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Elevating Elgar

November 2011


Armistice Day wreaths

For most of the interwar years, Elgar's The Spirit of England was the sound of Armistice Day for British subjects. The composer's wartime cantata was elevated by the BBC over other musical repertoire, including an immense composition by John Herbert Foulds that, in the early 1920s, seemed set to become the official musical text of remembrance. Was Elgar's rise to pre-eminence thanks to musical superiority , or was Foulds's own rise prevented by occult beliefs and the taint of scandal? And how much of a role was played by notions of identity and tradition atthe BBC, especially as embodied by its first Director General?.

Professor Rachel Cowgill, Cardiff School of Music, explains more.

John Herbert Foulds

Although The Spirit of England became synonymous with remembrance, the principal work of remembrance in mid-1920s London was actually John Foulds's A World Requiem, a composition with text compiled by the Irish violinist (and later Foulds's wife) Maud MacCarthy. In its early years, A World Requiem was adopted by the British Legion for its first Festivals of Remembrance, endorsed by the British Music Society, and championed by Field Marshal Earl Haig, who had served as a Commander during the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Ypres.

It premiered in the Albert Hall to acclaim on 11 November 1923 but within a few short years enthusiasm for the piece had begun to wane, it was dropped by the British Legion, and was repeatedly dismissed by the BBC in discussions of appropriate repertoire for Armistice Day.

How did the composition and its creator fall so far from grace in such a short period of time?

Reasons given in the past have included concerns about performance rights and critical doubts as to the quality of the work. A closer scrutiny of the work itself, however, and of the scandalous public and private lives of its creators reveals an alternate explanation.

Following the Great War, many of the bereaved were finding solace in spiritualism - the belief in the immortality of the soul and the possibility of communicating with the dead. The spread of this belief was troubling to the Anglican church, which sensed a deep threat to its doctrinal position regarding the afterlife.

Spiritualist imagery within Foulds's Requiem, as well as a publicly stated belief in theosophy, would likely have been seen as problematic by the religious and moral establishment. By 1924, Maud Foulds was increasingly open with claims that parts of A World Requiem had not so much been composed as transcribed from music and voices both she and her husband had heard 'from the other side'. Maud was also a public advocate for theosophy, with an acknowledged expertise in the musical and mystical traditions of India, and the couple had made attempts to contact angelic figures, including the archangel Michael and Hindu devas and ghandaras.

These theosophical beliefs are illustrated in the Requiem itself. The text is primarily taken from biblical passages but in places where text had been devised in order to connect sections, it begins to run contrary to the tenets of Protestantism. In an a capella chorus, 'The Hymn of the Redeemed', the 'voices of the dead' are heard as the souls of those who have fallen in battle sing words of reassurance to the living. This alone would have exposed the work to controversy within the Anglican community, along with Roman Catholic associations evoked by the titles of its movements, which are taken from sections of the Catholic mass for the dead.

For the Requiem's third annual performance, the 'Hymn of the Redeemed' was removed altogether and replaced with an extension of a soprano passage that changed the subject position from redeemed souls speaking in the first person, to John speaking in the third. This change may well have been to appease critics of the work's occultist overtones and to keep alive the possibility of it being heard again at Festivals of Remembrance.

Attitudes towards the Requiem would have been further hardened by the chaotic state of John's and Maud's personal life. Although going by the names Mr and Mrs Foulds, both were in fact legally married to other people and both had children from those unions. One can imagine how such publicly acknowledged adultery (with a suggestion of bigamy) would have played out at the BBC, where Director General John Reith was known to have dismissed male staff who got divorced.

All these elements combine to suggest that doubts were raised about the appropriateness of this 'husband and wife' team to speak for the nation's war bereaved. With A World Requiem excluded from the national airwaves, responsibility lay with the BBC to find a work that could offer consensus, and it was Elgar's cantata The Spirit of England that rose to prominence.

In its early years, the BBC may have proclaimed adherence to principles of impartiality and objectivity but, in reality, its programming was strongly influenced by John Reith's personal values of nationalism, monarchism, Protestantism, duty and moral discipline. A survivor of the Western Front, he showed keen interest in Armistice Day broadcasts throughout his career at the BBC, understanding the commemoration's function as a rallying-point for the nation.

Elgar had, over a long career, established himself as the principal elder statesman of English music and embodied the qualities of nationalism, Empire and duty upheld by the BBC under Reith's directorship. Being a setting of poems by Laurence Binyon, The Spirit of England was a non-liturgical work but remained appropriately religious in atmosphere. And, although Elgar conveyed some ideas of the afterlife derived from Roman Catholicism, these were never foregrounded and so could be easily overlooked.

In the interwar period, broadcasting was one of the principal means by which the social and political meanings of Armistice Day were embedded in British culture, and the BBC's music programming was crucial to that process. The elevation of Elgar, and the necessary exclusion of other works from the remembrance canon - whether on musical merit or personal morality - tells us much about responses to the Great War, as well as notions of national identity, modernity and tradition.

Professor Rachel Cowgill is a Chair at the School of Music, Cardiff University. She works in the area of cultural musicology, exploring the place, practice and meaning of music in its cultural, historical and political contexts. The ideas outlined here are taken from her paper 'Canonizing remembrance: music for Armistice Day at the BBC, 1922-7' which appeared in the journal First World War Studies (Vol 2, no 1).

Armistice Day music in the interwar period from Cardiff University on Vimeo.