Much discussion of John Foulds’ Mantras seems to revolve on its dependence on, or at least its relationship with, Holst’s Planets. I note that some reviewers of this music have compared the second Mantra with its trademark wordless chorus of women’s voices to ‘Neptune’ and the last movement is reminiscent of ‘Mars.’ References have been made to Holst’s Choral Symphony and Vaughan Williams Flos Campi. Stravinsky, Scriabin, Ravel and Bernstein are suggested as further musical references to this piece. It is further noted that beside Holst, Foulds was one of the first composers to take an interest in Indian music.
With any new or rediscovered piece it is always easy to try to look for exemplars – and perhaps this is no bad thing as it allows listeners to decide for themselves if they are liable to like, or perhaps even loathe, the work in question. Yet the down side is that, for the very same reasons, it can prejudice the listener for, but more likely against, a piece. And more seriously it can suggest that the work about to be listened to is somehow a patchwork of six or seven composers’ styles.
Throughout the 1920s Foulds worked on a massive operatic project called Avatara. Yet this Sanskrit-based mystical opera was never to be completed. All that survives of the vast amount of music written are the ‘preludes’ to each of the three projected acts. John Foulds felt that there was sufficient material here to make a considerable symphonic work – it is nearly 26 minutes long. The score of Mantras was completed in April 1930 but lay unperformed until 1988.
The first Mantra manages to balance the chaos of eternity with the pandemonium of down-town New York. Rob Barnett, of MusicWeb International is right to hear ‘jazzy’ overtones and the ‘big city’ feel of Lenny Bernstein. Frenetic is perhaps the best description of this piece. A friend of mine described it as exhausting. Perhaps the movement’s sobriquet of ‘Activity’ explains this energy.
The second Mantra is devoted to ‘Bliss and Celestial Awareness.’ This movement is as long as the other two put together but enables the listener to be virtually lost in the shifting time-world of this pieces. Listening to it I was reminded of the ‘time bending’ properties of some of Messiaen’s music.
The last Mantra –Of Will – has ‘some of the most barbaric and elemental music that Foulds ever wrote.’ Technically this seemingly complex and chaotic music is based on the minimum of material. The score is marked ‘inesorable’ and this dynamic is certainly a good description of this frankly frightening music. Quoting the music critic Malcolm MacDonald, “The culmination [of this movement] is a shattering explosion of sheer orchestral power.” Perhaps it is fair to say that this music is even more violent and compelling and frightening than Holst’s ‘Mars’?
It never ceases to amaze me that we have here a vitally important masterpiece, yet it has been hidden away for so many years. And I guess that for every play of the Mantras (or any the other Foulds’ works) we will hear a hundred, if not a thousand renditions of ‘Mars & Venus!’