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British Symphonists - Arnold Bax
by Jürgen Schaarwächter  ..CONTINUED


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.


Already the First Symphony tended towards Sibelian technique in its manipulation and development of germ motives. This was taken the next step further in the Second Symphony. Four germs, presented in the slow introduction of the first movement rule and dominate the entire structure of the Second Symphony (1924-25) in E minor and C and lend it a singular structural concentration. Formally Sibelius serves as the model in the first movement which begins in C and ends in E minor. Sibelius's Fifth Symphony shows how convincing a first movement can be when it is associated with a scherzo. With the Second Symphony it is also evident that Bax had become acquainted with the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, in particular the Fourth. Like Nielsen, Bax uses "progressive tonality". This can be seen in the slow movement which first wanders through different keys before it ends in B major. (27)

The final movement of the symphony, beginning in C and finally ending in C major, lays down a line of evolution that bears full fruit in the Third Symphony: "The last fifty nine bars are in fact an epilogue - more formed than in the First Symphony, although not marked as such - and we can witness here Bax tentatively exploring the use of the three-movements-plus-epilogue form that is such a feature of the later symphonies. The music finally fades into silence, and if this is to be taken as an emotional self-portrait it is a frightening one. The desolation that Bax paints at the close will not be more fully explored in music until the last movement of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony some twenty years later." (28)

The symphony requires the largest orchestra Bax ever prescribed. Though there are fewer deep woodwind instruments than those conspicuous by their presence in the First Symphony (bass [=alto] flute, bass oboe or heckelphone and contrabass sarrusophone), he does specify two tubas (tenor and bass tuba), piano, organ, celesta, two harps and an extensive battery of percussion (including glockenspiel, xylophone and gong) instead. The effect that Bax can create with this instrumental palette strikingly resembles that created by Walton some years later in Belshazzar's Feast. Bax also draws on the savagery of his tone poems. His use of the organ in the final movement adds to this gaudy effect. In the calmer middle movement and in the more lyrical passages of the finale, he also foreshadows the later movie soundtracks (in particular Oliver Twist).

Bax was annoyed by the critics' who attributed programmes to his works. His reaction to programmatic interpretation in the case of the First Symphony illustrates the point: "Why do the critics, when I write craggy, northern works like the Second and Fifth Symphonies, November Woods and The Tale the Pine Trees Knew, talk of a Celtic Twilight? This enrages me." (29) In its open acknowledgement of the 'craggy, northern' influence this statement admits that he did not write his music independent of any kind of influence. Rather, it is a question of quite subjective music carrying the unmistakable impress of personal emotional turmoil. The symphony is described by Foreman as a reflection of the downfall of his relationship with Harriet Cohen. It is as Foreman maintains "the most autobiographical of any of Bax's works". (30) Bax himself wrote in a letter at times of the first performance: "I put a great deal of time (and emotion) into the writing (...) it should be very broad indeed, with a kind of oppressive catastrophic mood." (31)

Critics praised the work to the skies. Josef Holbrooke described the symphony as "a fine powerful work." (32) Edwin Evans wrote: "The Second is introspective, as if the protagonist had been thrown back upon himself, bruised but not submissive. Ferocity gives place to a philosophy that is at times bleak or austere, but without resignation." (33) Eric Blom wrote that: "The oneness which the composer achieves here is due to an exceptionally close thematic workmanship, not to uniformity of tempo and mood within each of the three movements, which indeed would make for trinity rather than unity. Arnold Bax is often reproached for not maintaining the pace and atmosphere of a symphonic or sonata movement throughout, for a habit of frequently letting rhythmic energy flag and allowing all emotional tune to frustrate all energetic purpose. The criticism is by no means unjust and not inapplicable to the present work but the diversity within its movements is compensated for by the reappearance of the principal themes in each of them." (34)


Before Bax turned to the symphony again, he composed in 1927 Overture, Elegy and Rondo. Aware of the challenges of symphonic form he appears to have used this tripartite work in much the same way as Schumann did with his Overture, Scherzo und Finale (1841). It corresponds to symphonic form but in a smaller compass. And, as in the case with Schumann (Second Symphony) the triptych offers an opportunity to further develop evolving ideas which become more securely apparent in the Third Symphony.

The Third Symphony was begun in autumn 1928 and completed in February 1929, probably in Morar in the north-west of Scotland. This was the first winter that Bax spent alone far from the hectic hurly-burly of London. Somehow it brought to an end a chapter in Bax's life. Winter Legends, the next major work composed, announced the beginning of a new chapter. (35)

The sequence of notes A-B flat-C sharp forms the germ idea of the symphony. Formal foundations and structure are subordinated to the relentless advance of Bax's rhythms. An extensive slow section ([43] to [51]) seems to break the basic concept of the first movement. It marks, however, the development of the movement towards "one of the greatest climaxes in modern music." (36) The music of the movement is more chromatic than that of every other symphony of Bax (already out of the introductory theme of the bassoon) and in the slow movement it becomes manifest that chromatics here rule large parts of the music - perhaps apart from the moments of affirmative diatonicism.

The third movement has strong rhythmical elements, that correspond to that of the children's song 'Tom, Tom the Piper's Son'. These provide a strongly propulsive element resolved only in the epilogue.

A theme presented by the clarinets demonstrates the influence that Bax would have on Malcolm Arnold - however, the use of the clarinet is with Bax, normally a master of the orchestra in best Straussian manner, not sufficiently integrated into the whole. As in the Second Symphony evocations of the soundtrack of Oliver Twist are to be heard. The recapitulation of the introductory theme leads into the epilogue, "and the work ends in complete tranquillity." (37)

Robin Hull wrote about the work, that, "although the composer is emphatic in his statement that there is no programme attached, it has been suggested that the symphony possesses the mood of northern legends. Bax agrees that the interpretation is apt, allowing that subconsciously he may have been influenced by the sagas and dark winters of the North (...) the second movement does not share this mood in any way." (38)

In the draft score of the work, two lines of Nietzsche are found as a motto: "My wisdom became pregnant on lonely mountains; upon barren stones she brought forth her young." This motto was omitted from the printed score. Bax confirmed in a programme note for the symphony: "the work in its formal aspect deviates little from the lines laid down by the classical composers of the past". He admired the symphonies of Beethoven, in particular the Third and the Ninth. Burnett James reports: "In the first movement of the Bax Third the woodwind set up an insistent rhythm at the end of the introduction which acts as a bridge to the movement proper. It is strikingly similar to the corresponding section of the Beethoven Seventh." (39)

The independent formal logic of the symphony needs a first-class conductor able to combine organically the frequent changes of tempo, in particular those encountered in the first movement. Accordingly Bax expressed himself concerning the conductor of the first performance unambiguously: "I would rather have Henry [Wood, the dedicatee] to conduct a first performance of my work than anyone else. He has such an amazing grasp of essentials, and does not mess the music about." (40) Lewis Foreman shows in a survey (the duration marks originate from Edward Downes' disk recording), which sections in the first movement have to be combined with each other (41):

Basic speed to Duration
slow [6] 6 3' 25"
fast [26] 3' 25"
slow [43] 8' 58"
fast [51] 1' 37"
slow [56] 1' 25"
fast End 0' 50"
total 19'40"

"The Third Symphony has many very vigorous and energetic passages, but it is the slower sections of the work especially that make the deepest impressions. In the middle of the first movement there is a Lento moderato in E flat (...), and this together with the closing passage in the last movement (Epilogue - Poco Lento) are both beautifully conceived and managed. The moods that are recalled in such passages as these can be traced in the slower sections of Sibelius's Seventh Symphony, and in the middle movement of the Third Symphony as well. These exquisite passages in the faster movements of the Bax symphony are matched by the refinement of the slow movement, which was one of the most restrained and distinguished that Bax wrote. The use of the horns in the movement as a whole is very impressive." (42) Ralph Vaughan Williams reports: "I first got to know Bax well in 1914, at the time of Bevis Ellis's Queen's Hall concerts. We were discussing my, then new, London Symphony (43). One passage disappointed me and I asked his advice. He suggested the addition of a counter-melody on the oboe. Indeed he sat down at the pianoforte and improvised one. This actual passage was too obviously Baxian to make its inclusion possible. But, following his advice, I made up another which, though not nearly so good as his, was more in keeping with the rest of the movement. Later on I was able to do something to return the compliment when I persuaded him to add about sixteen bars to the coda of the first movement of his Third Symphony." (44)

Vaughan Williams wove a couple of bars from the epilogue of the symphony into the epilogue of his Piano Concerto (1926-31). (45) Moeran also borrowed material from the final movement for his Violin Concerto. (46)


Bax began work on Winter Legends for piano and orchestra very soon after completing the Third Symphony. This work also is in three movements, with an epilogue which would have been worthy of a further symphony, and furthermore with a clear reference to the epilogue of the Third Symphony. Although dedicated initially to Sibelius, short before the first performance this was altered in favour of Bax's long-time companion, Harriet Cohen. "Chronologically and emotionally the concerto was another symphony in Arnold's mind - 'my No. 4 really', he would say, and it was to lead, inevitably, to the great Fifth Symphony which was dedicated to Sibelius. 'In these two works,' Bax said, 'I have gone Northern!'" (47) Sibelius loved both works, saying, according to Harriet Cohen, "Bax is my son in music." (48) "It is abstract music, of course", he said about Winter Legends, "and any 'programme', remember, is a curious thing - any concrete ideas that may be in it of place or things are of the North - Northern Ireland, Northern Scotland, Northern Europe - in fact, the Celtic North." (49)


In February 1931 Bax completed his Fourth Symphony, begun in October 1930, and dedicated it to his friend of student days, Paul Corder. With this work, and for the first time, Bax permitted himself a programmatic description. He admitted that the beginning of the symphony, for him, might represent a rough sea during flood on a sunny day. This comment is significant insofar as the whole symphony sets profound inner conflicts aside and instead gives rein to the "unashamedly extrovert." (50)

The general consensus is that the first movement, in spite of exceptional sound-painting, is the most unsatisfactory of the symphony: "isolated lyrical inspirations lie uneasily beside each other. The development section in the opening movement is typical in this respect, where several sections beautiful in themselves and related thematically do not really flow - the larger structure has not been felt." (51)

Bax continues the rhapsodic sound-painting in the central slow movement which has much in common with the spirit of the big tone poems. As a nod towards structural considerations Bax refers to the movement as an Intermezzo.

"The last movement in some way suffers from the problems of the first: how to make its slow section flow from the virile, impassioned, orchestral sweep of its opening allegro. The colour created by trumpets trilling in triads in this evocation perhaps momentarily recalls the Debussy of La Mer, underlining Bax's continued programmatic point of departure in the work. It concludes with an extended coda, Tempo di Marcia trionfale, and in 71 bars of gloriously coloured orchestral tutti Bax ends on a note of confidence and affirmation. The organ joins this thrilling sound, again with a 16 foot pedal note underpinning the tonality; indeed, without the organ it is difficult for Bax's effects to be fully made." (52)

"Throughout the movement one feels that Bax's concentration upon such pleasing matters absolves the listener from a need to look for excessive profundity of aim, though the musical quality of his lighter-hearted moments is never less than sufficient." (53)

Despite Foreman's opinion, this comparative lightness helps to draw attention away from shortcomings in the linear organisation of the movements. In the Third Symphony the contrasts do not seem so extreme. Sibelius' influence is in the background in the Fourth Symphony, although the rather relaxed mood parallels that in Sibelius' Fifth Symphony which is a much finer work than the Bax symphony.

Critical reaction to the symphony was varied. Bax's "Symphony No. 4 has revealed how complete is his present recognition of the stronger virtues attached to the exercise of judicious economy." wrote Robert Hull. (54)

William Walton on the other hand expressed in a letter to Hubert Foss: "I should like to hear your considered opinion on Bax's 4th and the new Bliss work [probably Morning Heroes]. Instinct tells me that with the Bax, we have heard it all before at perhaps even greater length. Harriet Cohen told me it was all so gay, just like Beethoven [A certain similarity in fact to Beethoven's Fourth Symphony is striking and the work does represent a kind of relaxation from the more concentrated and epic Eroica.], but perhaps better rather than that master, but my instinct (or is it prejudice) tells me otherwise." (55)

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