Two summers ago I was enjoying tea in the Worcestershire sunshine during the interval of Celebrating English Song at Tardebigge Church when I was approached by the recently-retired CBSO principal percussionist, Huw Ceredig.
He was keen to discuss a forthcoming new work commissioned with the generous help of the Kay Trust to celebrate both the 40th birthday of Droitwich Concert Club and the 50th anniversary of Bromsgrove concerts. It was to be a Clarinet Quintet by the highly-regarded and much-loved Worcester composer Ian Venables.
This weekend the work receives a double premiere, first at Bromsgrove tomorrow (Friday), followed by a repeat at Droitwich on Saturday. Sadly, there will be one absentee, Huw Ceredig himself, who died last year as the result of a serious illness.
“It was Huw, who was the former chairman of the Droitwich concert club, who initially approached me with the idea of the commission,” explains Ian.
“He wanted to commission a chamber work from me to commemorate the club’s 40th birthday.
“Although the concert club didn’t have the funds itself to offer such a commission, the Kay Trust had given the concert club a small donation that could be used for this purpose. Huw realised that this sum was insufficient to cover the commission of a large-scale chamber work, so he began looking for possible partners.
“By a stroke of luck, and some kind of synchronicity, Bromsgrove Concerts had also been given a small sum of money by the Kay Trust. So together, Alan Cook, the chairman of Bromsgrove Concerts and Huw decided to pool resources and offer me a joint commission. Discussions then followed upon what kind of work both concert clubs would like me to write.”
“As the commission was for a short chamber work, I suggested a one-movement piece for clarinet and string quartet. I’ve always loved the clarinet, and I’d made use of it in my song cycle, On the wings of love,” Ian explains.
“The idea of composing an abstract work for this combination of instruments really appealed to me. In our discussions about what kind of work I would write the question of what would go on the rest of the programme was raised. Both the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets were mentioned.
“So before I started work on the clarinet quintet, I did of course, do my homework! And yes, I did study the Brahms closely. I also had a look at the Arthur Bliss quintet. There is always so much to learn from the masters and this medium has always been considered to be a difficult one chiefly because of issues to do with balance and integrating the clarinet with strings, which can be tricky. After looking at the Brahms and Mozart quintets I also decided to follow their lead and use the clarinet tuned in A.”
Ian says the death of Huw Ceredig has influenced his composition.
“Huw’s untimely death has certainly cast a shadow over this work,” he admits. “ When he first approached me he had already been diagnosed with cancer and a year later he told me the sad news that he was unlikely to be at its premiere. It was not long after hearing this news that I began composing the work.
“My initial thoughts about the piece led me to thinking about my own setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Break, Break, Break. At the heart of this poem, is the poignant line ‘But Oh for the touch of a vanished hand, And the sound of a voice that is still!’.
“The vocal melody that underpins these words is taken from the slow movement of my piano quintet. In that context, it was my tribute to the memory of my mother. Somehow, this melody beckoned to me again and so it became the starting point for my Canzonetta. In its various guises this theme appears three times in the work. The last being my memory of Huw. But the Canzonetta as a whole is not elegiac but a life-affirming work. I hope this is what the listener will feel by the end of it.”
* Ian Venables’ Canzonetta is performed by Timothy Orpen (clarinet) and the Cavaleri String Quartet at the Artrix, Bromsgrove on Friday, with the Mozart Clarinet Quintet concluding (8pm, details on 01527 577330), and at Droitwich Methodist Church on Saturday with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet concluding (7.30pm, details on 01905 779736).