[…] with smaller divisions than usual of the intervals of our scale, i.e. quarter-tones. Having proved in performance their practicability and their capability of expressing certain psychological states in a manner incommunicable by other means known to musicians, I definitely adopted them as an item in my composition technique.” Foulds thus became the first European composer to call for quarter-tones. However, he showed no interest in the institutionalized use of a quarter-tone scale (it is nothing but a further subdivision of the artificial well-tempered semitonic scale) and always openly criticized its misuse: “The effect therefore is somewhat as if a poet should retell the old, old story of Cinderella in words every one of which should contain a ‘th’.” Time and again we find, in Foulds’s slow movements, polished quarter-tone passages conveying a strange sensation of wildness and splendid irregularity. His tone-poem Mirage of 1910 is an early example of such music. It was preceded by Foulds’s first major success, when Henry Wood premièred his Epithalamium (op. 10) at the Queen’s Hall Proms in 1906. Several long passages of Mirage clearly reveal the influence of Richard Strauss, who is equaled only by Edward Elgar as the obviously formative figure in Foulds’s early style. His elaborate sense of timbre is already well-developed in these early works, which constantly invite comparison with the subtleties of French orchestration.
Why did John Foulds remain so unknown? The reasons are many and varied. A not inconsiderable voice on the English music scene, he refused to mince words in his criticism, regardless of the stature of the figures he criticized. More seriously, he soon had to support a family and needed more than the meager proceeds he obtained from his activities in “art music.” Thus, to make ends meet, he also turned out “light music,” writing highly successful pieces in this genre. At times this led to a considerable output of peripheral music that eclipsed his essential works. Soon practically the only music of his that reached performance was his light music, which, be it said, was among the best and most polished in the trade (the most successful piece was Celtic Lament, which exists in myriad arrangements). Until a few years ago Foulds was still categorized as a “light-music composer” at the BBC. The resurgent interest in his music is due mainly to the tireless efforts of the Scottish musicologist Malcolm MacDonald, on whose superb biography John Foulds and His Music (London: Kahn & Averill, 1989) the present preface is based.
In 1915 Foulds met the woman of his life in London: Maud MacCarthy. She had grown up as a violin prodigy, but was prevented by a nervous disorder from continuing her career. Instead, she had developed a consuming interest in Indian music and the world of spiritualism, in esoteric and occult practices. She traveled in 1909 to India, where she collected folk melodies and spent two years studying Indian art music. She also learned to play several instruments and effortlessly sang the traditional micro-intervallic scales. In 1915 she taught Foulds the rudiments of playing the tabla; later he would learn to play the vina, and his interest in exotic tonal systems was directed into systematic channels. He created a table of ninety modes, all of which he considered equal in value to the surviving two modes favored in Western music, major and minor. Inspired by the example of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, he planned to produce several sets of studies in all the modes, but was only able to produce the first seven of these Essays in the Modes. An eighth, entitled Dynamic Mode, became the opening movement of his piano concerto Dynamic Triptych. Foulds placed great store in the pure and unalloyed use of modes, being convinced that they could only attain maximum effect if left unaltered and devoid of alien elements. He sharply criticized that then customary chromatic harmonization of modal melodies, which neutralize the essential, idiomatic character and charm of the melodic writing, and instead sought pure solutions, an elaborate and synthetic simplicity surpassing the stage of needless complexity. Unlike later explorers of modality, such as Messiaen, Foulds did not consider all scales formally viable; indeed, to him they were not even “modes” at all. Among them were the total chromaticism of the twelve-tone row and any scale without a pure fifth, including the whole-tone scale: “It will be observed that every mode in this table contains an invariable dominant in addition to the tonic. Modes exist by reason of the relation of their component notes to a tonic, and in only slightly lesser degree (to my ear) by the stabilizing influence of the dominant. Once this latter is withdrawn or tampered with (i.e. either flattened or sharpened), the mode, as such, completely disintegrates. It is in just this quality of concentration that the value of the modes inheres.” Here, for all his joy of discovery, Foulds proves to be an incorruptible advocate of natural tonality – of the life-imparting oscillation between tension and release in the articulation of harmony, of hierarchic tonal relations surrounding a central pitch, and of the character of modes as specific combinations of pitches surrounding a tonic epicenter, which serves as a harmonic fulcrum and pivot. Though he viewed atonality as an important achievement in the modern composer’s arsenal, he rejected its systematic application and referred to the complete absence of personality in the music of most adherents of the dodecaphonic school: “And if the persistent atonalist assert that this system is the appropriate expression of all the heights and depths his consciousness is able to contact, I can only make the rejoinder that he is no great traveller.”…
Christoph Schlüren / Translation: Bradford Robinson
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