Friday, 7 August 2009

Ian Venables: At Malvern A Pastoral or a Confessional Poem?

Ian Venables is a composer who appeals to me considerably. His style of composition is a perfect balance between tradition and modernity, without ever indulging in effect for effect's sake. He is not a minimalist, a serialist or any other kind of 'ist'. Neither has he taken one successful tune and regurgitated it umpteen times. His music is a fusion of the reflective and the optimistic. It reminds the listener of Finzi, Gurney and other 'English Masters' without ever descending into pastiche or parody.
He is especially convincing when it comes to writing songs. I recently made a considerable study of Venables fine setting of the largely ignored Victorian poet John Addinton Symonds - 'At Malvern'. It opened my eyes to a largely forgotten poet who was also a champion of classical learning and an early supporter of gay rights. The musical setting is impressive and allows and assists the text to speak for itself. Yet I was not happy with the general consensus that this song was somehow a pastoral idyll - either textually or musically. I began my essay by suggesting that:-
Rob Barnett in a review on MusicWeb International suggests that At Malvern is “all moonlight and the lapping of cool waters.” On one level this sums up the song’s mood, but it fails to intimate the considerable emotional depth of the poem and its musical setting. The liner note provided with the CD also down-plays the true nature of this piece – it suggests that the poet has “evoked the calm and serenity of Malvern in the 1860’s where little could be heard, but the sounds of nature and the distant bells of the famous priory”.
I believe that this misses the point of the poem. What may seem to be a pastoral idyll is in fact a cry from the heart of a poet who is suffering from confusion, frustration and angst: it is played out against the rural backdrop of the Malvern Hills. This dichotomy is a sentiment that is well expressed by both the words and the music.

Please read the complete article at MusicWeb International

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