Ian Venables: Three Pieces for violin & piano.
It would be both easy and lazy to describe Ian Venables Three
Pieces for violin, Op.11 as an example of regurgitated ‘English
Pastoral’. The composer himself has admitted the influence of
‘landscape’ on this piece. However, this work is not a parody
of earlier composers from the so-called ‘cow-pat’ school of
writing. It is certainly not an exercise in ‘bucolic nostalgia’
for a rural scene that has largely disappeared. There are no
suggestions of clogs, Morris dancers or ploughman’s lunches.
Ian Venables explained to me the background of his Three
Pieces for violin and piano. He had arrived in Worcester
in 1986 to take up a new teaching appointment and soon began
to explore the town and countryside around this great city.
He was moved by the landscape and wished ‘in some way to capture
the wonderful Severn Valley landscape in music.’
More specifically, Venables recalled that whilst walking on
the Malvern Hills and visiting Sir Edward Elgar’s grave at St. Wulstan's
Church in Little Malvern, he was inspired to compose the Pastorale.
The composer considered that the combination of violin
and piano gave best expression to the ‘inherent lyricism’ that
he perceived in the surrounding countryside. However a different
emotion underlies the Romance – this is a personal reflection
on love and relationships. The final piece was not motivated
by any particular event or landscape – however Venables claims
that this Dance simply reflects the ‘happy state of mind’
he had at that stage of his career. He insists that it is an
exercise in overcoming technical difficulties and the creation
of musical ‘excitement’. Yet this movement is the most hard-edged
of the three pieces.
In spite of the fact that this present work is effectively
three discrete pieces, it would be possible to regard it as
a ‘Sonata’, in spite of the fact that there is a considerable
disparity between the pieces or ‘movements’. Running through
the entire work is a thread of reflection. The final Dance,
in spite of its exuberance and ‘joie de vivre’, is not all emotional
The opening ‘pastorale’ responds well to one or more of the
‘classical’ or even ‘baroque’ definitions of this form. Nevertheless,
this is not a piece that is written in imitation of shepherds
and their shawms and pipes; nor is it an exercise in presenting
an offering to the infant Jesus on Christmas morning as in Bach’s
Sinfonia which begins the second part of the Christmas
Oratorio nor the Sinfonia Pastorale in Handel's Messiah.
However, there are certain characteristics that could suggest
that Venables was unconsciously nodding in this direction.
Firstly, there is an inherent simplicity of the formal structure
which is conceived in ternary form. Secondly, there is the relatively
straightforward harmonic scheme which is definitely not adventurous.
And thirdly, the moderate pace of this music may be suggestive
of a lullaby. The melody that dominates this piece is both tender
and flowing. On the other hand the central section moves away
from this tranquillity and produces something more involved
and with greater depth. The programme notes for this work suggest
that in this theme the composer ‘unfurls a passage full of ardent
lyricism as the piano supports a soaring melody with a luminous
accompaniment’. However the simplicity and innocence of the
opening material returns to bring the piece to a satisfying
and gentle conclusion.
The Romance is much nearer to the pastoral models derived
from the first half of the twentieth-century. In fact, this
is the piece that most closely approaches the musical ethos
of Gerald Finzi. This is reflective music: meditating on the
past rather than looking to the future. Many of Finzi’s works
have been described as being valedictory or retrospective, and
in this sense Venables has equalled the exemplar for sadness
and introspection. It is strange that the composer considers
that this work was inspired by an affair of the heart that was
progressing rather well. To my ear there is certainly something
of the ‘what might have beens’ drifting across the pages of
this piece. Yet in the opening and closing sections of this
movement there is a serenity that is rarely disturbed: Venables
has created stasis here and the listener is barely conscious
of the passage of time. If anything, one wishes the music would
go on forever. However, the conclusion of this ‘movement’ is
warmer and has a brave try at being optimistic, nevertheless
the original mood is never quite pushed to one side.
In spite of Ian Venables assertion that the Dance reflects
his ‘happy state of mind’ there is something sinister, almost
‘Bartokian’, in this music that balances over and against a
gorgeous ‘second subject.’ This tune is one of the very best
that Venables has so far given us. The programme notes give
the game away, I think, when it states that the ‘theme’ from
the Romance is presented heroically in octaves by both
violin and piano.’ Heroic indeed! But not before the soloists
have managed to put a number of phantoms to flight. All is well
in the coda and the work concludes on a positive note.
Trying to understand what ‘English Pastoral’ (in a musical
context) means can be a difficult task. Popular opinion would
suggest that any composition that is gentle and reflective could
be labelled ‘pastoral’-especially if written by an Englishman.
More pertinently it would tend to imply something akin to Ralph
Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending or George Butterworth’s
The Banks of Green Willow. However the reality is much
The musicologist Ted Perkins has suggested that there are at
least three possible stylistic markers for this particular genre:
1) the use of folksong/modal inspired melody, 2) impressionistic
techniques and finally 3) a certain neo-classical colouring.
Even the briefest of studies of Venables Three Pieces
will show that although elements of all three categories can
be found in this work, no ‘marker’ dominates or presumes to
be the constructive principle of this piece.
To complicate matters further, Eric Saylor (Musical Quarterly
91/1-2: 2008) has recognised the concept of ‘soft’ pastoral
and ‘hard’ pastoral. The former can be applied to a poem or
a piece of music that seeks to escape from the relative chaos
of urban life to the rural idyll. He writes, ‘This ‘soft pastoralism’
parallels the Classical withdrawal from the city to the simplicity
of Arcadia and likewise reflects the Romantic ideal of nature
as an alternative to unsavoury modernity’. ‘Hard’ Pastoral on
the other hand would attempt to ‘present an unsentimental view
of nature and the countryside, free from escapist trappings.’
So, what is the stylistic set for Ian Venables’s Three Pieces?
Firstly, I would suggest that there is an air of ‘soft’ pastoralism
about the genesis and realisation of much this music. There
is a tangible mood created in these pages that would allow anyone
who has visited the Malvern or the Severn Valley will empathise
with it. Secondly, Venables has not chosen to use the devices
as defined by Perkins of early twentieth-century pastoralism
in any consistent way. These three pieces are written very much
in a post-romantic style that has more than one stylistic marker.
But lastly, there is much that is retrospective and backward-looking
in this music: from the relatively conservative musical language,
by way of the obvious debt to Finzi to the largely introspective
mood of the music that aligns itself with many pieces conceived
in the works of the so-called English Pastoral School. Like
much of Ian Venables music it is not possible to assign absolute
influences. What is true is that his music lies on a trajectory
from the music of Vaughan Williams and Butterworth through Finzi
and some more modernist accretions such as Bartok and Stravinsky.
This trajectory emerges onto a new pasture that is wholly Venables
own, but never denies the musical traditions of the past. Finally,
it would appear to me that the first two movements represent
a kind of ‘soft’ pastoral whilst the final ‘dance’ is leaning
towards a harder-edged example of this genre.
The Three Pieces for violin and piano were first performed
at the Countess of Huntingdon's Hall, Worcester with Barrie
Moore (violin) and Graham Lloyd (piano).
An excellent recording of this music can be heard on SOMMCD0101