World Requiem

November 8 2007

Three days away from Armistice Day, On an Overgrown Path comments on John Foulds’s World Requiem. It will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 next Sunday.


“Foulds moved to London before World War I [he was born in Manchester], and in 1915 […] he met and married the violinist Maud MacCarthy, one of the leading Western authorities on Indian music. His gigantic World Requiem (1919–1921), in memory of the dead of all nations, was performed annually, conducted by Foulds, under the auspices of The Royal British Legion on Armistice Night, November 11, in the Royal Albert Hall for four years from 1923 by up to 1,250 instrumentalists and singers; the latter were called the Cenotaph choir. These performances constituted the first Festivals of Remembrance. […] However, the work ceased to be performed after 1926. Some commentators have suggested a conspiracy against Foulds – his biographer Malcolm MacDonald has, for instance, implied some sort of ‘intrigue’. It appears Foulds was regarded as an inappropriate composer for the occasion because he had not fought in the war, or because of his suspected Left-wing views.

“When interest in A World Requiem lapsed Foulds suffered a grave setback and in 1927 left for Paris, working there as an accompanist for silent films. In 1934 he published [a] book on contemporary musical developments, Music To-day. In 1935 he travelled to India, where he collected folk music, became Director of European Music for All-India Radio in Delhi, created an orchestra from scratch, and began to work towards his dream of a musical synthesis of East and West, actually composing pieces for ensembles of traditional Indian instruments. He was so successful that he was asked to open a branch of the station in Calcutta. Tragically, within a week of arriving there, he died suddenly of cholera on 25 April 1939.”

I haven’t been impressed by what I have heard of Foulds. Nor by Bliss’s Morning Heroes, though I admire Bliss and that is a provisional judgment.

Conscious musical syntheses of East and West tend to fail (see this post), though the Californians (or adoptive Californians) Henry Cowell and his successor, Lou Harrison, are very interesting composers. There is a sadness in them. (In Cage, too.) They have carried European music to the Pacific and look across it. There is nowhere further to go.

John Adams’s 9/11 work On the Transmigration of Souls is a failure.

The most profound responses to the First World War in English music are indirect: from Vaughan Williams and from Britten. And from Elgar, on whom I posted here. George Butterworth, who died at the Somme, seemed to write about the war before it began. Elgar was asked to write a “peace ode” at the end, as Saint-Saëns did in his Hymne à la paix. He did what you would have expected from this distinguished, bitter mind: he refused point-blank.

6 Responses to “World Requiem”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    On an Overgrown Path quotes this post (for some reason our blogs don’t seem to link automatically when this happens) and says that Messiaen’s Turangalîla symphony doesn’t fail. That is certainly true. Nor does Curlew River

  2. lahgbr Says:

    Personally I think ‘Morning Heroes’ is a most powerful and moving work and deserves to be performed occasionally – specially around this time of year. Perhaps you should listen to the recording with John Westbrook as ‘orator’ if you haven’t already? As for the World Requiem, having finally heard some of this legendary piece, I would say that it contains some really beautiful and impressive music, but perhaps also some that is not of the same high quality but probably very effective live. He was certainly an original musical mind, and like many composers his work probably needs repeated performance and listening to be fully appreciated – something it has not had so far.

  3. Pity you were not at the Albert Hall last night along with several thousand others! For me it was a tremendous revelation : a large work in 20 movements, hard to categorise, yet showing a mastery of choral forces (inc.children’s chorus, and a capella ) in an idiom which avoided the overripe sounds of Delius and Scriabin, but which was at times peculiarly English. Hope you heard the Radio broadcast. Chandos recording coming in January. For me it is a major work which should be repeated in the Proms.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    I was on a plane! But I have just realised that this is hearable again, as it is part of the series called The Choir. I’m going to both hear and record it.

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