Tuesday, November 13, 2007

John Foulds' A World Requiem


Last night we went to hear A World Requiem, by John Foulds. This hasn’t been performed since 1926 and the revival of it for Remembrance Day was very apt. It was first performed back in 1923, with Foulds himself conducting and his wife leading the orchestra (plus a choir of 1250 people) and it became a feature of Remembrance Day ‘celebrations’ for the next four years. And then it was dropped and vanished from sight. Foulds himself has virtually vanished as a composer, although he was prolific and popular in his day. I suspect his time has come again.
Anyway, the piece was presented at the Albert Hall with the BBC Orchestra and three adult choirs - totalling some 350 people - and a boys’ choir: the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, the Philharmonia Chorus, and the Trinity Boys’Choir. Alongside these there were three groups of trumpeters and drummers playing at the back and sides of the hall at one point, and four soloists (the soprano, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, the mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the tenor, Stuart Skelton and the baritone Gerald Finley).
Unfortunately, from where we were, we couldn’t hear the soloists (especially the tenor and soprano) so well, and they sounded as though they were being swamped by the orchestra. I think it was just our situation in the hall that caused this effect. However we were in the right place to hear the boys’ choir, which started off in the top level of the hall (along with the soprano, a celesta player, two harpists and some strings). They were right opposite our seat. The trumpets and drummers were likewise just on the level above us and visible to us. Many of the people in the hall would have had quite a different experience of their sound.
I don’t think I’ve come across a piece of music that uses a celesta so often - it always accompanies the boys’ choir in the first half of the music, and then, when that choir, along with its accompanying instruments (and the soprano) all come down onto the stage for the second half, it plays in almost every section that follows. The two harps get a fair amount of work as well.
The piece is by degrees slow and funereal, frantic and overwhelming, subtle and sweet. An organ often adds a huge depth to what goes on in the orchestra as well. It’s not easy to pinpoint Foulds’ approach: the program talks about minimalism and the use of quarter-tones. In neither of these areas can he be regarded as anything too way out: there are quarter-tones audible at times, but they’re fairly scattered in a long score. And minimalism comes in the sense that Foulds uses musical phrases almost in an ostinato approach, building up across the orchestra. Equally, some of the singers’ music revolves around short repeated phrases, but there isn’t that sense of ‘I’m trying to drive you mad’ that you get with later minimalists. Foulds might more be said to be being economic with his material. Furthermore, it means that the listener can grasp things reasonably readily, because certain phrases become indented in the listener’s mind through the repetition.
The libretto is a collage of Biblical texts and peace-focused writing (even a bit of Hindu Sanskrit, apparently - Foulds had a great interest in Indian music), and comes across as the work of a believer. Seemingly he was seriously into Theosophy (his wife had introduced him to it) and the ‘occult’. In his case, however, ‘occult’ meant more that he felt there was a true spiritual element to music, and that it could affect people in ways that the other arts couldn’t.
Anyway, it was an experience to be at the presentation of a piece that hasn’t been heard for so long - and even better, it was being recorded for posterity. The CD(s) come out next year.
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