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Jottings on Eric Fogg’s Sea Sheen by John France

My first introduction to Eric Fogg was in a second-hand bookshop in Llandudno. It was back in the early nineteen-seventies. Mr. David Hughes had what amounted to a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books and music in his large rambling shop. I recall that much of the sheet music was kept in a cupboard towards the rear of the premises. There must have been literally tons of old scores, Victorian parlour songs, Novello choral editions, anthems, organ pieces - and Sea-Sheen. I cannot recall how much I paid for it, but it was probably about 10p. It was the cover that attracted me: I guess that I had just been introduced to Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony and probably felt that any piece by an Englishman about the ‘sea’ must be of interest and importance.

When I returned home from my holiday I suppose I must have played through the work on the piano. I cannot have played it well, for it is actually quite difficult – I would guess about Grade 7. Yet I felt that there was musical worth here: I was reminded of both Delius and Debussy. One of the chords stuck firmly in my mind and I cribbed it for an Intrada for organ which I was writing at that time! Sea Sheen was one of those many works that I hoped would be recorded, but I doubted if I would ever hear it. It was eventually forgotten about, filed in the loft and life moved on.

I recently wrote an article about Eric Fogg’s admirable Bassoon Concerto and as a part of the research for this I mugged up on the precious few written articles about the composer. I had not realised that Fogg was a Mancunian: neither had I known that he had been an associate of Walter Carroll. Carroll is a name that is well known amongst pianists for his excellent ‘teaching’ material. Furthermore he was involved with music making in Manchester – both amateur and professional. And then I recalled that my grandfather had known Carroll between the wars. So there was a (vague) family connection. It certainly sparked my interest in the music of the largely forgotten Eric Fogg.

Finally I read Lewis Foreman’s article ‘Fogg out of the Mists…’ published in the Manchester Sounds journal where he writes:- "It is unfortunate that so many of Fogg’s orchestral works seem to be lost, but his facility in orchestral writing contributed to the survival of one or two pieces which were occasionally heard on BBC radio programmes of lighter music until quite recently and which, if not great music, are charming and worthy of revival; among these may be singled out the short tone poem Sea Sheen."

Eric Fogg was born in Manchester in 1903. He served as a boy chorister at the Cathedral after which he entered the organ loft of St John’s, Deansgate (now demolished). His first formal music lessons were with his father, Charles H. Fogg – who was organist to the Hallé Orchestra. After this valuable instruction he studied with Granville Bantock in Birmingham. As a teenager Fogg was precocious and prolific: he had written his Op. 57 before turning eighteen. However his first significant achievement was in 1919 when he won the Cobbett prize with his Dance Fantasy for Piano and Strings. By his 21st birthday, Fogg was working for BBC Radio in Manchester- initially as a pianist (Keyboard Kitty!) and latterly as one of the ‘uncles’ of Children’s Hour. He involved himself with musical enterprises at all levels in that city – both amateur and professional. Latterly he succeeded Archie Camden, the bassoonist (to whom he dedicated his Bassoon Concerto) as the conductor of the Manchester Schoolchildren’s Orchestra.

In 1934 Fogg moved to London to take up a post as director of the BBC Empire Orchestra. Five years later he was killed by a London Underground train at Waterloo tube station. He was on his way to Brighton where he was to marry for a second time: an open verdict was returned.

Fogg’s catalogue was considerable and includes works for orchestra, the stage and chamber music. Unfortunately with few recordings and even less opportunities to hear his music in the concert hall it is hard to evaluate his musical style. However it is fair to say that his early works were influenced by Stravinsky whilst his later pieces owe more to Granville Bantock and Richard Strauss and perhaps William Walton. Lewis Foreman writes that Fogg’s music was received with a degree of hostility. On the one hand critics felt that was too ‘modernistic’ and on the other that he did not wholeheartedly encompass ‘modernism.’ He could not win.

Virtually none of Eric Fogg’s music is played today. There was a recent revival (BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Leeds Choral Society 25 March 2006) of his major choral work The Seasons which was successful. The Bassoon Concerto is in its own way a minor revelation, yet considering the paucity of concerted works for this instrument it has not become a regular feature in the concert hall.

An interesting note appears in the Musical Times for 1 May 1920. The author highlights the achievements of the Manchester School of Dramatics and wonders when the city will match this in music. He mentions a number of composers including Messrs. Edmondstone Duncan, Agate, Isaacs, Foulds, Baynton-Power … and Eric Fogg. He notes that on the 30 March of that year the British Music Society had organized a meeting which was addressed by Mr. Leigh Henry. The topic of this lecture was the musical compositions of the seventeen year old Eric Fogg: during the meeting some twenty five of the young composer’s works were given! The most successful number performed was the Phantasy for cello and piano (a work surely ripe for revival). Even more pertinent was a concert given some four nights later by the Sunday League where Sea-Sheen (piano version) was performed along with a Ballade in C# minor by Baynton-Power.

Sea Sheen may not be a major work within the context of British music, yet there is an attractiveness about it that transcends any debate on its inherent ‘worth.’ The first question to address is the classification of the work. Is it ‘light’ music or was it a genuine attempt to write a significant tone poem? Historically there is little to go on. At present, so little information is available on Fogg that it is not possible to construct any kind of ‘compositional history.’ Furthermore we do not understand how he regarded this work within his oeuvre. Yet we do know that Sea-Sheen was an early composition – it was written before his study with Bantock. It is possible that the present work is the same as the Idyll heard at Bournemouth on 24 March 1919. As such it was composed when Fogg was sixteen or seventeen years old.

The musical score has survived as a piano-conductor edition along with orchestral parts. This suggests that is was seen as repertoire for the smaller, provincial orchestras – such as at Hastings or Llandudno. This could conjure the image of Sea Sheen being played alongside such works as Kettelbey’s In a Persian Market or maybe selections from Edward German’s Merrie England. It would appear to preclude the work from the more exalted concerts halls and more serious repertoire. However, two notices in the Musical Times show that Sea-Sheen was played in exalted company. A concert given in Harrogate on 22 June 1922 included Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto in F and Tchaikovsky’s Overture on the Danish National Anthem. Concertgoers at a special evening concert in Bath on 30 Jan 1932 heard to Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Howell’s Procession and Stravinsky’s Second Miniature Suite. Hardly selections from the shows!

The full title of the work is Sea-Sheen: An Idyll. The score is dedicated to a certain Arthur Sadler and carries the first four lines of a poem by John Wilson, also known as Christopher North:-

"It is the midnight hour – the beauteous sea

Calm as the cloudless heaven, the heaven discloses,

While many a sparkling star in quiet glee,

Far down within the watery sky reposes."

The tone poem is effectively a meditation on these lines. Naturally the composer does not try to match the music to the words in every way. It is mood music- in fact it is fair to say that in a number of passages Fogg has written in an ‘impressionistic’ style. The work opens with a short undulating phrase before the main ‘sea’ theme makes its first appearance. It is quite a broad tune but without any pretension to ‘a limitless heaving breast.’ Yet it is immediately answered by a gorgeous phrase which will largely dominate the work: it is both romantic and tender in its flowing contour. This is followed by a third critical element of this piece – the impressionistic misty bridge passage. This surely has Delius or Debussy as its model. Then the piece comes to an effective stop. Fogg wisely repeats this first section virtually unchanged before changing the mood to the central ‘meno mosso’ music. This is slightly more intense than the opening material and suggests movement as opposed to stillness; change as opposed to rest. Interestingly Fogg balances this phrase with a figure that well suggests seabirds- without being naively descriptive. This section does not really climax: it just gently swells. Soon the music enters a second interlude before a recapitulation of the opening theme. All the elements are present: the sea itself, the romance and the impressionistic touches. The work comes to a full close with a swirl of arpeggios on the harp.

Sea-Sheen demands our attention for a number of reasons. Firstly it is an attractive example of a miniature tone poem. Fogg manages to balance the poetic inspiration of this music with a directness of expression. Secondly, the scoring is quite exquisite. It is hard to imagine that this subtle impressionistic work issued from the mind and pen of what nowadays would be called a teenager or ‘yoof.’ Thirdly, every note counts: there is clarity in both the texture and in the instrumentation that is impressive. Fourthly, Fogg uses an economy of material, yet does not struggle to maintain interest. And lastly the music never sinks into cliché or crass sentiment.

It is easy to play ‘spot the influence’ with Sea-Sheen – yet it is a pointless exercise. It is perfectly reasonable that a composer creating ‘sea music’ will nod towards Claude Debussy, Frederick Delius or even Frank Bridge. Yet this is not a pastiche work: Fogg uses his models with skill and invention and reserve.

The final test of any piece of music is: Does it move the listener? Now unless I am unusual, it certainly does. It is a near-perfect ‘tone picture’ of the ocean at night. And for my money it is an English sea- very possibly Morecambe Bay?

The work deserves to be in the repertoire and have more than just an occasional airing on the radio. The only available recording on Dutton does justice to the composer’s intention. The mood of Sea-Sheen is very different to Fogg’s Bassoon Concerto which was composed in 1930. That work is more in the style of Walton than Delius. Yet both works are consistent and show the composer as a consummate craftsman. Finally, included on the above mentioned CD is the short orchestral evocation Merok – which is a musical picture of a tiny village in Norway. It was written some ten years after Sea-Sheen and is an equally perfect miniature.

Certainly Eric Fogg was a great loss to the musical world of Manchester in particular and British Music in general. Who is to know what heights he would have scaled if he had not had such a tragic end?

John France

December 2007

Bibliography

Lewis Foreman: Fogg out of the Mists…’ Music & Musicians xxxviii/1 (1989-90) September, pp.8-10: Eric Fogg 1903-1939 Manchester Sounds Volume 4 2003/2004 pp.121-133.

Articles in Grove, The Times and the Musical Times

CD Programme notes DUTTON CDLX 7196 [Lewis Foreman 2007]

Discography

Orchestral Works Eric FOGG (1903-1939) Sea Sheen: an idyll (1920) Merok (1929) Eric CHISHOLM (1904-1965) Symphony No. 2 ‘Ossian’ (1939) Trevor HOLD (1939-2004) The Unreturning Spring – a song cycle to poems by James Farrar. Op.3 (1961-63) BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates, Gavin Sutherland and Vernon Handley. DUTTON CDLX 7196
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English Bassoon Concertos: Eric FOGG (1903-1939) Bassoon Concerto (1930) John ADDISON (1920-1998) Bassoon Concertino (1998) Peter HOPE (b.1930) Bassoon Concertino (2000) Arthur BUTTERWORTH (b.1923) Summer Music (1985) Graham Salvage, bassoon with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland (Butterworth conducted by composer) ASV CD WHL 2132
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