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 Follies, 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 study.
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 A1 (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 hope.
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?