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Elevating Elgar

11 November 2011

Wreaths - web

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.

Professor Rachel Cowgill, School of Music, has been examining Elgar’s rise to pre-eminence and the role played by notions of identity and tradition at the BBC.


Professor Cowgill said: "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. It enjoyed initial success but within a few short years enthusiasm for the piece had waned, it was dropped by the British Legion, and was repeatedly dismissed by the BBC in discussions of appropriate repertoire for Armistice Day. "

Reasons given in the past for this 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.

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’.

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.

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.

Professor Cowgill said: "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 Director General John Reith’s personal values of nationalism, monarchism, Protestantism, duty and moral discipline. Elgar had, over a long career, established himself as the principal elder statesman of English music and embodied the qualities upheld by the BBC under Reith.

"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.

Related links

Cardiff School of Music

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