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ClassicsOnline Home » VENABLES I.: On the Wings of Love / Venetian Songs (English Song, Vol. 21) (A. Kennedy, Burnside)
Ian Venables is one of Britain’s foremost composers of art-song, and has a significant catalogue of vocal and chamber music to his credit. Writing tonal music in a warm lyric vein, he has a rare gift of being able to ‘locate’ himself, believably, in a different period and absorb from it, both musically and poetically, all its fundamental beauty, while also producing works of astonishing freshness, naturalness and originality. On the Wings of Love are settings by non-English poets, while Love’s Voice sets Venetian poetry by J.A. Symonds. All his songs are sincere expressions of a love of poetry, combined with a profound understanding of musical and poetic tradition.
By Philip Lancaster
The British Music Society
By Robert A Moore
American Record Guide
By Jeremy Marchant
Ian Venables (b. 1955)
On the Wings of Love, Op. 38 • Venetian Songs – Love’s Voice, Op. 22
Ian Venables was born in Liverpool in 1955 and was educated at Liverpool Collegiate Grammar School. He studied music with Richard Arnell at Trinity College of Music, London and later with Andrew Downes, John Mayer and John Joubert in Birmingham. His compositions encompass many genres, and in particular he has added significantly to the canon of English art-song. Described as ‘…one of the finest song composers of his generation…’, he has written over fifty works in this genre, which includes six major song-cycles, Venetian Songs – Love’s Voice, Op. 22 (1995); Invite to Eternity, Op. 31, for tenor and string quartet (1997); Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, Op. 36, for tenor, string quartet and piano (2004); On the Wings of Love, Op. 38, for tenor, clarinet and piano (2006); The Pine Boughs Past Music, Op. 39, for baritone and piano (2009) and Remember This, Op. 40 – A Cantata for soprano, tenor, string quartet, and piano (2010). Other songs for solo voice and piano include, Two Songs, Op. 28 (1997), and Six Songs, Op. 33 (1999–2003), as well as ‘A Dramatic Scena’ for counter-tenor and piano – At the Court of the poisoned Rose, Op. 20 (1994). His songs have been performed by national and internationally acclaimed artists that include Andrew Kennedy, Roderick Williams, Patricia Rozario, Ian Partridge, Howard Wong, Nathan Vale, Peter Wilman and Nicholas Mulroy. His many chamber works include a Piano Quintet, Op. 27 (1995), described by Roderic Dunnett in the Independent as ‘…lending a new late twentieth century dimension to the English pastoral…’ and a String Quartet, Op. 32 (1998), as well as smaller pieces for solo instruments and piano. He has also written works for choir, Awake, awake, the world is young, Op. 34 (1999), for organ, Rhapsody, Op. 25 (1996), for brass and for solo piano. He is an acknowledged expert on the nineteenth-century poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds, and apart from having set five of his poems for voice and piano, he has contributed a significant essay to the book John Addington Symonds – Culture and the Demon Desire (Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000). He is President of The Arthur Bliss Society, as well as Chairman of the Ivor Gurney Society. His continuing work on the music of Gurney has led to orchestrations of two of his songs (2003), counterparts to the two that were orchestrated by Herbert Howells, and newly edited versions of Gurney’s War Elegy (1920) and A Gloucestershire Rhapsody (1919–1921), with Philip Lancaster. His music is published by Novello and Company Ltd and has been recorded on the Signum, Somm and Regent labels. The history and development of English song is threaded through the cultural fabric of that country, spanning from the Elizabethan era to the present day, and although it became somewhat ‘threadbare’ in the eighteenth century, its re-emergence in the second half of the nineteenth century, supported by a musical aesthetic that encouraged its development, has given us a raft of compositions that not only have the power to nourish us spiritually, but also contribute significantly to defining our ‘Englishness’. That song-writing is still important to composers writing in this country is an indicator that the desire to ‘sing songs’, as Michael Tippett once said, is as strong as ever.
One such composer with that desire is Ian Venables. The writer and reviewer Roderic Dunnett best sums up Venables’s contribution to English music, “Every now and then a composer emerges who has a remarkable gift of being able to sum up perfectly the spirit of music of a previous era, and yet draw fresh strength from it to create something invigorating, original and new…[and] he has an enviable ability to direct and shape his musical ideas into powerful and highly expressive statements while at the same time displaying a remarkable gift for melodic and harmonic invention.” Like the American composer Ned Rorem, the centrepiece of his creative aesthetic is artsong, an area to which he has contributed significantly and written extensively. In his searching assessment of the composer’s songs, the author Colin Scott-Sutherland quotes Venables as saying: “…[that] poetry and music are sister art forms. But I would go further than this and suggest that when a composer’s music is in complete accord with the poet’s intentions, 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 terms…”.
Venables has to date composed over fifty songs and On the Wings of Love are settings by non-English writers. Ionian Song is by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. In it he suggests that, in spite of having ‘driven them [The Gods] out of their temples’, they are nevertheless, still ‘watching’ over their land. The music moves from being dramatic to poignantly lyrical; the second half of the song attempting to capture the stillness of an August morning, when, as through a veil, one can almost see Apollo himself crossing over the Arcadian Hills. The Moon Sails Out is an energetic setting of a poem by Federico García Lorca, in a masterly translation by Robert Bly. Draped in Surrealist imagery, it expresses the joy and excitement of an evening spent amidst a moonlit landscape in which daylight has been replaced by a nocturnal world of shadows and dreams. The major theme running through Jean de Sponde’s 26 Sonnets d’Amour is that of constancy. The introduction to Sonnet XI creates a mood of tranquillity and peacefulness in which the narrator reflects upon the changing nature of his love. This is evoked in the minimalist figuration of the piano accompaniment. In the second stanza, this serenity is broken as the music gives way to a passionate outpouring of emotion that tries to recapture something of the ‘burning love’ of youth. After an intoxicating middle section, the song builds to a ff climax, with a dramatic release of tension on the words ‘That, loving you, I love without regret’. A return to the reflective mood of the opening is sustained right up until the coda. Here the music grows in affirmation, as the piano accompaniment continues its relentless figure to ffff, slowly decreasing in dynamic intensity as it fades away to a barely audible echo. In his Epitaph, the Emperor Hadrian muses upon the age-old question of what happens to the human spirit after its earthly life is over? Venables has set the words to a simple melody, which is supported by a chorale-like accompaniment and which is also presented both as a prelude for solo clarinet, and a postlude for clarinet and piano. In W.B. Yeats’s When you are Old Venables evokes a heightened mood of subdued intensity in anticipation of the opening line. The seemingly simple poetic form in three four-line stanzas belies a subtly changing metre, one that builds in emotional intensity. The cycle was commissioned by Nigel and Gilly Lowson, in celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary.
From Venables’s first reading of the poetry of John Addington Symonds, he was confident that he had found what Gerald Finzi described as a ‘chosen identification’, an empathy borne from a shared philosophical outlook on life and a common conviction about the nature and purpose of artistic endeavour. The first song in the cycle Love’s Voice is a setting of a poem entitled Fortunate Isles and its dreamy atmosphere and allusions to water strongly suggests that Venice was the source of its inspiration. Above a rippling piano accompaniment a sensual vocal line plays out a wistful narrative that tells of a remote and sequestered island. The two outer stanzas flank a central one that is both slow moving and more contemplative in character. In The Passing Stranger Symonds’s theme is one of disorientation as related by the narrator, who is transported to an imaginary past world. An austere harmonic language full of uncompromising dissonance heightens the power of the vocal line. In The Invitation to the Gondola, Symonds evokes Venice as a ‘city seen in dreams’, his fervent invitation being proclaimed in the opening stanza. His penumbrous imagery is used skilfully to evoke a highly charged atmosphere in which expectancy and amatory desire coalesce. The poem’s six stanzas provided an obvious ternary structure, where, in the outer sections, the rapid piano semi-quavers of the piano accompaniment dominate. By contrast, the mood of the middle two stanzas changes to one of tranquillity. Love’s Voice was commissioned by Mr Andrew Milner in 1993 and this poem is a paean to love in which Symonds re-works the Tennysonian message, ‘‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. The piano’s delicately undulating accompaniment captures the shimmering light as it dances upon the water, giving way to a more anguished section, ultimately returning to the principal melodic material.
The earliest song in Ian Venables’s output is a setting of Harold Monro’s poem Midnight Lamentation, written when the composer was nineteen. There is a simplicity in its harmonic language that allows the profundity of the poem to be balanced perfectly with the music and it is certainly a powerful interpretation of a profoundly moving poem. In the first of two songs to be recorded here for the first time, Venables sets Alfred Lord Tennyson. Break, break, break has a gothic austerity that is matched equally by the power of the music and is a marvellous evocation of the restlessness of the sea. The central section transforms the overall mood, however this is only fleeting, as the dramatic opening material returns to herald in the last verse. The second song, The November Piano, is by the contemporary poet Charles Bennett. Delicate piano tracery underpins a melody of limpid innocence, which becomes slightly more impassioned, before being suspended on its questioning final chord. In Ernest Dowson’s poem Vitae Summa Brevis, Venables takes the two-stanza poem and treats it in a strophic manner, adding only occasional variation to the vocal line. Its musical language is suggestive of the sound world found in his earliest song Midnight Lamentation. In contrast Flying Crooked is a witty interpretation of Robert Graves’s poem about the cabbage-white butterfly. Its pointillistic and harmonically ambiguous piano writing contrasts the effortless diatonicism of the vocal line, creating a whimsical, if not irreverent setting. Edna St Vincent Millay’s untitled sonnet, given the title At Midnight, is an early work, and is a poignant description of one woman’s reminiscences on past loves. Its timeless, dream-like quality is created by an insistent rocking figure, and a rich and sensuous harmonic language, which heightens Millay’s emotionally charged writing. The Hippo, by the American poet Theodore Roethke is one of the composer’s shortest and most delightful songs. This whimsical poem is perfectly matched by the subtlety of the music and by a vocal line that is flexible enough to bring out the poem’s humour. However, this humour is understated, and the song’s overall mood is reflective, rather than mere parody. In J.A. Symonds’s poem At Malvern, Venables has evoked the calm and serenity of Malvern in the 1860s. A limpid piano accompaniment, representative of the Priory bells, underpins this tripartite structure, with the middle section acting as a commentary on the virtues of living life to the full. In the final song, A Kiss, Thomas Hardy contrasts the naïve impulses of an innocent love with love as an eternal theme and in setting its two stanzas, Venables has chosen to create an almost identical sound world for both, with only subtle changes to voice and piano in texture and tessitura.
Graham J Lloyd
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VENABLES I.: On the Wings of Love / Venetian Songs...