i. Easter Hymn
ii. When green buds hang in the elm like dust
iii. Oh who is that young sinner?
iv. Because I liked you better
Ian Venables' Songs of Eternity and Sorrow was composed as the result of a commission from the Finzi Friends, and is the third song-cycle to have been written by the composer. The first, Love's Voice Op. 22 is for tenor and piano; the second, Invite to Eternity Op. 31 is for tenor and string quartet. It seemed a natural progression to set Housman's poetry for tenor, piano and string quartet - the obvious parallel being Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge.
Cast in four movements, the overall structure takes on a symphonic form with the reversed final movements that one finds in a Mahler symphony. 'Easter Hymn' begins with an air of expectancy, where gentle string writing is punctuated by insistent piano chords and a rhythmic motif that subsequently dominates the work. Venables intentionally creates a sound-world that transports the listener to "...that Syrian garden..." before heralding the work's first anguished outburst on the words "...the hate you died to quench but could not fan...". As the music moves towards the second stanza the mood changes to a chordal passage for piano solo marked Lamentoso. This change, with its hymn-like quality is almost bordering on mock-reverence: the accusatory tone of the words, at times being harshly painted. Easter Hymn ends in a desolate B minor sound-world. It is dedicated to Jim and Frances Page.
By contrast, 'When green buds hang in the elm like dust' is a more relaxed setting of Housman's pastoral poem. It opens with muted strings and piano; a triadic figure in the strings providing the gentle rocking necessary to the mood of the piece. The voice's mellifluous writing soars above instrumental lines, most crucially at three important points in the work. The most striking of these is the ascent to pianissimo by strings and voice on the final line of the poem "...are lying about the world". A short coda presents the rocking figure on the piano: a single G natural providing its enigmatic ending. It is dedicated to Sonia and Jim Chance.
'Oh who is that young sinner?' is the most uncompromising of the four movements. Ostensibly about Oscar Wilde, it cleverly depicts prejudice in an almost banal manner, suggesting that the "young sinner" is to be incarcerated because of "the colour of his hair". Housman's genius comes to the fore. He is able to confront prejudice about sexuality through the notion of somebody who is 'different'.
The music reflects this with the use of an insistent piano motif that is accompanied by pointillistic gestures from the strings. The voice intones the poem as if witnessing the event, akin to a reporter reporting an event as it happens. Each verse brings something new and builds up to three important climaxes where the piano and string quartet vie for prominence. The final verse builds up to a flourish of activity before ending ambiguously on an abrupt discord. It is dedicated to all those who have suffered prejudice. By far the most poignant movement in the cycle is the setting of 'Because I liked you better'. It is a deeply moving interpretation of an equally moving poem about a love that cannot be. The disconsolate nature of the poem is mirrored perfectly in the piano opening where a yearning figure in the right hand is accompanied by sparse chords. The only moment of 'light relief' is in fact an ironic interpretation of the words ' "Goodbye" said you "forget me" '. The masterly use of a climax in a C major tonality at this point heightens the sense of loss and acceptance that accompanies Housman's unfortunate couple. The cycle closes with a coda of intense beauty and longing as the work's main melodic idea is passed between the 'cello and first violin as it moves inexorably towards its mournful close. It is dedicated to Jerrold Northrop Moore.
The first performance of Songs of Eternity and Sorrow was given on 4 June 2004 at the 'Weekend of English Song' in Ludlow by Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Simon Lepper (piano) and the Tippett String Quartet.
© Graham J Lloyd