Lest we forget

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The Independent Culture
Why do people hate organ music so much? Vaughan Williams did, although that didn't stop him writing rather rough counterpoint in his Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes, two of which ended Peter Hurford's recital from Trinity College, Cambridge, on Monday afternoon. Hurford told the producer / presenter, Tim Thorne, that Trinity's sort of clear, light- voiced organ, built by the Swiss firm of Metzler in 1976, might have changed Vaughan Williams's mind if he had heard it. Hurford explained that, for the player, this particular instrument exerted its own discipline - a nice way of putting it - and also tickled his imagination, stimulating him to do better.

He began with a Bach arrangement of a Vivaldi concerto, choosing for the opening - implausibly, yet enchantingly - coy little flute-like stops. Hurford is good at this lively, buoyant kind of music, but he seemed less inspired and really rather boring in Francois Couperin's "Offertoire sur les grands jeux" from Messe des paroisses.

His recital was the first of six programmes from Oxbridge colleges that promise to demystify, unobstrusively, some of the technical arcana surrounding the king of instruments.

There's a theory that, by some mysterious and natural law, great music and great composers will, eventually, survive passing fashions and neglect. To put it cynically, there are so many research students and scholars scraping around in the effort to make their mark, or at least get a degree, that if any music remains obscure, it probably deserves it. It's a dangerously complacent theory and it seems much more likely that reputations are at the mercy of more random factors, and also grow, or evolve, in the manner of Chinese Whispers. Fashions affect not only the living, but composers long since dead. And there is nothing like the romance of unfulfilled dreams, works lost and projects unrealised, for nourishing a myth.

There seemed just a little of this in Malcolm Macdonald's talk, at Sunday lunchtime, about the composer John Foulds, who died of cholera, aged 59, in 1939. Foulds was known in his lifetime as an arranger and composer of light music, and he's rather summarily dismissed in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (the next edition will probably change that). Macdonald drew quite a different portrait, of a pioneer who experimented with quarter- tones and also attempted a synthesis of Indian and European musical systems.

Macdonald pointed out that, in the British cultural climate, a composer like Holst learnt to be discreet about his unconventional sources of inspiration, for fear of being laughed at, or dismissed as a lunatic. Like Cyril Scott, who is probably underrated today, Foulds did not keep quiet and thought that western music had hardly begun to explore the possibilities of higher mental and spiritual worlds.

Macdonald rated Foulds's Quartetto intimo, composed in the early 1930s, as his most impressive work - it's not even listed in Grove. But there was only time for a snippet. Foulds's Three Mantras for orchestra, written for a projected Sanskrit opera, were played complete in Musical Encounters on Monday, and sounded disappointingly like Respighi's Roman tone-poems.