The Premiere of Ian Venables’ Important, Eloquent New Song Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Venables, Vaughan Williams, Schumann, Gurney, Finzi, Quilter, Britten: Nick Pritchard (tenor); Louise Williams (viola); Benjamin Frith (piano), Perrins Hall, The Royal Grammar School, Worcester, 30.6.2016 (JQ)

Ian VenablesThrough These Pale Cold Days, Op. 46 (world premiere)
The Send Off – Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
Procrastination – Francis St Vincent Morris (1896-1917)
Through These Pale Cold Days – Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
Suicide in the Trenches – Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
If You Forget – Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy (1883-1929)
Vaughan Williams – ‘Lord! Come away’; ‘Come Love, Come Lord’ (from Four Hymns for tenor, viola and piano)
Schumann Märchenbilder for viola and piano, Op.113
Finzi – ‘Since we loved’; ‘To Joy’ (from Oh fair to See, Op 13); ‘Budmouth Dears’ (from A Young Man’s Exhortation, Op 14)
QuilterNow sleeps the crimson petal, Op.3 no.2
Britten – Folk song arrangements: Sally in our Alley; The last rose of summer; Oliver Cromwell

This was rather more than a concert. It took place on the eve of the day when, one hundred years ago, the carnage that was the Battle of the Somme began. It was fitting that it should be held in the Perrins Hall of Worcester’s Royal Grammar School for that building was constructed during the Great War, in 1915.  Ian Venables taught at the school for over twenty years before devoting himself full time to composition. The first half of this evening was designed as a commemoration of the school’s losses in the Great War with Venables’ new songs as the climax.

First we heard the school’s Senior String Group giving nicely polished performances of a movement from Mozart’s Symphony No 25 and then Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla. I’m usually indifferent to the Argentine’s music but I was impressed by this performance. Then an alumnus of the school, Mike Stone, who was decorated for distinguished service in World War II spoke movingly of the pupils of the school who fell in both World Wars. Mr Stone is 94 but he carried his years lightly and spoke with clarity, dignity and humility. Then two pupils read the names of all the school’s pupils who fell in World War I. One got a sense of the scale of the sacrifice from the fact that no fewer than ninety names were read out, four of them victims of the Battle of the Somme.

Ian Venables has established a place by right in the lineage of eloquent English song composers. It was fitting that in the second half of the concert we heard songs by the likes of Finzi and Gurney for Venables now surely ranks amid their number. One thing that he shares with Gurney and Finzi is a discerning eye for a text and this characteristic was much in evidence in this new cycle. In a very detailed programme note he said that the choice of texts had been unusually challenging on this occasion owing to the starkly realistic and uncompromising nature of much of the output of the war poets. Rising to the challenge, however, he chose five poems which not only worked individually but which also knitted together as a coherent, logical and powerful sequence. Furthermore though at least three of the poems were by well-known names the verses themselves were not very familiar; indeed, I doubt if any of these poems have been the subject of musical settings very often in the past – if ever.

Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Send Off’ is not one that is familiar to me but it made a very sensible point of departure for the cycle, in a literal sense. Owen describes troops marching from their camp to the railway and entraining for the front. Venables’ setting began with a heavy, ominous tread. Then, as the poem describes the departure and the thoughts of an onlooker the observer’s thoughts were voiced plangently. Here, tenor Nick Pritchard was suitably plangent of tone as he sang the long, poignant lines. After a brief resumption of the heavy march the song ends in a deeply poignant fashion as Owen speculates about how the troops might return and how many – or how few – will do so.

The second song sets a text that I’m sure will be unknown to most people, as it was to me. Francis St. Vincent Morris was born in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the son of a clergyman. He won a place at Oxford University in 1915 but never took it up because instead he joined first the army and then the nascent Royal Flying Corps. He died as a result of a plane crash in bad weather in France. The poem in question was included in a volume of his poems published privately by his family after the war. I believe that Ian Venables came across a copy fortuitously in a second hand bookshop. One wonders if the collection might contain any more poems suitable for setting to music. ‘Procrastination’ is a short, two-stanza poem. In the first verse the poet seeks and finds love but then, as Morris says “he went away for a season” and on his return he had lost love. Arguably, the poem is not a war poem per se but it serves as a moving testimony of the many ways in which those who died in the war made sacrifices.  Nick Pritchard addressed Venables’ poignant setting with a light, melancholic timbre as the music expressed profound regret for an opportunity lost. In the second stanza a doleful viola counter melody added to the sense of anguish.

The cycle takes its title from Isaac Rosenberg’s poem ‘Through These Pale Cold Days’. This was the last poem Rosenberg wrote; it was found on his body three days later, after he had been killed in action. I had the opportunity to study the texts in advance of the concert and I found this poem the hardest to come to terms with: on one, superficial level it’s fairly easy to understand what Rosenberg is seeking to portray but I suspect deeper thoughts lie beneath the surface which need further study if the poem is fully to be appreciated. Venables begins his setting with a long introduction for viola and piano; the viola’s melody is searching and sorrowful. The vocal part is a moving threnody which reaches a searing climax in the second of the three stanzas. The ending – “They see with living eyes/How long they have been dead”– is extremely powerful and Nick Pritchard delivered this and, indeed, the whole song with tremendous intensity of expression.

Next comes Sassoon’s ‘Suicide in the Trenches’ and here Venables springs something of a surprise, for just as Sassoon’s poem begins innocently enough so does the music begin in a deceptively jaunty vein. Soon, however, the music becomes jagged and starkly realistic, culminating in great dissonance when Sassoon writes “He put a bullet in his brain”.  After two massive piano chords the final stanza reproaches the “smug-faced crowds…who cheer when soldier lads pass by” (here, surely, is a link to the opening Owen poem) and Venables’ music matches the poet’s indictment. The massive piano chords return, this time with the addition of a third one which decays into silence over a long pause before the final setting is begun attacca.

Here is an overt Worcester connection. Venables sets the poem ‘If You Forget’ by Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. Studdert-Kennedy was a Worcester vicar who volunteered as an army chaplain on the outbreak of war. He spent much of the war ministering to the troops in the trenches and won the Military Cross in 1917 for bravery in rescuing wounded soldiers. He was affectionately known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ because as well as ministering to the troops he distributed cigarettes to them.  The start of Venables’ setting is deeply melancholic, a high-lying, plaintive tenor line above a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano. Eventually the viola joins in during the second stanza. The music is more restrained than much of what has gone before but it is no less moving – indeed, the very restraint, allied to Studdert-Kennedy’s injunction not to forget sacrifice, makes the song all the more moving.

I’ve heard and been impressed by many songs of Ian Venables in the past but I don’t believe I’ve heard anything like this before. Yes, he has written individual songs of raw emotion – his setting of Gurney’s Pain comes to mind – but here he sustains a mood that is never less than intense, and often much more than that, for a span of some 20 minutes.  At the end of this moving experience I felt that Through These Pale Cold Days is always unsettling and often harrowing, which is as it should be given the subject matter. This is a song cycle of major importance and a significant contribution to the music commemoration of the centenary of the Great War. I am keen to hear the cycle again – and soon.

It is hard to imagine that the songs could have been better served than was the case here. Nick Pritchard offered intense, deeply committed singing. His tone and timbre suited the music ideally and his diction was impeccable – though I had the texts in front of me I rarely had recourse to them. Furthermore, not only did Pritchard deliver the words with clarity he also communicated their meaning vividly. His two instrumental partners made significant contributions. Benjamin Frith played the piano part with consummate skill, not only demonstrating flair but also anchoring the ensemble with complete security. The inclusion of a viola was an inspired touch because the tone of the instrument, sometimes warm, sometimes husky, complemented the tenor voice admirably. My only concern is that on several occasions the pizzicato writing was inaudible, for which I don’t blame Louise Williams. The viola writing was particularly effective when Venables gave the instrument long, plaintive lines to sing.

After the interval we heard a nicely mixed programme. Due to the forces required Vaughan Williams’ Four Hymns are something of a concert hall rarity. It was good to hear two of them on this occasion, especially since Nick Pritchard’s voice fit them so well, both in the declamatory first hymn and in its rapt companion. The Schumann pieces sat oddly in an otherwise English programme but they gave us a chance to enjoy Louise Williams’ playing. I thought she was particularly successful in the first and last of the four pieces where Schumann calls for cantabile playing.

The Gurney song, one of the finest of all English songs, was beautifully sung and Benjamin Frith weighted the piano part most perceptively. The three Finzi songs, all of them fine ones, were well chosen as being different in style from each other and they were very well sung. When it came to the Britten arrangements even the great skill of these performers could not persuade me that The last rose of summer is not over-elaborate. However, Pritchard’s hands-in-pockets delivery of Sally in our Alley was irresistible as he played to perfection the love-struck young apprentice lad. The tongue-twisting Oliver Cromwell, rattled off at pace, sent us out into the evening with a smile on our faces but this was above all an occasion for reflection and remembrance and, as such, the evening belonged to Ian Venables

John Quinn

These musicians performed the first two songs from Through These Pale Cold Days towards the end of BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme on Monday, 27 June. Readers with access to the BBC iPlayer can here the broadcast for 30 days from the date of transmission by clicking here. (The relevant section begins about 1 hr 40 minutes into the programme.)

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