Thursday, 26 February 2009

John Foulds: Hellas- A Suite of Ancient Greece.

I must confess that I do not usually warm to ‘Wardour Street Orientalisms’ or ‘faux classicisms’ – however I can turn a blind to this particular work.
In 1915 Foulds composed a suite for piano- it was in five movements and was seemingly written in ‘strict’ Classical Greek Modes. This work was entitled Recollections of Ancient Greek Music. The programme notes tell us that this was a ‘slow, austere, ‘white note’ music [that was] exceedingly varied in character.’ It was perhaps typical of the composer that he claimed to have heard the piece ‘clairaudiently’ as if in a vision.


However the message from beyond did not give Foulds the complete picture. Apparently he saw these pieces as being a stop-gap and was subsequently engrossed in arranging them for different media. The Temple Chant appeared in an arrangement for 20 wind instruments! Eventually, in 1932, he scored them all for double string orchestra, harp and percussion. He added the fantastic last movement Corybantes and finally renamed the pieces to what we see today.

It would be very easy to play ‘hunt the influence’ with this work. In many ways it is written in the great tradition of ‘English String Music.’ It would be hard to miss the Vaughan Williams’ finger prints in some of this music. Yet it would be unfortunate if we were to regard this suite as being derivative. Malcolm Macdonald writes in the programme notes: - “Foulds’s Hellas – in its grave antiphony, skilfully varied textures, measured tread and melodic restraint – is like a beautifully composed Attic frieze, powerfully evocative of ancient legend, classical civilisation and clear Mediterranean light.”
The six movements explore a variety of moods, including a Solemn Temple Dance, a Processional, a profound Dirge for a Hero and a Temple Chant. But the romantic side is not forgotten: The Song of the Argive Helen is a beautiful meditation that is perhaps more English that Hellenic. The Temple Chant is perhaps a little melodramatic – yet all is forgiven in final movement. Corybantes were priests in ancient Greece who accompanied their religious rites with wild dancing. Certainly Foulds approaches this abandon with music of great feeling- it is just a pity it is too short.
It is perhaps the perfect balance of complexity and simplicity, existing somehow at the one and same time, which makes these short movements so attractive and meaningful and moving.

John Fould's Hellas: Suite of Ancient Greece is available on Lyrita

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