscape and wished ‘in some way to capture the wonderful Severn Valley landscape in music.’

More specifically, Venables recalled that whilst walking on the Malvern Hills and visiting Sir Edward Elgar’s grave at St. Wulstan’s Church in Little Malvern, he was inspired to compose the Pastorale. The composer considered that the combination of violin and piano gave best expression to the ‘inherent lyricism’ that he perceived in the surrounding countryside. However a different emotion underlies the Romance – this is a personal reflection on love and relationships. The final piece was not motivated by any particular event or landscape – however Venables claims that this Dance simply reflects the ‘happy state of mind’ he had at that stage of his career. He insists that it is an exercise in overcoming technical difficulties and the creation of musical ‘excitement’. Yet this movement is the most hard-edged of the three pieces.

In spite of the fact that this present work is effectively three discrete pieces, it would be possible to regard it as a ‘Sonata’, in spite of the fact that there is a considerable disparity between the pieces or ‘movements’. Running through the entire work is a thread of reflection. The final Dance, in spite of its exuberance and ‘joie de vivre’, is not all emotional plain sailing.

The opening ‘pastorale’ responds well to one or more of the ‘classical’ or even ‘baroque’ definitions of this form. Nevertheless, this is not a piece that is written in imitation of shepherds and their shawms and pipes; nor is it an exercise in presenting an offering to the infant Jesus on Christmas morning as in Bach’s Sinfonia which begins the second part of the Christmas Oratorio nor the Sinfonia Pastorale in Handel’s Messiah. However, there are certain characteristics that could suggest that Venables was unconsciously nodding in this direction.

Firstly, there is an inherent simplicity of the formal structure which is conceived in ternary form. Secondly, there is the relatively straightforward harmonic scheme which is definitely not adventurous. And thirdly, the moderate pace of this music may be suggestive of a lullaby. The melody that dominates this piece is both tender and flowing. On the other hand the central section moves away from this tranquillity and produces something more involved and with greater depth. The programme notes for this work suggest that in this theme the composer ‘unfurls a passage full of ardent lyricism as the piano supports a soaring melody with a luminous accompaniment’. However the simplicity and innocence of the opening material returns to bring the piece to a satisfying and gentle conclusion.

The Romance is much nearer to the pastoral models derived from the first half of the twentieth-century. In fact, this is the piece that most closely approaches the musical ethos of Gerald Finzi. This is reflective music: meditating on the past rather than looking to the future. Many of Finzi’s works have been described as being valedictory or retrospective, and in this sense Venables has equalled the exemplar for sadness and introspection. It is strange that the composer considers that this work was inspired by an affair of the heart that was progressing rather well. To my ear there is certainly something of the ‘what might have beens’ drifting across the pages of this piece. Yet in the opening and closing sections of this movement there is a serenity that is rarely disturbed: Venables has created stasis here and the listener is barely conscious of the passage of time. If anything, one wishes the music would go on forever. However, the conclusion of this ‘movement’ is warmer and has a brave try at being optimistic, nevertheless the original mood is never quite pushed to one side.

In spite of Ian Venables assertion that the Dance reflects his ‘happy state of mind’ there is something sinister, almost ‘Bartokian’, in this music that balances over and against a gorgeous ‘second subject.’ This tune is one of the very best that Venables has so far given us. The programme notes give the game away, I think, when it states that the ‘theme’ from the Romance is presented heroically in octaves by both violin and piano.’ Heroic indeed! But not before the soloists have managed to put a number of phantoms to flight. All is well in the coda and the work concludes on a positive note.

Trying to understand what ‘English Pastoral’ (in a musical context) means can be a difficult task. Popular opinion would suggest that any composition that is gentle and reflective could be labelled ‘pastoral’-especially if written by an Englishman. More pertinently it would tend to imply something akin to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending or George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow. However the reality is much more complex.

The musicologist Ted Perkins has suggested that there are at least three possible stylistic markers for this particular genre: 1) the use of folksong/modal inspired melody, 2) impressionistic techniques and finally 3) a certain neo-classical colouring. Even the briefest of studies of Venables Three Pieces will show that although elements of all three categories can be found in this work, no ‘marker’ dominates or presumes to be the constructive principle of this piece.

To complicate matters further, Eric Saylor (Musical Quarterly 91/1-2: 2008) has recognised the concept of ‘soft’ pastoral and ‘hard’ pastoral. The former can be applied to a poem or a piece of music that seeks to escape from the relative chaos of urban life to the rural idyll. He writes, ‘This ‘soft pastoralism’ parallels the Classical withdrawal from the city to the simplicity of Arcadia and likewise reflects the Romantic ideal of nature as an alternative to unsavoury modernity’. ‘Hard’ Pastoral on the other hand would attempt to ‘present an unsentimental view of nature and the countryside, free from escapist trappings.’

So, what is the stylistic set for Ian Venables’s Three Pieces? Firstly, I would suggest that there is an air of ‘soft’ pastoralism about the genesis and realisation of much this music. There is a tangible mood created in these pages that would allow anyone who has visited the Malvern or the Severn Valley will empathise with it. Secondly, Venables has not chosen to use the devices as defined by Perkins of early twentieth-century pastoralism in any consistent way. These three pieces are written very much in a post-romantic style that has more than one stylistic marker. But lastly, there is much that is retrospective and backward-looking in this music: from the relatively conservative musical language, by way of the obvious debt to Finzi to the largely introspective mood of the music that aligns itself with many pieces conceived in the works of the so-called English Pastoral School. Like much of Ian Venables music it is not possible to assign absolute influences. What is true is that his music lies on a trajectory from the music of Vaughan Williams and Butterworth through Finzi and some more modernist accretions such as Bartok and Stravinsky. This trajectory emerges onto a new pasture that is wholly Venables own, but never denies the musical traditions of the past. Finally, it would appear to me that the first two movements represent a kind of ‘soft’ pastoral whilst the final ‘dance’ is leaning towards a harder-edged example of this genre.

The Three Pieces for violin and piano were first performed at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hall, Worcester with Barrie Moore (violin) and Graham Lloyd (piano).

March 2011