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Ian Venables
Song-Cycle Love’s Voice (Venetian Songs op 22) for High Voice and Piano
Text: John Addington Symonds
(Fortunate Isles; The Passing Stranger; The Invitation to the Gondola; Love’s Voice)
Thames Publishing


“ A symphony of blues and red –
The broad lagoon, and overhead
Sunset, a sanguine banner, spread.
 
(In the Key of Blue, 1893)
John Addington Symonds.
 
 
Following on the recent publication of a volume of songs to various poets, Thames/Elkin have now issued this, the first of Ian Venables’ song cycles 1. Entitled ‘Love’s Voice’ (on the cover given as Venetian Songs op 22) this is a setting of four poems by John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) a relatively ignored yet conspicuous figure in the colourful period of the 1890s as an apostle of Platonic love and male beauty. Symonds (not to be confused with Arthur Symons) is not a poet widely set, despite his intense love of music – and apart from John Ireland’s use of stanzas from ‘A Vista’ 2 only Cyril Scott amongst English composers seem to have set him – and then only in the poet’s translation from the Latin)
 
Colour – not so much the primary colours but all the varied tints and hues of the spectrum – was an obsession of those writers and artists of the last decade of the 19th century. This obsession was expressed in yet another obsession - that of Style 3.
 
Both style and colour mark these evocative songs of Venables – colour (underlined in the cover’s impressionistic wash of soft-focus watercolour of Venice in late summer eve) - the plangent modal sonorities: and style – for as a cycle these songs are closely knit together, not only by harmonic and melodic artifice, but by the intense depth of mood – vistas of 1890ish melancholy revealing “a city seen in dreams”.
 
Venables’ musical language is that of the English lyric tradition - the Larghetto passage in the first song ‘I shall ne’er with friend or lover’ is a perfect example here. But here the mood is a more complex emotion than the typical Georgian nostalgia for green fields. It is as English as the Grand Tour and shares something of the rather exotic vision of Venetian enchantment.
 
Venables – in his songs particularly since we have had little opportunity to study his growing output - has already given evidence of a striking individuality which has had no need to pay any attention to fashionable ‘isms, and remains totally sincere. In today’s world this is a rare thing – and he quotes Vaughan Williams in his introduction 4 “The duty of a composer is to find the [musical] mot juste. It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before as long as it is the right thing to say at the right moment”. When one considers the variety of poets he has already set , the choice of Symonds (and indeed Clare in the cycle ‘Invite to Eternity’) shows an eclectic proclivity that is itself a very English trait.
 
There is an arch-like logic in the cycle – from the opening A minor, via D minor/major (in ‘The Passing Stranger’) to the final F minor – from the beckoning figure of the opening through the contemplative recit/aria approach to the visionary climax “the soul aspires to God above” (marked significantly ‘vertiginoso’) to the renewed summons ‘Come forth for the night is falling’. Borrowing the wave-like pulsing rhythm of John Ireland’s first Violin Sonata, this song ‘The Invitation to the Gondola’ is full of subtle harmonies, bell harmonics in the central section - where the opening theme recurs in a varied form - and canon-like reflections in the dark water – rising to the second impassioned climax of the cycle. The final song was originally entitled ‘In the small Canals’ - the present title is the composer’s - and here the music glides in shadowed waters, past dimly seen lamp-lit buildings, and primitive figures glimpsed in doorways. .Dowson’s ‘the anguish of unutterable things’ colours the final bars – and Symonds, in a letter to Arthur Sidgwick wrote “Had I wanted to live a poem I would have chosen Venice” Venables in this remarkable cycle does just that and remains himself.
 
Footnotes 
1.  Love’s Voice (John Addington Symonds); Invite to Eternity (John Clare); Songs of Eternity and Sorrow (Housman) with String Quartet & Piano
 
2.   ‘These things shall be! A choral setting of Symonds’ ‘A Vista’, a poem of heroic but unfulfilled optimism the poet’s doubts perhaps echoed by Ireland as he directs the choir to utter the words ‘Say, heart, what will the future bring’ in a kind of whispered ‘sprechstimme’
 
3.   Practically all the forces at work in 20th century expression in the arts were born in the aesthetic 1890s when restraint and excess in life as in art were dictated by style.
 
4.   The composer has written an expansive introduction in which he seems fo feel the need for the medium of words. This evocative music need only to be performed to express its truth.
 
Colin Scott-Sutherland
 

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