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.