John Foulds: Dynamic Triptych

Composer John Foulds is one of the forgotten heroes of 20th-century British music. But with a Foulds revival under way, this autumn Vladimir Jurowski, Peter Donohoe and the LPO are resurrecting the work that journalist and Foulds champion Simon Heffer calls ‘the greatest British piano concerto’.

The English musical renaissance at the start of the 20th century produced numerous composers who acquired greatness, but hardly any intuitive geniuses. Benjamin Britten was obviously one; but another was John Foulds. He died in 1939, aged 58, of cholera in India, where after a haphazard career he was running a classical music radio station.

For more than 30 years neither his name nor his music made so much as a ripple. Then, in the mid-1970s, Malcolm MacDonald, a musicologist, discovered some of his manuscript scores in the British Library and wrote a revelatory book on him. The musical world began to wake up to Foulds and his overwhelming talent.

Foulds was born in Manchester in 1880, into a family of Plymouth Brethren. His father, Fred, was a bassoonist in the Hallé, in which John too would play as a cellist, having from his mid-teens worked in minor orchestras around England. He was a natural musician, and not just as an instrumentalist. Henry Wood conducted one of Foulds’s early works at the Proms in 1906, which helped launch him as a composer, but his career took two paths.

To earn money, Foulds wrote hugely popular light music; and it subsidised what he really wanted to do, which was to write innovative classical music. Foulds was interested in the music of the East – which partly explains why he ended up in India – and brought its influence into much of his serious music, notably in his radical use of quartertones. The greatest fruit of that interest was his opera Avatara, which is now lost, although Foulds took from it his orchestral work Three Mantras, which survives, and was performed at the 1998 Proms to an ecstatic reception.

Yet Foulds never fitted into the British musical establishment. He provoked jealousy among less-gifted rivals; that he had not trained in a conservatoire or university rubbed salt in their wounds. He divorced and lived with a common-law wife, with whom he had two children, when such things were thought scandalous. He was rumoured to be a Bolshevik. But the last straw for him was the eventual rejection of his gigantic A World Requiem, written to commemorate all deaths in the Great War, which had been performed in London on four successive Armistice nights from 1923 to 1926. Foulds had volunteered but been rejected for military service, and it was suggested that this should disqualify him from presenting such a work.

Whatever the reason, Foulds was convinced he was finished in England. He took his family to Paris, where he earned a living as an accompanist for silent films, work that soon dried up. During the 1920s he wrote much piano music, notably his Essays in the Modes and the sparkling, deceptively complex April: England, as well as what I regard as his masterpiece, his piano concerto Dynamic Triptych, finished in 1929, just before he returned to England for a frustrating five years until heading for India.

The first movement, ‘Dynamic Mode’, using the modes of Indian music, is a pyrotechnic display of his genius as an orchestrator and evokes influences from Busoni to Rachmaninoff. The second, ‘Dynamic Timbre’, is by turns stately, dramatic and magnificent. The third, ‘Dynamic Rhythm’, uses variations of time signature to create rhythmic effects that are both disconcerting and compelling. It makes prodigious demands on the pianist, and was not performed in public between 1934 and 2005, but had a spectacular recording in 1984 by Howard Shelley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under Vernon Handley, on Lyrita.

With the Foulds revival properly under way, this awesome work will be given a rare performance on 11 December 2019 at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall by Peter Donohoe – who has also recorded it – with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. One day it will be considered the greatest British piano concerto, and will be heard far more often. For now, that will be a concert to savour.

Simon Heffer

This article originally appeared in the Telegraph, 20 April 2019. © Simon Heffer/The Telegraph