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JOHN FOULDS by Malcolm Macdonald

The following two-part piece comprises the text of two pre-concert talks given earlier this year by the leading Foulds authority, Malcolm Macdonald, at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Later this year Warner’s will be issuing a CD of the Foulds works performed there together with the Apotheosis for violin and orchestra. This talk was given by Malcolm Macdonald with illustrations played to the audience from recordings. Although this is an element we cannot at this stage provide over the internet it is felt that the value of this lecture, including vivid descriptions of the music itself, remains substantial without the audio element. RB

CBSO First Foulds Talk 10 and 12 Feb 2004

The name of John Foulds was once almost a household one, and you could find it in the music programmes of the Radio Times pretty well any day of the week. But I’m talking about the Radio Times of the 1920s. It’s a very long time since John Foulds was a familiar presence on our concert programmes. Yet over the past couple of decades he has been emerging from the shadows, there are quite a few CD recordings of his music, and at least some of his works are once again – or in many cases for the first time – being heard in concert. Birmingham can take pride, I think, that in recent years there have been more live performances of Foulds here than anywhere else. This is due of course to the fact that Sakari Oramo considers that Foulds wrote great music which deserves to be in the repertoire – and who am I to dissent from that; he’s absolutely right.

Now there are thousands of neglected composers, and many whom enthusiasts and sometimes critics believe to be unjustly neglected. But it’s really very rare for a conductor at the head of a leading orchestra to say: ‘Yes, this is amazing music. People should be listening to it. I will play it – and not just once but again and again.’ Tonight’s performance of John Foulds’s Three Mantras is NOT the first time this extraordinary work has been heard in Symphony Hall. It’s I think the third, and Thursday night’s performance will be the fourth. Now the Mantras are (or is) one of Foulds’s most striking, most exploratory, most visionary works, written at various points during the 1920s by a composer who was totally au fait with the leading modern music movements of his time, but had his own spin on things and his own bold statements to make in his own way. Here he is in full flood in Mantra I, the Mantra of Action -

[EXAMPLE] (about 1’50") Mantra I

Part of the First Mantra. There’s a composer who knows exactly what he’s doing, and for whom his contemporaries like Stravinsky and Bartók and Prokofiev had better look out. Now a week or so ago a very different Foulds work was heard here: the Keltic Lament, which started life as the slow movement of a three-movement Keltic Suite for light orchestra. This was the sort of piece that kept his name in the Radio Times in the 1920s: you could almost call it Foulds’s Greatest Hit. And here’s a bit of it:

[EXAMPLE] (about 1’40") Keltic Lament

I think it’s fair to say that if you only knew Foulds because you’d heard one of the previous performances of the Mantras, you’d find the Keltic Lament something of a surprise. And if you only knew him by the Keltic Lament, you’d find the Mantras an even bigger surprise. Do they even sound as if they’re remotely by the same composer? One of the difficulties in assessing Foulds’s achievement is that he viewed his art as his craft and he worked with ease on different, indeed on many different levels of style and sophistication. He was an eclectic, he was a musical mimic, he was a jack-of-all trades and he could turn his hand to anything and he was proud of it. Does this mean he was merely a chameleon? No, because in so many of his works – not only the Mantras – there is music that nobody else could have written, that nobody else did write. Anyway, under all the changes of colouring, the chameleon is a real, solid and fascinating lizard.

In any case this is not in any sense an unusual situation. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was well understood that a composer could make a good career writing light, uncomplicated, though often artful music for domestic consumption, for dancing, for lowbrow tastes – and that major composers might also be called upon to do so, or turn their hand to it for a bit of extra cash. Brahms did so – his fortune was founded not on his symphonies and concertos but on the runaway sales of the Hungarian dances and the Liebeslieder Walzer, which are by no stretch of the imagination big serious musical utterances. Sibelius, right through his career, wrote a great many morceaux and potboilers alongside his symphonic output, some of it touched with his characteristic genius, some of it quite trivial. And the great example in British music is of course Elgar: the composer of Gerontius and the Symphonies is also the composer of Chanson du Matin, Salut d’Amour and many other modest, tuneful light-music pieces composed right through tot he end of his life.

So there’s really no surprise in the fact that John Foulds wrote light music and ambitious concert works. What’s different in his case is that his concert works became ever more exploratory, unlike what his British contemporaries were writing, and so the gulf between the two kinds widened – and as a result mostly the concert works didn’t get played or indeed published. And he went off in other directions also – notably in his interest in the music of Eastern cultures, especially India – and that too was so unorthodox that THAT didn’t get much exposure. Meanwhile his light music and theatre music DID get played and published, so that in the end he found himself type-cast as a composer of popular pot-boilers, though works of that kind only accounted perhaps 20-25% of his output. And he found it on the whole very difficult to get a hearing for the other parts of his output. For instance, there’s a letter that he wrote in 1933 to Adrian Boult at the BBC complaining that all the major, serious works he’d submitted for broadcast in the previous two years (this would include the Three Mantras) had been turned down by the BBC’s Selection Committee, whereas his light music, his pot-boilers, were being continually broadcast. ‘This state of affairs’, he concludes in the letter, ‘is rather a galling one for a serious artist’.

There were other factors apart from musical content at play here. He was something of an outsider in the social fabric of the day. He didn’t have a training at any of the big music colleges, he was a musician from a family of musicians who became an orchestral player and later a conductor and teacher, a theatre musician. He was self-taught, in the best school, which was that of experience. After his early years in Manchester he led a fairly wandering life-style. The only examples of his most serious and sophisticated compositions that he managed to get published in his own lifetime were published in France. And of course towards the end of his life he went to India, where he died suddenly and unexpectedly shortly before the outbreak of World War 2 at the age of 58. By the end of the war he was all but forgotten, his manuscripts dispersed, some works irretrievably lost, other works eaten by white ants, and of course the taste for pieces like the Keltic Lament that had kept his name alive – that taste, too, was changing; those pieces too ceased to be played.

So there you have it; what needs to be done is to reconstruct the image, the identity, the personality of John Foulds – and you can only do it by playing, by listening to his music: and you have to listen to a lot of it, because it’s very diverse, before you can identify what makes a piece of Foulds as unmistakable as a piece of Elgar or Holst or Vaughan Williams or Britten. And the diversity is very neatly encapsulated by the examples of the Keltic Lament on one hand and the Three Mantras on the other.

As I think you know, the Mantras is not the only Foulds work being played by the CBSO this month. Of course the Mantras is going to be repeated the day after tomorrow, and I’ll be here again – I do hope some of you will think it worth coming to both performances, but I’ll be saying very much what I’m saying tonight. But then on Wednesday the 25th, we’ll be hearing the premieres of two very different Foulds works, his early symphonic poem Mirage and the vocal concerto Lyra Celtica. And I’ll be back here – and I do hope some of you will be coming to that talk, because I’m spreading what I want to say over these two occasions.

Foulds had been composing since childhood. During his years as a cellist in the Hallé at the beginning of the 20th century he wrote piano music, string quartets, symphonic poems and a vast 3-part ‘concert opera’ for soloists, chorus and orchestra called The Vision of Dante, based on The Divine Comedy. Only a few of these actually got played. As early as the 1890s he’d experimented with quarter-tones as a kind of intensification of chromaticism, but the general style of Foulds’s early works descends very much from the German Romantics such as Brahms and Wagner, though with features that suggest from his cello desk in the Hallé he was absorbing much from contemporaries such as Elgar, Sibelius and Richard Strauss. His relative lack of success with such pieces, striking though they seem to us today (when they get played), was one reason Foulds turned his hand to lighter music and theatre scores to keep the wolf from the door. On the other hand, it’s clear he had a spontaneous musicality, an ear for a good tune and a great sense of fun, so the light music might well have come naturally to him anyway.

But he never, at any time, stopped writing ‘serious’, thoughtful, exploratory music, and in fact over the next decades, through World War I and into the Twenties, his musical language expanded radically into something much more recognizably ‘modernistic’. This wasn’t an isolated development among British composers of the time – you need only think of Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, even Vaughan Williams. Foulds knew them all, and his music has some affinities with them, especially with Holst – but his range of development was even wider and more varied.

The 1890s and the early years of the 20th century were something of an age of spiritual ferment in Western Europe. The old religious and rationalist certainties were being broken down, and many people were turning away from the established churches to partake in some of the many more esoteric philosophical and religious movements that were gaining ground – movements such as Theosophy, which claimed to bring new enlightenment based on ancient wisdom from the East, especially India. This isn’t an aspect of the arts especially that tends to get much serious discussion these days, but you’re continually bumping up against it in the biographies of poets, musicians, artists of the time. Scriabin was inspired by Theosophy to create his own religion, of which his music was meant to be the revelation. Satie in Paris, was inspired to some of his most radical works of the 1890s by the tenets of Rosicrucianism. Debussy was deeply interested in Alchemy and for a time was the head of a mystical order called the Priory of Sion. Nearer to home, W.B. Yeats, fascinated by Celtic mysticism and automatic writing, creates his own religio-philosophical system; Gustav Holst deeply interested in Theosophy, Indian mysticism, Gnostic Christianity, Astrology; Edwin Lutyens, the great architect, deeply into Theosophy also. I mention Yeats, Holst, Lutyens specifically because John Foulds knew them all. In Foulds too there is this mystical, esoteric element, and through it a wish to penetrate to spiritual realities that seemed obfuscated by Christian ritual and liturgy, which artistically came out as a wish to penetrate back to the real essence of music, which he felt might be found in its purest form outside the systematizations of the Western Tradition, that there were boundless possibilities that non-Western music could point him towards.

For instance, just before and during the War he started writing pieces based on strict application of the ancient Greek modes; here’s part of one of them – a ‘Solemn Temple Dance’ in the Lydian Mode – in the version he eventually made for strings, harp and percussion – the dancers are obviously to be thought of as clashing cymbals in their movements.

[EXAMPLE] (nearly 1’00") Hellas I

As well as Ancient Greece, he began to take a strong interest in the music of the East, especially India. This is reflected in his settings of Rabindranath Tagore, his music for Indian plays staged in London by the Union of East and West, and in speculative compositions like the piano piece Gandharva-Music. Its haze of shimmering figuration and elusive melody over a ground bass make it a true forerunner of today’s Minimalism. Foulds said he’d tried to capture in it the actual sound of the Gandharvas – in Hindu mythology, the nature-spirits or devas ‘whose being is music’. This strong interest in India was partly a result of his esoteric spiritual interests. And he made no secret of the fact that he felt some of his music, like Ghandarva Music had been dictated to him from other spheres, or at least wafted from other times and places. I’ll play you just a few bars of Ghandarva-Music: it’s just a sort of endless ripple of notes over a ground bass.

[EXAMPLE] (about 40 seconds) Ghandarva-Music

Now in this little piano composition we find the first germ of the idea of the second of the Three Mantras, the Mantra of Bliss. The idea of nature-sprits, of angelic voices in the air, this is very much what the second Mantra is about. Maybe you can hear in this short extract from Mantra II how the basically very simple ideas of Ghandarva-Music have been transformed into a shimmering, orchestral canvas, once again over a ground bass.

[EXAMPLE] (about 1 minute 40 seconds) Mantra II

It’s possible that Foulds’s very openness about his spiritual sources of inspiration, which he talked about for instance in his immensely stimulating book on modern music called Music To-day, was one reason why some of his contemporaries tended to look askance at his work. Perhaps another reason was his passionately-proclaimed conviction that Indian music – the music of a subject race of the British Empire – had much to teach composers in the West. Theosophy had looked to India as a source of spiritual enlightenment and renewal, but Foulds’s belief in Indian music was based on more than just mystical enthusiasm. In 1915 he’d met the violinist Maud MacCarthy, who became his second wife, and was at that time one of the leading Western authorities on Indian music. She’d been close to one of the leaders of the Theosophical movement, Annie Besant, and had actually studied Indian music on the subcontinent, noted down folk music in the villages and collected Indian instruments. Through Maud MacCarthy, Foulds gained a knowledge of oriental music, unusually detailed for the time and not particularly romanticized.

One of the fruits of this knowledge was a very original cycle of piano pieces, the Essays in the Modes, published in Paris in 1928. These studies aren’t based on the traditional major and minor diatonic modes, but on scales derived from the 72 ragas of southern India. Here’s part of one of these remarkable pieces:

[EXAMPLE] (about 1’ 30") Prismic

As with the pieces on Ancient Greek Modes, Foulds’s idea was that the seven notes of his chosen modal scale furnished him with everything he needed – each was a complete world of sound in itself. In the piece you’ve just heard, only the seven tones of the mode are used, the other five tones of the chromatic scale are completely excluded, and yet he gets a tremendous variety of colour and harmony out of those seven – he was trying to demonstrate that these modes had just as much potential as the familiar major or minor scales. Foulds only completed seven of these piano pieces, the Essays in the Modes, but he began many more, and one of those rapidly metamorphosed into the first movement of a major 3-movement work for piano and orchestra – a Piano Concerto in fact, though he didn’t call it that: he called it Dynamic Triptych, and the three movements are a study in a mode, a study in timbre, and a study in rhythm. I’ll play the beginning of it: this was the first music by Foulds I ever saw, years before I heard it played. So here’s another piece in a mode deriving from India but put through dazzling paces as the music seems to spread its wings and take flight. Again, throughout this entire very virtuosic movement only the seven tones of its mode are to be heard. Nobody’s asking me but I think this is probably the next piece of Foulds for the CBSO to tackle:

[EXAMPLE] (I minute 45 secs) Dynamic Triptych

From there it’s but a short step to the Third Mantra, the Mantra of Will, composed very shortly after Dynamic Triptych. This is perhaps the most extreme of Foulds’s works inspired by the idea of working with Indian modes. He takes the seven notes of an aggressively exotic mode and builds a huge dissonant teeming vision out of it. He yokes the seven tones to a baleful, convulsive 7/4 rhythm. This rhythm, and all the seven tones, sound in every bar – even the silent bars, where the conductor is directed to go on beating that particular rhythm. And around this juddering, angry basis the whole orchestra goes wild. It is some of Foulds’s most extreme and his most visceral music.

[EXAMPLE] (About 1’ 15") Mantra III

At the time he wrote that Foulds had never yet visited India. That came later, at the end of his life, and of course, he became in some ways even more involved in seeking to understand and to use Indian music – but other aspects of it as well as modal composition. He became involved in working with traditional Indian instruments, such as the sitar and the sarod and the vina, and also with the reality of current Indian music – not just the classical music, the playing of raga, but popular songs and ballads, even music one might hear in the street. A lot of his last works evoke an India of markets and dancing and songs in the fields and the bustle of towns, and of course to do that they’re less sophisticated in many ways than pieces like the Mantras or the Essays in the Modes. Here again is Foulds the composer who can work on many levels. A mystic he may have been, but he was also an intensely practical musician. And so I’m just going to end with another musical vision of India by John Foulds – it’s from his Indian Suite for orchestra, a work based on authentic Indian melodies, collected by his wife and some of them he’d heard himself. It’s not exactly a light-music work but there’s nothing solemn or spiritually elevated about it either. I’ll play the second movement, it’s very short, and he calls it ‘Da Ta Sé – Prelude to a Play’, and its based on a theatre song from Bombay. In music like this he surely depicts a land and people of life and colour and humour – another flip-side, as it were, of the creative impulse that produced the Mantras. And that’s all I’m going to say, but I’ll be back on the 25th to talk some more about this most unusual of English composers, John Foulds. Let’s just end with this little movement from his Indian Suite.

[EXAMPLE] Indian Suite II

CBSO Second Foulds Talk 25 Feb 2004

I was here 2 weeks ago before the performance of John Foulds’s Three Mantras to talk about the music and its composer – John Foulds, who was born in Manchester in 1880 and died in Calcutta in 1939: dates and places that somehow sum up his personal odyssey - from being a cellist in the Hallé Orchestra under Hans Richter, very much brought up in the European mainstream traditions, to someone exploring other worlds of music, collaborating with Indian musicians and even writing for their instruments. I said something then about his interest in non-European, oriental scales and modes as a way of enlarging the tonal language of Western music, and how this tied in with his interest in Indian philosophical and mystical traditions. I drew a parallel here with Gustav Holst. And I indicated something of the astonishing range of Foulds’s music, from big, highly sophisticated, visionary pieces like the Mantras to melodious salon pieces and light-music suites for popular consumption, such as his once-famous Keltic Lament, which was also heard here just a few weeks ago.

Tonight we’re going to be hearing two very different works by Foulds: his comparatively early symphonic poem Mirage and the concerto for wordless solo voice and orchestra entitled Lyra Celtica. You may already suspect that Lyra Celtica belongs to the same general ambience as the Keltic Lament and in a sense you would be right, but this is a work on an entirely different level. I should say that both these works in tonight’s concert are billed as world premieres: this is true in the case of Lyra Celtica and essentially true in the case of Mirage: in fact there does exist a recording of Mirage made in Luxembourg in the 1980s (which is why I can play you some extracts from this work), but tonight will be its first proper performance in this country and the first time it’s been played in public anywhere. That’s Mirage; Lyra Celtica is a work that Foulds didn’t quite finish, but he left two of the three movements complete, and it’s these two that are being premiered tonight: the music is so fascinating that it most certainly deserves to be performed.

a page of the score of Mirage

a page of the score of Lyra Celtica

So, two very different works – Mirage rather grand and philosophical, Lyra Celtica essentially lyrical, melodic, impressionistic, sometimes playful. To attempt to say what I think Foulds was trying to do in these works requires me to say more about his very varied musical, poetic, philosophical leanings. They confirm him as essentially a musical poet and a great explorer of new musical territory, both within the mind and outside the central Anglo-Germanic, post-Brahmsian, post-Wagnerian traditions in which he grew up.

There was a sense in which Foulds was always an explorer, both musically and spiritually. Like many musicians around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries he was dissatisfied with the limitations, as they seemed to him, of the tempered scale, the 12 semitones to every octave in which music had to be written, when within those semitones – as he knew as a string player – there were infinite possible smaller gradations with their own possible expressive effect. As early as the 1890s, in his teens, he was composing works which made his first tentative use, at least in passing or for decoration, of quarter-tones: intervals of one half of a semitone. A lot of his music from the 1890s is in fact lost, and the earliest pieces by Foulds using quarter-tones that survive date from about 1905. One of them is a piece called The Waters of Babylon, which he much later incorporated into a suite of Aquarelles for string quartet. I’m going to play you a couple of passages from this, for its date, very remarkable little work.

It’s one of what Foulds called his ‘Music-Pictures’, the idea being to render the equivalent of a visual impression into sound. And The Waters of Babylon is all about reflections – the temples and the hanging gardens of Babylon being glimpsed by moonlight reflected upside down in the waters of the River Tigris. It’s a picture of calm and mystery, nothing like recent events in the vicinity of Babylon. He uses musical reflections to portray this: contrary motion – as the top line goes down the bottom line comes up, as the top goes up the bottom goes down and so on. And the main theme of the piece is a very distinctive one, an idea he was almost obsessed by because he used it again and again in many works – but this is its first appearance as far as I know. It’s a kind of wedge-shaped chorale, it’s wide-spaced at the beginning and simultaneously rises from the bottom and descends from the top to a narrow central point or neck and then it opens out again in reverse.


This theme rises and falls by semitones – but eventually Foulds inserts the quarter-tones into the gap of the semitones to produce this strange, intensified form of the theme which seems to be trying to grope further into the meaning of this collection of sounds that we call a theme. You may not find this pleasant, but it’s certainly very distinctive – no-one else in Britain was writing things like this in 1905.


Now in the third section of Mirage, which we hear in tonight’s concert, Foulds uses that same wedge-like theme; and he also uses quarter-tones (this is now in 1910) but this time they are two separate phenomena – there’s no ‘quarter-tone version’ of the wedge theme, instead quarter-tones are used as part of a different theme. But Foulds conveniently used them close together, so that I can include them in the same music example. So this is a passage from Mirage in the Luxembourg recording I mentioned; the music has previously, in the second section of the work, been very ardent and aspiring and romantic, and here it’s suddenly cut short by several statements of the wedge theme, which here appears as something unexpected, a kind of immovable object, and then when the strings attempt to take flight again they can only decline, with the quarter-tones making their line into a kind of sigh or even a wail.


I’ve said Foulds used this wedge-shape theme in many contexts, in many different works. Between The Waters of Babylon in 1905 and Mirage in 1910 it had appeared in a huge ambitious work for soloists and chorus and orchestra, a work that has never been performed, called The Vision of Dante, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. And in the first part of this ‘concert opera’, as Foulds called it, the ‘Inferno’ that wedge theme is set to the famous words engraved above the gates of Hell: ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’. I don’t maintain that it has exactly the same baleful significance in Mirage. In each work that Foulds used it, its essence is the same, apart from different transpositions. But each time the different scoring and the different contexts give it a different sense of meaning. It does however seem to stand in his imagination for something both enigmatic and, as I say, immovable.

As for the quarter-tones, which Foulds developed in later works - Lyra Celtica is one of them – I think these had both a technical and a spiritual relevance for him. Foulds was a practical musician, these things were comparatively easy to play on string instruments anyway, they made an interesting way of linking tones by something precise that wasn’t just a slide or glissando. But I feel they have a sort of occult significance as well. If you can get between the semitones, if you can slip through between the fixed intervals of the tempered scale on which western music was based, maybe you can get at what lies behind the music, the spiritual emanation as it were of which the music is only the outer semblance.

The idea of stripping away a veil is a very powerful one in Foulds’s music – a later theatre piece is actually called Veils – and perhaps because he was so adept at surfaces, at writing in many different styles, he had a fascination with what lay beneath the surface, what it was that unified music whatever its language and instrumentation and level of popular appeal. And that’s what Mirage is trying to convey in music: the Mirage of the title is meant to be illusion, the baubles that men chase after – success, fame, power, ambition.

So it’s not a symphonic poem that tells or re-enacts a story from literature, like Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel of Elgar’s Falstaff. It’s a philosophical tone poem, embodying psychological states or ideas about the human condition in music: this is the tradition begun by Liszt’s tone poems Das Ideale (The Ideal) and From the Cradle to the Grave; other examples are Parry’s From Death to Life and the best known of all examples of this genre, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Now I’m sure … I’m convinced … that Foulds had Strauss’s Zarathustra in mind when he composed Mirage, so I must say I was astonished at Sakari Oramo’s boldness in putting these two works into the same programme. Clearly he believes Foulds’s music is strong enough to face the direct comparison. And I should also say that, ‘philosophical’ tone poem or no, the philosophy is not the point of the music. It's the excuse for the music, music which is very enjoyable without thinking too much about its meaning, gorgeous music poised on the very cusp of the late Romantic period and the Modern Age.

Perhaps the most original music in Mirage occurs at the centre, in the fourth section, to which Foulds also gives the subtitle ‘Mirage’ – so this is as it were the essence of the piece, the Mirage or the world of Illusion itself to which the rest of the symphonic poem is a reaction. This ‘Mirage’ section is a strange wispy, slithering, sparkling scherzo in which the various themes of the work up to that point just seem to flicker, to dissolve away, to melt into one another: everything that once seemed solid has become insubstantial.


But this central ‘Mirage’, this music of illusion, is contrasted with one idea that does remain rock-solid, because it’s there at the start of the work, and it’s there unchanged, only made more impressive, at the end. This is a majestic idea, again like a chorale, which Foulds says stands for ‘Immutable Nature’. This is as it were the very ground of reality, that which exists eternally while human life – as the ‘Mirage’ section suggests - shimmers and struggles and passes like the Mayfly. This is Foulds’s ‘Immutable Nature’ theme:


I’ve already mentioned that Foulds tended to re-use salient ideas, like the wedge theme, in different works. And this chorale, which as far as I know appears first in Mirage, was an idea he re-used about ten years later in one of his most important, and perhaps most notorious, pieces: the World Requiem, a gigantic work for soloists, choruses and orchestra in memory of the dead of all those who had died on all sides and all races in the First World War. This is a work in two parts, 20 movements in all, texts drawn from various sources including the Requiem Mass but also passages from John Bunyan and the 16th-century Hindu religious poet Kabir. It was composed from 1919 to 1921 and it was performed annually in the Royal Albert Hall in London under the auspices of the British Legion by up to 1200 singers and instrumentalists, conducted by Foulds, the orchestra led by his wife, the violinist Maud MacCarthy. This very big piece has not been heard, apart from a few extracts, since the 1920s – there are a number of obstacles in the way to a revival, though ultimately it could be said that they all come down to money. However there is periodic interest in a revival from several quarters, including obviously the BBC, so I believe it will eventually happen, though I advise you not to hold your breath. Anyway the theme of ‘Immutable nature’ that I’ve just played, which is the opening of Mirage, becomes in even grander orchestration the opening of the World Requiem, to the words ‘Requiem Aeternam dona eis Domine’.

It was probably while he was writing the World Requiem that Foulds was working on at least part of his other work that’s being premiered tonight: Lyra Celtica. I say probably because it’s not entirely clear when he had the first ideas for this work and when he actually wrote it down – in fact it’s very likely that it was composed in stages at different times. As I’ve already mentioned the work isn’t in fact finished, but we have the two complete movements that are being played in tonight’s concert. Let me say something quickly about Foulds and ‘Celtic’ music – I can’t audibly put inverted commas round this term ‘Celtic’, often spelt with a K, but I’m trying to suggest music that conjures up something of a received image of the music and culture of Britain’s Gaelic-speaking regions, Western Ireland, the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland – rather than, perhaps being closely based on the actual folk music of those regions.

There was a period vogue for music of this kind, as there was for anything exotic, both in the concert hall and in the salon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was part of a wider fascination for all things Celtic or Gaelic, which perhaps started with the Pre-Raphaelites and continued in the ‘Celtic Twilight’ of such poets as Yeats, Fiona MacLeod, painters like … Duncan. Musically its manifestations – which of course begin more or less with Wagner, Tristan und Isolde - include operas like Rutland Boughton’s The Immortal Hour, the symphonic poems of Bax, the Irish Rhapsodies of Stanford, Percy Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry, the Hebridean Symphony of Granville Bantock, and of course the ongoing production of volumes of Songs from the Hebrides collected and arranged and bowdlerised by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser. It was one of the current modes of the early decades of the 20th-century, a longing expressed in different kinds of art and at more popular or more rarefied levels for, perhaps, a simpler, more elemental life of croft and sea and mountain and mysterious forest, for clan loyalty and heroism and peasant warmth and tinkers and fiddlers and fluters and magic and the fairy-folk and silver shoals of fishes and seals that sing and change into mermaids, and an ancient, tragic, almost forgotten history losing itself in the mists of time. Foulds himself wrote of (and I quote) the "‘old, unhappy, far-off things’ with which everything Keltic (physical, emotional and mental) seems to be impregnated". Certainly many different legends, images and ideas went into a generalized and certainly romanticized picture of ‘the Celtic’, the other culture clinging on to the mysterious western fringes of the British, Anglo-Norman-Hanoverian mainland. And it’s worth noting that most of the occult, esoteric movements of the time, within whose orbit Foulds certainly moved, were fascinated with Celtic mystical traditions.

Foulds tapped into this vogue in many works and on several different artistic levels. He was best known for light music in the ‘Keltic’ vein, and his most-performed piece by far was the Keltic Lament of 1911 which I played some of in my talk a fortnight ago. That particular piece was originally for string orchestra and harp, and was so popular that I know of upward of a dozen arrangements of it – as a piano piece, cello solo, violin solo, trio for violin cello and harp, full orchestra, brass band, as a solo song, as a chorus with words ‘From the Ancient Erse’ and so on. The Keltic Lament originated in a set of pieces for strings and harp called Keltic Melodies and it then moved over to become the slow movement of a Keltic Suite for orchestra before becoming so successful on its own. Rather than playing the Lament again I’m going to play a bit of another movement from the Keltic Melodies for strings and harp. This is called ‘The Clan’ – it also went into the orchestral suite in a somewhat changed form – and here you have the light music Celtic style pretty well established: [pentatonic tunes], Scotch snap rhythms, bagpipe basses etcetera. And it’s perfectly enjoyable stuff.


Foulds wrote a lot of other pieces in that vein – titles like Keltic Overture, Gaelic Melodies, Fiddler’s Fancy, Merry MacDoon, A Dream of Morvern, A Gaelic Dream-Song and so on.

When we come to consider tonight’s work, Lyra Celtica, we’re obviously moving onto quite another level, though there are some features that connect it subliminally with the light music pieces. I’ve never heard Lyra Celtica, though I’ve studied the score: nobody has until tonight, it’s a new experience for all of us. So I have no musical examples to play you, and since Foulds himself wrote nothing about his reasons for writing this work, all I can say at the moment is partly speculation.

It belongs to a highly unusual genre – a full-fledged Concerto, with cadenzas and ritornellos and so on, for female voice without words and orchestra. This isn’t unique – there are a few other such works, some of you may know the so-called Coloratura Concerto by the Russian composer Glière, but it’s extremely rare, and on the face of it a very strange thing to want to do. I think Foulds had in his mind and ear the image of the lone Celtic singer, the bard, the singer of lullabies, of croons, of spells, of songs to the seals, of songs by the seashore and on the shieling – and decided to distil this image to its essence and make a concert work out of it.

It’s also clear he had a specific voice, a specific singer in mind: his wife, Maud MacCarthy, whom I mentioned a few minutes ago. She was a remarkable musician, Irish by birth, whose early career was as a virtuoso violinist and then, when her playing was restricted by neuritis, she developed as a singer, especially in oriental music. So she was adept at chants and vocalizations as well as western songs, and I believe she sang Irish and Scottish songs in the home. And she was one of the leading Western authorities on Indian music in the early part of the 20th century, having collected folksongs in person on the subcontinent and studied its music closely. One of her more unusual talents was the ability to sing in the 23-tone microtonal scale of classical Indian music, that’s 23 tones, microtones, to the octave. The idea that Foulds had her specifically in mind is reinforced by the fact that the solo part of Lyra Celtica includes such scales – there’s one right at the beginning – and also that this vocal concerto isn’t written for a soprano, but for a lower, a mezzo/contralto range, with some very low-lying passages, which is the kind of range that Maud MacCarthy had. And of course she was Irish – so I would speculate that in one sense Lyra Celtica (the title is of course Latin for the Celtic Lyre or harp) is a portrait of the woman whom Foulds often considered his muse, and who he presumably imagined might be its first singer.

There is, by the way, quite an important part for the harp in Foulds’s concerto. But Lyra Celtica is also the title of a once well-known anthology of Irish and Scottish Gaelic poetry from ancient to comparatively modern times, edited and published in 1896 by the Scottish poet William Sharp and his wife Elizabeth. We know Foulds possessed this anthology, and just as Sharp hoped to fix the genius and special nature of the Gael in it, perhaps he aimed to do the same in Lyra Celtica. Sharp wrote his poetry under the female pseudonym of Fiona MacLeod. Those of you who know Rutland Boughton’s opera The Immortal Hour – a close contemporary of Lyra Celtica – will remember that the libretto is a play by Fiona MacLeod interspersed with some of Sharp’s poetic lyrics. Foulds also set some of Fiona MacLeod’s poetry in a song-cycle called Mood-Pictures that he composed in 1917, probably around the same time as he was having the first ideas for Lyra Celtica. And this song-cycle too is for a voice of Maud MacCarthy’s range. There’s no direct musical connexion between Lyra Celtica and these songs, but there is a certain community of expression, and for my last example I’m going to play part of one song which is perhaps a parallel to passages in the second movement of Lyra Celtica. It’s called ‘Orchil’, and it speaks of a mysterious spirit under the earth who is weaving beauty on her loom, and her loom is both life and death, eternity and time.


That music as I said was not re-used in Lyra Celtica. It does reappear, with a different text, in the World Requiem, which I was mentioning earlier. But I think it’s a good piece of music to have in our ears as we go to hear Mirage and Lyra Celtica, for if Foulds was an explorer, a philosopher, an entertainer, a sophisticate, a mystic, he was in all these roles, and is pre-eminently in the works we hear tonight, a seeker after Beauty. And for Foulds, true beauty was never a mirage. © 2004

Malcolm MacDonald
Reprinted with permission

see also

S & H Concert Review

Foulds, Prokofiev, Stravinsky; Akiko Suwanai (violin) Leon McCawley (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 10th February 2004 (Chris Thomas)


John FOULDS (1880-1939) Le Cabaret, Op. 72a (1921) [3’31]. April – England, Op. 48 No. 1. Hellas, A Suite of Ancient Greece, Op. 45 (1932) [18’03]. Three Mantras, Op. 61b (1919-1930) [25’49]. London Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth. No rec. information given. DDD LYRITA SRCD212 [61’07] [CC]

A remarkable disc, and an essential introduction to a composer whose music cries out for greater recognition … For the Mantras alone, this disc deserves the highest recommendation possible. … see Full Review


Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Piano Concerto in C (1926-33 with revised 1946 ending) [27’45]. John FOULDS (1880-1939) Dynamic Triptych, Op. 88 (1929) [29’16]. Howard Shelley (piano); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley. No rec. info. DDD LYRITA RECORDED EDITION SRCD211 [57’05]

If you are buying this for the Vaughan Williams, you will not be disappointed. And you may just find your mouth agape at the marvels of the Foulds. … see Full Review


English Cello Sonatas: Première Recordings John FOULDS (1880-1939) Sonata for cello and piano, Op.6 (1905, rev. 1927) Ernest WALKER (1870-1949) Sonata in F minor for cello and piano, Op.41 (1914) York BOWEN (1884-1961) Sonata in A major for cello and piano, Op.64 (1921) Jo Cole (cello) John Talbot (piano) Rec. Bishopsgate Hall, London, 25 Oct, 29 Nov, 6 Dec 1997. DDD BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS423CD [81.10] [MC]

Collectors of English chamber works are urged to hear these interesting works; especially the Bowen. … see Full Review

Conversations of a cellist-composer Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald
Music of today [3] By John Foulds (Ivor Nicholson & Watson) 10s 6d [53p] net


Those of you fortunate enough to have attended the February 2004 CBSO/Oramo concerts (Birmingham's Symphony Hall) that included FOULDS' Three Mantras, Mirage and Lyra Celtica will be pleased to hear that this orchestra and conductor will be recording a full Foulds orchestral; CD for issue later this year: Sept/Oct. It will include: Three Mantras; Mirage; Lyra Celtica for mezzo and orch (mezzo Susan Bickley); Apotheosis for violin and orch (soloist: Daniel Hope). Mirage and Lyra Celtica were broadcast on 26 February by BBC Radio 3. Oramo and the CBSO's Three Mantras was broadcast not so long ago. RB


This interview with Major Patrick Foulds, the son of John Foulds, now 87, was broadcast on 26 February 2004. Major Foulds recalls hearing his mother and father performing Lyra Celtica in his family drawing room in the 1920s:-

"Well, I was very small when my father was composing this work. He often used to sit at the piano and my mother used to sing. He had two pianos in the house: one of them was always working; one was his Bechstein which he composed at and the other was in the drawing room and I use the word advisedly because it was enormously high, about 12 or 15 feet. One wall […] entirely consisted of bay windows and had original William Morris window curtains. You wouldn’t get them cheaply these days. The other wall opposite had, placed lengthways, a beautiful tie-and-die indian sari. And so often in that room the East and the West met in song. My father learnt from my mother about Indian music, wrote on it, lectured on it as well as my mother did and used in his works … quite often used things which he had learnt from her."



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