Out of copyright. Transferred from personal archive.

Source: The musical mirror and fanfare, May 1931 (vol. xi, no.5), p.150
Text copyright: John Foulds, 1931

Incidental music
by John Foulds

Just as it is the jargon of the day to say that we have no great short story writers (wheras Arnold Bennett, among others, has pointed out that perhaps we have never been richer in this identical branch of literature), just so it is on the lips of almost every amateur of music that theatre music is ineffective in the concert-room. Such as conclusion is demonstrably false, and it is only due to our reluctance to do any real thinking for ourselves that such a catchphrase should have become current in the musical world of to-day. The truth is that incidental music, when adroitly 'arranged' for the concert room is frequently most effective, and, in any case, succeeds or fails upon its intrinsic musical value and beauty, apart altogether from its original intention.

There are several lovely Schubert examples; Mondelssohn's Midsummer night's dream music, the three excerpts from Berlioz's Faust, and Grieg's Peer Gynt suites—all undeniably Musique de scéne—are most effective in the concert-room; not to mention that many of Wagner's concert tit-bits are also purely Musique de scéne (e.g., the Good Friday music in Parsifal and the procession towards the end of Act I; the Venusberg music and the March and shepherd's piping in Tannhäuser; the wedding music of Lohengrin; the church music and the Assembly entrance to Walhalla [sic.] in Rheingold; the storm, the ride and the magic-fire music in Walküre; the forest-sounds and the panorama music in Siegfried, and the funeral march in Götterdammerung). Gounod's Faust march and waltz, Verdi's march in Aïda, the storm scene in Berlioz's Trojans, the vision in Rimsky-Korsakoff's Kitége, the dances in Prince Igor, much of the coronation music in Mussorgsky's Boris, the end of Act 2 of Puccini's Butterfly, and the opening of the last act of Tosca, are all instances of what I mean, and many more jump to the mind. I am not concerned here with the compilation of a catalogue of such music, but mention should be made of the enormous popularity in our own country in these days of incidental music like Edward German's Henry the Eighth music and other of his theatre works, Sullivan's Shakespearean music, Bucalossi's Monsieur Beaucaire, Rose's Merchant of Venice, and many more.

My own compositions in the field of musique de scéne (surely a more accurate designation than our own 'incidenta; ,isoc') now number some thirty-three, and as they cover a fairly wide range of subjects of highly diversified character, a few reflections on them, if not too technical, may be of interest to the general reader.

First then as to Shakespeare—if ever a dramatist called insistently for music, vocal and instrumental, solo and concerted, pagaentry, procession, wedding, or funeral, surely it is he. In every play (I had almost said upon every page) you will find his demands clearly stated—Trumpets, Sennet* [*A short flourish. The word seems identical with the Italian signato, or sonata.] and Cornets; A Dead March; Alarum; Retreat, Flourish; Winds his horn; Drums strike up; The Catch is sung; Music here; Drums afar off; A solemn music, etc., etc. On account of the clearness of his indications he is one of the easiest of the dramatists to provide with incidental music, as I have found in composing it for Cymbeline, Julius Caesar, As you like it, and Henry the Eighth. In connection with the big production of the last-named at the Empire Theatre in 1926 an interesting point arose. I was consulted on the question of the necessary music and at once instanced that of Sullivan (written for Irving) and German's well-known work written for Tree. My producer, however, pointed out that immense care was being taken over the accuracy of the dresses and scenery in respect of their being true to the period, and the use of music, however beautiful in itself, which had not some sort of close affinity with the period, constituted an anomaly of which he was not going to be guilty. I therefore soaked my mind in the musical atmosphere of the period, and then composed in that style the necessary overture, dances, and pagaentry music with what success it is not, of course, for me to say. But I am sure that many members of theatre audiences nowadays would be just as swift to detect anachronism in the type of music as in the details of dressing and stage décor, and that therefore the producer's care in the matter was fully justified. On the other hand, if you are justified in giving, say, Hamlet, with present-day dresses, you are equally justified in surrounding it with atonal, polytonal, and quarter-tonal modernities. A mixture of the two, as in a recent continental production of the Tempest with Honegger's music, I thought most unsatisfactory in this respect.

A modern playwright whose conception includes music, is the German dramatist, Ernst Toller, for whose revolution play Massermensch, I had the pleasure of composing music some years ago. It is clear, from the printed work, that this writer has in mind an undercurrent of music throughout—and the question of the wedding of music and the spoken word is again brought into consideration. It is said that music accompanied the Greek dramas in this (melodrama) sense, apart from sung choruses or songs, and there is no doubt whatever in my mind that a musical background to the spoken word, when successfully achieved, does enormously heighten the dramatic effect, intensify the atmosphere, and deepen the impression.

The crudity of the musique de scéne provided for the old Drury Lane type of melodrama—sloppy 'cello-tune for the heroine in distress, tremolo strings for the villain, etc., was what brought it into disrepute, but the intelligensia are surely wrong in condemning the type in toto instead of the bad examples seriatim. Berlioz in Lelio, Grieg in Bergliot, Strauss in Enoch Arden, have shown that they acquiesce in the idea of true melodrama. My own most ambitious effort in this genre is a setting of Edgar Allen Poe's story, The Tell-tale Heart. With its intensely powerful characterization, closely described movement, and swift contrasts, it lends itself admirably to this form of treatment, and the commission to compose the necessary music for Bernard Shaw's great play Saint Joan. Here the task was to write an overture indicating the basic type of the play, then to compose connecting links as it were between the many short scenes. In many cases the taking up of the high note at the close of a scene, the necessary changing of the mood and the preparation of that of the ensuing scene—all to be achieved in a piece of music lasting not more than two minutes—presented quite a pretty musical problem.

I must leave for another article my reflections on Greek drama, modern miracle and mystery plays, fairy-play music, Indian, Japanese, and other types.

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