Conversations of a cellist-composer

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

‘Music of today’3 By John Foulds (Ivor Nicholson & Watson) 10s 6d [53p] net

John Foulds is known as a composer of originality. For many years he was a cellist in the Hallé Orchestra and at the Opera, Covent Garden, under Hans Richter. Quite a number of books written by English composers have recently been published: but this book is like none of them, and certainly not in the energetic manner in which its author invades his subject. The book is kaleidoscopic, and yet the substance at once discloses an original thinker with courage and ability sufficient to express independent convictions.

As a cellist-composer, Mr Foulds knows that the art of music is of enigmatic and variable quality. Does it progress? Many musicians are aware that much of the music written today shows no signs of progress, because it merely reflects what has been previously written. Nevertheless each generation does produce adventurous composers, who go their own way, even though their contemporaries refuse to follow new paths or to open their minds to new sensations.

It is obvious that the author, apart from his own creative faculty, is unusually sensitive to sounds, and as a consequence is able to give a digest on unfamiliar quarter tones which he as a composer has used successfully in several large-scale works. His discussion of composers from a theosophical standpoint is interesting to those concerned with theosophy, but it offers a curious reasoning for the stagnation that came over Richard Strauss in his fifties. The idea is not new, but we did not know that it was so held by theosophists. Whilst dealing with these shadowy things, it would have been well to enquire why certain composers conceive their works in silence, like a clairvoyant to whom any sound is an irritant poison. Other composers, like Mozart, can work disregarding any noise; whilst a third class must be ‘all worked up’ through extemporisation at the piano, or, like Delius, can only compose at the piano.

Perhaps the best written and most likeable part of this book is where the author discusses composers whom he has met and to whose works he spontaneously responds: for instance, Busoni and Scriabin. We remember that Elgar, years ago, thought highly of John Foulds as a composer: so we are not surprised to find warm appreciation of Elgar, and no censure for the ‘flag-flapping’ works, for, as is pointed out, Beethoven and other great composers have done much the same. Elgar showed some interest in the author’s epic for choir and orchestra known as The Vision of Dante, and was quite frank when he said that without influence it would never be performed4. Elgar knew, for he had had experience with his King Olaf, which would not have been heard at the North Staffordshire Music Festival had it not been brought to the notice of the committee by its conductor.

We have often protested against the pursuit of French orchestral timbres by English orchestral players of brass and woodwind. German orchestral timbres — which with their rich euphony produce wonderful ensembles, particularly in the brass — are more satisfying than the French pinched tone. We commend the author for supporting the German timbres. As to his own surprise and pleasure when listening to a performance of the Symphony in C minor5: although he had played in and listened to it fifty times, Foulds had overlooked the fact that Richter, with his greater experience, could always give this symphony an impression of magnificence unknown to any other conductor. The book is a most entertaining collection of original thought and expression.

  1. Sic: the title is Music today. But the next review in this column is of a book correctly titled Composers of today, which may account for the slip. ↩︎

  2. It never has been, so far! But in your annotator’s opinion it definitely deserves to be: all those who have enjoyed the Luxembourg Radio Orchestra recording of Mirage will find it full of similar delights. ↩︎

  3. (Beethoven) ↩︎

Musical opinion, March 1935, pp. 506–507