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John Foulds' World Requiem

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From The Times

November 9, 2007

Requiem for a lost composer: John Foulds’s great lament for the First World War dead is back after 70 years

By Geoff Brown

Try to imagine Armistice Day, November 11, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1923. The ranks of seats – some 10,000 of them – are packed with Britain’s great and good: the Prince of Wales, British Legion forces, servicemen, ex-servicemen and others seeking to commemorate the dead of the recent world war. A lengthy new work of pacifist intent is being performed, A World Requiem by John Foulds – a relatively unknown composer (also a gifted cello player) with strong spiritualist beliefs.

Foulds conducts with a baton painted with phosphorus to ensure visibility among his vast forces: full orchestra, more than 1,000 choral voices, soloists, a separate boys’ choir, plus four fanfare ensembles hoisted high in the galleries, north, south, east and west. As the chorus prepare for their first entry, they raise their scores, revealing the covers designed by Foulds’s remarkable wife, Maud McCarthy, featuring a white cross glaring from a red background – the red of the Flanders poppy fields, or spilt blood.

Many in the audience sit “with tears hesitating in their eyes”, as a critic subsequently notes. Some are still visibly crying when they leave the hall two hours later.

From whatever standpoint, this was a blockbuster of an event. Foulds’s piece grabbed the kind of reverent attention matched in music only by Britten’s equally pacifist and unorthodox War Requiem in the 1960s. And for three more years the blockbuster rolled on in London every Armistice Day, to thankful applause from audiences still feeling the war’s scars. Then, after 1926, performances stopped. The world moved on; the adventurous Foulds moved on, to death in India (1939) and decades of unjust obscurity.

So what will it feel like on Sunday when the BBC returns to the Albert Hall to revive this long-lost monster curio? It’s hard to be sure, though anyone with an interest in British music and our cultural history needs to be there to find out.

Expectations vary. For Foulds’s extended family – 27 members will be there, scooped up from across the world – emotions will run high.

Not least with the composer’s surviving son, Major Patrick Foulds, now approaching 91. As a young boy he witnessed the Requiem from every angle. Its composition, he says, seriously disrupted a child’s life; one had to be quiet, or make one’s noise from the far back garden. As performances of the “Wreck’em” (so the family called it) loomed, he pitched in, stuffing envelopes, licking stamps. At the premiere he sat pondering not so much the music as the chances for refreshments afterwards – would it be cocoa, or would it be tea? For the 1926 performance he sang from the gallery in the boys’ choir. “It would be exaggerating to say I was enthralled by the music,” he confesses. “But some of the music I loved. And I can still hum some of it today.”

The BBC forces mounting Sunday’s revival have no such memories to draw on, only the notes on the page. The American conductor Leon Botstein, always ravenous for unfamiliar music, envisages the Requiem being “hugely appealing to contemporary audiences”, the perfect revival in a world where war rages nightly on TV screens. He will not be using a phosphorescent baton. Meanwhile, Roger Wright, Controller of BBC Radio 3, the man who put the revival in motion, looks forward to audiences making up their own mind about a score that has intrigued him for years.

Another shade of opinion comes from Sakari Oramo, the conductor responsible for Foulds’s recently heightened profile on CD and in his own concerts. He looked at the World Requiem score several times, but decided against it, finding it “difficult to adapt to the modern day” and “very sentimental”. True, it creaks in some ways. The words McCarthy slipped into her libretto compilation of the Requiem Mass, quotes from the Psalms, and the 15th-century Hindu poet Kabir, certainly seem quaint: “Ye people of the East: You Hindu, Buddhist, Parsi, Mohammedan – you Chinamen, Tartar, Armenian, Japanese – live peaceably with all men.” No complaints with the pacifist sentiment. But why all these men? Where are the Chinawomen?

True, too, that the Requiem is a different beast from modernist, propulsive, Orient-influenced Foulds pieces such as Three Mantras and Dynamic Triptych. In the Requiem there is little fast music, no counterpoint, no use of extremes. Universal harmony is Foulds’s goal; and his tools are contemplative tempos, subtle but never extravagant orchestration, and a wash of modes more akin to pastoral Vaughan Williams than any Eastern delights.

In fact this curious work has always been a divider. Contemporary audiences were moved to tears, performers were grateful; authority figures issued ringing testimonials (“True, definite, and masterly,” said the musical polymath Sir Donald Tovey). But most music critics, unwilling or unable to be openly moved, proved harder to please.

Take The Times. In 1923 our critic H. C. Colles trod cautiously, unwilling to disappoint an audience who had obviously enjoyed consolation. Then in 1924, off came the gloves: in came phrases such as “artistic barrenness” and “poverty of the musical ideas”. Subsequent performances were not reviewed at all.

Such carpings might have been a factor in curtailing the Requiem’s career in the 1920s. Other suggestions have been put forward. There is evidence of poisonous words poured into the ear of Field-Marshal Earl Haig about Foulds being a phoney and his Requiem a hoax, the trick work of a Theosophist and occultist, someone outside the Establishment, and someone who never served in the war with the soldiers the Requiem commemorates.

Unfair, unfair. No one could have written this grandly conceived, peaceable work without complete sincerity; Foulds was not a man for crocodile tears. With luck this Albert Hall revival, to be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (and later issued on disc by Chandos), will reach our hearts and minds in many different ways. Even without a phosphorescent baton.

A World Requiem, Albert Hall, Sun Nov 11, 2007 at 6.30pm. Box office: 020-7589 8212. The concert will be broacast live on Radio 3

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