Filling the Void: Theosophy, Modernity, and the Rituals of Armistice Day in the Reception of John Foulds’s A World Requiem

Wednesday 19 November 2014, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Prof. Rachel Cowgill

Britain in the early 1920s saw the establishment of a variety of official forms of remembrance for those lost in The Great War--the Silence, the Whitehall Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior--but the principal musical work of remembrance was John Foulds's A World Requiem, an immense choral score lasting over ninety minutes, which was completed in 1921.  Endorsed by the British Music Society and then the British Legion, A World Requiem vaulted to prominence as the 'national memorial', in the words of Field-Marshall Earl Haig, and became the focus of the first British Legion Festivals of Remembrance held on Armistice Day in the Albert Hall from 1923 to 1926 (the 1925 performance was given exceptionally under the auspices of the composer at Queen's Hall). Even as it took the limelight in the mid '20s, however, the work began to attract controversy; and ultimately, despite a number of prominent and vocal champions, it was suppressed.  With the exception of a single performance on Armistice Day at the Albert Hall in 2007 (recorded and released by Chandos), A World Requiem is now entirely neglected.

Recent studies by Van der Linden (2008) and Mansell (2009) have highlighted the role of Theosophy in the conception of A World Requiem, and identified the work's unconventional frame of reference as one of the reasons for its ultimate rejection.  However, surviving archival sources reveal a more complex picture.  Differences in the way the work was presented year by year document an ongoing dialogue with the British (musical) establishment, whose growing concerns about the work are apparent on a number of levels--concerns about the work's overtly Roman Catholic and spiritualist content, its anti-nationalist agenda, the composer's unorthodox background and circumstances, and the unsustainable financial basis of the Festival performances.  The reception of A World Requiem, as this paper shows, has much to tell us about the conflicts surrounding the negotiation of communal forms of remembrance in the first decade after the Armistice.  As Great War historians have documented, 'is it well with the fallen?' was the philosophical question addressed most urgently after the calamities of 1914-18; but who had the right to answer, and from what position of authority were they entitled to speak?       

Research for this project was part-facilitated by the Leverhulme International Research Network, Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy, Modernism and the Arts, c1875-1960, led by the History of Art department at the University of York.  Maud McCarthy, librettist for A World Requiem, was the focus of a recent exhibition of items prepared by network partners Sarah Turner, James Mansell, Chrstopher Scheer, and Rachel Cowgill from the Foulds-McCarthy archive held at the Borthwick Institute.  The exhibition, Pioneering Spirit: Maud McCarthy - Mysticism, Music and Modernity, is now accessible online as a digital exhibition at

Location: I/D003