John Herbert Foulds

John Herbert Foulds


• 1880 1939


John Foulds is one of the quintessential eccentrics who abound in the history of music in early twentieth century England, a prolific composer of so-called "light" music, on which most of his reputation today regrettably rests.

The son of a bassoonist in the Hallé Orchestra, he began piano lessons at age four and was composing by age seven. At ten, he switched to the cello (having made his way there via significant expertise with the oboe) and ran away from home at age 13 to make his living playing cello in local orchestras and seaside bands before joining the Hallé in 1900. A well-traveled man in his early manhood, Foulds met a wide variety of European composers who would influence his music, including Bartók, Mahler, Delius, Strauss, and Busoni. Mostly self-taught as a composer, he first came to public attention when Henry Wood premiered his orchestral piece Epithalamium at a 1906 Promenade Concert. At that time, he left the Hallé to concentrate full time on composing. Between 1914 and 1926, he lived mainly in London, supporting himself through theater work and conducting. Interestingly, he gave a number of concerts for the British forces during World War I. It was in this period that much of his lighter music was written, although the hugely popular Keltic Suite was actually composed somewhat earlier, in 1911. He also composed heavily for the theater, writing the incidental music for the first production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan in 1924.

Foulds moved to Paris in 1927 with his second wife, violinist and theosophist Maud McCarthy, who had an abiding interest in Eastern music. This led to a lifelong interest in aspects of Ancient Greek and Indian music. In Paris, he wrote the Dynamic Triptych (essentially a piano concerto including innovative use of microtones), the Twelve Essays in the Modes for Piano (making use of Greek Dorian modes), and the apocalyptic Three Mantras. Returning to London in 1930, he continued his composition of "serious" music, including Hellas, April-England, and the Quartetto Intimo (String Quartet No. 9). He also published a fascinating, thoughtful, and revealing (and at the time widely read) survey entitled Music Today in 1934.

In 1935 he arrived in India, via a few side trips to Sicily and other exotic destinations, taking up his position with All-India Radio two years later. Based initially in Delhi, he threw himself into an in-depth study of Indian folk music and formed an experimental Indo-European orchestra, combining Western and native instruments. At the time of his death from cholera in Calcutta in 1939, he was working on a Symphony of East and West, intended to showcase the results of his studies in this area. Regrettably, the work is now lost, along with much of his huge output.

Once described as England's answer to Charles Ives, Foulds' place in musical history is difficult to precisely place. He certainly seems to have been the first English composer to write using quarter-tones. An early string quartet in 1896 (now lost) and the cello sonata both incorporate microtonality -- some time before Bartók experimented with them in his own string quartets -- as does his concert opera The Vision of Dante. His monumental World Requiem, written for a huge orchestra and chorus of some 1,200, enjoyed annual performances on Armistice Day from 1923 to 1926. Although he started his composing career as a fairly typical English late-Romantic, his experiments with exoticism, especially the combining of Indian and European tonalities, should place him in an important historical position, but since so little of this music has survived, there is little left on which to judge him.