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Andrew Motion's tribute to the Queen Mother, Remember this, is conjured by Ian Venables into a new song cycle for soprano, tenor, string quartet and piano, and is here recorded alongside a moving set of First World War poetry settings for tenor, viola and piano, and six varied songs for the more conventional soprano and piano.
As the present title suggests, the works on this disc are predominantly reflective in mood although this does not preclude the use of faster-moving music whenever the poetry requires it. Its subject matter celebrates the timelessness of love through the poetry of James Joyce, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, John Clare, Robert Nichols and the modern poet Jennifer Andrews; the celebration and commemoration of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, in Sir Andrew Motion’s remarkable narrative poem Remember this and the collective remembrance of those who died in the First World War: the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy and the less well-known Francis St Vincent Morris providing the impetus for one of Ian Venables’ most dramatic and profoundly moving cycles.
The opening six songs were composed specifically for soprano, which is a significant but welcome departure for a composer who has written primarily for the male voice.
The first, The way through was written in 1999 for Susan Anne Jenkins and Jennifer Partridge, who gave the premiere in that year. In Jennifer Andrews’ poem of the same title, the poet evokes a Frostian landscape, where a desire to ‘revisit’ the past, seems only possible ‘in dreams’. Venables, a master of mood and word painting, conjures up this dream-like atmosphere with a limpid piano accompaniment which underpins the vocal narrative; the prevailing Aeolian modality adding to the sense of nostalgia. On the word ‘dreams’, the music, now tinged with a hint of chromaticism, evanesces with mesmerising beauty as it moves towards a passionate outpouring as the protagonist looks ‘through to limitless summer’. However, this ardency is short-lived as the realisation is, that even ‘in dreams’, one does not always find ultimate fulfilment, the return to the opening music adding aural significance to this point. The work is dedicated to fellow composer and friend, Richard Sisson.
Venables was commissioned in 2016 to write a work for Gina Wilson to present to her husband John on his 75th birthday. He chose to set the short lyric poem Aurelia from Robert Nichols’ collection Aurelia and other poems which was published in 1920. The syncopated piano introduction sets the scene for the beautiful opening line ‘When within my arms I hold you, motionless’ which is supported by plangent chords. These become slightly more impassioned as the central climax is reached on the words ‘Tender as my heart is tender’ which then dissolves into the music of the opening stanza. Nichols begins the second with an equally beautiful line, which balances the two lovers’ feelings ‘When within your arms you hold me / And kisses speak your love unspoken’. Although the music is similar in sound and mood, the higher pitch adds to the intense poignancy of the moment as it moves towards its final lines ‘Then my eyes with tears run over, And my very heart is broken’, the piano’s brief postlude ending the work in a mood of restrained optimism.
One might not necessarily think of James Joyce as the obvious choice for a composer to set, given the often prolix style of his prose. However his first book of poetry Chamber Music, consisting of 36 love poems, came to the attention of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound when it was written in 1907, the latter commenting that 'the quality and distinction of the poems in the first half … is due in part to their author’s strict musical training … the wording is Elizabethan, the metres at times suggesting Herrick'. It is worth noting that the American composer Samuel Barber set five poems from Joyce’s collection, but from the second half: numbers XX; XXII; XXXII; XXXIV and XXXVI. Ian Venables chose to set number III after being offered a commission from a close American friend, the artist Margaret Atkinson, who asked for a work to celebrate her own longstanding friendship with Mary DeLong and Jamie Riotto. Chamber Music III is a fine example, out of many, of Ian Venables’ ability to create an extended, through-composed structure whilst capturing and enhancing in music a poem’s constantly shifting moods; something essential to a successful art song. The ‘chiming’ of midnight sets the scene, ‘At that hour when all things have repose’ and when, accompanied by sensual chords, we are asked ‘Do you hear the night wind and the sighs / Of harps playing unto / Love to unclose the pale gates of sunrise?’. Here, Venables’ mastery of word painting coming to the fore, where, on the word ‘gates’, an unexpected modulation to G sharp minor literally, but aurally, opens the ‘gates of sunrise’. For the remainder of this song, plangent chords have now given way to a slow-moving, semiquaver accompaniment, but in sumptuous dialogue with the vocal line. Here, the opening question—now with the important addition of the word ‘alone’: ‘Do you alone awake to hear the sweet harps play’ is asked once more. An exotic and sensual harmonic language accompanies an equally sensual vocal line and leads us to the climax on ‘Play on invisible harps, unto love / Whose way in heaven is aglow’. The poem’s final lines ‘At that hour when soft lights come and go / Soft sweet music in the air above and in the earth below.’ are now firmly rooted in the Aeolian mode, where the melodic and harmonic simplicity of the music allows for a calming and reflective coda to Joyce’s moving narrative.
The composer and present writer had the privilege of knowing Lady Gertrude Bliss, the widow of Sir Arthur Bliss. Having already written the song Flying crooked for her, she then asked Ian Venables to write a song in celebration of her 100th birthday in 2004. For this, it was Lady Bliss herself who chose her favourite poem Love lives beyond the tomb by John Clare. In this beautiful evocation of love, as seen through and in nature, Lady Bliss is reflecting on her own love for her husband.
A playful piano introduction, with modally inflected harmonies and Siciliano-like rhythms transports us into the past. An unexpected shift from D major to D minor heralds the opening lines ‘Love lives beyond / The tomb, the earth which fades like dew. I love the fond / The faithful and the true’, which are supported by sepulchral chords. The lightness of the central section, where Clare reflects on where, in nature, love can be ‘seen’, is mirrored in a yet more playful piano accompaniment, where right hand arabesques enhance the bucolic scene. A return to the opening music is now tinged with a more nostalgic hue as Clare repeats the first line. Even the instrumental introduction, now acting as the song’s postlude seems less joyful as a result of what has gone before: the music here reflecting that whilst ‘Love lives beyond the tomb’ the spectre of loss is perhaps not that far away.
In choosing Edward Thomas’s poem It rains, Ian Venables has written one of his longest and most sensual songs. The theme of rain has featured strongly for both poet and composer; the former in one of his most famous poems, Rain and the latter most notably, in his settings of Ivor Gurney’s Soft rain: ‘Soft rain beats upon my window, hardly harming’ and Edna St Vincent Millay’s At midnight: ‘and the rain is full of ghosts tonight that tap and sigh upon the glass’. The song contrasts two very different musical ideas: one that is sensual and the other up-lifting. A backdrop of soft summer rain is evoked through the use of a rich harmonic sound-world that sustains a heady mood in which the vocal narrative recalls a past moment of intense passion. This nostalgic recollection by the poet, is transformed into a vision of self-renewal. Musically this is achieved by two brief passages that are harmonically tonal and affirmative in character. The vocal narrative continues as the song seeks to find a synthesis between the sensual and the affirmatory. This necessary resolution is achieved in the concluding vocal climax on the words ‘the past hovering as it revisits the light.’, where a brief echo of the opening mood is replaced by a triumphant restatement of the second, life-affirming idea.
The final song in this group, I caught the changes of the year, is a setting of the first poem from John Drinkwater’s Roundels of the year, with its evocative opening lines ‘I caught the changes of the year / In soft and fragile nets of song / For you to whom my days belong.’ Here, the beauty and fragility of love are deftly wrought from the simplest of musical materials, and a melody of limpid innocence is supported by delicate chords. In the more impassioned middle section the rhythmic and harmonic movement quickens, adding to Drinkwater’s more emphatic assertion that ‘And here some sound of beauty, here / Some note of ancient, ageless wrong / Reshaping as my lips were strong.’ An exact restatement of the opening stanza brings with it felicitous variation; the words and music now intoned with increased profundity, having inevitably been affected by what has gone before.
The song was commissioned as a wedding gift by Patrick Aydon—a dear friend and champion of Ian Venables’ music—for his wife Kate, to whom the work is also dedicated.
Notes by Graham J Lloyd
Sometimes one’s creative life can take an unexpected turn and meeting the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion proved to be such a moment. We were first introduced following a talk he gave at the Ledbury Poetry Festival in 2004. One of the topics we discussed on that occasion was his interest in writing ‘words for music’. He said that he found this kind of creative collaboration very satisfying and so it did not take long for our conversation to lead to a tentative proposal that we might work together. Sadly, fate intervened and due to a serious illness I was not able to take this project any further. However, despite this setback, I was still very keen to read his poetry in the hope that I might discover a suitable text to set. As is often the case I find that the visual impact of a poem, as it appears on the page, can be so compelling that I do wonder whether I chose the poem or whether it chooses me. Motion’s powerful poem Remember this most definitely chose me! The instant I read it I knew that it had what I refer to as ‘hidden music’ lying beneath the surface of the words. Furthermore, the poem’s elegiac narrative, striking visual imagery and imaginative structure provided me with a wellspring of musical possibilities.
Remember this was written in memory of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002. It comprises eight sections, four of which are interleaved with a narrative that recounts the Queen Mother’s final journey from death, to lying in state, her funeral and ultimately her burial. Between each narrative section there is a free-standing sonnet, whose subject focusses upon a specific interest or aspect of the Queen Mother’s life. I gave Remember this the subtitle ‘Cantata’ for the reason that the earliest secular cantatas of the 17th century were often written for solo voice with ‘minimal’ instrumental accompaniment; its length also necessitating a broader title than just ‘song cycle’. An unusual feature of Remember this is that each narrative section is heralded by a short four-note motif that is first heard on the piano in the instrumental introduction. This ‘aural signpost’ opens each of the four sections, beginning with the words ‘Think of’. All eight sections segue into the next, either immediately or with the shortest of written-out breaks and despite the linking motifs, each section inhabits its own sound-world. Perhaps the most unconventional feature of the cycle is that I have set the title of the poem.
Following a brief introduction, where both voices are heard intoning the words ‘Remember this’, the tenor sings a poignant cantilena that depicts the Queen Mother’s last hours: ‘Think of the failing body now awake in its final hours’. This sombre mood is heightened by the use of harmonics heard on both violins, which evoke a disembodied sound-world. The poet invites the reader to contemplate upon ‘what is means to be set free from self, from sense, from history’. This scene segues into the poem’s second section. Here, a fleeting memory from the Queen Mother’s life provides the basis for a contrasting poem whose subject matter concerns the creation of new life, as symbolised by a salmon returning to the place of its birth in order to spawn: ‘In the swirl of its pool the home coming salmon has no intuition of anything changed’. The third narrative, beginning with the words ‘Think of the flower-lit coffin’ describes The Queen Mother lying in state and the thousands of people who came to pay their respects to her. The poet observes that while the mourners were ‘honouring a time that simply as a fact of time could only end’, they were also acknowledging that ‘also must our own lives turn from dust to dust’. The fourth section is a poem ostensively about Trees. Here, nature’s recurring cycle of death and rebirth stands in marked contrast to humanity’s temporal drama: ‘In the grip of their season the sky-scraping trees continue their business of plumping up buds’. This life-affirming poem leads directly into the fifth narrative, depicting the scene of the state funeral procession: ‘as now the coffin glides through London’s traffic-parted day’. The sixth poem provides the cycle with a fast moving Scherzo movement. This highly-charged poem depicts race-horses being put through their paces, ‘On the crest of their downs with galloping sunlight / the horses in their training know in their bones nothing but racing’. Once again the poet uses the scene to comment upon the deterministic nature of the natural world. However, this fleeting moment of joie de vivre is short-lived, as we are plunged back into the sombre narrative and to the scene at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Here, the poet prompts us to contemplate upon ‘the buried body laid inside its final earthly shade’. In the final section of Remember this, the poet appraises the Queen Mother’s life in an historical context; a life that spanned a whole century and one that defined an important period in our island’s history. For this summative moment I bring both voices together. The music begins in an anticipatory mood, building slowly to a powerfully expressive climax which incorporates ideas from the first two movements before dying away to a valedictory coda that too reprises previous musical ideas, but this time presented tenderly and tinged with nostalgia. As the music moves towards its final bars, the listener is not only urged to remember the Queen Mother but also to reflect upon their own life’s journey. Remember this was commissioned with the generous support of Mr Andrew Milner and the Limoges Trust.
Notes by Ian Venables
As the preparations for the centenary commemorations of the Great War gathered pace in 2013, Ian Venables began to think about how he might add his own tribute to the many creative projects that were being planned. As ever, the impetus to compose came from a number of oblique sources. Firstly, living close to Gheluvelt Memorial Park in Worcester, Venables was inspired by the Worcestershire Regiment, whose self-sacrifice prevented the German army from breaking through the allied lines in the early months of the war. According to Sir Winston Churchill, this momentous act of bravery changed the whole course of the conflict and it is fitting that Through these pale cold days is dedicated to their memory. Secondly, Venables has had a long association with the Worcester Royal Grammar School, where he taught for over 20 years. In 1914 it was the City’s principal grammar school, and by the end of the war ninety of its boys had perished. Finally, there was the commission itself from the Limoges Trust whose generous support helped to bring this work to fruition.
As ever with a song-cycle, the task of finding suitable texts can often take as long as the compositional process itself. Whist the vast majority of WWI poetry tended to focus upon the experience of army life and the brutality of trench-warfare, Venables’ cycle explores war from a more generalised perspective, dealing with ‘themes’ that might have resonance for a contemporary audience. These ‘themes’ touch upon the universality of loss, love, and personal identity and as a result lift the poetry out of the arena of war and bring it within the compass of personal experience.
Wilfred Owen’s poem The send-off 'hit' the composer with such emotional force that he said he felt compelled to set it. Indeed, the opening line, ‘Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way to the siding-shed’, contains within it a strong musical rhythm that is highly suggestive of an army on the march! This opening song is ‘through composed’ and follows closely the poem’s verse structure of four, five-line stanzas. In the second, the poet enlists the reader, in an almost voyeuristic manner, to become an accomplice at the ‘send-off’—‘Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp / stood staring hard’. This passage’s eerie and intimate atmosphere is further heightened by the viola’s absence.
A quasi-recitative follows at the words, ‘We never heard to which front these were sent’ and leads to a vocal climax. Here, the poet expresses his distain at the women who, with flowers in their hands, greet the soldiers as they arrive: Owen believing that these flowers would be exchanged for ‘wreath and spray’. In the final stanza, beginning at the line ‘Shall they return to beatings of great bells / in wild train-loads’ the opening march theme makes an heroic return, accompanied by ‘bell-like’ arabesques in the piano. This section builds to a passionate vocal outpouring on the line, ‘A few, a few, too few for drums and yells’. The song ends with the heroic march rhythm which has now been recast as a slow funeral march—a ghostly cortege to accompany those soldiers who ‘May creep back, silent, to still village wells / up half-known roads.’
By contrast, the second song, Procrastination provides the cycle with a lyrical interlude. The poem of the same title, is by a lesser-known war poet, Francis St Vincent Morris, who was born in 1896 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. In 1910, he went to Brighton College and subsequently gained a place to study at Oxford in 1915. In that same year he joined the army and became a Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. The following year he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and in the spring of 1917 he crossed into France where, on 10 April, his plane was brought down by a blizzard at Vimy Ridge: he died from his injuries just over two weeks later.
Procrastination addresses the subject of Love: love sought, felt and then lost. It echoes the tragic circumstances of those who were caught up in the conflict and who, like St Vincent Morris, would be denied such love. The song begins with a brief introduction that evokes the distant sound of a military band. The poet, alone in a sequestered wood, hears ‘A sweet wind’ that ‘moaned in the shadows above, and it seemed as the voice of Love’. This tranquil scene is reflected in the music by a gentle ‘rocking figure’ heard in the piano accompaniment. At the end of the first stanza there is a lengthy bridge passage in which the piano’s introductory music returns, but now acting as an elegiac commentary upon the poem’s wistful narrative. In the second stanza we are told that after a season, the poet returned to the forest and discovered that the ‘trees were felled and the voices had passed from the whispering wood’. A reprise of the opening ‘rocking figure’ sustains a peaceful mood as the vocal line weaves its way towards its final climax on the words ‘whispering wood’. Here the viola takes up the principal melody from the introduction, but it now becomes increasingly dominated by the insistent ‘drumming’ rhythm alluded to earlier. Overpowered, the viola intones the same rhythmic figure, ending the song on a note of gloom.
The cycle’s title-song Through these pale cold days is a setting of Isaac Rosenberg’s final poem, written three days before his death on 1 April 1918. Rosenberg had a desperately unhappy time in the army where anti-semitism was rife. He was persistently bullied for being a Jew and in a letter to his friend Sydney Schiff, he wrote, ‘my being a Jew makes it bad among these wretches’. Despite this, he found solace in his Jewishness and in an identification with his religion’s long history of persecution. The poem presents a dream-like narrative; one where he can imagine himself communing with the ghosts of his ancestors. The author, Timothy Kendall has written, 'Rosenberg, in those pale cold days, is briefly at one with his ghosts; he sees with living eyes for them; they are dead and through him, alive. However, their visit is necessarily short; with new understanding of the future, they turn away to resume their search for the lost Edenic home. The poet is left behind, abandoned even by his own people.'
The song opens with a slow introduction for viola and piano, where the viola’s sorrowful melody is accompanied by claustrophobic repetitions of a minor 6th interval in the piano, the latter creating a discomforting harmonic ambiguity to the work’s prevailing tonality. The viola’s threnodic idea contains echoes of Jewish Klezmer music that is intended to evoke a ‘sense of place’. The voice enters quietly with the opening line ‘Through these pale cold days’ leading to a brief climax on the words, ‘thousand years’. A restatement of the opening vocal melody is now heard in the piano and this begins a new section at the line, ‘And their wild eyes yearn’. Gradually, the music becomes increasingly restless and impassioned as it moves towards the all-important line ‘For the pools of Herbron again’. A dialogue between the voice and viola ensues as both instruments reprise fragments of the Klezmer music heard in the introduction. Following this climax, the music subsides and returns to the song’s plaintive opening material, in preparation for the final lines, ‘They leave these blond still days / in dust behind their tread’ and its denouement, ‘They see with living eyes / how long they have been dead’. On the word ‘long’, the sinuous vocal line elicits a melisma that acts as a musical metaphor for the passing of time. The song ends with a short coda for viola and piano, where echoes of melodic fragments from the introduction are heard, but now punctuated by a succession of discordant and strident chords in the piano; this section providing one of the bleakest moments in the cycle.
The penultimate song—a setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Suicide in the trenches—provides the work with a mock-scherzo movement. However, the subject matter of the poem does not bring any relief from the stark realism of the work’s overall narrative. The composer expressed to the present writer that '… indeed, this was the most difficult and emotionally wrought poem I have ever set to music. Sassoon deals with one of the most horrific aspects of the War—the needless death of a young soldier, who, suffering from severe psychological distress, depression and fear, is driven to suicide by the harsh conditions in the trenches. For the army’s leaders, however, suicide was viewed as a cowardly act and Sassoon’s poem was attacked for its anti-war sentiment and unpatriotic stance.'
The poem relates the story of a youthful but naïve recruit, who like so many others, were totally inexperienced in dealing with the harshness of trench warfare. The song follows closely the poem’s Ballad-like contours with correspondingly energetic and spirited rhythms acting as a rustic backdrop to the simple, carefree and Folk-like melody. The optimistic key of D major with added Lydian inflections, sustains the cheerful mood of this stanza, ‘I knew a simple soldier boy who grinned at life in empty joy’, but ‘Spring’s’ lightness is suddenly obliterated by the ‘Winter’ darkness of the second verse. Here, we are plunged into the horrors of the trenches—the devastation and exploding bombs (crumps), the ‘lice’ and ‘lack of rum’. Then we are told that Sassoon’s young soldier ‘put a bullet through his brain / no one spoke of him again’. For this harrowing stanza, the music descends momentarily into a minor key; the underlying rhythmic figure now becoming so insistent that its repetition becomes almost unbearable (the viola’s use of a col legno—where the wood of the bow is hit against the instrument’s strings—adding to the menace). The trenchant vocal line, beginning at the words ‘In winter trenches’, becomes more agitated and angry as it reaches a violent climax. As if not enough, the music’s tonality effectively disintegrates, acting as a metaphor for the harrowing state of mind the distressed soldier must have reached before he ‘put a bullet through his brain’. This powerful moment is sustained through to the line, ‘no one spoke of him again’, as the piano thunders down the keyboard, ultimately arriving on two cataclysmic chords. On the second, marked sffffz the pianist is directed to maintain the sound until it dies away to the point of temporal unease: it is as if the horror of what has occurred has induced shock not only in the narrative but for the musicians performing it, and that is certainly what the present writer felt when recording the work. Following this, the opening piano introduction is reprised, but his time a semitone lower and with the earlier ‘flippant’ optimism now dispiriting and introspective. Initially heard quietly and at a slower tempo, but quickly moving to a faster tempo, the last verse revisits momentarily the song’s opening jaunty vocal line, but cleverly this mock optimism becomes increasingly unstable as material from the harrowing central section attempts to dominate. By the time we reach the final line ‘the hell where youth and laughter go’—at which point the violent music from the central stanza has taken control—the music once again disintegrating into the earlier cataclysmic chords. However this time there are three—the final one functioning as a bridge that links the song with the final poem of remembrance. The composer expressed that '… when I was composing Suicide in the trenches I felt that I could not end it with the usual musical ‘full stop’; the poem’s emotional effect was simply too overwhelming: the music required space but not silence. To achieve this, it segues without a break into the final song; something I have never felt the need to do in any of my previous cycles.'
In setting Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy’s poem If you forget as the final song, the narrative of the whole cycle reaches its inevitable conclusion. Studdert Kennedy, or ‘Woodbine Willie’ as he was affectionately named was the vicar of St Paul’s Church, Worcester. At the outbreak of the war he volunteered as an Army chaplain and became attached to a bayonet-training service. He became one of the most well-known figures on the Western Front, as a result of giving Woodbine cigarettes and spiritual comfort to the soldiers. He was loved and respected by his comrades for his bravery under fire and he received the Military Cross in 1917 at Messines Ridge for running into No-Mans-Land to rescue the injured. After the war, he became closely involved in the Christian Socialist and the Pacifist movements, touring the country giving public lectures. He died suddenly in 1929, whilst on tour in Liverpool. A crowd of over 2,000 people turned out for his funeral procession, lining the streets from Worcester Cathedral to St Paul’s Church a mile away. They threw packets of Woodbines onto the passing cortege.
Studdert Kennedy’s collected verse was published in 1927 under the title The unutterable beauty. The long, sustained chord from the previous song now provides a spectral backdrop as the piano’s tolling, bell-like figure ‘calls us’ to remembrance. After the voice’s quietly anguished and yearning lament on the words, ‘Let me forget / let me forget’, a disconsolate but deeply moving theme intones the words ‘I am weary of remembrance / and my brow is ever wet / with the tears of my remembrance’. Here, the elegiac piano accompaniment—with its simple 4/4 crotchet tread—adds to the music’s profundity: it is as if the march of the opening song of the cycle has returned, but now as a ghostly ‘march for the dead’. After a reprise of the opening lament, the final lines are sung, ‘Then your children must remember / and their brow be ever wet, with the tears of their remembrance / with the tears and bloody sweat’, but this time the viola adds a poignant counter subject of unaffected simplicity as it moves towards the cycle’s contemplative conclusion. In changing the pronoun to ‘If you forget’, Studdert Kennedy has included ‘us’ in the act of remembrance. He is making an impassioned appeal to posterity and by reiterating the words, ‘If you forget’, we are forced not only to reflect upon the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for the world we have inherited, but also to remember what is at stake if future generations fail in their duty. The bleakness and unsettling nature of the cycle’s final bars seek to mirror the unresolved tension that underlies all acts of remembrance.
Notes by Graham J Lloyd
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