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THE SYMPHONIES OF ARNOLD BAX

A Radio Talk by Peter J. Pirie
 

THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE

Last Modified September 27, 1998

 


Note:  This talk was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 1973 to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Bax in October 1953. The talk preceded a broadcast of a studio recording by Norman Del Mar and the BBCSO of Bax's First Symphony.


Peter J. Pirie on Bax's Symphonies

If I was speaking ten or fifteen years ago, I would probably have begun by trying to disassociate Bax from romanticism altogether, so damaging was the label 'a brazen romantic' that Bax himself tied around his own neck. But today we have seen such a fantastic revival of the fortunes of romantic music that to do so would appear almost perverse. Yet I think that Bax's reckless remark is still a dangerous half-truth. And those who approach his music in the hope of hearing something picturesque and easy to listen to will be badly disappointed and very puzzled. The critics who seized on this phrase in ignorance of his music were taken aback by the actual sound of it when the
majority of his orchestral works came out on record and especially by the sound of the slow movement of the first symphony.

A self-indulgent romantic, belated or otherwise, could not have written this bleak expansive music which makes Holst's Egdon Heath sound overpopulated and almost lush. Again here was an English composer in 1922
writing a symphonic finale with some affinity to Stravinsky's then new and revolutionary Le Sacre du Printemps. Bax was in fact an enormously complicated man and a very complex composer and any sort of pigeonholing
will only result in doing him less than justice.

Most of his music does not sound particularly English if we take Vaughan Williams and John Ireland as typical English composers. Perhaps this difficulty of placing him is one reason why he has been consistently underestimated from the beginning. You have only to listen to the stark challenge of the opening of the First Symphony to realise that here is a charlatan or a very big man. By its very scope and power and the enormity of its gestures, the music seems to make tremendous claims and to admit any of those claims is to place him amongst the greatest of English composers by the side of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and I think that this is in fact where he belongs. Although his First Symphony is the first of a numbered sequence of seven, it was not the first to be written. There were two youthful symphonies before it. This is important since Bax found it difficult to find direction to begin with and these early works which include a Symphony in F absorbed in other things and a symphony called Spring Fire which is still extant together with his most popular work, the symphonic poem Tintagel,  indicate that his musical options were open in 1916 and he might have taken another path. But the strident and desolate First Symphony with its savage conflict marks the spot where Bax traumatically found direction.

Three things happened to him and the one that had the most bearing on this Symphony was the Easter Rising. Bax was not Irish and had no Celtic ancestry. He came of Surrey Quaker stock, though his family was originally
of Flemish origin, but one of his youthful enthusiasms was the Celtic revival and this brought him into contact with several of the leading figures of the Irish rebellion in those early years. Like Yeats, he saw it through romantic
eyes -- imagining that he walked where motley was worn. Then the romantic dream turned to terrible reality that Easter of 1916 and his friend Padraig Pearse was shot with the other rebels at the end of the rising. Bax was shaken
to the foundations of his personality. As far as he was concerned the terrible beauty that was born was that of the First Symphony. So Bax came into his own as a composer by way of the most dramatic possible example of a
conflict that was to haunt him all his life. The sudden incursion of tragic reality into romantic dreams . into beauty . into art.

This is not the romantic vision which dwells in unreality to the end. Bax was a realist and a most compassionate man and the violent death of his friend coincided with the breakdown of his marriage and his realisation that his
great technical fluency was a trap as well as a tool.  The austerity of his First Symphony was as much an attempt to deal with his over-elaborate technique as it was a symptom of inner conflict and a memorial to outer strife. A
journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and Bax's initial step, which was to take him on a spiritual journey through seven symphonies over seventeen years, was the short pregnant theme of five notes with which the
First Symphony begins. This theme also forms the basis for the grim march with which it ends. It was to haunt his music for the rest of his life

No other set of symphonies by any other composer forms such a psychological and musical unity. In the first two symphonies, Bax establishes several types of themes which recur throughout the seven -- not transcribed
exactly but a set of types which recur in many forms - most important is the type known to Bax as 'liturgical' which sounds like a scrap of Gregorian chant. Another is a rising figure of more than an octave in the bass which
serves to start the process of development and another is a purely rhythmic figure derived from the basic rhythm of some principal theme. This latter is seen most clearly in the First and Third Symphonies when we add to this the
typical Baxian lyrical melody often of poignant beauty and various permutations of the theme which opens the First Symphony we have a fairly comprehensive roll-call of Bax's theme types. They appear as if persons in a
drama in all the symphonies except perhaps for the last. The conflict which is exposed in the first rages throughout the Second which ends in an upheaval of total destruction. It is muted and veiled in the lovely Third which ends in
troubled peace. The Fourth symphony ends in a triumphal march which seems to be a kind of interlude outside the main drama.

In the Fifth the conflict begins to storm again and in its finale, two elements collide: pagan abandon and Bax's most extensive use of a liturgical theme. The liturgical theme wins in an epilogue in which it is shouted by the whole
orchestra. I have always thought that it is a bit like being bawled out by a bishop

The climax of all his symphonies comes in the Sixth. The conflict rages unchecked until it bursts in the last movement with a sound like the passing of worlds. There follows an epilogue in which the striving and liturgical
themes are united in a peace so final that one feels that there is nothing more to be said.

The Seventh, somewhat incongruously commissioned by the American people for the World Fair of 1939, contains the usual fingerprints only as passing shadows and is calm and serene in mood. It is itself an epilogue.

Don't believe that when the terrible march has thundered itself to an end in the [First Symphony] that you are about to hear that this was indeed any sort of end. It was only the beginning of one of the most eventful journeys in
music.

Peter J.  Pirie