Early June in the Hudson Valley with the Dynamic Triptych of John Foulds

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[Foulds] had ideas no one else dared have and he brought them to life.
Sakari Oramo

In early June, I snapped several photographs at the Walkway over the Hudson and Innisfree Garden, and it seemed I ought to put them up somewhere. Along the way, several signs have pointed me to the music of John Foulds. First was a Proms concert to which I was (easily) lured by the promise of hearing Sakari Oramo conduct, among other works, Nielsen’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Sinfonia semplice.’  Tucked in ahead of the Nielsen was a small work by Foulds called April-England, about which David Nice provided a colorful description on The Arts Desk:

Oramo served up the real rarity by a composer he’s championed before, the fitfully fine John Foulds – his orchestration of the piano piece April – England. Its lush profusion, a psychedelic counterbalance to the sombre Tapiola, starts with a jolly Graingerish tune, but the steroidal effect grows triffids in the English landscape before an interesting series of solemn chords.

Then, over at GCAS, Brian Long alerted us that, “This morning I have been re-acquainting myself with a two-CD set of music by John Foulds. It is well worth it.”  The CD-set in question was John Foulds: Orchestral Works with Sakari Oramo conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Peter Donohoe as pianist. Among the works listed, Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych immediately caught my ear. Stephen Johnson wrote of the piece:

What an awe-inspiring magpie of composer was John Foulds! Listening to the piano concerto Dynamic Triptych (the star piece on this disc) you might think the man was determined at all costs to avoid being pigeon-holed: echoes of Bartók, Stravinsky, Koechlin, Skryabin, Holst jockey for position with bursts of garish American and gentler British light music. It’s an initially disconcerting, ultimately enthralling cornucopia of a style. But here’s the paradox: a ‘style’ it definitely is. Nobody else could have fused these elements with quite the same confidence, somehow innocent and knowing at the same time.

Oramo said Foulds

. . . in some ways looks forward to Ligeti or the mimimalists, and was like a postmodern composer in his wide influences and the way he moves from atonality to tonality, often abandoning any harmonic centre.

Perhaps my favorite description of Foulds and Dynamic Triptych comes from pianist Gary Chapman, who performed the work with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in its North American premiere.

Part of what I really love about the ECSO premiere is that it provides clear evidence of the validity of Alex Ross’s observation that “big-league orchestras are not, by and large, where the news is being made.”  And while we’re at it, let’s also applaud Jason Weinberger, artistic director and CEO of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony, for his comment in response to Ross’s observation:

I’ve built my career around serving as a musical and community ‘organizer, instigator, mediator’ – not to mention educator, advocate for living music, and proponent of creative, exploratory, non-formulaic programming. Which is, happily, why I have long since shed any ambition to work regularly with so-called ‘big-league’ orchestras.

And I say amen.

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Listening List

John Foulds (1880-1939), Dynamic Triptych for piano and orchestra, Op. 88 (1927-29)

On Spotify

On YouTube Dynamic Triptych for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 88: I. Dynamic Mode

II. Dynamic Timbre and III. Dynamic Rhythm may be found here and here.

In a pre-concert talk on Foulds’s work, Malcolm MacDonald offered some background on Dynamic Triptych and Foulds’s work generally:

In 1915 he’d met the violinist Maud MacCarthy, who became his second wife, and was at that time one of the leading Western authorities on Indian music. She’d been close to one of the leaders of the Theosophical movement, Annie Besant, and had actually studied Indian music on the subcontinent, noted down folk music in the villages and collected Indian instruments. Through Maud MacCarthy, Foulds gained a knowledge of oriental music, unusually detailed for the time and not particularly romanticized.

One of the fruits of this knowledge was a very original cycle of piano pieces, the Essays in the Modes, published in Paris in 1928. These studies aren’t based on the traditional major and minor diatonic modes, but on scales derived from the 72 ragas of southern India . . . .

As with the pieces on Ancient Greek Modes, Foulds’s idea was that the seven notes of his chosen modal scale furnished him with everything he needed – each was a complete world of sound in itself . . . . Foulds only completed seven of these piano pieces . . . one of those rapidly metamorphosed into the first movement of a major 3-movement work for piano and orchestra – a Piano Concerto in fact, though he didn’t call it that: he called it Dynamic Triptych, and the three movements are a study in a mode, a study in timbre [which employs quarter-tones], and a study in rhythm . . . . So here’s another piece in a mode deriving from India but put through dazzling paces as the music seems to spread its wings and take flight. Again, throughout this entire very virtuosic movement only the seven tones of its mode are to be heard. [citation]

Additional information about Dynamic Triptych and the Oramo/CBSO CD (now part of the indicated 2 CD set) may be found here.

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Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise credited, are mine.

21 thoughts on “Early June in the Hudson Valley with the Dynamic Triptych of John Foulds

  1. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for this lovely, lovely post! As always, I concentrated on the wonderful photographs – those of the Hudson valley make me almost feel the bridge under my feet, looking over this majestic river. And Innisfree’s Garden is a real quick-change artist, now appearing in June’s more solid colours than in May, changing from Japanese sketches into more European ways (my impression).
    The view from the hills: breathtaking in their solitude; the little garden-patch with herbs: sudden abundance here too.
    I thank you very much again for showing us all that!
    Britta Xx

  2. Brian Long

    Thanks for this post, Susan. Foulds is a composer who seems to me to deserve much greater awareness and you have here made your own contribution to that great cause! And your photos make an excellent accompaniment! Thanks again.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Brian: Thank you so much for pointing me to Foulds and that CD set. Along with Dynamic Triptych, I’m enjoying the Three Mantras, and I’m sure there’s more to come. While I know his work is uneven, he’s certainly not alone in that, and the best of his work is so highly original, it’s a shame he’s been overlooked. I do hope that’s in the process of being corrected.

  3. shoreacres

    I was surprised and delighted to see the quotation from Jason Weinberger. I’ve followed him online for a while — mostly because of his connection to my old Iowa stomping grounds, and his wonderful instagram photos of the Iowa countryside. Well, and he is a clarinetist who taught music at my Alma Mater in Cedar Falls. Waterloo/Cedar Falls always has played “second fiddle” to Iowa City, but I had some of my earliest experience with artists there. Conversation with Allen Ginsberg in a Holiday Inn coffee shop at midnight comes to mind.

    Re: Foulds, I was caught by this: “Nobody else could have fused these elements with quite the same confidence, somehow innocent and knowing at the same time.” That “innocent and knowing” phrase calls to mind Paul Ricoeur’s concept of the “second naïveté.” He used it philosophically, and generally in terms of textual interpretation. I’ve never heard it applied to musical “texts,” but we talk about musicians interpreting musical scores, so I don’t know why it couldn’t apply. I’ll think about it.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: What a great bit of serendipity! I always enjoy Jason Weinberger’s photographs, too! And no question about it, “a conversation with Allen Ginsberg in a Holiday Inn coffee shop at midnight” is the stuff of poetry. From what you describe, application of the Ricoeur concept to musical scores seems plausible to me–though I’m way over my pay grade when it comes to such concepts!

      1. shoreacres

        I just this morning thought of a perfect example. I had an aunt whom I adored. She was my favorite, and perfect in every way. Then, about five years ago, I learned that my perfect aunt had – ahem – spent some time in the slammer. End of innocence? You betcha. New information to be processed? Sure. Did it affect my view of her? Sort of, but not really. Somehow, I think that points to the dynamic Ricoeur’s talking about.

      2. shoreacres

        Here’s another example. T.S. Eliot, from “The Four Quartets”:

        We shall not cease from exploration
        And the end of all our exploring
        Will be to arrive where we started
        And know the place for the first time.


    2. Steve Schwartzman

      Speaking of clarinetists and the first part of “second naïveté”: last night at a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer, during the intermission I spoke with the second clarinetist in the orchestra, who in a different part of her life happens to be a local aficionada of insects and other small invertebrates. I asked her about some purple (!) caterpillars I’d seen the day before. It turns out that none of the local experts have even been able to figure out what genus those insects are in, much less the species. Sometimes I have doubts about what species I’m in, too. (By the way, you lovers of words will appreciate the fact that the local aficionada of insects has Bugh for a last name.)

  4. David N

    Does it matter that there’s more bathos than really good stuff in Foulds? I suspect not – if you’ve found meaning in the relatively aphoristic that’s all to the good. One thing I beg you not to waste your time with is the massive A World Requiem, one of the worst evenings I can remember in a concert hall (the Albert Hall, the only place for it). Even Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony has more to offer – not much, it’s true; but of course that work has huge numbers of admirers. I don’t think Big Foulds will happen again in my lifetime, though. Lots of Frank Bridge to discover, though – now there’s someone I really DO think is (fatal term) ‘unjustly neglected’.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Frank Bridge DEFINITELY ought to be programmed more often! On Foulds, I think your phrase “fitfully fine” in the review I quote from is a good one–and, as you can see, I loved the way you described April – England. (Duly noted about A World Requiem–I haven’t felt compelled to rush off and listen to that, in any event.) For me, the main point on Foulds is as you noted: it doesn’t matter that there’s “more bathos than really good stuff”–with any composer, actually (does it matter, e.g., that certain novelists have only put out one great novel?). The Foulds pieces that have been “music to my ears” so far (notably Dynamic Triptych and Three Mantras) seem to me, at least, to be inventive, well-crafted, and deserving of a much stronger presence in concert halls. I, for one, would be delighted to have the chance to hear the best of his work live.

      1. David N

        I guess what we’re looking for is something individual, personal, even eccentric. Many second or third rank composers offer not even a glimmer in their well-made output. I changed my mind about Foulds when I heard Oramo conduct the Dynamic Triptych at the Proms – though that would have led me to go to A World Requiem regardless, and I’d still have been disappointed.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Oh, yes, that’s it exactly! And of course a fine performance of Dynamic Triptych like the one you heard at the Proms wouldn’t hurt a bit. I suspect had I heard that, like you, I would have tried out A World Requiem (and maybe now I should at least have a brief listen), but lucky for me, I had your view in hand first.

  5. Steve Schwartzman

    Thanks for the introduction to John Foulds. A part of the first movement of the Dynamic Triptych reminded me of something by Prokofiev, but although I’ve wracked my brain I haven’t been able to figure out what piece.

    The discussion of quarter-tones reminded me of something quite different, the Jackson Browne song “These Days”:

    These days I sit on corner stones
    And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend.
    Don’t confront me with my failures,
    I had not forgotten them.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Oh, interesting! If your brain wracks the info free, do say! Meanwhile, I love the segue to Jackson Brown’s “quarter tones to ten.”

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