Thursday, 28 January 2010

John Foulds: Keltic Lament

John Foulds (1880-1939) has recently come to prominence with the Chandos recording of his massive A World Requiem. This work was, as the BBC website describes it, ‘a heartfelt memorial to the dead of all nations’ which was ‘once the centrepiece of the Royal British Legion's original Festivals of Remembrance.’ In the last few years there have been a number of CD releases from the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their conductor Sakari Oramo. Lyrita have also re-released their portfolio of the composer’s music.
However for the majority of listeners Foulds’s music is largely a closed book. He rarely features on Classic FM: at present there are no ‘hits’ on their ‘playlist’ webpage. Furthermore, considering the fact the composer was born in Manchester he is infrequently featured by the HallĂ© Orchestra in their Bridgewater Hall concerts.

Yet one work that caught the public imagination is his Keltic Lament: it is perhaps the composer’s best (only?) known piece. It has been recorded a number of times and has been published in a fair few albums of piano music. My copy is in a Hawkes & Co. volume called ‘The Pick of the Bunch –World Famous Melodies for Piano Solo’. In fact, this is where I first discovered it; the one truly well contrived work amongst a number of largely ephemeral salon pieces.

The Lament was the middle movement of Foulds’s Keltic Suite (1914), which was dedicated to his friend, the actor Lewis Casson. The other two movements of the Suite are The Clans an allegro molto brioso and The Call (allegro giocoso)
Malcolm MacDonald has written extensively about this work in his ‘John Foulds and his music: An Introduction’. He explains that the Keltic Suite Op.29 (1911) was derived from an earlier work, the Keltic Melodies for strings and harp. He notes that this was his first work to make use of a ‘generalised “Scottish” style’ with all the ‘conventional attributes of Scotch snaps, pentatonic melodies, drone basses and a mild modality.’ Other works that made use of these stylistic fingerprints included the Keltic Overture, the Five Scottish-Keltic Songs for chorus, the Suite: Gaelic Melodies and the vocal concerto Lyra Celtica.
The present work is a typically attractive piece of ‘light’ music that exploits the contemporary (1911) interest in things ‘Celtic’. Yet there is a hidden depth in this tune that belies its origin as a relatively trivial piece. Foulds ‘out-Scottishes’ a number of Scottish composers. Macdonald has suggested that the piece is not particularly interesting. However he qualifies this by suggesting it is not bad music – ‘just a pot-boiler, a musical picture post card, no less and no more’.

The Lament (Lento eroico) is based on just one tune that is first heard after a short arpeggiated introduction from the harp. This melody is given to a solo cello accompanied by the harpist. The strings repeat the tune in a fuller manner, but without losing the sustained mood. Finally, it is reprised by a solo violin before coming to a quiet close.

The Celtic Lament has been published in a number of other incarnations including for violin (or cello) and piano, for chorus and piano (or harp) and for male chorus. None of these other versions are currently available on CD.

The work featured at a number of concerts in the years after its composition, usually being played as part of the entire Suite. For example, in the December 1916 edition of the Musical Times it is noted that ‘The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave its first popular concert of the current series in the Town Hall on October 28, admirably conducted by Mr. Julian Clifford, of Harrogate. Among the orchestral novelties were Friedemann's sparkling Slavonic Rhapsody and Fould's Keltic Suite, comprising three sections- 'The Clans, 'Lament,' and 'The Call'- which were presented with fine precision and due observation of gradation of light and shade.’
Rob Barnett writing on MusicWeb International has suggested that this work is “sentimentally sticky.” However he notes that ‘we … know from his masterful Lyra Celtica that Foulds had a sympathetic fascination with things Scottish’. Barnett is impressed by the ‘full sumptuous Fiona MacLeod-ery linking with the big theme from McCunn’s The Land of the Mountain and the Flood and across the seas to Eire’s Danny Boy.’

An early review from February 1928 Page 25 The critic in The Gramophone notes ‘a very fine performance of the Keltic Suite by J. H. Foulds played by the Grenadier Guards Band (Columbia 9249-50), which I like almost as well as the orchestral setting. There are three numbers in this suite and in the Lament the band is joined by the Pipers of H.M. Scots Guards with a sadly beautiful effect. These records give me an opportunity of drawing attention to a serious omission in the new edition of Grove. The name of J. H. Foulds is not mentioned. Probably the "Addendum” which one may expect in the last volume will remedy this defect.’
The work has received a number of recordings including Reginald Jaques and his Orchestra (coupled with the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Greensleeves (Columbia DX 925 1939) Ronald Corp conducting the New London Symphony Orchestra (Hyperion CDA67400 2002) and the City of Birmingham Orchestra with Sakari Oramo (Warner Classics 62999 2006)

The Keltic Lament was not ‘written down’ to the audience. The composer has not sacrificed his art for the sake of producing a pot-boiler. This is a good honest work that is both enjoyable and moving. Lastly, it is a pity that no CD company has undertaken to record the entire Keltic Suite.

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