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Discovering Bax - by Simon Brackenborough


Last Modified August 1, 2001 

Editor's Note: It is always a pleasure to hear from visitor's to this site and fortunately that isn't a rare occurrence. What is unusual is to hear from someone as young as Simon Brackenborough. After contacting me to share some information about the Naxos Bax symphony cycle, Simon informed me that he is just in the process of discovering Bax's music and that he is a teenager. I immediately asked him to write an article about his interest in Bax's music and what follows is his insightful and enthusiastic essay. Those wishing to contact Simon directly can e-mail him at:

The relevance of my opinions of Bax's music, in contrast to the majority of people who are listeners, is that of my age -- I am 16 years old or a "new generation Baxian", if you will. That is not to say that my opinions are more relevant, just that it is because of my unusual age that such an insight was requested. Stereotypically speaking, Bax doesn't rate highly on my peer's CD lists. It is true that I am in a minority. However, I would like to explain a little about how I became interested in Bax's music and what it is about it that appeals to me.

For a start, I am a pianist and I am also keenly interested in composition. I have always been a creative person and have never been that interested in what my friends were listening to. I used to like an old progressive rock band that my father introduced me to called Jethro Tull. This wasn't a fact I liked to promote with my friends at school as you can imagine the responses I would have received. What did impress me about this band's music were their very mature compositional ideas, so even with this early interest, I was being exposed to complex, clever music.

I first learnt to play the guitar on an informal basis from my father and this gave me an insight into chord theory, scales and such. I was then able, via a piano that has always been in our house, to transfer these ideas onto a keyboard. With this growing interest in music, my mother suggested I take up piano lessons. Through the pieces my teacher gave me to play as well as reading Classicfm magazine, I began to gain a wider knowledge of the different types of music within the classical genre.

I took to Baroque music immediately -- probably because it is the "easy listening" of the classical genre. Its complexity and consistency of form provided more musical stimulation. I also became familiar with some of the masterworks of other periods including Allegri's "Miserere mei, Deus" and Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture". I didn't become as familiar with Twentieth-Century music (apart from Holst's "The Planets") because so little of it was played on Classicfm.

My CD collection was spawned by Naxos, a label I greatly admire for its budget prices combined with great recordings. I'm not sure if I would have had as much motivation to explore so much new music without the ease of only having to spend 4.99 per CD. My first taste of Bax came with the Naxos release of Bax's Third Symphony, a disc I now treasure. This recording actually made it onto the Classicfm charts and as a result I got to hear some bits of "The Happy Forest". Bax's unusual name stuck in my head even though the music did not make an immediate impression. Later when I decided to listen to some bigger orchestral music, I remembered Bax and bought the disc containing the First Symphony, "In the Faery Hills" and "The Garden of Fand". I also bought a recording of Malcolm Arnold's "English Dances" that I liked very much, but whereas the Arnold "Dances" made for small, pleasant listening, Bax's music made a much stronger impression. I found it to be deeper, more substantial and inspiring. It literally drew me in.

Trying to define what is so good about his music is, for me at least, not easy to say. I think the reason I was so captivated by Bax's music is that it was different from anything I had heard before. I liked the way he creates the most individual and ethereal sound through his use of tonal colourings and timbres, making his music an almost visual experience. His harmony, with his characteristic chromatic twists, give his melodies (and what wonderful melodies!) a whole different sound. And then the emotion, the drama, the anger and wistful sadness all inter-linked by a common musical theme, left me in awe of his compositional prowess and has made an indelible mark on my own creativity. And all this from that first CD!

That purchase was a good introduction to Bax. Those particular orchestral pieces are easy to understand and enjoy. I then bought the Naxos recordings of the Second, Third and Fifth Symphonies. Each is a masterwork and brilliant in its own way. Many composers have used the symphonic form to really shine and I believe Bax is one of these, along with Mahler, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams and so many others. Some people have said Bag's symphonies are too rhapsodic and poorly structured, but I think it is all-irrelevant. His music is the voice of a true poet.

It's hard for me to say which is the best symphony but the Third is just about my favourite. I'm amazed each time I hear that dramatic opening movement with its roller-coaster climaxes juxtaposed with interludes that are so tender and romantic. I find the way he uses the repeated four-note theme to unite it all simply inspirational, and the turbulent ending leaves me in complete awe. The second movement is perfectly described by the blurb on the CD as "nostalgic". I am only sixteen and so I don't have that much to be nostalgic about, but that horn solo for me evokes a mood of sadness tinged with memories of happier times. It is one of the loveliest pieces of music I have heard and it speaks to me as something straight from the heart; a sentimental reflection through poignant, dream-like waves of memory. It is unlike many of the slow movements from the other symphonies (although I've yet to hear the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies), as they tend to be more brooding, sombre, and psychological, especially those of the First and Fifth. The last movement of the Third has some great and fast-moving ideas that lead to the symphony's crowning jewel, the epilogue, in which the nostalgic mood of the second movement returns in one of Bax's most heartfelt tunes, quietly descending against a peaceful, pastoral and lulling background. The unison woodwinds work to create a haunting tone and when the tune is played the second time, the small climax working down towards the F major chord is a moment of staggering beauty. It is restrained, yet so deep in emotion. When the initial four-note theme returns right at the end, the muted brass give a faint and blurred impression of how the great work all began.

The other symphonies I have heard all have equal attributes and the Third is only my favourite by a very narrow margin. The First Symphony has lots of drama and contains a brooding, mysterious second movement. The opening of the Second Symphony is very psychological and dark, almost like Sibelius's Fourth. It is something I would listen to when perhaps slightly depressed. The second movement contrasts this brilliantly with great melodic eloquence while the last movement carries on this tunefulness but provides a lot of dramatic contrast. The Fifth Symphony's First Movement contains many exciting climaxes including a particularly brilliant moment toward the end where the jagged string theme sounds something like a twisted Latin-dance, topped with glockenspiel tinklings. The overall sombre mood of this symphony continues into the central movement that has great individual strength with its atmospheric opening and lazily unwinding melody. The crashing timpani and chattering oboes that brings the last movement lurching to its feet is amazingly energetic and the symphony ends with a loud, optimistic epilogue that provides a superb finish. The Sixth, although I do not know it as well, has some amazing moments, with lots of emotion and drama in the outer movements. And I still haven't heard the 4th or 7th symphonies yet!

If I said that each of the symphonies has its own unique character, I'd have to say that is even truer of Bax's tone poems. I consider " In the Faery Hills" as one of his early masterpieces and the lyrical "Garden of Fand" has some terrific woodwind writing, with one of my favourite Bax melodies as the slow section. I have also recently begun to discover the true glories of "The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew". I love its brooding Celtic flavour, which so evokes the highlands of Scotland that I adore from many childhood holidays. I also love the passionate brass parts in "November Woods" and "Tintagel". The former has brilliantly soaring melodies and a gorgeous moment in the middle with celesta and flutes. "Tintagel", however, strikes me most as one of Bax's most unique tone poems. The opening, though brilliantly evoking the sea, just doesn't sound as "Baxy" as a lot of his music. Not that that's a bad thing, of course.

I have heard some of Bax's chamber music and my favourite out of the lot has to be the "Elegiac Trio". This is another early masterpiece and something that entwines lovely undulating textures with Celtic mystery. The "Harp Quintet" also has some great tunes. I didn't like the "Fantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp" very much at first, but I am starting to get into it a bit now. I have heard his First String Quartet but haven't got a copy of it and so I can't remember much about it. Hopefully, the Maggini Quartet's forthcoming recording of it will be released soon.

Whilst in Oxford I bought a copy of the 4th Piano Sonata manuscript to try and play. It's difficult to learn but has given me a sense of Bax's wonderful harmony. I love to play it with lots of expression because it sounds so fantastic. I also ordered the scores for the Third and Fifth Symphonies, and like to marvel at Bax's amazing orchestration as I read along with the music on my stereo. Each symphony seems so complex that I wonder how he ever managed to keep such a creative vision in his head. Compositionally, he has shown me so many possible techniques such as divided strings, mutes of various sorts and unusual uses of solo instruments. The poor conductor must have lots to do just to sort out who plays what (in some parts the violins are divided in three in one bar and four in the next!) The end result, however, is so rewarding and I am glad to see that Bax is becoming more popular.

I think that Bax's music is some of the most wonderful ever composed, as it contains a solid equilibrium between expression, emotion and melody with drama, innovation and power. His music can speak to me, but in a wholly different yet beautiful language. And of course, it is a retreat, a fantasy world that is always there for me to delve into and be a part of.

Copyright   Simon Brackenborough

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