Doctor Foster: Performance Note

by Michael Gryspeerdt

Though he cuts a considerably less raffish figure in folk history than Till Eulenspiegel, Doctor Foster seemed a suitable enough subject for a piece of programme music for children, particularly in view of the fact that what little we know of him is already cast in Sonata Form. Thus:-

First subject- Doctor Foster
Modulating bridge passage-went to
Second subject-Gloucester
Development-in a shower of rain. He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle and
First subject recapitulated-(he)
Non-modulating bridge passage-never went
Second subject recapitulated-there again.

Many Sonata Form concert overtures are brisk pieces with slow introductions. Doctor Foster is essentially a leisurely pastoral piece, albeit with a relatively brisk introduction because the first thing we hear is the sound of the Doctor’s feet as he approaches the city. The overture is just as much concerned with Gloucester (where the pace of life is fairly slow) and the surrounding countryside (where it is even slower) as with Doctor Foster himself, and his repeated attempts to impose his own pace on Gloucestershire are, of course, doomed to failure.

His Alla Marcia (bar 1) is a sort of pompous prance, about 108/min. But strings, flute and piccolo, representing the sky, invite him to slow up, which he does in bar 16. Bars 17-25 are molto tranquillo and rubato and the oboes may take as much time as they like to negotiate their birdsong. It is at this point that the characteristic mood of the piece is established, pastoral and timeless. At bar 23 a breeze stirs (divisi violas and cellos), a storm is on the way. Having leant on a gate for a while Doctor Foster is off again (a tempo primo) in bar 26. His tune is eventually stated in full, tailing off into Gaudeamus Igitur, for, like many doctors, he is still a student at heart. In bar 36 the composer (in the guise of clarinets) laughs at his own joke. Exposition of the first subject having ended in bar 48, the Doctor’s feet take us through a bridge passage which modulate to E flat in which key the second subject is announced by a solo horn. Representing Gloucester, theme is an ancient plainsong melody, Christe Redemptor Omnium, which used to be played to the citizens of Gloucester before the reformation from the tower of what was, at the time, a Benedictine Abbey Church. Beginning remotely, this theme is developed and reaches a somewhat Elgarian cadence to complete the exposition.

The development section follows. Clouds gather. Rain starts to fall in bar 136 (violins). Doctor Foster walks through the storm at his customary pace. The breeze increases and there is some thunder (timpani, bar 153). Not until bar 160 does Doctor Foster begin to run (accelerando). He falls in the puddle almost at once and the pace immediately slackens. As the ripples subside the Gloucester theme is heard upside down – the tower is reflected in the puddle. Recapitulation starts with a conventional restatement of Doctor Foster’s tune. His feet once again take us through to the bridge passage, which this time, of course, leads back to the home key, in which the Gloucester theme is duly stated (bar 197), initially, as before, on a solo horn. The birds sing again and the sounds of the storm recede (e.g. muffled thunder, timpani, bar 215) and the Elgarian cadence is inconclusive.

In the coda Doctor Foster’s footsteps take him into the distance and out of sight and mind. The breeze stirs again; the birds go to sleep. The overture’s quiet ending should leave us with the feeling that his efforts to create astir in Gloucestershire have failed, that his excursion was futile, and that the old place remained exactly as it had been before he burst upon the scene.

Michael Gryspeerdt