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Arnold Bax (1883-1953) - Tintagel

Bax was an anachronism. Amid the Twentieth Century's rampant revolution, he admitted to being a “brazen romantic”. Result? Neglect, even though many ordinary listeners share his inclination (but then, we don't dictate “taste”, do we?). His romanticism flowered in Celtic soils: Yeats' poetry, and Irish seascapes and mythology. He also came to love Russian music during a visit there in 1910, when he surely must have encountered Scriabin, with whom he shared an ecstatic, mystical, chromatic opulence, keyboard brilliance, and a tendency to over-complexity (which Bax, to his credit, tried to curb). 

Consigned, for his sins, to the “second division”, he nevertheless pegged this one undisputed masterpiece to the public affection. In the score's preface, while discounting any “definite programme” Bax recorded his inspiration: “The castle-crowned cliff of Tintagel, and more particularly the wide distances of the Atlantic as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny but [N.B!] not windless summer day”. On that very cliff, on a sunny, but (alas) relatively windless summer day, I once gazed seawards. The music reverberated in my mind, and it fitted a treat. 

Tintagel falls into three broad sections, and one continuous wave of exquisite orchestration. The outer sections are majestic and grandiloquent, the first proclaiming two main themes, each with a cluster of subsidiary ideas, the third a varied reprise of gloriously ripe, ecstatic proportions. Dovetailed between these, the “development” is more dangerously elemental. Detailed thematic description would take pages. Luckily, it would also be counter-productive: the music is highly rhapsodic, the form intuitive, the plethora of motives ever-evolving and interweaving (well, I did say “tried to curb”!). Your best bet is to simply ride the tide. 

(Section 1) An iridescent shimmer of undulating strings, trilling woodwind and a welling brass phrase quickly generate a majestic climax: jubilant horns launch the gloriously nautical first main subject, a monument to the eternal shame of the producers of The Onedin Line! The second subject is a long, string-sung melody sailing over a swaying accompaniment. Somewhere along the line (“Onedin” or otherwise), the weather clouds over . . . (Section 2) . . . the wind rises, storms pulse through the orchestra, light flecking against darkness. There comes a “magic moment” for those who know their Tristan und Isolde and its associations with local legend . . . (Section 3) . . . Over rocking woodwind, brass intone their welling phrase, urgency increasing as the first subject is injected. Through huge Atlantic rollers the second subject emerges, resplendent in a resounding climax replete with blazing horns. The first subject erupts in an equally glorious, trumpet-capped tumult. Eventually, ecstasy abates; from glinting mist brass chords press upwards, urging the music to a final billowing of sails.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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