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Music in Their Time: The Memoirs and Letters of Dora and Hubert Foss
Edited by Stephen Lloyd, Diana Sparkes and Brian Sparkes
Published 2019
282 pages
ISBN 978 17832 74130
Boydell Press

One of the most effective pieces included in volume nine of Hyperion’s Bach transcription series was See What His Love Can Do, taken from the tenor aria in cantata BWV85. Though it wasn’t part of the collection called ‘A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen’ it occupies common ground with the transcriptions of composers such as Walton, Bliss, Bridge, Bantock, Vaughan Williams and others and was written by the least-well known of them, Hubert Foss. In fact, Foss’ compositional list was small and mostly confined to songs. That’s hardly surprising given that he is far better-known as a writer; he wrote The Concertgoer’s Handbook, a well-regarded biography of Vaughan Williams and Music in My Time (1933), to which the title of this volume alludes, and was the founder and director of Oxford University Press’s music department, in which position he was to prove immensely important on the direction of British music of his time.

Hubert Foss (1899-1953) was in fact polymathic. A writer and composer, he was also a conductor and pianist. In the last capacity he accompanied the soprano Nancy Evans in some Gurney songs for Decca in 1938 as well as Falla’s Siete canciones populares espanolas the previous year (Dutton have done the honours in restoring them all). Yet his talents hardly stopped there; he was a typographer and a number of correspondents comment on the memorability of his typesetting of their works, a printer, music critic, broadcaster on the BBC, adjudicator and, last and not least, something of an aficionado of the latest detective novel.

He oversaw a great expansion in OUP’s production of major scores, from operas to solo piano music and pretty much everything in between, and in the firm’s book catalogue as well. Suffering ill-health and depression – there was constant sniping from the OUP hierarchy for his perceived financial extravagance – Foss resigned from OUP in 1941, spending the next decade writing and broadcasting. He died at the early age of fifty-four, having just been appointed editor of The Musical Times.

His wife Dora was a soprano and clearly a fine one though her career was short. The two recorded three Walton songs, once again for Decca (now on Dutton) and she, who was some years older than her husband, even made private recordings as early as 1914; the antiquarian in me wants to know whether these still survive. A complete discography of both Hubert and Dora is included in the book.

The structure of this memoir and letters is worthy of note. Its first part is based on Dora’s memoirs which includes letters to and from the couple. These are from the most important musical confreres – van Dieren, Henry Hadow, Hamilton Harty, Warlock, Ireland, Moeran, Lambert, RVW, Henry Wood and, of course, Walton, who was writing some of his greatest works at the time he and Foss were working together. The wider circle of correspondents, mostly musical, can be more cursory but fill out the picture. There are tributes to Foss from contemporaries and I shouldn’t overlook Simon Wright’s excellent introduction, or the connective tissue of editorial work provided by Stephen Lloyd, Diana Sparkes (the daughter of Dora and Hubert) and her husband Brian Sparkes.

The letters are arranged in chronological order by correspondent, sometimes with interspersed recollections by Dora that amplify and explain elements in those letters. There are, in addition, numerous succinct footnotes to assist the reader. This has the advantage of keeping individual threads alive, though it inevitably means that it is more difficult to relate matters that involve more than one correspondent – such as, for example, Walton, his First Symphony and Harty, who premiered it.

It might be useful to offer a few highlights from the letters and text generally. Foss had his likes and dislikes, of course. VW and Walton, yes; Elgar and Holst, no. The only work by Puccini he liked was Turandot. There are some droll sightings of van Dieren. How much electricity Walton brought to the scene is evident by the number of conductors queuing up for the score of the First Symphony; Henry Wood, Mengelberg and Furtwängler among them. Talking of Walton, whose place in this book is significant, I wasn’t aware, though perhaps I should have been, that after pessimistically thinking Heifetz wouldn’t take on the Violin Concerto Walton considered, and dismissed, the idea of Szigeti - who ‘whines’; not sure if this refers to his vibrato (probably) or personality (unlikely) – and then settled on Kreisler. Foss then refers to an anti-Jew rant from Walton (this was December 1939 in New York) for which the footnote entry is, to put it politely, cryptic to the point of obscurity. Much better is Harty, always a sympathetic correspondent and a perfect champion, and a mildly ribald scene with Moeran (smeared in either blood or lipstick; surely the latter) arriving with the artist, writer and sexual adventurer Nina Hamnett. We read that eminent Donald Tovey loved reading Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and regaled visitors with exhausting readings of hard-boiled American novels in a ‘pseudo-Bowery accent’. He tended to fatigue Foss, but he is, for all that, and as one would expect, exceptionally perceptive about Phyllis Tate’s recent Cello Concerto. There are glimpses of Bliss and of Siegfried Sassoon – laconic, of course – as well as the competitive tennis playing of Henry Wood. The terse exchange between Foss and Britten in 1948 is well worth reading and full marks to Foss for telling Britten what he thought. OUP had published Britten’s early works, but he had soon switched to Boosey & Hawkes. Tippett, meanwhile, writes a rather remarkable letter accepting Foss’s criticisms of the unpublished A Song of Liberty in 1937.

There are 29 well-produced plates, programme and music reproductions, reprinted tributes to Foss, Herbert Howells’ address in June 1953 at St John’s Church in St John’s Wood, Foss’ selected poetry, a bibliography and a very accurate index. I have tried hard to find misprints and inaccuracies and have failed.

Foss was an important figure in British music of his time. He worked closely with Percy Scholes and Henry Hadow from an earlier generation, cultivated friendships at all levels, oversaw the production of many important works, and burned many candles at both ends. This is a fitting and laudable tribute to his many and varied selves.

Jonathan Woolf

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