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by Stuart Scott
John Foulds (1880-1939) produced works of original and distinctive character. He composed inventive and adventurous music which stood easily alongside that of other European composers of his day, and among British composers his voice is unique.
He was a thoroughly practical musician, a professional cellist who could turn his hand to composing successful light music pieces or theatre music in addition to pursuing the more serious aspect of his art, through development of a modernistic musical language.
Although he lacked a formal education he seems to have been well read and maintained a healthy interest in all aspects of the arts. What he absorbed throughout his childhood years and early career in Manchester was tremendously important to his later development as both composer and person.
John’s parents, Fred (b.1853) and Mary (b.1852, née Greenwood) had married and started a family (Edith b.1876) in Todmorden around 1875 but within two years or so moved into the city and settled at 49, Dorset Street, Hulme. Fred was a Hallé bassoonist and no doubt soon realized the advantages of being closer to his work and other opportunities that Manchester had to offer.
By the time his son, John was born in 1880, Fred was busy with Charles Hallé’s first complete Manchester performances of Berlioz’s Faust. Music in the Free Trade Hall had become an essential part of his professional life and out of town concerts along with the theatres of Oxford Street and Peter Street offered extra employment, as they would do much later for his son, John.
John Foulds was brought up in a busy musical household, and was in constant contact with musicians from a very early age. One visitor to the house was his godfather, Signor Michele Alassio Raspi (1813-1885) who came to Manchester with Charles Hallé in 1857. In later years, Foulds was to describe him as a worthy Italian bassoon player who told his father that any aspirations his son might have as a composer would be “doomed to failure because all the best melodies had already been used”.
Under the watchful eye of his father and Hallé colleagues, the young John commenced his music education with piano studies at the age of four. These studies continued and Foulds became a proficient pianist who later used his acquired skills to good effect when composing, performing and working in theatres and cinemas. At the age of seven he started composing and three years later took up the cello which became his main instrument and means of earning a living. We can only guess who his teacher might have been but serious and committed study must have followed for him to have entered professional life as an orchestral cellist at the age of fourteen.
In 1891 Fred and Mary Foulds found it necessary to move home to 53a Halston Street, Hulme, in order to accommodate their newborn son, Frank and Mary’s widowed mother. The family were not very well off. Only Fred and his eldest daughter Edith, who worked as a draper’s assistant, brought in any money. Mary’s health seems to have been causing problems too and Fred’s busy professional life left little or no time for the growing needs of his son, John, who now required guidance for his future career as a musician.
The death of John’s brother, Ernest (b.1879) the following year, the crowded household and the need to prepare for the future, probably prompted the decision to allow John to leave the family home in 1893 when, according to his (John’s) daughter, he was taken in by a lady who acted as protector, educator and manager of his early career. Although his activities at this time are not very well documented, it is certain that from the age of fourteen he made a living performing in theatre bands, small local orchestras in and around Manchester and the north of England. There also seem to have been opportunities to travel abroad as some time before 1896 he attended a rehearsal in Vienna at which Bruckner was present. He studied symphonic scores, read Heine’s poetry and prose, composed music derived from the works of Austro-German composers and developed a keen interest in art.
It was probably at this time too, that John Yeend King (1855-1924), landscape and genre painter, who exhibited in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester Art Galleries between 1874 and 1924, befriended young Foulds and took him on outdoor sketching trips. An interest in painting and sketching remained with Foulds all his life and pictures were to become a valuable source of inspiration for some of his more serious compositions. According to his second wife, Maud MacCarthy, his own watercolours, executed in India in the years leading up to his death, showed the colour, light and mood of the oriental landscape to very good effect.
Whatever the ins and outs of the period of his general education, it is clear that Foulds was still making new contacts in Manchester and was serious about being a composer. March 1897 brought the first public performance of one of his compositions when Hallé violinist, Rawdon Briggs (1869-1948), accompanied by the pianist, H. F. Webster, gave Rhapsodie nach Heine in Halifax. It is a virtuoso display piece showing the young composer’s considerable mastery of technical skill and is dedicated to Arthur Catterall (1883-1943), a pupil of Willy Hess and Adolph Brodsky, who was later to become Hallé leader.
Of the other works from the same period it is undoubtedly his Dichterliebe for piano (1897-98) which deserves mention. This is music on a grand scale – a long and ambitious, romantic piece lasting nearly half an hour. The dedication reads, “Ideala gewidmet”, and the work is unfinished but it is clear that the last movement was to have been fugal in character. Here we find the influence of Schumann and Wagner in language and form. There is also the use of a motto (Thema von Ideala) which appears in different movements and one whole section of the work is a rhapsody on themes from Das Rheingold. Foulds’ interest in and active pursuit of artistic work at this period shows itself in the immaculately written manuscript and the elaborate woodcut design he executed for use on the title page. The presentation of this score would put many copyists to shame.
Whilst living away from the family home, Foulds had gained much in the way of education and the beginnings of a career as a professional cellist. However, his family were now living at 80, Dorset Street, Hulme and he returned there in about 1898 with no fewer than three string quartets to his credit and wrote a fourth the following year.
Foulds later referred to his having made use of quarter-tones in a string quartet performed that same year (1898), making him undoubtedly the first British composer and possibly the first European to introduce such intervals into his music. Fortunately,
there seems to have been little difficulty in gaining a hearing for the new work as Foulds played regularly in the Bauerkeller String Quartet. Wilhelm Bauerkeller (b.1844), Hallé violinist and teacher of the young Delius, lived in Acomb Street, just a few minutes away from the Foulds’ family home. His wife, Annie (b.1853) and his older son, Rudolph (b.1879) were both violinists and probably took part in either rehearsal or performance of the new work.
It is clear that Foulds was beginning to compose for larger ensembles and experiment with musical language and technique. He was gaining confidence as a composer through his participation in chamber and orchestral music. From the late 1890s he played in the Llandudno Pier Orchestra throughout the summer months, and it was there that his recent orchestral work, Undine: Suite d’orchestre, after Froissart Op.3, was first performed in 1899.
No sooner had the summer music faded than the Hallé season opened in Manchester with the much awaited Hans Richter in charge. He had been eager to secure the services of the best players for his concerts and to that end had invited his key principals, Paersch, Fuchs, and Hoffmann (horn, cello and double-bass respectively) to a meeting at the Grand Hotel to discuss a shake-up amongst the personnel of the orchestra before the start of a new season.
As a result, John Foulds joined his father in the Hallé’s ranks of 100 players and after their concert at Newcastle in November 1900, the critic Herbert Thompson noted that “the superb tone of the violoncellos in the 13th variation [Enigma] was so conspicuous as to deserve very special mention. A good deal of new blood has been infused into the orchestra since last season, not before it was wanted and it wanted little imagination to find traces of youthful energy in the Smetana overture …”.
Much later, Eugene Goossens stated that the Hallé Orchestra under Richter was without doubt one of the finest in Europe. As a member of the orchestra, Foulds gained a tremendous amount of experience, not only as a performer, but in many other aspects of music which were useful to him as a composer. He had contact with many distinguished musicians too. His friend Arthur Catterall had joined the orchestra at the same time as he and the renowned Carl Fuchs and Walter Hatton were his section leaders and mentors.
But Rawdon Briggs, a member of the Brodsky Quartet and leader of the orchestra from 1905, became a mentor of a different kind, assisting with Foulds’ quest for an understanding of the esoteric, philosophical and religious aspects of life. Briggs, a cultured man and sensitive musician, was a leading member of the Theosophical Society and could often be heard lecturing on a variety of subjects at the City Lodge in Victoria Street, where no doubt, the young Foulds gained an interest in and an understanding of the movement which he carried with him for the rest of his life. At the same time he was rejecting the narrower outlook of his Plymouth Brethren upbringing and broadening the horizons of his enquiring mind which, amongst other things, was to have consequences for his development of a serious musical language for use in future compositions.
However, Foulds continued to compose throughout the hectic days he spent as a professional cellist and still made time for summer seasons at Llandudno with his father. In 1902, the orchestra there consisted of forty players and concerts were conducted by Arthur Payne, who by 1904 had become leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. Foulds appeared as soloist on five occasions during the 1902 season alone which included a performance of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei on May 4th.
Foulds was well acquainted with the Belgian violinist, Henri Verbrugghen (1873-1934) who, at this time, was about to form a string quartet. Verbrugghen was conductor of the pier orchestra in Colwyn Bay but had previously played at Llandudno. He was not only a good musician but a cultivated man of wide knowledge, well informed on painting and sculpture.
The fourth quartet of 1899 may have received a performance in Glasgow where Verbrugghen was appointed professor at the Glasgow Athenaeum in 1904, often performing with his own string quartet. As pointed out by Malcolm MacDonald, this work contains “the seeds of a creative epiphany”.
Foulds worked tirelessly in the mid-1900s to produce symphonic works and between 1905 and 1908 was occupied with the huge score of his Vision of Dante, a concert opera for 5 soli, double chorus, semi-chorus and orchestra, the text by Foulds himself being a skilful précis of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
His greatest success during this period seems to have been with Epithalamium (Music Poem No.2) for orchestra (1905-06) which was given its first performance by Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts, 1906 but there is much to be said for the Apotheosis (Music Poem No.4) Op.18, an elegy for violin and orchestra dedicated to Joseph Joachim. Rawdon Briggs, pupil of Joachim, would have been proud to lead the orchestra at the Liverpool Sunday Society Concert conducted by Foulds in 1909, when the work received its first performance. The soloist on that occasion was John Lawson, friend, colleague and first violinist in the Hallé Orchestra.
As a composer, the young Foulds was developing well, gaining a reputation and confidence but not earning much money from the small number of works receiving performances. Hallé players in Richter’s time were only in secure employment for about six months of the year and so Foulds saw the necessity of obtaining work in Llandudno each summer and taking on the odd pupil such as George Carter from Levenshulme who later had a career as cellist and conductor.
Richter regularly took players with him to London and Birmingham in order to reinforce other orchestras and in March 1904 Foulds would have found himself travelling to Covent Garden for the Elgar Festival during which Richter gave the first London performance of The Apostles and Elgar himself conducted his new overture, In the South.
Almost exactly one year later Foulds was meeting another composer of considerable stature when Richter directed the British premiere of Sibelius’s Second Symphony in Manchester on 2 March 1905. The writer in Musical Times complained that “It was played without creating any pronounced impression”. Later in life, Foulds recalled the occasion in writing, “A vivid impression remains in my mind of meeting [Sibelius] in a cold concert room one morning in [1905], a lone unhappy shivering nervous creature who was waiting for his turn to rehearse. With the camaraderie which a similarity of profession and aims naturally confers, as well as the esteem which one rehearsal and a glance through the scores of En Saga and the Second Symphony gave rise to, I paid him my respects”.
There were further opportunities the following year of meeting other composers too. Perhaps through Richter, Foulds was invited to attend the Tonkunstlerfest des Allgemeines Deutschen Musikvereins in Essen where he met Mahler, Strauss, Humperdinck and Delius. “Meeting at a concert which included his [Delius] Appalachia variations we had a long and interesting talk on the constitution of orchestras”, wrote Foulds. In 1910 he visited Munich for the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Being practically involved with the composers of his day was important to his own development.
By 1909 Foulds had married Maud Woodcock, daughter of a Llandudno business man and established a home of his own at 80, Acomb Street, Hulme, a few doors away from his friend Wilhelm Bauerkeller. Havergal Brian visited occasionally and noted that the new domestic arrangements in no way hindered his composing. As usual, the summer months included work in Maud’s home town and they attended the first performance of his Impromptu on a theme of Beethoven for 4 cellos, given by the cellists of the Pier Company’s Orchestra – J.E. Hambledon, W.J. Claxton, and principal Maurice Taylor.
There was also a performance of Holiday Sketches, a suite for orchestra written the previous year and dedicated to Arthur Payne, conductor of the Llandudno orchestra. This work first appeared on 20 February 1909 at a Manchester Promenade Concert and marked a new direction in Foulds’ career. It was his first attempt at writing light music and Suite Francaise and Keltic Suite soon followed. Foulds found that writing light music helped considerably in supporting a wife, home and young son, Raymond (b.1911). This was the beginning of a long series of light orchestral works which spanned his career. Undoubtedly, his most successful piece in this genre was Keltic Suite which received its first performance at a Manchester Promenade Concert conducted by Foulds himself in 1911. It remained popular and was regularly broadcast well into the 1950s.
Unhappily, there was now less time for the creation of more serious works using larger forces and most pieces of that type remained unpublished and unperformed during his lifetime. Nevertheless, work of that nature continued whilst the resourceful Foulds found yet another source of income through the theatre.
Since 1908, Annie Horniman had financed a repertory theatre company performing at the Gaiety Theatre in Peter Street, and in 1912 Foulds wrote his first incidental music for a Lewis Casson production. Wonderful Grandmama was staged at the Gaiety over Christmas 1912. The play by Harold Chapin (1886-1915) was accompanied by nearly 40 numbers from Foulds’ pen all composed in a matter of days. The march for the character, Captain Scarabang of the Horse Marines was singled out by the Guardian critic who thought it would become very popular before the end of the season.
Foulds later used some of the music to create his Miniature Suite which he conducted the following year. It was then lost but rediscovered in the library of the Hallé Orchestra in 1982. According to Malcolm MacDonald, it is a work of “considerable sparkle and delicate instrumentation”.
The incidental music to Wonderful Grandmama was the first of many theatre scores Foulds was to write during his career and the beginning of a close association with Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike.
Although still busy as a Hallé cellist and theatre composer, Foulds continued to produce a small number of his more ambitious scores. In 1911 he had begun a series of works entitled “Music Pictures” and the following year completed Music Pictures Group 3 for orchestra. These works present the composer’s reaction to and impressions of various paintings. Foulds, interested in a synthesis of art forms since his early Rhapsodie nach Heine, thought it was possible to make a musical, poetical and pictorial presentation of a single idea.
It comes as no surprise then, that he should choose William Blake’s picture, The Ancient of Days as the basis of the first movement of Music Pictures Group 3. Blake often represented his ideas in both poetry and pictures but Foulds was about to complete the music-poetry-picture cycle, or at least extend Blake’s idea into a third dimension with an austere score using woodwind, brass and percussion only.
The picture and the artist had long been admired by Foulds. In 1908 the ink and watercolour picture was to be found exhibited in the new galleries of Grove House (now Whitworth Art Gallery), only two minute’s walk away from Acomb Street, and it is certain that Foulds would have made the acquaintance of a fair number of other pictures there too.
Music Pictures Group 3 gave him the opportunity to use quarter-tones once again, found in the second movement (Columbine – Brunet) subtitled “A study in full tones, half-tones and quarter-tones”. A movement in strict Phrygian mode and a wonderful finale after a painting by Boutigny completes the group.
Foulds must have been overjoyed to learn that Henry Wood was to give the work its first performance at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert on 4 September, 1912. He must have been encouraged too, by the very favourable press reports and probably started to think about the possibilities of further London performances of his more ambitious works.
When Richter’s reign at the Hallé ended in 1911, his final subscription concert on March 16th included the first performance of Foulds’ Cello Concerto Op.17 with Carl Fuchs (b.1865) as soloist. Immediately after the concert, conductor and orchestra sailed for Belfast where they were to play the following day. But change was in the air and Foulds was beginning to look elsewhere for the furtherance of his art. He probably moved to London late in 1913 but continued to appear as Hallé cellist for a while after that. He certainly played at Dr. Pyne’s Town Hall Concerts in December 1914 along with other Hallé members before leaving the city for good.
After the Manchester years, Foulds led the life of a cellist, pianist, theatre musician, conductor, arranger and copyist. He found that his light music and theatre work continued to provide a much needed income but his more important scores did not receive the attention they deserved.
In works such as these his music is original and complex. Foulds can certainly hold his own amongst British composers of his time, but much of his music remains unknown to the general listener of today. However, through recent performances and recordings, the music of John Foulds is becoming available to a wider audience for evaluation and it is already clear that his scores are rich in ideas and have purpose, direction and much individuality.
© Stuart Scott, 2007
Further Reading
MacDonald, Malcolm John Foulds and his Music, Kahn & Averill, London, 1989
Fifield, Christopher True Artist and True Friend, A Biography of Hans Richter, Oxford, 1993

























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