Professor Rachel Cowgill, Head of School
On 1 January I flew out to Chennai on the east coast of India to spend a week researching in the library of the Theosophical Society at Adyar.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 and, taking its starting point from the writings of Helena Blavatsky, it grew rapidly into a global movement. Theosophists developed a body of thought that sought a unifying truth among the world’s faiths, particularly embracing spiritualism, occultism, Eastern religions and esoteric Christianity.
My interest in the TS stems from its significance for a neglected early twentieth-century modernist British composer, John Foulds, and in particular his commemorative oratorio – A World Requiem (1918-20) – which he composed with his partner, and later wife, the violinist Maud MacCarthy, to honour the fallen of all nations in the recent Great War. This exciting and momentous work will be given a rare airing by the Cardiff University Symphony Chorus and Orchestra at St David’s Hall on 30 November 2014 as part of the University’s WWI commemorations.
I am exploring my findings from the Adyar and related research trips in my current book project on music and the British First World War soldier.
Theosophy has been a very influential body of religious thought among artists, writers, and musicians for nigh on 150 years, and with colleagues from the Universities of York, Nottingham, Columbia, Amsterdam, Utah State and Waseda University, Tokyo, I am exploring its cultural impact in all aspects of the arts, in a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
One of the first outcomes of this project is the exhibition Pioneering Spirit: Maud MacCarthy – Mysticism, Music and Modernity, which has just opened at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. York acquired the Foulds-MacCarthy archive, containing lots of material relating to A World Requiem, from MacCarthy’s descendents a few decades ago, but it has remained largely unstudied until now.
Our exhibition explores different facets of the fascinating life of MacCarthy (wife of John Foulds) who was a concert violinist, one of the first Western women to study and perform Indian music, a dedicated mystic, and an early advocate of the use of music for therapy and healing. (My main contributions to the exhibition are the cases on Foulds’s and MacCarthy’s work for the YMCA during World War I and the composition and reception of A World Requiem in the first British Legion Festivals of Remembrance in the mid 1920s).
For those who can’t trek up to York to see the exhibition in person, you can visit the virtual exhibition. In addition, you can hear some of Foulds’s music and other works influenced by and influential on Theosophy in a concert to be given in the School of Music concert hall by the touring Fry Street Quartet at 7pm on 6 May 2014, with a pre-concert talk by two members of the network.
For more on the activities of the Enchanted Modernities network, including a forthcoming exhibition of art inspired by Theosophy, Enchanted Modernities: West-Coast Mysticism, at the Nora Eccles Art Gallery, Utah State University, visit the network website http://www.york.ac.uk/history-of-art/enchanted-modernities