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Ian Venables (b1955)

The Song of the Severn & other songs

Roderick Williams (baritone) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: December 2014
St Michael's Church, Summertown, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Chris Kalcov
Release date: August 2015
Total duration: 70 minutes 4 seconds

Ian Venables has been called 'one of the finest song composers of his generation'. This album presents the first recordings of two of his substantial song cycles, and in the mellifluous hands of baritone Roderick Williams they are revelatory. Williams is joined by the Carducci String Quartet and pianist Graham J Lloyd in The Song of the Severn, a celebration of Venables’ home county of Worcestershire, while the piano-accompanied The pine boughs past music is a poignant tribute to the poetic talents of Ivor Gurney.


'No lover of the early-20th-century English art song or pastoral tradition should fail to investigate this notable issue' (Gramophone)

'Anachronistic though Venables’ music sometimes seems to be, as if yearning for a world that cannot be recovered, it can be powerfully convincing' (The Guardian)» More

The Song of the Severn
Flowing through the heart of Worcestershire is the majestic River Severn, the main artery and life-blood of a county that has, over the centuries, witnessed the changing scenes in our unfolding human drama; it has also been a source of inspiration for composers and artists alike. A few miles downstream is the ancient Roman city of Gloucester, home of the Georgian poet and composer Ivor Gurney. His intimate knowledge of the Gloucestershire landscape and deep love of the river was a recurring theme in his poetry “If England, her spirit lives anywhere—It is by Severn”. I myself live within a short distance of the river and it was on one of my Severnside walks that the idea of composing a song cycle based on the history and landscape of Worcestershire took shape. From the outset, I decided that the river should tell the story of Worcestershire and once this artistic decision had been taken, my thoughts turned to the search for suitable texts. By placing Worcestershire at the centre of the cycle, I realised that this would limit my choice of poetry, although the county can boast one famous poet, namely A E Housman. I was, however more interested in the broader context of landscape and its spiritual resonances than with those poets who happened to have been born in Worcestershire. I am reminded of Owen Sheers’ eloquent description of landscape poetry: it can ‘speak about us—the people who live in, look at and remember the places…which have, in turn, remembered us; as individuals, as communities, as history’. In this way, landscape can reflect so much of ourselves, our memories and our collective past. It is simply waiting for the poet to discover and so ‘illuminate that which we thought we already knew, and make us see that which we thought we’d already seen’.

With these thoughts in mind and the impetus of a commission from the prestigious Malvern Concert Club, it did not take very long before I found a poem that would open the cycle, John Masefield’s dramatic poem On Malvern Hill. It recalls the early history of the occupation of Worcestershire by the Romans and in it, Masefield relates the famous story of the battle fought between Caractacus, (the leader of the ancient Britons) and the Romans. Through his eyes we are made witness to the siege of Caractacus’s hill fort. The poem’s first line conjures up a windswept scene on the hills—‘The wind is brushing down the clover / it beats the tossing branches bare’. The song opens in a turbulent manner, with an ominous-sounding group of fast-moving semiquavers, heard low down in the piano, which is followed by the vocal entry. Although the music that underpins the first two stanzas is essentially strophic in nature, it gives way to a contrasting middle section. Here, the poet portrays a dramatic scene of the Roman army breaking through the British lines. A quasi trompette fanfare, heard initially on the piano, opens the section. This strident rhythmic figure descends through the octaves and settles to form the basis of a new texture—one that tries to capture the oppressiveness of the lines ‘The Roman line, the Roman order / Swayed forwards to the blind assault’. This passage leads to a passionate vocal climax on the words ‘Spearman and charioteer and bowman / Charged and were scattered into spray’. With the battle over, the music returns to the principal theme heard at the outset of the song, although its mood has been recast to one of ineffable sadness as a violin cantilena is heard floating high above a calm and tranquil piano accompaniment. This ‘music of twilight’ mirrors the tragic scene, as the ‘beaten warriors left the battle / Dead on the clansmen’s wicker shields’. In the final stanza, the turbulent opening music makes a brief return before slowing down in preparation for the final lines, ‘Quiet are clan and chief, and quiet / Centurion and signifer’, ending the song in the gloom of dusk. The song is dedicated to Roderick Williams.

By contrast, the second song—a setting of A E Housman’s poem How clear, how lovely bright opens with the brightness of a new dawn. However, as with many of Housman’s poems, what appears at first sight to be a straight forward lyric is not the case, as it reveals a coded and deeply personal narrative. In this instance, Housman’s anguished feelings are about his unrequited love for Moses Jackson. The poem begins affirmatively, ‘How clear, how lovely bright / How beautiful to sight / Those beams of morning play’. The music’s sprightly rhythms echo the poem’s sense of hopefulness and anticipation. In the second stanza, the poet announces that ‘To-day I shall be strong, / No more shall yield to wrong, / Shall squander life no more’. These sentiments are expressed through an expansive and vigourous vocal line that culminates in a sensual cadence on the words ‘life no more’. However, the poet’s optimism gives way to more regretful and despondent thoughts ‘Days lost, I know not how / I shall retrieve them now / Now I shall keep the vow / I never kept before’. Heralded by a bell-like figure in the piano accompaniment and sustained by an insistent rhythmic pedal in the ‘cello, the music reflects Housman’s note of defiance. In the final verse, there is a restatement of the song’s opening material but the earlier sanguinity has now been replaced by the poet’s sudden realisation that the vows that he intended to have kept, have ‘died into the west away’. To capture these feelings of despair, the voice repeats a downward interval of a major third three times on the word ‘falls’, its repetition acting as an aural metaphor for the inescapable finality of the ‘remorseful day’. The song is dedicated to Jennie McGregor-Smith.

The third song—a setting of part of John Drinkwater’s poem, Elgar’s music, provides the cycle with a lyrical intermezzo. The music of Edward Elgar certainly casts a long shadow over the Worcestershire landscape and as I live within sight of the Malvern Hills, I cannot—and nor do I wish to—escape his influence. Elgar once said ‘…there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require’. As I became more attuned to this ‘sense of place’, I began to wonder whether it was Elgar himself who was ‘in the air’, so palpable was his presence. I had not realised that Elgar was the Malvern Concert Club’s founder and in view of this important musical association it seemed only fitting that I should try to acknowledge him in some way. My thoughts centred initially upon the idea of incorporating within the cycle, a quote from one of his works, which I intended as a kind of ‘homage’; I later dismissed this idea as being too clichéd. Fortunately, I had discovered a poem by John Drinkwater, entitled ‘Elgar’s Music’ written in 1935. In many ways, this sonnet was ideal to set, but the more I read it, the more problematical it became. My main objection was, that the second part of this ‘Petrarchian’ sonnet was not, in my opinion, top rate poetry. However, the more I read the octet the more I liked it and so eventually decided to set this portion of the poem. Then, something quite unforeseen happened. As I began working on the opening lines, ‘How quietly he sleeps upon the hill / That sees the seasons go by Severnside’ a sudden rush of musical ideas came. Later, once I had written them down, I realised that there was a something familiar resonating in the music, but I could not grasp what it was and so I showed it to my partner. He immediately recognised that there was a hint of the ‘Sea Slumber-Song’—the first of Elgar’s Sea Pictures—concealed within it. This allusion had been an entirely unconscious one, but once it had been revealed, I decided to integrate it within the song’s evolving structure. So, strange as it may appear, Elgar did make his presence known and perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that his music is indeed ‘in the air’. The song is dedicated to John and Gina Wilson.

A setting of John Masefield’s exuberant poem, Laugh, and be merry acts as the cycle’s boisterous scherzo. The opening tutti presents an energetic rhythmic figure in the unusual time signature of 7/4 that carries the poet’s spirited commentary, ‘Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with a song / Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong’. Whilst sustaining this lively pace, the poem’s fluctuating narrative required subtle variation in the music’s changing moods; indeed, this irregular poem was quite a challenge to set. In the middle section for example, the music’s tempo relaxes briefly and takes on a quasi-religious air in order to accentuate the poem’s festive commentary. Another challenge was setting the final line ‘and be you merry, my friends’. Here, I employ a prolonged vocal melisma on the repeated word ‘merry’ that is intended to bring the song to an exhilarating conclusion. The song is dedicated to Gerald Towell.

Sometimes, how to end a cycle can pose a problem. Having decided that the River Severn would play a central part in the cycle, it was time for it to have a voice of its own. In Philip Worner’s poem The river in December the river represents the eternal and immutable element in the Worcestershire landscape; one through which the poet’s voice is heard to reflect upon his mortality. Before setting this poem, I went on a Severnside walk. Just beyond the parish church at the village of Kempsey, I came across a view of the river silhouetted against the Malvern Hills. It was this magical scene that inspired the opening music. Following a brief piano introduction, a gently flowing ‘cello solo ushers in the vocal melody on the line, ‘Its peace again the river claims / But now December on it rests’ / Too late for all its battered flowers, / Too late for all its abandoned nests’. A calm undercurrent of strings supports the vocal melody as this passage grows slowly to a climax on the line, ‘Hide this summer’s ravage now’. This brings a new thematic idea that underscores the poem’s central message; namely, that consolation can be found in knowing that our lives are part of Nature’s eternal pattern. A short bridge-passage leads to the middle section. On the words, ‘Only God now lights the river’ a broad, elegiac vocal melody is punctuated by forte pizzicato chords in the strings. As the river is flooded with light, the music reaches an iridescent climax on the words ‘with the colours of the kingfisher’. In the final stanza, the poet expresses his hope that after his death, the river will remember him. The song’s calm opening returns and leads to a lengthy coda. At its climax, the voice repeats the words ‘Remember me’ seven times in an expressive outpouring of emotion. With each melismatic phrase the voice and instrumental accompaniment gradually fade away, a niente. At the end, we are left hearing only a distant echo of those ‘times long past’. The song is dedicated to Anthony Gill.

The Song of the Severn was given its première at Malvern Theatres on May 3rd 2013. It was commissioned by Malvern Concert Club for its 110th Season, with funds from the Kay Trust, in memory of Kathy and Margaret Kay. The Kay Trust has also generously supported this recording of the work.

The pine boughs past music
The pine boughs past music was commissioned by Christine Talbot-Cooper for the Gloucester Music Society’s 80th anniversary celebrations in 2010. Having purposefully sought inspiration from the wide array of Gloucestershire poets, from W E Henley to F W Harvey, I finally found an inner artistic identification with the poetry of Ivor Gurney. His work is infused with the imagery of the Gloucestershire landscape and it is against this backdrop that the song cycle’s narrative is played out. The opening song is a setting of My heart makes songs on lonely roads. This poem was written towards the end of 1917 and it deals with Gurney’s unrequited love for Annie Nelson Drummond—a nurse who cared for him while he was convalescing at the Edinburgh War Hospital. Most characteristically, Gurney turns his forlorn narrative away from the individual to affirm the collective; it is the experience of love itself that really matters. The song follows closely the poet’s emotional journey, presenting in the first two stanzas, a simple vocal line that is melancholic in nature and sustained in mood by a lilting figure in the piano accompaniment. In the final stanza, the principal melodic ideas are transformed in order to express the subtle change of emphasis away from the individual to the universal: ‘But I am glad that love has come / To bind me fast and try my worth / For Love’s a powerful Lord and gives / His friends dominion over the earth’.

Soft rain was written between 1926 and 1927 while Gurney was at the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford. It begins contemplatively with the line, ‘Soft rain beats upon my windows / Hardly harming’. These resigned sentiments are echoed in a vocal melody that is expressed through long-breathed phrases, supported by a sensuous harmonic wash of sound. This calm atmosphere is however abruptly disturbed when the poet recalls the distant sound of a gale and ‘that savage toss of the pine boughs past music’. Here, the music rises to an ecstatic ff climax on the words ‘And the roar of the elms’ before subsiding and returning to the song’s opening in preparation for the poem’s dénouement on the words, ‘Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder / Of poetry’s truth, while rain beats as softly here / As sleep, or shelter of farms’. Tragically, the word ‘here’ refers to the asylum in which Gurney was incarcerated.

The wind, written in 1929, is regarded by Gurney scholars as his final poem. Using the wind as an all-encompassing metaphor, Gurney captures the brevity of human existence in lines of stark despair. For the full force of the poem’s existential narrative to be understood when sung, I decided to set the vocal line strophically, underpinning it with a piano accompaniment that supports, rather than comments upon the poem’s disconsolate imagery; each of the three stanzas increase in intensity as the piano’s textures become more elaborate.

It would have been easy to have rounded off the cycle by setting another poem by Ivor Gurney. However, it was to Leonard Clark (1905-1981) to whom I turned. The title of his summative poem speaks for itself. In memoriam: Ivor Gurney / Obit 26th XII 1937 is a haunting elegy to Gurney’s everlasting memory. In this ‘through-composed’ song, I have tried to capture the poem’s constantly shifting narrative—a journey that takes us through a multiplicity of moods from loss and mourning, to memory and commemoration and finally to affirmation. Nowhere, is this sense of affirmation more apparent than in the final vocal climax and piano postlude where the chiming of the bells of Gloucester Cathedral can be heard resounding a celebratory note for one of Gloucestershire’s finest poets. The cycle is dedicated to Roderic Dunnett.

Three of the four songs with string quartet are arrangements, by Graham J Lloyd, of existing works that were originally written for piano and voice.

Flying crooked is a humorous interpretation of Robert Graves’ poem about the ‘cabbage white’ butterfly. The music’s overriding character is one of levity and this has been perfectly captured in this string arrangement, by the use of playful pizzicatos. At the end of the song, I incorporate in the vocal line, a scalic passage on the word ‘crooked’. This is intended, partly to mirror the haphazard flight of the butterfly in question but also to convey a feeling of mock gravitas. The song is dedicated to Lady Trudy Bliss.

In A kiss from ‘Moments of vision’, Thomas Hardy juxtaposes the naïve impulses of an innocent love with love as an eternal theme. Its two stanzas are set strophically but with some slight variation and are flanked by a lengthy introduction and short coda. Although the song’s prevailing mood is one of nostalgia, there are affirmative passages which use dance like rhythms, for example on the line, ‘which in a trice took wing upon the air’ which also bring moments of lightness. The song is dedicated to Kevin McLean-Mair.

Evening bells is a setting of a poem by the Northamptonshire poet, John Clare. It is the third song from a cycle for voice and string quartet entitled, Invite, to Eternity Op 31. Clare evokes a pastoral scene, broken only by the sounds of distant bells and ‘zephyrs swelling’. The accompanying music is lively and highly driven and its rusticity is underpinned by the use of the intervals of a fourth and fifth in combination with an insistent rhythmic pedal which dominates the texture; the latter’s relentless quality allowing for an almost spontaneous interplay to occur between voice and string quartet. Contrast is provided in the third stanza, where ruminative tremolandi accompany a more lyrical vocal line. The song was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, Patrick Aydon and Brenda Aydon.

The night has a thousand eyes was commissioned by Kenneth R Prendergast in 2012 to celebrate his 50th birthday. It is a setting of a short lyric poem by Francis William Bourdillon (1852-1921). The poem presents a series of contrary thoughts; night and day, the many and the one, life and death, but its principal opposite is the heart versus the mind. In Bourdillon’s opinion, the heart is more important to life than the mind and in the final two lines he states that the essence of life is lost, once love is lost. In this song, I have tried to evoke an otherworldly and transcendental mood by using an insistent oscillation of major and minor triads in the accompaniment, over which the voice sings an expressive lament. The melismatic nature of the vocal line at the end of the song is intended to intensify the finality of the words, ‘when love is gone’. The song is dedicated to Kenneth R Prendergast.

Break, break, break is a setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Elegiac lyric to his friend, Arthur Hallam. The song’s tempestuous introduction conjures up the elemental power of the sea breaking on the ‘cold gray stones’. The poet hears the joyful cries of the ‘fisherman’s boy who shouts with his sister at play’, but this does not bring any comfort, only a reminder of what he has lost. The vocal line’s opening declamation gives way to a slower central section where the music becomes intimate and nostalgic, in preparation for the poignant line, ‘Oh for the touch of a vanished hand’. The opening music returns and the song ends on a note of resignation as the poet realises that the ‘tender grace’ of past happier days will never return. The song is dedicated to Nigel and Gilly Lowson.

Midnight lamentation is my earliest song setting and was composed in 1974. The words are by the early 20th-century Georgian poet—Harold Monro (1879-1932). The poem’s narrative is deeply poignant and in my youthful ardour, I responded by composing a simple vocal melody underpinned by an accompaniment that has a directness that allows the poem’s melancholic commentary to be heard clearly. The song is dedicated to Graham. J Lloyd.

The hippo is a setting of a poem by the American poet Theodore Roethke and is one of my more light-hearted songs. Musically, I have sought to match the poem’s whimsical character through a vocal line that subtly mirrors its humour. However, this humour is understated and the song’s overall mood is reflective, rather than mere parody. It is dedicated to Paul and Carol Walshe.

The invitation to the gondola is a setting of a poem by the 19th-century author and poet John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). Lost in reverie, Symonds, depicts the imagery of Venice as a ‘city seen in dreams’. The poem’s six stanzas provided an obvious ternary structure, where, in the outer sections, the rapid semiquavers of the piano accompaniment express the anticipatory nature of the poem, ‘Come forth for night is falling’. By contrast, the middle stanzas evoke an atmosphere of tranquillity as ‘Bells call to bells from the islands’. This is sustained by an impressionistic harmonic language and by the introduction of a rocking figure in the piano accompaniment that gives just a hint of ‘a breeze from the sea’. The final two stanzas reprise the opening music, culminating in a dramatic vocal climax that is followed by a short postlude for piano solo. The song is dedicated to Joanna Brickell.

Frutta di mare was written during the summer of 2011. Geoffrey Scott (1884-1929) was an English scholar and poet, known principally as an architectural historian. His relationship with Vita Sackville-West prompted a literary career that led to a volume of his poetry being published posthumously in 1931. Scott’s poem is one of the earliest 20th century poems to deal with the subject of ecology. Its essential message is, that mankind has become far too self-absorbed to hear Nature’s warnings. The song follows closely the poem’s narrative, opening with a piano accompaniment that imitates the gently lapping of waves on a distant seashore. The voice enters on the words ‘I am a sea shell, flung up from an ancient sea / Now I lie here among roots of a tamarisk tree / no one listens to me’. This tranquil introduction gives way to a middle section that grows gradually more chromatic, reaching a ff climax on the words ‘only your sorrows sound comes coiling to the brim’. This is followed by a reflective coda that introduces a new vocal melody that is accompanied by slow-moving chords in the piano. Here, the poem’s narrative discloses that ‘Nature’ does, indeed have the answers to all our questions but, because of humanity’s never ending hubris, denies to give them. The song is dedicated to Sally Porter Munro.

Ian Venables © 2015

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