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"My son in Music," Jean Sibelius

Last Modified August 9, 1998

Vernon Handley

Conductor Vernon Handley in an interview with Ian Lace as printed in The British Music Society Newsletter - Dec 1995

"I came across (BAX) when I was a student learning the repertory and a lot of British music. I took out a study score of The Garden of Fand from Enfield Public Library. I was so impressed that I felt that I must learn more about this composer so I bought, begged and borrowed miniature scores and all that I could find. And so I became determined to work for him as much as I could when I became a conductor.

 "I think if you analyse any one of the symphonies you will find an extraordinary ability to fashion ideas, themes and tunes rather like Sibelius. Bax was a composer who tended to rely on metamorphosis of ideas rather than using a lot of fresh material. Even if you take the weakest symphony of the set - the Fourth Symphony - it displays an extraordinary unity especially between the first and last movements. You can see how the music has been constructed. Of course, he's his own worst enemy and I think critics have tended to be beguiled by the sound and harmony rather than looking underneath for the skeleton of the music. But it is there and to me this subtlety, the fact that you have to look is an added enjoyment; it is not all there on the surface.

 But range: I don't think the mood of the Viola Phantasy conflicts really with the mood of Winter Legends and I think the darkness of the First Symphony is a long way from the idyllic tune of the second movement of the Second Symphony and both are some distance from the extrovert Fourth Symphony or from the more apocalyptic Sixth Symphony. I think he has great range.

Bax's music poses certain problems for the conductor. First of all you've got to study the music, you need to know a lot of it to understand the language. It is not a cross between Richard Strauss and Rachmaninoff. It is very personal. It is also hard to appreciate the form of a Bax work because of all the beauitiful melodies and harmony. Bax is a resourceful orchestrator; the colours in his mind are so vivid that sometimes one is tempted to think there is impressionistic music before one but in actual fact there is thematic material there. To present the thematic material, to present the form of the work, poses great problems for the conductor. He has got to make sure that all the tiny joins between one passage and the next are made rather than shown because the more you sectionalize the music in favour of the sensuous sounds, the more damage you do to the form. Indeed I am reminded of a passage in Bax's autobiography, Farewell my Youth, when he says: I slammed the lid of the piano shut and went out because I could not think of a logical continuation. Now a man concerned about logical continuation is clearly concerned about form, not just pretty pictures."


Conductor David Lloyd-Jones in an  interview  with Ian Lace

"No conductor could fail to enjoy his masterly writing for the orchestra. Bax knows how to make an orchestra sound wonderful, but this is not something that is just applied to the surface but rather a by-product of his richly contrapuntal textures. There is something very appealing about the fact that all Bax's symphonies have only three movements; I think that it is one of his greatest contributions to the form. Some commentators think that Bax was not a natural symphonist. However, he was a natural writer of music for the symphony orchestra and adept at handling big forms which gets very close to being a true symphonist in the wider sense of the word."


Conductor Myer Fredman in an  interview with Robert Barnett

"Bax for me is a quasi-synthesis of the strength and grandeur of Elgar, the "pastoral" introspection of Delius,
the orchestral brilliance of Debussy and Ravel yet with a harmonic language which is distinctly his own. As much as I love his music, the music of Vaughan Williams and Walton somehow overshadowed Bax and then Britten came along so that Bax was pushed even further into the background - quite wrongly in my opinion. What with the Second World War and his death not long after, his music has never really taken hold until perhaps now as a direct result of our pioneer recordings at that time."


Composer John McCabe on Bax

"Bax's music deserves to have a more permanent place in the repertoire...He was a composer of great integrity, with a distinctive style and with something to say that is worth hearing; his best music usually seems to move an audience, to enter into their consciousness in the way that good music should."

Violinist and Conductor John McLaughlin Williams in an  interview with Richard Adams

"I think that (Bax) is quite tight structurally. Like any music, his requires acquaintance to be understood and that very acquaintance is what the music has been largely denied. Recordings help of course, but they are no substitute for a live show. As far as a reason for his being accused of being excessively rhapsodic, I believe that it is because he rarely repeats a figure verbatim. It requires good concentration to follow a motive through its various guises and
the trip can pose difficulties. I can always discern a form in Bax's music, though he often puts his own spin on it.
So what? Look at the First movement of Mahler's 5th symphony and its waywardness. What form is that? That
waywardness renders it no less great. Sometime we must accept a work of art on its own terms rather than
attempting to make it fit a pre-conceived model."


David Cox in The Pelican Guide to The Symphony

"Bax is at present out of fashion and neglected, but he found symphonic expression through instinctive musical values, with great artistic sensitivity, formal and technical mastery, and a keen intelligence. A challenge of this sort cannot be indefinitely ignored. With other Romantic works regularly filling such a large proportion of our current programmes, it is particularly regrettable that Bax's Third Symphony, for example, should now be heard so rarely; for here the communication between composer and audience is as clear and vivid as in a symphony of Tchaikovsky."

Christopher Palmer on Bax as printed in Chandos liner notes to Piano Music Volume 1

"Bax's lavish talent - which led him to much prolixity and complexity - has certainly hindered thoroughgoing exploration of his work and a just estimate of his stature, which as an 'unabashed romantic' (his own much-quoted phrase) of the English Musical Renaissance is considerable. Ecstasy is the keynote of his best work; that mystical withdrawal from the daily round and common task which he sensed in the music in Beethoven, Sibelius and Delius; in Yeats whose poetry came to him as a lightning-flash of illumination; and thence in the Celtic (and later Nordic) mythology in which he was steeped. This quality of ecstasy, rapture, awe, otherworldliness, dreaminess - call it what you will - contrasts with and complements a spirit of turbulence and conflict which seems to reflect now nature in clash-and convulsion, now events in the outer world, now the tempestuous nature of Bax's emotional life - and is frequently compounded of all these elements indistinguishably."

Conductor Bryden Thomson on Bax as printed in GRAMOPHONE Magazine

"I felt for a long time that Bax was grossly underrated, and working with the music has made me all the more convinced. It's tremendous stuff, gloriously orchestrated, and full of beautiful harmonies: basically it's very tonal, but he decorates it with the richest chromaticisms. The effect can be quite ravishing sometimes."

Conductor Sir Henry Wood talking about Bax's In the Faery Hills

"I like Bax in this mood. I feel it is the true Bax - - that dear, dear, kind man of the shy smile, I have known so well for so many years. He is really unpretentious - - but then great men are.."

Musicologist Burnett James in a letter to Lewis Foreman

"The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that, much though Bax admired Sibelius, it is a red herring. I am convinced the line runs far more accurately from Mahler through Bax to Shostakovich. The famous meeting between Sibelius and Mahler seems to me to put Bax squarely in the Mahler not the Sibelius camp. I think this is important, because the eternal references to Sibelius only work to Bax's disadvantage, since his mind worked in a totally different orbit. Bax, with his confessed Russian affiliations looks forward to Shostakovich not back to Sibelius, although at the time and for some time afterwards the real connection could not be seen."

Jim Svejda in The Record Shelf Guide to the Classical Repertoire

"As with that other great nature poet, Frederick Delius, Bax is decidedly an acquired taste; yet like many acquired tastes, he can quickly turn into an acquired passion."

Lewis Foreman as quoted in his biographical study: Bax: A Composer and His Times

"As the remainder of Bax's orchestral music is gradually given life again, in public performances, on the air, and on disc, the cumulative effect of a renewed performing tradition is becoming established. As with any composer whose sound world is as distinctive as Bax's, he needs repeated performance for his proper evaluation and appreciation. The parallel with the case of Sibelius is very close. When properly presented by sympathetic players the world he has created quite bowls one over."

Ralph Vaughan Williams in a tribute written at the time of Bax's death.

"Though no ascetic, he seemed not to belong to this world but always to be gazing through the magic casements, or wandering in the shy woods and Wychwood bowers waiting for the spark of heaven to fall."

Jonathan Hutchins in a letter to this web site

"'s always irritated me that even when a Proms theme is billed as English music, it's Britten, Birtwistle, Byrd, you name it, but all the Bax is a token "Fand" or "Tintagel". What about the 2nd symph, ferocious and glorious.......Oddly enough my next fave is the 7th, although to me it feels subtly but definitely different from any other Bax I've heard...the inner expressivity of the music is something else again, and so subjective that it's understandably difficult for 'classical' critics to comprehend - if one doesn't *feel* the inevitable logic of the twists and turns of say the 2nd, then no amount of analysis of the musical structure will validate it. Which is where mainstream critics miss out, "

A Personal Note:

 I will describe how I came to Bax's music when I was 14 years old. My brother is a professional pianist and an avid fan of British music. He took it upon himself to introduce me classical music when I was just a kid. Whenever he would thin out his vast record collection, he would give me his discards... and what wonderful discards they were too! One of the first records he gave me was of Boult conducting the New Philharmonia in Holst's The Planets on EMI when I was about nine years old. I went wild over the piece and it's no exaggeration to say I wore that record out within a year. I soon started searching for everything I could find by Holst. A few years later, my brother told me about a recording of Holst's Fugal Overture with Boult on HNH (an American label that pressed selected Lyrita discs in the United States). I immediately went out and bought it. I didn't care that the disc also contained music by Bax and Moeran. They were unknown composers to me. I put the disc on the turntable and listened to the Holst and I loved it even though I wanted it to be longer. Bax's November Woods followed and I was intrigued but perplexed. Such dark, swirling, emotional music...not at all like the Holst which was plainly straightforward. I fell in love with the Moeran but I wasn't too sure about Bax. A few months later, my brother gave me a duplicate copy of Bax's Seventh Symphony. One unforgettable Friday night when I was feeling especially moody or troubled about something, I turned out all the lights in my bedroom and put on the Seventh. Almost immediately I was taken to some wondrous world far away from all my teenage angst in Salt Lake City. This world of stormy seas, misty forests and distant castles along with the symphony's overwhelming mood of nostalgic longing absolutely possessed me. I played the record over several times, each time taking in more and more of the music. I fell in love with this composer.  I learned his language and when I went back to hear November Woods  and  I became obsessed with it as well.

Following this discovery, I set out to learn as much about Bax as I could and get ahold of all the available recordings of his music. The late 70s were difficult times for Bax fans in the United States because very little was available. I wanted to hear more of the symphonies but only the Seventh was available domestically. My next acquisition was the HNH pressing of Boult conducting the tone poems. I immediately took to both Tintagel and Garden of Fand, so much so that I purchased the other available performance of Tintagel on EMI by Sir John Barbirolli. That recording was a revelation and I became a devout Barbirolli fan as a result of that hearing. I couldn't believe the extra amount of passion and beauty Barbirolli extracted from the piece. Later, I was able to find imported copies of the symphonies and piano music on Lyrita. What I couldn't get in the States, I ordered from England. Each new Bax symphony was a major discovery and to this day I can't name a favorite even though I think the Second and Sixth are probably his greatest masterpieces. All I knew about Bax I learned from reading the record jackets which were usually written by Lewis Foreman. He'd frequently mention several unrecorded works with such tantalizing titles as Winter Legends, Spring Fire, Into the Twilight and Enchanted Summer. It became an obsession to hear these works but I would have to wait.

From Bax, I went on to discover all the major English composers starting with Moeran, Delius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Bridge and Alwyn, and despite my acquaintance with these giants, I continued to feel Bax was their equal and that he was the most underrated of British composers. I, along with most Bax fans, celebrated wildly at the announcement in 1983 that Chandos would be recording all the major orchestral scores with Bryden Thomson. Suddenly it seemed like Bax was going to get some attention.  The great discoveries for me in this series were Mater Ora Filium, Spring Fire, Into the Twilight, In the Faery Hills, Winter Legends, Symphonic Variations, Christmas Eve, Violin Concerto, the Northern Ballads and all the music for solo piano. My knowledge of Bax doubled thanks to Chandos. But I have to add that my pleasure was dampened somewhat by some of the sluggish performances in this series.

Now in the late 90s, we are looking at a whole new cycle from Naxos.  If Bax were a composer whose music was recorded as often as Elgar and Vaughan Williams, then new recordings would be less critical. Fortunately, based on his magnificent recording of the turbulent First Symphony, David Lloyd-Jones has proven himself to be a masterful Baxian and his Naxos cycle promises to be even more successful than the rival Thomson series on Chandos.  Still, I'm disappointed the recording companies have not invited Bax's greatest living interpreter to record his masterful interpretations. Vernon Handley is a conductor who has lived with and performed Bax's music since the very beginning of his career. There have been rumors that Decca and EMI would record Handley in Bax but these plans have not materialized. Fortunately again, Chandos has recorded Handley in some rare Bax masterworks including In Memoriam and The Bard of the Dimbovitza.  I only wish some enterprising English company will see the importance of having this great British conductor record more of the music of composer whom he loves and understands so well.

Perhaps Bax is an acquired taste and I can appreciate the obstacles facing the uninitiated listener who sits down to listen to a Bax symphony for the first time. The music's thick textures and rapid changes in mood and tempo can be jarring the first time through. The music requires an enormous amount of concentration and it is by no means an easy-listening experience. The listener who is uncomfortable with the excesses of late romantic music or enjoys the hypnotically vacuous mutterings of some of today's minimalists school will find Bax alien and unfriendly. Bax is a composer for "brazen" and thoughtful romantics who are as intrigued as he was by the elemental powers of nature and the passionate stirrings of the mind.

Richard R. Adams

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