“ A symphony of blues and
The broad lagoon, and overhead
Sunset, a sanguine banner,
(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
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
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
Tour and shares something of the rather exotic vision of
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.
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.
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Seen & Heard
Editor in Chief