Foulds, John


Foulds, John

April-England Op. 48 No. 1 for orchestra (edited and engraved by Lucian Beschiu)



John Herbert Foulds

April-England, op. 48, no. 1, for Orchestra (1926/32)

(b. Manchester, 2 November 1880 – d. Calcutta, 25 April 1939)


John Foulds is, to my mind, perhaps the greatest twentieth-century composer of genius to be entirely ignored, not only in England, but altogether. His wholly original music exudes freedom, lightness, immediacy, and a joy of discovery capable of touching and thrilling the listener in a unique way. Foulds was at once a pioneer, a true adventurer, a comprehensive master of form, a vivacious practicing musician as a conductor, cellist, and pianist, an insatiable explorer, a prime example of unlimited stylistic versatility, a tireless innovator, and the possessor of a critical and free-thinking mind. Above all he was a man who always strove for the utmost while remaining ever cognizant of his human inadequacy. This lent him a natural modesty and enabled him to come closer and closer to his actual goal of reaching absolute freedom, of being an “enlightened one.” He found the crucial elements for his quest in Eastern culture, as handed down by the “masters of wisdom” in Central Asia and India, and sought to combine them with constructive elements of Western culture to fashion a higher unity. None of the personal setbacks and the tragic sides of his life are imposed on the listeners of his music, which invariably speaks a warm-hearted, unsentimental, and authentic language.

John Herbert Foulds was born in Manchester on 2 November 1880 as one of four children of a professional bassoon player. His ancestors were French-based Jewish bankers, one of whom, Achille Fould, rose to become Minister of Finance under Napoleon III. Foulds’s own family had little money, but indulged all the more in music, for which John revealed an early gift. He began to take piano lessons at the age of four, after which he switched to the oboe before making the cello his main instrument. His earliest compositions were produced at the tender age of seven. Little is known about him in these years except that his childhood was not very happy. He ran away from home at the age of thirteen, becoming a professional orchestral musician and undertaking journeys that took him as far afield as Vienna, where he met Bruckner. In 1900 he joined the Hallé Orchestra during it legendary period under Hans Richter.

Among Foulds’s early compositions are several string quartets, one of which, written in 1898, “tentatively experimented

[…] with smaller divisions than usual of the intervals of our scale, i.e. quarter-tones. Having proved in performance their practicability and their capability of expressing certain psychological states in a manner incommunicable by other means known to musicians, I definitely adopted them as an item in my composition technique.” Foulds thus became the first European composer to call for quarter-tones. However, he showed no interest in the institutionalized use of a quarter-tone scale (it is nothing but a further subdivision of the artificial well-tempered semitonic scale) and always openly criticized its misuse: “The effect therefore is somewhat as if a poet should retell the old, old story of Cinderella in words every one of which should contain a ‘th’.” Time and again we find, in Foulds’s slow movements, polished quarter-tone passages conveying a strange sensation of wildness and splendid irregularity. His tone-poem Mirage of 1910 is an early example of such music. It was preceded by Foulds’s first major success, when Henry Wood premièred his Epithalamium (op. 10) at the Queen’s Hall Proms in 1906. Several long passages of Mirage clearly reveal the influence of Richard Strauss, who is equaled only by Edward Elgar as the obviously formative figure in Foulds’s early style. His elaborate sense of timbre is already well-developed in these early works, which constantly invite comparison with the subtleties of French orchestration.

Why did John Foulds remain so unknown? The reasons are many and varied. A not inconsiderable voice on the English music scene, he refused to mince words in his criticism, regardless of the stature of the figures he criticized. More seriously, he soon had to support a family and needed more than the meager proceeds he obtained from his activities in “art music.” Thus, to make ends meet, he also turned out “light music,” writing highly successful pieces in this genre. At times this led to a considerable output of peripheral music that eclipsed his essential works. Soon practically the only music of his that reached performance was his light music, which, be it said, was among the best and most polished in the trade (the most successful piece was Celtic Lament, which exists in myriad arrangements). Until a few years ago Foulds was still categorized as a “light-music composer” at the BBC. The resurgent interest in his music is due mainly to the tireless efforts of the Scottish musicologist Malcolm MacDonald, on whose superb biography John Foulds and His Music (London: Kahn & Averill, 1989) the present preface is based.

In 1915 Foulds met the woman of his life in London: Maud MacCarthy. She had grown up as a violin prodigy, but was prevented by a nervous disorder from continuing her career. Instead, she had developed a consuming interest in Indian music and the world of spiritualism, in esoteric and occult practices. She traveled in 1909 to India, where she collected folk melodies and spent two years studying Indian art music. She also learned to play several instruments and effortlessly sang the traditional micro-intervallic scales. In 1915 she taught Foulds the rudiments of playing the tabla; later he would learn to play the vina, and his interest in exotic tonal systems was directed into systematic channels. He created a table of ninety modes, all of which he considered equal in value to the surviving two modes favored in Western music, major and minor. Inspired by the example of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, he planned to produce several sets of studies in all the modes, but was only able to produce the first seven of these Essays in the Modes. An eighth, entitled Dynamic Mode, became the opening movement of his piano concerto Dynamic Triptych. Foulds placed great store in the pure and unalloyed use of modes, being convinced that they could only attain maximum effect if left unaltered and devoid of alien elements. He sharply criticized that then customary chromatic harmonization of modal melodies, which neutralize the essential, idiomatic character and charm of the melodic writing, and instead sought pure solutions, an elaborate and synthetic simplicity surpassing the stage of needless complexity. Unlike later explorers of modality, such as Messiaen, Foulds did not consider all scales formally viable; indeed, to him they were not even “modes” at all. Among them were the total chromaticism of the twelve-tone row and any scale without a pure fifth, including the whole-tone scale: “It will be observed that every mode in this table contains an invariable dominant in addition to the tonic. Modes exist by reason of the relation of their component notes to a tonic, and in only slightly lesser degree (to my ear) by the stabilizing influence of the dominant. Once this latter is withdrawn or tampered with (i.e. either flattened or sharpened), the mode, as such, completely disintegrates. It is in just this quality of concentration that the value of the modes inheres.” Here, for all his joy of discovery, Foulds proves to be an incorruptible advocate of natural tonality – of the life-imparting oscillation between tension and release in the articulation of harmony, of hierarchic tonal relations surrounding a central pitch, and of the character of modes as specific combinations of pitches surrounding a tonic epicenter, which serves as a harmonic fulcrum and pivot. Though he viewed atonality as an important achievement in the modern composer’s arsenal, he rejected its systematic application and referred to the complete absence of personality in the music of most adherents of the dodecaphonic school: “And if the persistent atonalist assert that this system is the appropriate expression of all the heights and depths his consciousness is able to contact, I can only make the rejoinder that he is no great traveller.”

From 1919 to 1921 Foulds worked on one of his central works, A World Requiem, based on Christian and Hindu texts. During these labors he fell again and again into a state he described as “clairaudient,” his personal recasting of the word “clairvoyant” as related to the aural faculty. It is said that he and Maud could receive the same melodies simultaneously. A World Requiem, involving up to 1,200 vocalists, seems to have taken hold in Royal Albert Hall as an annual ritual on Armistice Night, the future Festival of Remembrance. In its dignified and unadorned magnificence, it was a work that moved large audiences to tears and thrilled them with excitement. But the great success and incontestable grandeur of a work positioned between every stool attracted envy and intrigues, and its fourth performance, in 1926, proved to be the last. One year later Foulds moved to Paris, where he devoted himself to the composition of his Essays in the Modes, his piano concerto Dynamic Triptych, and the completion of his magnum opus, the opera Avatara. In these years he also made lesser excursions into realms of simple statements, including the string composition Hellas – a Suite of Ancient Greece (op. 45), which was not completed until 1932.

Foulds’s most significant creation was the opera Avatara, probably a Krishna opera set in India. He worked on it from 1919 to 1930, but before completing the third and final act he evidently realized that the material was not suitable for operatic treatment. He then extracted the preludes to the three acts from the overall score, giving them the title Three Mantras from Avatara. The rest of the work has eluded rediscovery and may have been destroyed by the composer. But taken by themselves, the three Mantras for large orchestra are the most visionary music that has come down to us from Foulds’s pen. The final Will-Mantra, with its compact savagery, is the most decisive, radical, and one-sidedly overpowering creation that Foulds ever committed to paper, a polyrhythmic manifesto to free will based on a terse and sharply etched chaconne motif in 7/4 meter sustained without alteration – pure devilry in sound. It is hard to believe that one of the century’s most grandiose orchestral works had to wait sixty-seven years after its completion before it could receive its première at the Helsinki Biennale of Contemporary Music in 1997.

By the time Foulds returned to London in 1930 he had already been thoroughly discredited in England. He could not even find a publisher for his orchestration of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. In 1934 the firm of Nicholson & Watson published his book Music To-Day, an artistic and spiritual credo to which he assigned the opus number 92. He promised the publishers to submit a sequel on Indian music, but his wife, under the influence of the medium William Coote (a.k.a. “The Boy”), persuaded him to travel to India. Thus, on 25 April 1935 Foulds set sail for India, accompanied by his wife, two children, and “The Boy,” completing his Indian Suite for orchestra during the passage. A few months later he received, from his friend George Bernard Shaw, a postcard containing a single question: “What the devil are you doing in India?”

What did Foulds do in India? At first he traveled, especially in Punjab and Kashmir, to carry on his research into folk music. In 1937 he became head of European music at All-India Radio in Delhi, where he delivered a legendary broadcasting series entitled “Orpheus Abroad” and began to rehearse with Indian musicians on their instruments. With unquenchable gusto he taught each and every one of these musicians to read music and instructed them in ensemble playing, composing simple pieces for their use. On 28 March 1938 the first presentable results of this collaboration between a western orchestra and a group of Indian musicians were performed in public in the presence of the Viceroy. Besides founding the Indo-European Orchestra, Foulds also continued with undiminished energy to produce demanding compositions. He completed two Pasquinades Symphoniques, and on 10 March 1939 his Symphonic Studies for Strings was premièred in Bombay. Foulds had ambitious plans and worked to fulfill his lifelong dreams for the benefit of all mankind. When he was offered a high-level position in the newly founded radio station in Calcutta, he ignored his wife’s advice and accepted the offer, hoping to obtain greater freedom to carry out his bold ideas for uniting the peoples of the world: West meets East!

Immediately after arriving in Calcutta Foulds suddenly took ill. In the critical moments there was no one nearby in his hotel, and by the time his screams of pain drew attention it was already too late. Caught in the advanced stage of Asiatic cholera, he was taken to hospital, where he died a few hours later in the night between 24 and 25 April 1939. No familiar face was nearby, and no one was willing or able to continue the work he had begun. India was rushing toward independence, and the Second World War eclipsed everything that had gone before.

Foulds’s widow, Maud MacCarthy, married “The Boy” and became the first woman to rise to the full rank of sannyasa. With unfaltering care she preserved the few Foulds manuscripts she was able to secure and took them with her in the late 1950s when she returned to Europe, where she died on the Isle of Man in 1967. But most of Foulds’s late works are lost, including Deva-Music, Symphony of East and West, the Symphonic Studies for Strings, and four of the five movements from his final string quartet. After Maud MacCarthy’s death many years had to pass before, in the 1980s, posterity tentatively began to discover what genius and vibrancy lay dormant in his surviving manuscripts. There are still many mysteries to be disclosed and discoveries to be made in the personality and music of John Foulds.

We owe the (re)discovery of John Foulds to two people in particular. With unerring musical instinct, Malcolm MacDonald has spent years of his scholarly abilities in the service of researching and describing Foulds’s life, character, and music, and has tirelessly devoted himself for decades to the dissemination of this knowledge (moreover, given the breadth of his scholarship, he is anything but a specialist). Graham Hatton, the publisher of the music of John Foulds and Havergal Brian (another much underrated composer on whom MacDonald has written several books), has with meticulous care (and in highly unfavorable economic conditions) laid the groundwork for solid performance material. Hatton is a true idealist who has never doubted that his services on behalf of great but forgotten composers have been worth the sacrifices he has made. Though his heirs transferred the performance material of Brian’s music to a larger publisher in the 1990s, Hatton remains the person to whom anyone interested in performing Foulds can and must reliably turn…

Christoph Schlüren

[fusion_highlight color=”#a80b17″ rounded=”no” class=”” id=””]Read complete preface / Komplettes Vorwort lesen[/fusion_highlight]  > HERE

Score Data


Foulds Edition





Performance materials



First print


225 x 320 mm

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