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British Symphonists - Arnold Bax
by Jürgen Schaarwächter


Last Modified December 7, 1997

Note: This is a revised and amended extract from the author's book 'Die britische Sinfonie 1914-1945'. Köln: Musikverlag Christoph Dohr, 1995, pp. 218ff. Rob Barnett assisted in the translation and editing of the text. I would like to thank Herr Schaarwachter for allowing me to post this extract here.


Arnold Bax was, to all intents and purposes, a forgotten figure at the time of his death. Rediscovery had to bide its time until the beginning of the 1970s. This was largely as a result of Lewis Foreman's outstanding advocacy although the valuable work of Colin Scott-Sutherland and Vernon Handley during the 1960s and later must not be forgotten.

Bax studied with Frederick Corder at the RAM alongside his contemporaries Eric Coates, Adam Carse, York Bowen, Benjamin Dale, Myra Hess, Montague Phillips, Paul Corder, Arthur Hinton, William Henry Reed and Harry Farjeon. Corder was a devoted Wagnerian and his pupils often had difficulty in shaking off the Bayreuthian influence. (1) Granville Bantock fell under the same thrall. Liszt was also an influence via Alexander Mackenzie, the Principal of the RAM during Bax's time. Mackenzie had known Liszt in person. At the RAM Bax developed as an excellent pianist. On the other hand he felt an aversion towards conducting whether his own works or those of others.

Bax and Ireland, occasionally also Bliss, Scott and Walton, remained after the second world war trapped in late romantic harmony. (2) This was not however the case with Bridge, Holst or Brian. Brian in particular abandoned the late romantic tendency early on.

Eric Blom pointed to Bax's habit of slowing down the progress of his works with the presentation of the second theme. (3) This makes Bax's weaknesses during the construction of symphonic movements all the more apparent and lets his nature - in spite of multiple application of the sonata principle movement form appear all the more rhapsodic. (4) Bax was essentially an "ardent, imaginative personality with a great love of nature. One does not find in them mystical experiences but rather a delight in the romantic, the poetical, and the pagan." (5)

It is in the tone poems rather than in his symphonies that Bax displays his abilities to best advantage. Minor echoes of Celtic folk-music (6) are of secondary importance in the symphonic canvases. The influence of Sibelius, as will be clear later on, was very much stronger. In all his melodic invention it is motifs rather than themes that attain importance in the course of a Bax movement. Nielsen (7), Tchaikovsky and Borodin were also of no small significance in shaping Bax's scores. (8)

"The orchestration of Bax's symphonies confirms previous evidence that his natural mastery and original handling of this medium belong in the foremost rank. His scoring, though apparently generous, rarely outweighs the material: few composers can handle large resources with such self restraint and fine judgement. Bax's musical substance requires for its expression many novel and fascinating relationships between instruments whose combined use has opened up immense possibilities in the field of orchestral writing. He yields nothing to the disastrous fallacy that originality may be attained by the pursuit of novelty per se; but both novelty and virtuosity are given their legitimate place. Illustrations of the composer's felicity in revealing musical character through instrumental means are countless: it must suffice here to mention four. The rich and sombre tone of the viola (9) is ideally suited to the veiled moods distinguishing many reflective passages in the symphonies; the clarinet (10) and cor anglais (11) are perfect exponents of that poignant lyricism in which Bax excels; and no one has appreciated more musically the extent to which the dark sonority of the trombones can express an atmosphere of menace and foreboding. (12) Such marvels of orchestration as occur in the symphonies are not external to, or in any way a substitute for, the essence of creative imagination: they communicate a wealth of original thought which itself justifies so profound an impression upon the receptive listener." (13)


Bax's first fully-achieved work in symphonic form was Spring Fire, a programme symphony in five parts. It dates from 1913 and was dedicated to Sir Henry J. Wood. Lewis Foreman has provided us with a comprehensive history of the score - a scheduled Queen's Hall performance on 28 February 1916 was cancelled and various other plans came to nothing. It remained unperformed until December 1970 and it was Foreman who, with Leslie Head and his Kensington Symphony Orchestra, promoted this late première.

Spring Fire is effectively a single-movement falling into a number of clear segments. Bax himself wrote that it "may be regarded as a kind of freely-worked symphony, the four sections linked together without a break." (14) It is thus comparable to other contemporary works, from Parry's Fifth Symphony (1912) to Strauss's Alpensinfonie (1915) and the symphonies of Granville Bantock in which several movements or sections are also linked. As was not unusual at the time (15) Bax uses quotes from the first chorus of Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon as mottoes for the sections of the work.

The first part is headed 'In the Forest before Dawn'. This Introduction is slow and quiet. Only once at fig. [1], during the presentation of the theme, do the dynamics rise to give mf. Debussy, Ravel and particularly Bantock's Pagan Symphony (1928) are all recalled here and the main theme of the work appears.

This theme gains in importance throughout the work, being further developed and gradually transformed in the second and third parts. The second part (16), 'Dawn and sunrise', continues in the mood of the slow introduction for some time. The theme is presented once again; this time fully stated. 'Full day' (part III) is an Allegro vivace. The development of the material begins. The section's title is sub-headed:

Come with bows bent and emptying of quivers,
Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of wind and many rivers,
With a clamour of waters and with might.

In his programme-note Bax gives a detailed description of the programme he had in mind. His picture is a very real, detailed one, quite comparable to those for which Richard Strauss has been reproached. This, however, is unimportant to the music, its "neo-paganism" (17) reflecting the prevailing spirit of the times evident in the works of Bantock, Ireland and Bridge. The many brilliant orchestral effects and a strong feeling of coherence have hardly ever been surpassed even by his own later symphonies.

A short moderate section is inserted in this third part (figs. [11] to [12]), and shortly afterwards (fig. [15]) the fourth part, 'Romance' follows, Molto Moderato. This music is romantic and glowing. Here another quotation is given:

For winter rains and ruins are over
And all the season of snows and sins,
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins.
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten
, And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the Spring begins.

This section represents the recapitulation of the one-movement symphony. The bass clarinet presents the original form of the first theme. Quasi cadenzas by solo violin and solo flute set the scene for the last part 'Maenads', an Allegro vivace.

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with laughing and fills with delight
The maenad and the bassarid.

This is the coda proper of the symphony, a dance resolving the calmer mood of the 'Romance', leading into a stretta in which the core material is further developed.

The Greek Pagan figures and rites that are evoked can also be found in other works, particularly in Rootham's Pan (1912) and Frank Bridge's Enter Spring (1927), a shorter work, less strong in harmony and colour but quite comparable in coherence and concentration.


On April 27, 1921, Bax completed the first movement of his Third Piano Sonata. Harriet Cohen was convinced that Bax had, with this movement, created something very much greater which cried out for orchestral treatment. Bax's practice of orchestrating piano pieces was nothing new. In 1916, he had orchestrated the scherzo of a piano sonata begun in 1913. The Russian Suite, written for Diaghilev, had been orchestrated in 1919. The orchestral version of Bax's Mediterranean (1920) was written in 1922. Faced with the decision to write his first 'absolute' symphony, Bax felt compelled to write a new slow movement.

This was "the most emotional music he ever wrote. And surely the theme of Ireland, by then in open Civil War, is reflected in it. The symphony was a work apart from the rest of Bax's orchestral output up to that time: a work of such aggression and searing passion as to startle previous admirers of Bax's music and make them ask - why? In it the slow movement in particular seems to reflect some of the moods echoed in the poems written during the war. This movement is a highly charged elegy of great power, and towards the end the music seems to suggest the mourner sinking down in numbed despair (...)." (18)

The 1920s were a particularly exciting time for British music. The first British Music Society had been set up in 1919 but had lapsed by the late 1920s. It was to be almost half a century before the present British Music Society was established in 1978. The 1920s were a time of collective commitment to new music and this commitment was especially strong on the Continent which focused strongly on the promotion of new music. The I.S.C.M. was one of the main activists in this field. It had been set up in 1922 with its first festival taking place in Salzburg in August of that year. Edward Dent wrote of this organisation: "The Schönberg 'clique', to their honour, be it said, were anything but narrow-minded; they cast their net over all Europe and America too. They even went so far as to include England, and surely that, in itself, was proof enough of their utter unmusicality. Never had England been represented so generously in a foreign country - Bliss, Ethel Smyth, Holst, Gerrard Williams, Bax, Gibbs, Goossens and Percy Grainger (Australian)." (19)

Bax's new first symphony had such success that it gained a performance at the summer 1924 I.S.C.M. festival in Prague. To set the seal on its eminence it was conducted by none other than the young Fritz Reiner. The result of this celebrity performance was that two months later, in Salzburg, Bax's Viola Sonata, one of his best compositions, was performed.

Bax referred repeatedly to his first numbered symphony as "pure music", independent of political or real events - although he expressed himself differently in letters to friends. (20)

Havergal Brian wrote an extensive review of the work. This was Brian's first contribution to Musical Opinion, a journal which he later edited by him for many years. (21)

Other critics wrote: "We have in this Symphony music of a tense violence and gather that a poetic soul has been affronted with something of singular monstrosity and woefulness in the doings of a wicked world. And what should that be, for a poetic soul of one generation, but the events of 1914 and after? We may wonder if the composer is not still too freshly quivering under the outrage to his sensibility to have made a final expression - this music is not 'emotion remembered in tranquillity,' but an immediate reaction to the shock, in a moment in which all raging retorts are good. The slow movement, a lament of deeply sombre but rich colouring, is that in which pure music has most indubitably disengaged itself from the conflict. Elsewhere we may feel that his crowding thoughts and passionate feelings are not entirely solved. The symphony remains a work of a rare order of imaginativeness, not to speak of its abundant technical invention." (22)

"Bax had dredged deeply. Not even Sibelius had conjured up such inimical forces from the grim fastnesses of Tapiola. This is not evil in the religious sense. It is the antithetic juxtaposition of negative and positive - of dark and light - the extension of the basic principles of the two aspects of life, the male and female counterparts of the id, and thus ultimately the dichotomy of his own inner personality, symbolically presented, at the very outset, in the major/minor clash with which the first symphony opens. Bax's symphonic design was intuitive. (...) The first Symphony is primarily concerned with a single idea, albeit of a dual nature, embodied in the first five bars of the work. To this grim exposition the central lyrical matter acts not as a foil but as a complement underlining the powerful nature of the material from which the music is hewn. It offers no escape, no solution." (23)

Bax's technique of working with a germ cell is one of the most essential Sibelian traits in Bax's style, and it offered a concentration of material which he appeared unable to draw on in the earlier tone poems and in Spring Fire. Amongst contemporary works the first symphony is only outdone in this respect by Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony. It was nevertheless an easy task for Bax to manage an even stronger cyclical unity in later works - although he had, in the Second Symphony, to have recourse to means he had applied in the tone poems, to accept a retrograde step.

Bax dedicated the symphony to John Ireland who, according to Herbert Howells, was arrogant enough to be completely uninterested although it was Bax's best work at that point. (24) In fact Ireland was exceptionally positive about the work: "Bax (...) has atmosphere; Bax is a musician; he is a genius." (25)

Havergal Brian also expressed himself in similar terms; also insisting on a kinship between Bax and Ireland: "Bax shows a soul affinity with John Ireland in his bitter defiance and sarcastic acidity against the trammels of convention. Has anyone ever got up from playing that storm-tossed sonata of John Ireland without wondering what was in the cups of bitterness the composer swallowed which is described in such wonderful and forceful music? In its fierceness, it has the character of an enraged giant hurling rocks at his enemies. There is a great deal of this feeling in the art of Bax, and nowhere else is there so much of it as in his new symphony. It breathes defiance and triumph." (26)

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