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Invite to Eternity, Op 31

author of text

Invite to Eternity, Op 31, for tenor and string quartet found its inspiration in the works of the Northamptonshire-born poet John Clare (1793-1864). Written in 1997, Venables felt that the emotional possibilities inherent in the string quartet combination would allow him a much wider and varied tonal palette in which to express the multiplicity of moods that are found in Clare’s four poems. The work’s genesis can be found in a letter written to the composer by Andrew Glazzard, to whom the final song in the cycle is dedicated. He introduced Venables to Clare’s poetry in 1993 by sending him the poem ‘I am’; he was then approached by Patrick and Brenda Aydon, who commissioned the complete cycle. The four poems chosen by the composer reflect the many facets of Clare’s unconventional life.

‘Born upon an angel’s breast’ opens with a lengthy and arresting introduction for string quartet, which leads to the first of three recitative-like passages, which take up the theme of love as unsustainable, belonging ‘to sin and death’. These are pivotal sections in the movement and are broken by moments of exquisite tenderness where, amidst this harsh message, the listener is told that love is, in fact, the only saviour of the soul. Here we can see Clare as a spokesman for humanity: they lie, it is suggested, but he tells us not. The tender string writing at important points in the movement provides a sublime backdrop to some of Clare’s most profound words.

In contrast, ‘An invite to Eternity’ opens with the question: ‘Wilt thou go with me, sweet maid…?’; the short string introduction capturing immediately the interrogatory nature of the poem. Its mocking mood is mirrored skilfully in the accompanying rocking figure, which permeates the movement. Clare was adept at sudden changes of direction in his poetry, and what was seemingly innocent becomes existentially taut, necessitating sudden changes of mood. In the second stanza, Venables reflects this change of emotion by accompanying the more angular vocal writing with a gritty viola figure and pointillistic gestures from the other instruments. The third and fourth stanzas give balance to the overall structure and, by way of a coda, the quartet begins what seems to be a move into yet another verse, only to be halted by an augmentation of the opening rocking figure which ends the movement as questioningly as it began.

‘Evening bells’ evokes a landscape of rustic tranquillity, broken only by distant bells and ‘zephyrs swelling’. It is a lively, highly driven movement, which uses 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 tremolandos accompany a more lyrical vocal line.

‘I am’ is without doubt a profoundly moving and poignant setting of Clare’s most famous poem. Taking us through the emotions of fear and self-pity, to longing and ultimately acceptance, it opens with a solo ‘cello, which is soon joined by the other strings as they play what can only be described as a ‘cry’. The longest movement in the cycle, it uses a desolate harmonic language, contrasting yearning vocal lines with tortured counterpoint, reaching an almost atonal climax on the words, ‘Even the dearest that I love the best / Are strange….’. The music that follows is deeply moving. Here the string quartet interlude (a transformation of the cycle’s opening) prepares us for a moment of extreme longing where Clare dreams of ‘…scenes where man hath never trod / A place where woman never smiled or wept…’. Despite the sustained mood of its closing bars, the composer returns to the opening ‘cry’ which breaks the feeling of resignation and longing momentarily, before ending on a single sustained note, intimating musically that although these emotional states may have been reached, they are never fully liberated from the spectres of past pains.

from notes by Graham J Lloyd © 2010


Venables: At midnight
SIGCD204Download only
Venables: The Song of the Severn & other songs
Studio Master: SIGCD424Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


No 1: Born upon an angel's breast  In crime and enmity they lie
Track 1 on SIGCD204 [7'35] Download only
No 2: An invite to eternity  Wilt thou go with me, sweet maid?
Track 2 on SIGCD204 [5'09] Download only
No 3: Evening bells  Sweet the merry bells ring round
Track 3 on SIGCD204 [2'02] Download only
Track 12 on SIGCD424 [2'16] Download only
No 4: I am
Track 4 on SIGCD204 [9'35] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD204 track 1

Born upon an angel's breast
Recording date
3 June 2009
Recording venue
St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Nicholas Parker
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch
Hyperion usage
  1. Venables: At midnight (SIGCD204)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: April 2010
    Download only
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