A Kiss Op.15 - a setting of a poem by
A Kiss by Thomas
Hardy is one of my favourite poems by
that author. I have never come across
a setting of this text before, nor could
I find any references to one on-line.
The poem is taken from the last of the
poet’s volumes, ‘Moments of Vision’
which was published at the height of
the Great War in 1917. ‘Wessex Poems’
which is perhaps the poet’s most famous
collection had been published some nineteen
years previously in 1898.
In many ways A Kiss
is archetypical Hardy – the contrasting
of a ‘rustic’ view of a relatively trivial
incident with a more general interpretation.
The opening stanza defines the poem’s
argument, the second is effectively
a commentary upon it. All of us have
special places in our lives – whether
it is a garden or a café or a
seaside promenade. Who does not recall
a trysting place, whether it is under
Waterloo Station clock or by the lych-gate
of St Swithun’s Church or the imposing
fountain at Butlins in Filey? But few
of us would invest such a meeting with
a sense of universality. It is to Hardy’s
credit that his art allows this very
Ian Venables told me
that the overriding reason for choosing
a poem for setting is his "personal
identification with the subject matter
…". It is as if he is relating
to the text in a subjective rather than
objective manner. He would, he says,
find it difficult to set a poem where
he was not impressed by the theme and
the poet’s expression of it. His own
experience must in some manner ‘chime’
with that of the poet. It is in this
response that he feels he can capture
the essence of the poem. He insists
that he is not "trying to express
my own emotional response to the poem"
- that seems to him to be a "rather
skin-deep approach and one that tends
to over-personalise the music"
– rather, he is attempting to "reach
a deeper level of meaning - one that
touches upon the universal."
By a wall the stranger
now calls his,
Was born of old a particular
in its genesis;
Which in a trice took
wing on the air.
And where that spot
is nothing shows:
There ivy calmly grows,
And no one knows
What a birth was there!
That kiss is gone where
none can tell -
Not even those who
felt its spell:
It cannot have died;
that know we well.
Somewhere it pursues
One of a long procession
Far from earth's bounds
In the infinite.
This is a song that
is perfectly capable of standing on
its own – yet it could easily be part
of a recital of Venables’ songs or could
even conceivably be an integral element
of a song-cycle.
The composer pointed
out to me that "what made this
poem difficult to set was its prosody.
Each eight-line stanza is subdivided
into five lines, followed by three.
This unusual verse structure, while
being something of a challenge, did
however give me the opportunity to develop
an imaginative musical response."
The setting of this
poem at first hearing would suggest
that Venables has used the same vocal
line for each stanza. True, the mood
of the music is little different between
the particular and the universal parts
of this poem. However on closer study
the vocal line does vary – a little
more than subtly and somewhat less that
considerably! Interestingly, one critic
suggests that the song shows Venables’
ability to "write a diatonic melody
that is accompanied by a highly chromatic
language. It is bordering on the discordant,
but never at the expense of resolution."
Yet, I disagree with this assessment.
There are few accidentals in this song:
in fact it is only in the piano part
that an occasional Db and on Cb is found.
The seeming discordance is derived from
added notes, I guess, rather than chromaticism.
Yet this reviewer is correct in one
thing – the discords, such as they are,
always resolve: the tension is always
The impulse for the
entire song is given by the melody assigned
to the first line - "By a wall
the stranger now calls his." However
there is a major contrasting theme,
given as a dotted quaver/semi-quaver
figure, which lends respite from the
serious business of the main tune. Both
phrases are used as an integral part
of the opening piano ‘prelude’. Ian
Venables told me that this long introduction
was "needed in order to establish
the right kind of mood to the song."
It was completed after the majority
of the song had been composed.
There is little formal
criticism of this song in the musical
press, but perhaps the most percipient
is by Piers Burton-Page. He suggests
that Venables’ songs, including A
Kiss "are set in a craftsman
like, tonal mid-century English idiom."
It is not the place of this essay to
argue for or against the use of a ‘historical’
idioms, save to suggest that the final
work of art is what is important, not
the tools used to create it.
Venables told me that
this song is "perhaps stylistically
the closest I get to Finzi." However
he insists that any "aural references
were not conscious ones." Of course
there is a Finzi feel to this song,
in spite of the fact that he does not
use that composer’s ‘note per syllable’
approach to word setting.
song represents a key moment in Venables’
journey as a song composer. He told
me that "this was not an easy setting
and it certainly had a long gestation
period. However, it taught me a great
deal about how to set words and it unlocked
the secret to composing art-songs."
It is certainly a masterpiece – both
in the composer’s catalogue and in the
corpus of music that could be termed
Finally, I wondered
what stirring of the young heart had
made him pick these verses and, alas,
at first he rather prosaically suggested
that "I decided to set myself a
challenge to see whether I could find
a poem by Hardy that was not bleak!"
After hours of reading through the very
large volume of collected poems he discovered
this one. However it was more than a
challenge – apparently he did have a
personal empathy with the poem! Let
us be content to leave it at that.
The song is dedicated
to the tenor Kevin McLean-Mair who sang
Songs of Ian Venables CD which was
issued in 2000. It was composed in 1992
for tenor and piano and was given its
first performance the following year
at the Countess of Huntingdon's Hall,
Deansway, Worcester, given by Thomas
Hunt and Graham Lloyd.
A Kiss is currently
available on Severn & Somme – Songs
by Gurney, Howells, Sanders Venables
and Wilson. Somm