Philip Venables

numbers 76-80 : tristan and isolde

“Venables’s text is an extract from Simon Howard’s surreal epic Numbers, concerning a swarm of wasps sculpted into a bust of the Marquis de Sade and presented to the local police. The music is duly playful and occasionally disturbing. The sound image of a face forming from shapeless buzzing was beautifully achieved, as was the concluding high G sustained by the soprano, capturing a nicely pared-down Liebestod.” — The Guardian

numbers 76–80 : tristan und isolde is the second of several ‘settings’ of the poems of Simon Howard, whose work I find incredibly inspiring. To me they are unfussy, evocative, violent and visceral. Absolutely the qualities I look for in music.

This piece continues my preoccupation with mixing spoken text with chamber music, and for concentrating melodrama and meaning into simple but vivid music images. For example, in this piece, references to wasps, death, Wagner and Beethoven. The poem tells a story, which I have kept intact and immediate in the musical setting of it.

Just like Simon’s poem, the piece is in 5 parts, numbers 76, 77, 78, 79 and 80. Parts of the poem are narrated in chorus in between musical tableaux. The central movement is for the vocal quartet only. The rest are dominated by the string quartet. Each section of string movement is less active than the preceding.

The strings play only on a 6-note scale (G, A flat, B flat, C flat, D flat, E double flat) and the voices sing only the remaining six pitches. This leaves the voices with the ‘Tristan’ chord, transposed up a semitone, of A, E, F sharp and C, plus an additional E flat and F natural. The only exception is the soprano’s G in the final section: strings rotate slowly around four pitches, setting up a condensed tragic Liebestod in the final bars – the only time when singing is accompanied by strings.

numbers 76–80 : tristan und isolde was commissioned by Endymion and EXAUDI, with funds generously provided by the RVW Trust, Marina Kleinwort Charitable Trust, the Leche Trust, the Golden Bottle Trust, the Golsoncott Foundation, the Ernest Cooke Trust, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Holst Foundation.  The piece was first performed at the Southbank Centre on 19th September 2011 by Endymion and EXAUDI, conducted by James Weeks.

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