Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Ian Venables: A Major Song Cycle celebrating Worcestershire (and other news)

Ian Venables tells me that the first half of 2012 has been dominated by an important commission from the Malvern Concert Club. They have asked for a ‘chamber’ song cycle for Roderick Williams, the Carducci String Quartet and pianist, Tom Poster. The committee’s remit was for a major work celebrating the poetry and poets of Worcestershire. Venables has suggested that although a great deal of poetry has been written about the county, and especially the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire-born poets are somewhat thin on the ground!
A.E. Housman, who was born in Bromsgrove, is probably the county’s most famous literary son. However, the remit wanted a greater breadth of literary achievement. Given the dearth of topographical subject matter, it has taken him some considerable time to find the right texts to set.
The composer suggested to me that ‘the heart of the county is the River Severn’. Personally, he enjoys spending time walking or cycling along its banks. He is particularly fond of the ‘reach’ at the village of Kempsey, which lies between Worcester and Tewkesbury: here the river broadens into a majestic sight with a fine view of the Malvern Hills beyond.

In arranging the songs for this cycle, Venables has chosen to use the river as both a narrator and as a linking theme throughout the work. The Severn over the centuries has been witness to the changing scenes in the county’s human drama. One of the earliest is the battle between the Roman and the Ancient Britons. John Masefield’s dramatic poem, ‘On Malvern Hill’ will open the cycle:-
A wind is brushing down the clover,
It sweeps the tossing branches bare,
Blowing the poising kestrel over
The crumbling ramparts of the Caer.

It whirls the scattered leaves before us
Along the dusty road to home,
Once it awakened into chorus
The heart-strings in the ranks of Rome.

There by the gusty coppice border
The shrilling trumpets broke the halt,
The Roman line, the Roman order,
Swayed forwards to the blind assault.

Spearman and charioteer and bowman
Charged and were scattered into spray,
Savage and taciturn the Roman
Hewed upwards in the Roman way.

There in the twilight where the cattle
Are lowing home across the fields,
The beaten warriors left the battle
Dead on the clansmen's wicker shields.

The leaves whirl in the wind's riot
Beneath the Beacon's jutting spur,
Quiet are clan and chief, and quiet
Centurion and signifier.

The central section of this poem recalls the onslaught of the Roman legions as they attempt to capture Caractacus. The cycle will then move into a more reflective mood for the second song. For this lyrical ‘intermezzo’, Venables has set A.E. Housman’s poem ‘How Clear, How Lovely Bright’ [No. XVI from More Poems]. This begins with the anticipation of a new dawn when a vow will be made: one that the poet intends to keep. However, in the final stanza we are told that it was in the end, a false dawn and the vow dies:-
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

The third song, acts as the cycle’s slow movement. This is a setting of John Drinkwater’s ‘Elgar’s Music’.  This is a poem I do not know and cannot find in my copy of the poet’s collected works. The Malvern Concert Club was founded by Elgar in 1903 so Venables wanted to mark this occasion while at the same time paying his own tribute to Elgar’s music. The fourth song is a setting of Masefield’s ebullient poem, ‘Laugh, and be merry’:- 

Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with a song,
Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong.
Laugh, for the time is brief, a thread the length of a span.
Laugh and be proud to belong to the old proud pageant of man.

Laugh and be merry: remember, in olden time.
God made Heaven and Earth for joy He took in a rhyme,
Made them, and filled them full with the strong red wine of
His mirth
The splendid joy of the stars: the joy of the earth.

So we must laugh and drink from the deep blue cup of the sky,
Join the jubilant song of the great stars sweeping by,
Laugh, and battle, and work, and drink of the wine outpoured
In the dear green earth, the sign of the joy of the Lord.

Laugh and be merry together, like brothers akin,
Guesting awhile in the rooms of a beautiful inn,
Glad till the dancing stops, and the lilt of the music ends.
Laugh till the game is played; and be you merry, my friends.

This song acts as an energetic ‘scherzo’ movement and presents a lively and bucolic commentary upon the gifts that the landscape gives to humanity. The final number, ‘December on the River,’ is a setting of a poem by Phillip Worner; the river becomes a metaphor for the landscape’s eternal and ceaseless flow upon which a lone human voice is heard to reflect on their mortality.
I understand that Venables has completed the ‘short score’ and is currently working on the orchestration.
Based on the composer’s previous song settings, such as The Pine Boughs Past Music and On the Wings of Love , this promises to be an impressive work that may well stand beside Ralph Vaughan William’s masterly On Wenlock Edge.
After completion of this song-cycle Venables will make a start on another commission from both the Droitwich Concert Club (of which he is a Vice-President) and the Bromsgrove Concert Club, This will be a short work for clarinet and string quartet. It will be premiered in the autumn of 2014.

In other news, Graham J. Lloyd is preparing to record a disc of Ian Venables piano music.  This CD is scheduled for release in May 2013. It will include the composer’s entire piano music to date, including his Opus 1. This is a youthful and, so Venables tells me, a somewhat experimental work. However, listeners are assured that they will hear echoes of his later work.
Finally, the young Tasmanian-born baritone, Michael Lampard is going to give the Australasian premiere of Venables cycle The Pine Boughs Past Music Op.39 in July. It will also be broadcast live on ABC radio. Roderick Williams, for whom he wrote the cycle, will also be performing it on Sunday 19th August at the ‘Celebrating English Song’ festival at Tardebigge, in Worcestershire. 

1 comment:

Paul Brownsey said...

The Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, went to Worcester Royal Grammar School for a while (so did I, though not contemporaneously with him) and Elgar set one of his poems, The Swimmer, in Sea Pictures. Perhaps Venables could set another ALG poem, which would have a double local connection...