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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.


"During the 'twenties Bax became interested in Sibelius but no overt reference to that composer is apparent before he first heard Tapiola in 1928. The beginnings of a conscious nod at a Sibelian style occurs in the Third Symphony. However, Bax's preoccupation with Sibelius is really a phenomenon of the early 'thirties. Certainly he was very impressed by the first performance of Tapiola in England: 'Half way through I turned to look at Arnold, and tears were pouring down his face. Years later he was to tell me that he and Cecil Gray had decided that if Sibelius had written nothing else, this work would place him among the immortals for all time.'" (56)

"I find it very significant, that having absorbed Sibelian mannerisms in the Third Symphony and Winter Legends, and becoming increasingly interested in a Sibelian subject matter, his overtly Sibelian works follow his visit to Finland in the summer of 1931." (57)

Burnett James took a view opposing Foreman's: "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." (58) This may, however, have been meant in Bax's defence; the investigation of the relationship between Bax and Shostakovich is nevertheless a worthwhile task. The march at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony calls to mind many a symphony of Shostakovich, and despite obvious differences in other ways, the formal dependence on Sibelius's Third and Fourth Symphony is obvious. The clarinet melody at the beginning of the symphony is a striking reminder of the beginning of the slow movement of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, while Bax's melodic characteristics are otherwise perhaps less concise than his Finnish counterpart. Furthermore, the first movement of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony was initially two movements, with a clear separation of a slower and of a faster movement. Similar things can be found too in Bax (e.g. Second Symphony).

The emotional foundation of the first four symphonies, rooted in conflict, is resolved in the Fifth Symphony. Robert Hull wrote: "In his fourth symphony Bax employed a style which was anything but introspective, and departed from his usual custom by admitting a declared programme. The primary question raised by this brilliantly objective process was whether its nature must be interpreted as a radical change of attitude on Bax's part, or whether the metamorphosis indicated simply a temporary delection from his mainly introspective course. This dilemma is effectively resolved by the evidence of the fifth symphony, which unmistakably resumes the psychological sequence continued throughout the first three symphonies and momentarily interrupted by the fourth. One would expect critical opinion to agree that the fifth symphony (to which no programme is attached) goes much deeper than the fourth, while its character is influenced wholly for good by the objective experience to which the composer submitted after writing his third symphony. The fifth symphony appears to mark the triumphant emergence from an important artistic crisis - a crisis which could only be surmounted by the completion of the fourth symphony and by Bax's inspired recognition of the clearness with which that work directed his return to introspection during the next stage of his symphonic progress." (59)

Bax in his endeavours to follow Sibelian methods and develop his movements from a single germ is only partially successful: "his penchant for slow interlude - which could well be assimilated into such a scheme - produces a flawed movement, which although unified on paper, I have never heard satisfactorily realised in sound terms." (60) In passing it should be mentioned that Robert Hull has identified a self-quote in the slow movement (a theme from the slow movement of the First Symphony). Felix Aprahamian refers to an apparent quote from Debussy's Le Promenoir des deux Amants (61) although I do not consider the Debussy reference to be particularly significant.

Finally Bax deals as previously in the Second Symphony with the idea of "progressive tonality" (Nielsen): the first movement begins in E minor and ends in C sharp minor, the second movement is in B flat minor, the final movement begins in C sharp minor and ends after multiple references onto E minor in D flat major. (62)


Bax wrote his Sixth Symphony in 1934. It was at first dedicated to Karol Szymanowski, then to Adrian Boult. This time, unlike the four-note-theme in the First Symphony, it is a six-note-theme that gives the first movement its cohesion, sustained throughout the many kaleidoscopic mood changes:-

The movement is clearly structured as a sonata first movement, and it is "full of dramatic urgency (the more peaceful second subject forming a brief respite)". (63) To this the slow movement, "full of romantic nostalgia, ending with a curious slow march-like section (Andante con moto) in 6/8 time" (64), offers a clear contrast.

The final movement, paralleling the Seventh Symphony, follows a specially devised form: "Introduction-scherzo and trio-Epilogue." Once again a six-note-group sets up the central theme of the movement.

The Introduction leads into a lively, forceful scherzo with trio followed by an "Epilogue of grave, wistful beauty." (65), that emulates that of the Third Symphony. This movement structure is a natural vehicle for Bax's contrasting 'episodes'. Certainly this conception is one of the most successful formally that Bax created in his symphonies. A quotation from Tapiola has been identified in this movement. (66) There are also parallels with the much earlier cantata Enchanted Summer (67) but these are relatively unimportant.

Kaikhosru Sorabji described the work as "in all respects the most mature and powerful work of Bax that I have ever heard (…). It is at once eloquent, reserved, rich, and sumptuous, yet austere and has a finer sense of form than I ever remember to have encountered anywhere else in Bax's work, with the exception of the first version of the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra. I know of no other contemporary composer who has a richer, more diversified nor more subtle harmonic sense than Bax. That tendency to a kind of slack diffuseness (...) that at one time was apt to mar Bax's work is certainly not here. The whole work marches irresistibly and irrevocably from point to point with the inevitability of complete mastery." (68)

His sometimes "veiled and shadowy" (69) harmony is basically a sign of the times rather than being directly attributable to Sibelius' influence.

"(...) in the final climax of the Sixth Symphony, we see the climax of Bax's whole work, "The passing of worlds" Peter J. Pirie has written about this passage; it was more than that for Bax, whose vision was finally realised in this last climax and epilogue. Bax's creative spark was beginning to fail, as he wrote to Vaughan Williams in 1935 - one of an increasing number of such letters to his friends in the ensuing years: 'I am derelict in the doldrums just now and cannot get down to anything.' (70)" (71)


After he had completed the orchestration of the Violin Concerto, Bax began his Seventh (and final) Symphony (1938-39). Many years before, in Tintagel, he had employed a Tristan-quote. In the first movement of this last symphony he again used a quote from that source. This has prompted Lewis Foreman to comment that the movement might reflect "a seascape, perhaps more successful than that in the Fourth Symphony." (72) This contention however does not seem convincing to the author. The rather complex organisation of the movements draws comment. David Cox has remarked on its loose formal structure: "The first movement, although there are two main themes, is so elaborated with subsidiary material, lyrical and dramatic, that formally it comes near to suggesting free fantasy." (73)

Lewis Foreman however states that: "It was in a strange mood of nostalgia mixed with objective detachment that he came to the Seventh Symphony. (...) The Seventh is technically the most secure of Bax's symphonies, and at the same time the most relaxed: the summation of the two main streams of his creative life, the symphonic poem and the symphony, at least as far as orchestral music is concerned." (74)

The second movement, entitled 'In legendary mood', suggests Nordic legends and, for Foreman, a certain "nostalgia". (75) The final movement takes variation-form unique among Bax's symphonies through the ostinato-like theme. The symphony ends in the calmest epilogue Bax has ever composed, "ending the whole symphonic cycle on a note of profound peace and acceptance." (76)


It is his harmonic and orchestral qualities that stand pre-eminent in Bax's symphonies. Formal aspects are, in many cases, of subsidiary importance. (77) Bax's symphonies contain numerous impressive and imaginative moments but only in some of the symphonies do form and content make a true and equal partnership. Jürgen Schaarwächter 1997




1 Cf. Edward Dent: Arnold Bax, in: The Nation and The Athenæum XXXII/8, London 1922, p. 328-330.
2 William Austin: Music in the 20th Century from Debussy through Stravinsky, London 1966, p. 427-428.
3 Eric Blom: Music in England, Harmondsworth/New York 1945, p. 204.
4 Frank Howes: Full Orchestra, London, 1943, p. 112-113.
5 Gordon Jacob: The Composer and his Art, London etc. 1955, p. 92.
6 e.g. the first theme of the slow movement in the Fourth Symphony.
7 Above all in the Second Symphony.
8 Cf. Gwilym Beechey: The Legacy of Bax, in: MO CVI/1271, Bournemouth 1983, p. 359.
9 The first subjects of the slow movements in Nos. 3 and 5 respectively.
10 The opening bars of No. 5; also the main subject (with oboe) in the epilogue to No. 3.
11 The second subject of the slow movement in No. 5.
12 The slow movement of No. 1 furnishes, when studied in its entirety, illustrations of a particularly comprehensive kind. The above examples are no more than representative of innumerable passages showing equally or even more remarkably characteristic handling of these instruments.
13 Robin Hull: Approach to Bax's symphonies, in: M&L XXIII, London 1942, p. 104-105.


14 Bax's 1916 concert note, quoted in part in Foreman 1987, 109.
15 Granville Bantock followed this practice in his choral symphony Atalanta in Calydon.
16 Later joined by Bax with the first part, to make the five sections four.
17 Foreman 1987, 109.


18 Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield, 1987, p. 191.
19 Edward Dent: Looking backward, in: Music Today, I, London 1949, p. 7-8.
20 Cf. Foreman, ibid., p. 191-192.
21 Havergal Brian: The first Symphony of Arnold Bax. 1922, in Malcolm MacDonald (ed.): Havergal Brian on Music. Selections from his Journalism. Volume I: British Music, London 1986, p. 233-240.
22 C.: Arnold Bax's Symphony, in: MT LXV, London/New York 1924, p. 167-168.
23 Colin Scott-Sutherland: Arnold Bax, London 1973, p. 116-118 and 122.
24 Christopher Palmer: Herbert Howells - A Centenary Celebration, London 1992, p. 351.
25 "Cadwal": Exploration, But No "Stunts". John Ireland's Views on The Modern Trend, in: MM III/12, London 1923, p. 363.
26 Havergal Brian: The first Symphony of Arnold Bax, in Malcolm MacDonald (ed.): Havergal Brian on Music I, London 1986, p. 235.


27 Gwilym Beechey: The Legacy of Bax, in: MO CVI/1271, Bournemouth 1983, p. 359.
28 Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield, 1987, p. 217.
29 Harriet Cohen: A Bundle of Time, London 1969, p. 37.
30 Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield, 1987, p. 207.
31 Arnold Bax to Philip Hale, 22.11.1922.
32 Josef Holbrooke: Contemporary British Composers, London 1925, p. 56.
33 Edwin Evans: The Bax Symphonies, in: The Listener XXIX/720, London 1942, p. 573.
34 Eric Blom: Arnold Bax - Symphony No. 2, in: The Music Teacher X/4, London 1931, p. 195.


35 Cf. Foreman, ibid., p. 242.
36 Bernard Shore: Sixteen Symphonies, London etc. 1949, p. 351.
37 Arnold Bax: Farewell, My Youth and other writings, edited by Lewis Foreman, Aldershot/Brookfield 1992, p. 10.
38 Robert Hull: A Handbook on Arnold Bax's Symphonies, London 1932, p. 33.
39 Burnett James: Unpublished Essay on Bax. Quoted from Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield, 1987, p. 243.
40 Bernard Shore: Sixteen symphonies. London etc. in 1949, p. 350.
41 Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield 1987, p. 245.
42 Gwilym Beechey: The Legacy of Bax, in: MO CVI/1271, Bournemouth 1983, p. 359.
43 The London Symphony, although in four movements, has an epilogue. The kinship between Bax and Vaughan Williams at that time confirms the assumption that Vaughan Williams became in some ways the model for Bax.
44 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Arnold Bax (1883-1953), in Vaughan Williams: National Music and other essays, Oxford etc. 1986, p. 243-244.
45 Harriet Cohen: A Bundle of Time, London 1969, p. 216. Later the quotation was deleted.

46 Geoffrey Self: The music of E. J. Moeran, London 1986, p. 140f.


47 Cohen, ibid., p. 182.
48 Cohen, ibid., p. 182.
49 Watson Lyle: A musician of the North (Arnold Bax), in: The Bookman LXXXI/485, London 1932, p. 268.


50 Julian Herbage: Sir Arnold Bax, b. 1883, in Alfred Louis Bacharach (ed.): British Music of Our Time. Harmondsworth/New York 1946, p. 123.
51 Anthony Payne: Problems of a Lyric Composer, in: M&M 13/5, London 1965, p. 17.
52 Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield, 1987, p. 268-271.
53 Robert Hull: Bax's Fourth Symphony, in: The Spectator, London 9. 12. 1932, p. 827.
54 Robert Hull: Arnold Bax: Shorter Orchestral Works, in: MM new series I/7, London 1933, p. 203.,
55 William Walton to Hubert Foss, 5.12.1932. Quoted from Michael Kennedy: Portrait of Walton, Oxford etc. 1990, p. 70.


56 Harriet Cohen: A Bundle of Time, London 1969, p. 65.
57 Lewis Foreman: Bax, the Symphony and Sibelius, in: MO 93/1109, Luton 1970, p. 246.
58 Burnett James to Lewis Foreman. Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield, 1987, p. 281.
59 Robert Hull: Arnold Bax's Fifth Symphony, in: MMR LXIV/753, London 1934, p. 7; reprinted in: Bax Society Bulletin 4, London 1969, p. 61-62.
60 Lewis Foreman: Bax, the Symphony and Sibelius, in: MO 93/1109, Luton 1970, p. 245.
61 Cf. Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield 21987, p. 137.)
62 Cf. Gwilym Beechey: The Legacy of Bax, in: MO CVI/1271, Bournemouth 1983, p. 359.


63 David Cox: Arnold Bax (1883-1953), in Robert Simpson (ed.): The Symphony, Vol. II, Harmondsworth etc. 1967, p. 163.
64 Cox, ibid., p. 163.
65 David Cox: Arnold Bax (1883-1953), in Robert Simpson (ed.): The Symphony, Vol. II, Harmondsworth etc. 1967, p. 164.
66 Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield 21987, p. 278 and 301. 67 Foreman, ibid., p. 80.
68 Kaikhosru Sorabji: Music, in: NEW VIII, London 12. 12. 1935, p. 174.
69 Robert Hull: Arnold Bax's Sixth Symphony, in: MO 59/698, London 1935, p. 116.
70 Arnold Bax to Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1935. Quoted from Michael Kennedy: The Works of Vaughan Williams, Oxford etc. 1992, p. 248.
71 Lewis Foreman: Bax, the Symphony and Sibelius, in: MO 93/1109, Luton 1970, p. 246.


72 Lewis Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times. Aldershot/Brookfield 1987, p. 316.
73 Cf. Cox: Arnold Bax (1883-1953), in Robert Simpson (ed.): The Symphony, Vol. II, Harmondsworth etc. 1967, p. 164:
74 Foreman, ibid., p. 315-316.
75 Foreman, ibid., p. 315.
76 Foreman, ibid., p. 315.


77 Despite several conversations with Herr Schlüren, the author cannot share Herr Schlüren's praise (review of Schaarwächter, Die britische Sinfonie 1914-1945, in: Fono Forum 6/97, Unterschleißheim 1997, p. 26.) for Bax's feeling for form. The Symphony No. 4 is particularly weak in this respect.

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