Showing posts with label John Foulds. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Foulds. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

John Foulds: the true story

Over at Slipped Disc, Norman has linked to a fascinating story from the Western Mail, hauling out, for Remembrance Day, the question "Whatever happened to John Foulds and his World Requiem"?

The work is freely available to listen to on the recording that was issued following its resuscitation and performance four years ago at the Royal Albert Hall, so you can make up your own mind about its quality. At the time, I interviewed Foulds's grandson, gatecrashed the rehearsals and became completely fascinated by the zeitgeist that surrounded the work, to say nothing of Foulds's own astonishing story, and that of his partner, Maud MacCarthy. The World Requiem may in fact have vanished for a good reason: though before that performance expectations ran high indeed, it turned out to be rather disappointing, despite some magical moments. Foulds (1880-1939) at his finest is completely fabulous - a fascinating mind, a generous spirit and an original, ingenious creator and craftsman. But even Sakari Oramo, who is largely responsible for reawakening interest in the composer through his championship and superb recordings with the CBSO, admitted in an interview I did with him some time ago that the World Requiem was not really one for him.

Professor Cowgill's research, quoted in the article, is certainly a fascinating addition to the existing body of material about Foulds, which also includes a book by the magnificent Malcom MacDonald. The article, though, doesn't go into the whole picture of the politics that left Foulds out in the cold. He came from an extremely modest background in Manchester, where his father was a bassoonist in the Halle Orchestra; to make matters worse, Foulds's parents were Plymouth Brethren - aged 13, he ran away from home to escape this oppressive religious regime. Snobbery in the musical establishment was of course rife - but more than that, Foulds espoused strong left-wing views, which increased the suspicious attitude towards him. Living in abject poverty, he found himself forced to decamp abroad for a while and he worked in Paris as a cinema pianist.

But spiritualism, eastern philosophies and Theosophy in particular were both fashionable and popular in Foulds's day. And Maud MacCarthy was an exceptional case. She was a child prodigy violinist, then became a pupil of Annie Besant, who had morphed from feminist pioneer to disciple of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. The story goes that when she and Foulds fell in love, both already being married, the two couples sat down together to discuss the situation and agree a conclusion in a civilised manner - though later, when Foulds and MacCarthy went ahead and set up home together, Mrs Foulds (also named Maud) was devastated.

Acceptance of the notion of contact from the spirit world and the dictation of musical themes from the beyond comes through strongly in Foulds's book, Music To-Day - he terms the phenomenon 'clairaudience'. This was nothing new. Even Schumann believed in this sort of thing; there's one famous instance in which he insisted that the theme of his Geistervariationen was dictated to him in a dream by the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert (though in this case the unfortunate composer, his mind disintegrating under the influence of tertiary syphilis, had forgotten he'd written it himself and had already used it twice before). As for Theosophy, the poet WB Yeats was another believer, and just two of the other composers lured by the promise of worlds beyond our own - eastern or spiritual or both - were Scriabin and Holst.

What was different was the passion with which MacCarthy devoted herself to her spiritual life, perhaps to a certain extent dragging Foulds along in her wake. She was clearly a powerful personality; Foulds adored her, was absolutely in thrall to her, and seems to have followed where she led. She insisted on the couple's move to India apparently because of a directive she received from the spirit world...

But meanwhile, somewhere in the east end of London, she encountered a beautiful youth - illiterate and poor - who had the ability to channel messages from a group of wise entities that MacCarthy called "The Brothers". We don't know the youth's name; in her books, MacCarthy simply calls him The Boy. She took him to India and set up what today we'd probably call a visitor centre or even an ashram. Devotees came from far and wide to consult The Brothers, as channelled by The Boy, for advice, wisdom and healing.

Foulds, meanwhile, went to Calcutta to be head of music for India's national radio. There he caught cholera and died. Many of his manuscripts were destroyed by the climate or eaten by vermin. We'll never know exactly what was lost, though the idea of an East-West Symphony is both tantalising and tragic. After his death, MacCarthy took the name Swami Omananda, and married The Boy - yes, a swami is a monk and there is a discrepancy there. She insists in her book The Boy and the Brothers that the marriage was only nominal and for appearance's sake, and was never consummated, though the tone of the text suggests at every turn that she was madly in love with him, and was perhaps deceiving herself.

It's only a pity that the World Requiem does not entirely measure up to its back-story. Perhaps, as Remembrance Day approaches, it is time to give it another listen.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Off sick

I'm laid up with a chest infection & didn't make it to the Albert Hall. Reactions to the Foulds from those who were there, or heard it on the radio as I did, are welcome in the comments box. I'll leave mine aside for now due to effect of medication on brain.

Update the morning after, with Lemsip

Tragic but true: after all that fuss, the piece didn't float my boat. It wouldn't, of course - I am allergic to much of the English choral tradition and to most concert requiems, and it possessed the qualities I'm least comfortable with in both. Still, it seemed worth giving the poor thing a chance. Perhaps it was bound to disappoint after the massive build-up we all gave it (except for Pliable, who saw this coming a mile off. Chapeau, mon ami. I stand by my insistence that it should be heard before being slagged off, but now it's fair game). (And thanks for the link today.)

To me the piece felt as if it could have been composed this year: it fitted bang into the 'spiritual minimalism' mindset. The closest thing to it that I could think of was indeed McCartney's latest, 'Ecce cor meum', which has better tunes.

I wouldn't want, however, to judge Foulds's output as a whole by this one piece. The other works I've heard are utterly different. That's one of the bizarre things about his music: he never repeats himself and it can be hard to believe you're listening to the same composer. I have a CD of Kathryn Stott playing the piano music, which is beautiful, original and fascinating.

Let's see what everyone else has to say...I'll update this further with the various reviews as they arrive.

(To hear the work on BBC Radio 3 for the rest of the week, anywhere in the world, go to this page, scroll to Classical, call up the list of programmes and click on 'The Choir'.)

Ivan Hewitt in The Telegraph: "In the loveliest movement, "Elysium", we heard a kind of spiritualised and "orientalised" late Wagner, as if the Flower Maidens in Parsifal had been spirited off to a Hindu ashram."

Barry Millington in The Evening Standard: "All credit to the BBC for putting on a work that demanded to be heard. Let's not make it an annual event, however."

Geoff Brown in The Times: "A jumble, then: of its time and out of time; conventional and modernist; often thrilling, occasionally blank. And a justified revival."

Tim Ashley in The Guardian: "The burning sincerity of the performance eclipsed any qualms about stylistic disunity."

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The genius of John Foulds


I have a piece in today's Independent about John Foulds (1880-1939), the extraordinary British composer whose biggest work, A World Requiem, is to be performed for the first time in 81 years at the Remembrance Sunday concert at the Royal Albert Hall this weekend. The work was premiered at the Remembrance Day Festival in 1923 and was given for the same event for four years running, with 1250 performers each time, before being unofficially 'banned'. Apparently Sir Adrian Boult thought it was boring and the editor of the Express thought Foulds was a communist.

Foulds spent his life in a radical exploration of music and spirituality: he experimented with quarter-tones before Bartok did and with Indian music techniques before Messiaen got to them. With his partner, the musician, educator and fellow Theosophist Maud MacCarthy, he moved to India in 1935, becoming head of western music for the country's national radio and seeking a way to make a synthesis of Indian and European music, decades before anyone thought of terms such as 'world music fusion' (see photo). He died of cholera four years later. Most of his manuscripts were subsequently lost or destroyed, rotting in the heat or being eaten by rats.

The concert is a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and you can listen to it on Sunday evening at 6.30pm local time. Be warned: there are 20 movements.