Music To-day, Op.92
NOVERRE PRESS, 2010 facsimile reprint of the 1934 original edition
John Foulds was one of those composers who was very unlucky both during his life and after his death. Throughout his life he wrote a considerable amount of ‘light music’ (review) for commercial reasons, but he also composed a number of important and large-scale works including his World Requiem (review) which enjoyed considerable success in the 1920s. Afterwards his music was largely disregarded (although he wrote the incidental music for the first production Shaw’s Saint Joan), and he moved to India where he died of cholera. After his death his widow consigned much of his unpublished music to storage in his Indian garage, where the scores – including a large-scale unpublished symphony – were eaten by rats. He wrote this book before his departure for India, but although it enjoyed an initial success it has been out of print for many years and this reproduction of the original edition is its first appearance in recent times. The eclipse of his music was immediate and almost total – he is not even mentioned in A.L. Bacharach’s 1945 survey of twentieth century composers in British music in our time (any more than is Havergal Brian) – but it has recently been taken up with enthusiasm by Sakari Oramo (review review) and other performers (review review review review), although the loss of so many of his major scores is a tragedy.
The title of the book might suggest a simple conspectus of the music being written at the time of the original publication in 1934, in the same way as Constant Lambert’s contemporaneous and influential Music Ho!, but it is much more than that. Foulds makes it his purpose to look into the very nature of musical inspiration and the manner of its influence on composers in a way that anticipates the methods used by Deryck Cooke in his later The Language of Music; and although he does not go into the depth of detail that Cooke does, his net ranges wider. In his preface he explains his purpose in the book:
More than once has the remark been made that we do not want more creative artists, or interpreters either, the world being full of them – good, bad and mediocre; but we do want more discerning and intelligent listeners … It is certain that there never was a time when so much crude and tentative work received the encomiums that only productions of the most gifted intellects deserve. We must therefore … foster a more intelligent discernment in this matter, and it is toward this end, and toward an elucidation of some of the many and diverse problems which face the music-lover today, that I offer these studies.
Later he complains about the neglect suffered by many contemporary composers, in a manner which clearly reflects his own bitterness at his treatment by the musical establishment:
Even if by some extraordinary means he [the composer] manages to bring his works to actual performance, he enters a field already choked with such a plethora of inane lucubrations that the poor public … has little chance of according him a just measure of approbation. But even when by some miracle he does get his work direct to them … if he belong to no coterie, clique or claque, no college or academy, no school, faction or ‘set’ – his success is as a vesta-flame extinguished by the wind and its tangible results, particularly in this country – nil.
These words could be held to be as valid about the treatment of composers today as in 1934 when they were written.
Foulds begins by looking at examining some of the devices used in the music of his contemporaries – modes, quarter-tones, unorthodox rhythms – and in illustrating his points quotes liberally from some of his own works. Unfortunately the music examples provided are hand-written and not particularly legible, and sometimes he does not even state in the body of the text where his particular citations are taken from; for this information one has to refer to the ‘list of musical illustrations’ at the beginning of the book. Nor are any of the music examples lengthy enough to confirm or contradict the purposes for which they are intended. His literary style does not always help. Occasionally one gets the impression that he has swallowed a dictionary; the second sentence of the introduction brings the words ‘temerarious’ where ‘bold’ would clearly suffice, and there any many other similar infelicities.
He devotes one chapter in this section to the vexed question of Colour and Music, and in particular the phenomenon whereby some composers have identified certain pitches and keys with specific colours. He is puzzled, as many others have been, by the fact that different composers – notably Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin – while insisting on the reality of the correspondences they have identified, disagree about the exact nature of these. To add to the confusion he also quotes yet a third table of correspondences drawn up by the occultist Helena Blavatsky which disagrees with both of the composers cited. He, to my mind correctly, draws the obvious conclusion:
The truth is that musical sounds do not give rise to colours upon the physical plane at all; consequently all correspondences which have been observed to exist between sound and colour, and the multitudinous and well-authenticated records of such observations, are due to a use of the psychic facility.
In a footnote Foulds draws a parallel with the faculty of some people ‘in increasing numbers’ to distinguish ‘auric disturbances’ in terms of colour, and in the final section of the book proposes a synthesis of the arts to be based on these correspondences; but, as will be seen, his conclusions remain vague if tantalising.
In the fourth section of the book he looks at the way in which modern techniques are used by various composers, and he does not mince his words about their shortcomings. Of Vaughan Williams we are told:
His mystical tinge and natural religious instinct never succeeds in transporting him to any great height. At its least inspiring it results in an effete sacerdotalism which informs many of his works such as the Mass and Sancta Civitas; at its best it lands him in the placid piosities of … The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains and the suite Flos campi …
which would seem to demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the music of Sancta Civitas and Flos campi at the very least. His judgement on Mahler is equally wide of the mark, when he states of first performance of the Eighth Symphony:
The first bars were completely overwhelming – physically. The gigantic orchestra, the colossal chorus, the full grand organ, plus that imposing line of drummers stretching entirely across the back of the orchestra, emitted the opening passage with such a titanic concatenation of prodigious ponderosities [the dictionary has been swallowed wholesale here] that the poor listener was very nearly put to sleep (in the boxer’s sense of the phrase). Thenceforward the work proved to be, in effect, one long diminuendo until the end.
One wonders what on earth he can possibly have meant by diminuendo here – was the successful performance of the symphony really as bad as all that? About Poulenc he is equally scathing:
By way of tickling his hearer’s aural palates and giving them something they can readily understand, he serves up jejeune imitations of lyrical Mozartean scraps. Anon, bethinking himself of those of his audience who may have a flair for the modern … he offers … slabs of pinchbeck modernities, between the two-hundred-year old regurgitations already spoken of. And in the whole there is not, for me, one sincere bar.
At the same time, he describes Georges Migot as:
a true artist, who expresses, via the most admirable characteristics of his French birth, heredity, education and environment, a truly supernational type of ideation.
To my ear Migot’s music sounds like a rather watery imitation of Poulenc and the impressionists; but Foulds can be equally vituperative about, for example, the final movement of Debussy’s String Quartet:
one of the most inane movements than ever came from the pen (not to say brain or inspiration) of a great composer.
And he reserves his most violent attacks for jazz:
Jazz bears the same sort of relation to Music as does doggerel to Literature. It may be amusing, occasionally even witty; beyond this it cannot rise … Brought up with a supreme contempt for the bounders, the larrikins and the ‘Smart Alecs’ of the musical world, I cannot bring myself to countenance this attitudinizing as ‘artists’, ‘serious innovators’, ‘emancipation from the fetters of rhythm’ and the like, on the part of many protagonists of jazz music … Although there are strict limits to its powers of exaltation, there would appear to be none whatever to the depth of degradation to which it may sink. As may be noticed by the discerning in dozens of night-clubs and the like, it may descend deeper and deeper in its pimp-like office until eventually it reach a nadir of utter filth.
Coming from the composer of so many pieces of pretty unmemorable light music in his earlier years, this is really a bit rich. In which way could he justify a judgement that a work like Rhapsody in Blue is so superlatively worse than his own Romany from Bohemia?
Foulds reserves his encomia for most of the composers one would expect – many of them the same that Constant Lambert praised in Music Ho!
Scriabin he praises for his fusion of colour and music, as
by far the greatest exemplar in modern times of the many who have been touched by the creative deva-fire and have glimpsed a faint and muted adumbration of the ineffable glories of devic life,
although he sidesteps the positively megalomaniac designs which the composer planned in the final phase of his career. Despite his excoriation of the String Quartet, Debussy is also praised “as exquisitely sensitive to certain ranges of their [devic] influence.” Delius (although he describes some passages of the Requiem as “downright mediocre”) “seems to touch levels of the Buddhic world, rarely reached indeed by ordinary mortals, and utterly unrecorded by them.” In this company MacDowell is somewhat surprisingly included, although he acknowledges that “it would be easy to exaggerate his greatness” and that “none of his technical devices is either new or striking.”
Finally he comes to Sibelius, whom like Lambert he hails in ecstatic terms:
In almost everything he has written there is the sense of aloofness, remoteness, a-humanity, which, although shot through from time to time with a delightful naïveté and faëry dalliance, is clearly traceable by the experienced, to deva vibrations. And biassed [sic] though one may be against his choice of what he will report to us, there is no excuse for mistaking the significance of his reports. For this is a man of genius.
In this context he includes a very brief quotation of a flute phrase which is unidentified in the text but which the list of examples at the beginning informs us comes from “Symphony No 8 (Sibelius)”. I do not know how Foulds was able to quote from a score which was unpublished at the time and was later destroyed by its composer, but this is the only citation of any material from the Eighth Symphony that I have ever seen. It doesn’t look like anything exceptional, but much would have depended on its context which will forever remain shrouded in mystery.
It is easy to poke fun at critical misjudgements of contemporary music – Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective provides a litany of such examples, many of them much more sheerly wrong-headed than anything Foulds gives us here – but many of Foulds’ judgements fly so distinctly in the face of the scores themselves that this section is now the most ‘dated’ and least useful part of the book. It does nevertheless have a serious purpose, as he shows when he concludes this series of ‘vignettes’ with a reiteration of his earlier strictures on modern music:
until composers pay to the rationale of inspiration a degree of attention which is more commensurate with its importance in relation to that which they pay to their technical studies; just so long will they continue to court the danger of pouring out ‘new’ works which are dead before they are born; flimsily draped lay-figures; desiccated cerebral chaff, ‘without value – null and void.’
These words, which are still as valid today as when they were written, point to the real strength of this book: the earlier sixty-page section entitled Toward a musical aesthetic, in which Foulds looks into the heart of the composer’s inspiration and its mystery. Now musical inspiration is a very personal thing, but as a composer myself I can wholly sympathise with Foulds’ description of the process even when I may take personal issue with some of his conclusions. It is not possible to condense his argument without betraying its complexity, but in the context of his theory of ‘mystical planes’ it may be summarised in his own words:
Those persons who deny the possibility of man’s power to raise his consciousness to the ‘higher’ third, fourth or fifth plane, (which is to be ‘inspired’) are just as wide of the truth as those who chatter eloquently of inspirational hyperaesthesia. But whereas the former may know what the business of being an artist is, the latter certainly do not, for this way lies a kind of negative spiritualism and all the ills that may arise when Intelligence vacates his place at the helm and leaves the barque of Reason either rudderless or else at the mercy of something or someone unknown.
At the same time, he observes some pages later,
The physical body in tune, he [the composer] follows the sounds as it were into the inner realms without losing consciousness. He is now aware of multitudes of collateral phenomena, some of them of the most arresting and fascinating nature, but as he is first and foremost a composer of music, he concentrates one-pointedly on that and other cognate matters … It is fatal at this stage for the brain to be allowed to intrude any critical or ratiocinative operations whatsoever. The time for work of this type, extremely important, indeed invaluable as it is, comes later. Many a potential ideation has been lost to this composer in the past through lack of knowledge on this important point.
What Foulds recommends is that the composer should put himself into a sort of meditative trance - he gives some very precise instructions on how this may be achieved - which involves a total divorce from everyday concerns, and when inspiration can then arise. Now this may well work; but in practice it is not the only way in which inspiration actually occurs. From my own personal experience I have found that an idea will force its way into the mind even in the midst of the most mundane circumstances – during a boring committee meeting, doodling on the sheet of an agenda, or during a journey by train or bus – as well as in the more conventionally ‘inspiring’ circumstances of a walk in the countryside, or during that peculiar half-awake condition between dreaming and consciousness. Foulds is correct in saying that such inspirations must be captured immediately without any intellectual operations – that is why ideas jotted down on paper are often more immediately ‘alive’ than those laboriously worked out at the computer desk (in modern times) or through piano improvisation (in Foulds’ own days). That said, Foulds does not proceed to consider the intellectual discipline which should then be applied to the original inspiration – witness Beethoven’s hammering out of his original motifs into their final forms – and which is an equally important part of the compositional process. I would suggest that the fact that inspiration can arise in mundane circumstances may provide a clue, because it is in its very nature identical to the bored student ‘day-dreaming’ in a classroom. Meditation teaches us to ‘visualise’ an object – by sight, smell, sound and touch – in such a way that the visualised object becomes real to us. Many people find this difficult to achieve in practice, although in sleep we all arrive at the same result by dreaming. This is not just a human ability; animals can similarly achieve a sensation of reality in dreams, as can be attested by anyone who has watched a dog dreaming. It is no coincidence that many inspirations arise in the semi-waking state. So Foulds is right to emphasise the need for mental dissociation from reality, but the mental control of the composer does need to be maintained. Most dreams are by their very nature chaotic; inspiration demands a degree of control.
This section of the book is nevertheless a very valuable – and surprisingly rare – attempt by a working composer to examine the exact processes in which creation of music takes place. In the final section he returns to the subject with a series of suggestions to composers about the means by which the horizons of composition can be expanded. At this point, however, the argument shows an unfortunate tendency to become brief and laconic to the point of nullity. For example, he begins one discussion with a promising thesis about the powers that ‘change’ music:
Humanity, leading in the main a drab existence, acknowledges a common need for alternatives. Drugs, alcohol, tobacco – love, certainly the greatest and most powerful – are all the arts upon one side of their operations; these are magical in their results; they are alternatives. The irrational but no less real antipathy which some persons feel toward the magical aspect and operation of certain of the arts, is probably a deep-seated racial recollection of grave consequences of misuse in the distant past. Such dangers no longer existing, it is best frankly to recognize that music stands or falls by its possession of magic power.
In the era when Nazi ‘occultism’ was beginning its rise, it was perhaps optimistic for Foulds to declare that the dangers he identified no longer existed; but in any event he disappointingly does not pursue this argument and the chapter peters out with an expression of the desire for changes in the vibration of “the listeners’ make-up”. His use of “occult and oriental information” in the discussion is perfunctory, possibly for fear of contemporary ridicule; he observes that there is “grave danger” in concentration on the chakras “without the help of a teacher”, but does not give any further details or guidance. There is room nowadays for another treatise on the nature of inspiration which might address these matters more fully, but whether a practicing composer would be prepared to spend the time - which they could otherwise devote to their real ‘business’ of composition itself - might be doubted. Foulds himself gives the book an opus number, which implies that he regarded it as a work on a par with his actual music. Despite its shortcomings, this volume is indeed a very valuable part of his musical legacy. We should be very grateful for its reissue in such a well-printed and bound edition, and all practising composers should take the opportunity to read and learn from it.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
We should be very grateful for such a well-printed and bound reissue. All practising composers should take the opportunity to read and learn from this book.