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Ones Who Got Away: Muriel Foster
by Charles A. Hooey  

Surely the greatest English singer to emerge early in the twentieth century was the contralto Muriel Foster. Though not an opera singer, she won fame as Sir Edward Elgar’s favourite artist and key to success for his great oratorios The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles, The Kingdom and other works. She excelled as well in music of Mendelssohn, Bach and a host of other masters. Alas, she had an aversion to recording so despite her success and many kudos, it is particularly sad she left no mementos of her voice.

Muriel arrived in style together with a twin sister Hilda on a very special day, St. Cecilia’s Day, 22 November 1877. What joy must have reigned in the home of Robert and Anne Hides Foster (née Ferry) in Sunderland, a gritty, shipbuilding city on the northeast coast of England. Soon the tiny tots were chirping duets to delight their parents, a pleasant Victorian pastime that often included their older sister Winifred.

Enrolling at the Royal College of Music in London in 1896, Muriel came under the tutelage of Anna Williams, a noted oratorio artist of recent acclaim. After singing in a student production of Verdi’s Falstaff soon after its première, she was not impressed by the fuss and grease paint and determined not to bother further with opera. Our loss.

As a naturally gifted student, she was much in demand for local musical endeavours, beginning in Bradford in Hubert Parry’s “King Saul.” Conductor and fellow composer Frederic Cowen considered Clara Butt, Agnes Nicholls and Muriel as young artists with tremendous promise...the two latter if not quite, began their careers (in Liverpool) in a performance of Parry’s oratorio Judith, a work in which Anna Williams had excelled.

She soon became a favourite in Hull, also by the sea. Initially on 29 March 1898, she sang in Dvorak’s Stabat Mater with the Hull Vocal Society along with Alice Simons, Charles Ellison and A. Foster Ferguson, G. H. Smith presiding. Returning on 18 November that year to take part in Stanford’s cantata The Voyage of Maeldune, Op. 34, her voice “proved very resonant and well sustained” when she sang with Agnes Nicholls, Hirwen Jones and Daniel Price and the Hull Harmonic Society.

She made her London debut in 1899 when she and Hilda offered duets by Brahms, Cornelius and Edward German in St. James Hall. Soon after, Hilda set aside her aspirations, instead choosing to marry and enjoy family life as Mrs. Bramwell. That September Muriel appeared at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester as Narrator in Elgar’s first oratorio, The Light of the World, a work her teacher Anna Williams had helped première at Worcester on 8 September 1896. Naturally, as her protégée, Muriel sang the work too. Over many seasons, Muriel would become a fixture, as the Festival revolved between the old, hallowed cathedrals at Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester.
Clara Butt had registered a huge success when she introduced Elgar’s Sea Pictures at Norwich in 1899. Muriel first sang four of the songs on 15 March 1900 during a St. James Pops Concert creating hysteria of her own. C. V. Stanford who conducted afterwards wrote to Elgar, “ She has not the whopping voice of CB but she has more poetry and is musical to her fingertips.” Anna Williams also contacted Elgar to extol Muriel’s merits and to urge him to hear her and to write music for her to sing.

Elgar, in the throes of finalizing his masterwork The Dream of Gerontius, simply ignored the advice. By the end of 1901, he had seen Gerontius performed three times, including once when he had conducted, but none came close to the ideal. Elgar was frustrated. With prospects still bleak, he was persuaded to extract the essence for concert use and to lead the first performance of this condensation on 16 February 1901 at St. George’s Hall, Bradford. After the Prelude, an attractive young lady rose to sing the Angel’s Farewell, giving “a peculiarly artistic and sympathetic interpretation (and she) thoroughly entered into the spirit of the music.” Finally Elgar had come face-to-face with Muriel Foster, the singer destined to be his saviour. To cement the favourable impression, she added four Sea Pictures. At about this time she graduated from college!

Set free from academic constraints, she leapt at a chance to join her friend soprano Emma Albani when the latter visited her homeland of Canada. At a concert with local assisting artists in Toronto’s Massey Hall on 22 March 1901, Muriel sang “Since we parted” by Frances Allitsen, “Love thy pedlar’ by Edward German and a duet with Albani, “D’un coeur qui je t’aime” by Gounod that was encored. The Globe took note, “ Miss Foster made a very favourable impression. She has a voice of excellent quality, rich and warm coloured, and even throughout its compass. Her style is of a good school; she sings expressively without being sentimental, and altogether she is a very satisfying artiste.”

Upon returning to England, she found Elgar planning to give Gerontius a fourth try in Dusseldorf and he wanted Muriel to be the Angel. However she became severely ill and her participation was in doubt. On 18 March 1902, still wobbly, she sang in the first Verdi Requiem in Hull. Then she went to Dusseldorf bothered by a bronchial condition to sing in Bach’s B Minor Mass on 18 May. The next evening, Elgar found his missing ingredient as Muriel, still unwell, stepped up to sing the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius with Ludwig Wüllner and Johannes Messchaert with Julius Buth conducting. Elgar, Alfred Jaeger and friends from England were moved and then deliriously happy.

Amongst the plaudits was this from Niederheinische Volkszeitung on 20 May 1902 (translated by David Mason): “The songs of the Angel were quite splendidly sung by Fraulein Muriel Foster, before whose lovely voice and technically-accomplished singing in the Mass yesterday, even Frau Noordewier-Reddingius in the less prominent part paled.” And from Sir Henry Wood: “ A richer, warmer mezzo-soprano voice I have rarely heard, and her musicianship was of the highest. I am quite sure that Elgar conceived all his mezzo-soprano parts in Gerontius and later oratorios with Muriel Foster in mind. I do know no other mezzo-soprano or contralto ever extracted a word of praise from him over their interpretations of his parts.”

Euphoria reigned in Dusseldorf and the celebrations went on all night as Muriel slipped away to resume a tour that took her to Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne and Holland where she sang with Mengelberg’s orchestra.

On home turf again, she found The Dream of Gerontius being performed at several venues in England, usually with Marie Brema, the original Angel. At the Sheffield Festival beginning on 1 October 1902, Muriel sang in the first performance of Sir Henry Coward’s cantata, “Gareth and Linet.” The next day brought the principal attraction, Elgar conducting his Gerontius. When a scheduled Brema took ill Elgar turned to Muriel, his first choice. The next day she premièred the composer’s Coronation Ode.

On 20 March 1903, Muriel visited Hull again to sing in Edvard Grieg’s Olaf Trygvason with Ivor Foster, local soprano Ethel G. Kaye and the Hull Harmonic Society. In this work Grieg had shown a high disregard for his contralto soloist. “Miss Muriel Foster sang the fiery music of the infuriated woman magnificently, but the wear and tear on her voice must have been quite Wagnerian.” During the second part, “her delivery of Gluck’s `Che faro’ will live long in one’s remembrance. Not often has the pathetic lament of Orpheus been rendered with more of `soul’ than Miss Foster brought to bear.”

The trying experience of Grieg behind her, she wrote to Elgar, “I have heard that there is a possibility of Gerontius being done in London. I am writing to ask you to put in a good word for me. I love the part so much and would very much like to sing it in London.” In April she sailed off to Russia for two weeks of moving audiences all the way to St. Petersburg. Though insulated as machinations continued prior to the first Gerontius in London on 6 June 1903, Muriel surely sensed she was Elgar’s choice and to support her cause, she sent a telegram on her last day in Russia. Back in England, she found an invitation waiting to join Elgar at his Malvern home on 9 May to go through her assignment as Mary Magdalene in The Apostles, the new oratorio to be premiered that autumn. No doubt they shared thoughts about the coming Gerontius. That very special event took place in an unfinished Westminster Cathedral where Hugo Gorlitz was the man in charge. As Brema’s agent, he naturally pressed hard for her to appear but Elgar prevailed and in the end Muriel did not disappoint.

The Apostles made its initial appearance at the Birmingham Festival on 14 October 1903. In earlier works, Elgar’s females had been passive and motherly but now with Muriel Foster’s talents uppermost, he fashioned a powerful figure in Mary Magdalene. She joined Emma Albani, John Coates, David Ffrangçon-Davies, Kennerley Rumford and Andrew Black to fashion another immense success.

Early in 1904 she decided to visit America again. She gave her first concert in Brooklyn on 18 March with the Boston Symphony under Walter Gericke, creating magic with “In haven” from Sea Pictures, a spell she wove again three days later in Hartford. Then she traveled to New York where at Carnegie Hall she sang in the second U.S. performance of The Apostles. In his book, David Bispham, who sang Judas, reported that “The English alto Muriel Foster was in an agony of dread and pain, because of the approach of what might have resulted in lockjaw had it not been taken in time. She placed between her teeth, at the back of her mouth, which she could open but with great difficulty, a wad of paper to keep her jaws from coming together. In this plight she bravely went through the performance, though the audience must have wondered at the strange enunciation which sometimes marred her otherwise distinct delivery of the text.”  

Then it was north to Canada for a recital in Toronto’s Massey Hall on 18 April with baritone Cyril Dwight Edwards, pianist Emiliano Renaud, violinist Alfred de Seve and accompanist Kate Eadie. A Globe reporter was impressed, “Miss Muriel Foster, as is well known, has a beautiful voice, mellow, sympathetic and rich in colour. She has, moreover, temperament while singing with artistic finish, which is something to be thankful for in these days when temperament is made to excuse so many crudities in singing.”

Moving on to Chicago, where in the Auditorium on 30 April, she appeared with an orchestra led by a veteran Theodore Thomas to sing Elgar’s Sea Pictures followed by Richard Strauss’s Hymnus, Op. 33. No. 3. Next she journeyed to the banks of the Ohio on 13 and 14 May to partake in Cincinnati’s world famous Summer Festival. A serious mood was set by Incidental music and the funeral march from Elgar’s “Grania and Diarmid” for The Dream of Gerontius that followed when Muriel joined William Green and Robert Watkin Mills. The next day she shared the stage with Ernestine Schumann-Heink, her contributions being three songs from Sea Pictures and the noble Hymnus. Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture brought the festivities to a gaudy close.

Back home, she joined an assembly of great English singers on 11 June 1904 to perform at a huge Jubilee Concert in the Crystal Palace. At this time as well, the London Philharmonic Society chose to award her their Beethoven medal.

At the outset it was mentioned that Muriel did not record. Actually she did visit the studios of the Gramophone Company on 23 June 1904 to pour her gorgeous voice into a gramophone recording horn to preserve the following:

5425 a) Each rose; b) Happy song (del Riego)
5426 Melisande in the wood (Goetze)
5427 Chanson
5428 A June morning
5429 Each rose

The last three are marked in the ledger as “destr,” meaning they were instantly destroyed while the first two were never issued and are believed long gone as well. Elgarians always claimed their beloved Muriel did not make recordings, and in a sense, they are correct. But a question remains: Why did she make these discs? Perhaps someone who was present has left a recollection? Being quite a special person, she must have had reservations, especially after hearing records made by colleagues. She likely went at it half-heartedly and the technicians involved must have decided this was a no-go. Thus, alas, she became “One who got away.”
In 1905, she made one more trip to America where as it turned out the word had spread. Now everyone in the eastern U.S was frantic to hear her sing Elgar’s Sea Pictures. She obliged with an orchestra conducted by Walter Gericke.

Returning from America, she once more busied herself with concerts and oratorio. At the Three Choirs Festival she sang in Gerontius and The Apostles with John Coates, Emma Albani, Dalton Baker and Harry Plunket Greene. Early in 1906, she contracted a severe case of influenza and for a while could not sing at all. During her travels however she had met a dashing, wealthy Ludovico Goetz and on 21 November 1906 they were married in the parish church at Barkway in Hereford.

When autumn arrived, she headed to Birmingham’s 42nd Triennial Festival to help Elgar introduce his third and final oratorio, The Kingdom. On 2 October she opened by singing in Mendelssohn’s Elijah and The Apostles with Elgar conducting. The next day, she joined the composer in launching his new work. In continuing his tale about the Apostles and the establishment of the church in Jerusalem with Mary Magdalene a consoling presence throughout, Elgar was moved to new heights of inspiration by the famous soliloquy in anticipation of Muriel’s interpretation. It was another triumph.

Absent in 1907, Muriel was in a sense retired. On 26 December 1908, she gave birth to her only child, a son they named Ludovic Anthony Goetz. But the urge to sing remained so the following September she journeyed to Birmingham to sing in Verdi’s Requiem and Mendelssohn’s Elijah with a fast-rising John McCormack, Aïno Ackté and Clarence Whitehill, Wood conducting. She also sang with Wood and soprano Pauline Donalda. (As she recalled in RC November Vol. 10) “I also sang in the St. Matthew Passion, a performance memorable for me for Muriel Foster, the great English contralto, who came out of retirement to sing in this Bach production.”

After that, it was champagne and roses until once again she fell ill, this time seriously enough to cause a vocal crisis and a total withdrawal from singing. In time, she recovered, seemingly with new powers of interpretation, but she chose her venues with care, restricting herself to memorials, special occasions, Elgar’s music and moments when she simply needed time with her fans.

Just such a time came when Emma Albani staged her farewell concert at the Birmingham Town Hall on 22 February 1911. She asked Muriel, Gregory Hast and Peter Dawson to share the excitement. It caused Robert J. Buckley to effuse: “Miss Muriel Foster, who had a tremendous reception, sang Schubert’s “Erl-King’ with superb voice and perfect art; once more one realized the irreparable loss to English music consequent on her retirement, when at the height of her powers, from the concert platform.”

For many years, Elgar had been working on The Music Makers, a kind of dream fantasy, finding inspiration in Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s poem. He poured in everything of his nature to create a choral singer’s dream with a contralto solo for his semi-retired friend. At the Birmingham Festival after dinner on 1 October 1912, Elgar and Muriel premiered ‘The Music Makers, op 69.’ Afterwards to conclude a splendid day of music, Sibelius stepped forward to conduct the first performance in England of his Fourth Symphony.

A regular at Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concerts since 1904, Muriel on 29 January 1914 rendered “Aus der Tiefe des Grames” from Achilleus by Max Bruch and afterwards she received the Society’s coveted Gold Medal. This award would not go to another singer for thirty-nine years, the next recipient being also a contralto, the wondrous Kathleen Ferrier.

As the country slid into the agony of war, many festivals closed to be replaced by war related charity concerts. Like her colleagues Muriel participated especially in a series of concerts organized by composer Isidore de Lara. In London during the summer of 1914, she joined Louise Edvina and Marguerite D’Alvarez at the Haymarket Theatre, where Beecham, spoke on “Art versus Charity” as de Lara urged his titled friends to dig deep into their wallets. By his count he gave 1300 concerts with Muriel appearing in her share. She was not averse to including an operatic aria or two in her concerts, the Samson and Delilah arias, “Che faro” from Gluck’s Orfeo being favourites. For a special concert at the Palace Theatre on 22 May 1917, Muriel sang in aid of wartime “waifs and strays.” The event was designed to introduce Elgar’s ballet The Sanguine Fan but both time and place proved unsuitable for such serious music. Muriel contributed Tosti’s Farewell and “Love went a-riding” by Frank Bridge.

That summer Muriel gave a number of similar concerts in and around London, her work often not being lost on The Musical Times: “Vocal recitals by Miss Muriel Foster are events that are too rare. She is one of the elect few. It was gratifying to find that she was in splendid voice and full of vitality on the occasion of her appearance on 30 November, 1917 at Wigmore Hall, The programme of course was an exceptionally good one.” She began with two airs by Bach, added four Elizabethan songs, arranged by Keel, and then Chausson’s `Chanson Perpetuelle, op. 37’ assisted by the Belgian String Quartet. “Perhaps the `big’ style reveals Miss Foster at her best, but there were not lacking moments of lightness and grace.” For her English group, she added `I am like a Remnant of a Cloud’, `The Sleep that Flits on Baby’s Eyes,’ `Fog Wraith’ all by John Allden Carpenter, then `Sea Fever’ and `The Song of Autolveus’ by John Ireland and `The Stranger’s Song’ by Balfour Gardiner.

Two weeks later on 14 December, she gave a second programme this time one that was entirely English, comprehending songs by John Ireland (a new vocal rhapsody to words by Harold Munro, was a remarkable item), Roger Quilter, Janet Hamilton, Purcell, Blow, Frank Bridge, Ruby Holland and Landon Ronald. “Again we record the depth and breadth of Miss Foster’s interpretations.”

She had gone from one pinnacle to the next. Because of the anti-German feeling she and Ludovico became known as “the Fosters.” Close friends of the Elgars, they often partied in each other’s homes. Once in 1915, young Anthony engaged Elgar in earnest conversation as a camera shutter clicked. Five years later on 25 March 1920, Muriel was the last one outside the family to be with the dying Alice Elgar. Afterwards Elgar spoke of the affection the two shared. “She always called Alice, `The little wren.’ ” She was the glue that held this tiny group together and with her gone, Elgar and Muriel drifted apart. She retired from singing to spend time in family pursuits and perhaps do a spot of teaching. Her time on earth ended in London two days before Christmas in 1937.

Note: For more about Muriel Foster, see the author’s more complete versions of her saga in The Elgar Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, March 2003 and BMS News 105, March 2005 with detailed credits given in each case. Special thanks go out to Paul Campion in London for tracking down additional family data and to Alan Kelly in York, England whose research revealed the Foster recording activity.

This article originally appeared in The Record Collector, Vol. 53, No. 3, September 2008. It was part of a series devoted to important artists who did not make records. Muriel made a few but they did not survive. 

 


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