Ian Venables - Elegy for Cello and Piano Op.2 (1980)
The Elegy for cello and piano, Op.2 was composed in 1980 when
the composer was 25 years old: it is an early piece, yet one that
has stood the test of time. In this piece the composer has managed
to write a work that balances a debt to the tradition of British
music with an originality that belongs entirely to the composer.
British composers have written a goodly number of works for the
cello. It is not necessary to rehearse all these compositions
here; save to point out that one of them, the Elgar Concerto is
a work that has caught the public imagination. Currently it sits
at No. 8 in the 2009 Hall of Fame on Classic FM. Many years ago
I upset a cellist friend by suggesting that although I appreciated
her instrument, I preferred the piano: it was nearly the end of
a beautiful friendship! However, the fact remains that four works
written for her instrument are on my list of ‘Desert Island Discs’
– the Finzi and the Moeran Concertos, the Bridge Sonata and Kenneth
Leighton’s Veris Gratia
. The current work could well be
another contender for packing in the seafarer’s trunk!
Little has been written about Ian Venables’s Elegy, however the
pianist Graham Lloyd is enthusiastic about this piece and has
suggested that the middle section represents one of the best things
that Venables has composed. It is an opinion with which I agree.
Ian Venables (b.1955) has been composing virtually all his life.
He had formal studies with Richard Arnell at the Trinity College
of Music and latterly with John Joubert and Andrew Downes at the
Birmingham Conservatoire. Although Venables has gained a considerable
reputation as a songwriter he has also contributed a number of
fine chamber works to the catalogue. These include a String Quartet,
Op.32 and a Piano Quintet, Op. 27. Both these works are impressive
and are a major contribution to the genre. They have been described
in The Independent as “...lending a new late 20th century dimension
to the English pastoral ...”
The earlier compositions by Venables tend to be for a chamber
ensemble or for piano. The first work to receive an opus number
was the Piano Sonata which was written in 1975 and revised four
years later: this owes much to the music of Shostakovich. The
Prelude, Op.3 that follows on chronologically from the Elegy has
been likened to Scriabin. Lloyd suggests that The Stourhead
Op.4 for piano is the first work to express “the
true 'English' nature of Venables' music.” This suite from 1984
was inspired by a visit to the National Trust property in Wiltshire.
The composer has written that ‘… this memorable visit left a deep
impression upon me and prompted me to try and recreate in music,
the evocative and atmosphere of the gardens’.
The Elegy is hardly an ‘elegy’ in the accepted sense of the word.
It was not composed in sorrow or lamentation over the death of
an individual. Instead it was written at a time when Venables
feared the ‘death’ of a love affair. This is a deeply personal
work and was composed in an ‘outburst of emotion.’ The composer
told me that he believes the feelings of loss associated with
death and an unrequited love affair can be very similar. The work
was written quickly: Venables was ‘quite carried away in a rush
of inspiration.’ Yet this urgency has not resulted in a work that
is unbalanced, slipshod or less than perfect.
There have been a fair few examples of ‘Elegies’ for cello and
piano composed over the years by British composers. One thinks
of examples by Frank Bridge (Elégie) William Busch, Christopher
Bunting and Kenneth Leighton. With the exception of Bridge none
of these pieces has become a repertoire piece: both the Bridge
and the Leighton have been recorded. Ian Venables has not used
any of these works as an example. In fact, it is not clear whether
there is a conscious exemplar for this work. The circumstances
of the Elegy suggest that the piece was written without reference
to other music, save what had been absorbed through the composer’s
It was dedicated to the cellist Anthony Gammage. The first performance
was in January 1981 by the dedicatee and the pianist Andrew Wadsworth
at St Martin's-in- the-Fields, London. The piece was well received
by the audience. It is regarded by critics as being one of the
composer’s deepest and most personal works “combining lyricism
with a passionate intensity”.
The Elegy is written in a kind of ternary form, although the composer’s
typical use of material means that the subjects are actually not
repeated in an identical manner. The work could be described as
A B C B1
(Coda) There is a short concluding
cadenza before the cello restates the opening piano theme. For
most of the piece the cello has the dominant role, although the
pianist does give the impassioned cry of pain at the start of
the work, which is not taken up by the soloist until the last
few bars of the work. The pianist’s part is largely supportive,
consisting mainly of chordal writing.
Venables’ use of harmony relies on a careful juxtaposition of
simple but ultimately appropriate triadic chords with added notes.
For example, at one of the climaxes in this piece (bar 56) the
entire effect is simply an E minor chord with added minor 7th.
Yet the result is heart breaking. Perhaps the most effective chord
occurs in the third last bar of the piece – it is an F# major
chord with added B and A which resolves onto a simple B minor
triad. It is the crown of the work.
The Elegy is signed as ‘adagietto’ which is a little faster that
‘adagio.’ The second theme is introduced as ‘misterioso.’ Toward
the end of the work the composer asks the soloist to play ‘appassionato.’
Metrically the work is diverse with a variety of time signatures,
including considerable use of 5/4 although there are a fair few
bars written in 3/4 waltz time.
Dynamically the work is written at a fairly sustained level, there
being only one ff
outburst in the closing bars. This means
that the cellist has to play in a nuanced style rather than rely
on extreme volume contrasts. The melodic part calls for clear
articulation and sensitive bowing, but is never overly difficult
or complex with the exception of the short cadenza. The accompanied
choral (the C section) is a beautiful moment, with the cellist
providing an effective counterpoint to the chorale-like chords
from the pianist. If the opening ‘misterioso’ chords are harbingers
of ‘death’ then this seven bar passage is a shaft of light and
At present the Elegy for cello and piano is not available on CD
or MP3 download. However an excellent performance of this work
has been uploaded to YouTube
It is played by the talented young cellist Nathan Chan who was
only thirteen at the time of recording (12th August 2007): he
is accompanied on this presentation by Graham Lloyd. I understand
from the composer that a CD of his chamber music including the
Elegy and the excellent Piano Quintet will be released later this
year on the SOMM label.
This short work is an excellent example of British chamber music.
In spite of the fact that it was an ‘early’ work from the composer,
and was written in the heat of passion, it is a well-made piece
that deserves to be in the repertoire. Its antecedents probably
lie with Finzi’s Cello Concerto and certain of that composer’s
more acerbic moments. Venables’ Elegy is not a full-blown example
of ‘pastoral’ in spite of the fact that it nods in this direction.
There is depth to this piece that defies slotting into a specific
genre. There are no easy answers to be found in this Elegy: it
ends in “an unresolved and questioning mood”. Yet it is also heart-easing.
It is difficult to listen to this work without engaging in the
composer’s pain – for who has not loved and lost?