After a songwriting hiatus, Ian Venables had a 'light bulb moment' which took his career to new heights. Christopher Morley explains.
Drive southwest out of our teeming city and you will soon find yourself in areas of outstanding natural beauty: Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and, to the north, Shropshire, all counties which have evoked a rich response from creative artists.
Elgar’s music immediately comes to mind, with his telling comment “the trees are singing my music – or have I sung theirs?”
Less in the public ear is the music of Sir Hubert Parry, whose compositions often have recourse to his Gloucestershire roots, as occasionally do those of Down Ampney-born Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Vaughan Williams also gave us unforgettable settings of one of the region’s greatest poets, Bromsgrove’s A.E. Housman, whose A Shropshire Lad and other collections has inspired so many composers.
Among those is Ian Venables, the Worcester-based composer who has so deservedly inherited the mantle of the recent past’s great setters of English poetry.
Venables has a wonderful sensitivity to words and their verbal rhythms, and a prolonged, sometimes painful apprenticeship has brought him to the forefront in English art-song.
He composed his first song at the age of 19, setting the wonderful, searing poetry of Midnight Lamentation by Harold Munro.
This was already Ian’s Opus 6 (not bad for someone studying politics, philosophy and economics at Liverpool University – he was born a Scouser), but, as he recently told me, “it doesn’t really work; I tried to impose my own ideas upon it, and even made substantial changes to the poetry.”
Never mind that it’s still a pretty good song. The experience of composing it led Ian to impose a song-writing purdah upon himself which was to last 15 years.
In the interim, Ian had moved from PPE to music, studying at Trinity College in London, and subsequently at Birmingham Conservatoire with Andrew Downes, John Mayer and John Joubert. And during this period he had a light-bulb moment.
“I made a close study of the songs of Gerald Finzi,” he says. “And looking at them, I realised how faithful they were to their texts, the verbal rhythms, the imagery they were conveying. And at last I knew how English songwriting should be approached.”
Ever since then, songs have tumbled from Ian’s pen, whether as individual offerings, or as cycles linked either by theme or poet.
And many of these are closely linked to this wonderful region poised between the Welsh borderland and the Cotswolds, including items from Housman’s evocative poetry or that of Ivor Gurney.
For 10 years until very recently, Ian Venables was chairman of the Ivor Gurney Society, dedicated to keeping alive the flame of this gentle, Severnside poet and composer who was destroyed by the First World War, mustard-gassed and eventually succumbing to a lingering, tormented death in 1937.