Symphonists - Arnold Bax
by Jürgen Schaarwächter ..CONTINUED
ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE
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.
SYMPHONY NO. 5
"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
"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
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
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)
SYMPHONY NO. 6
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)
SYMPHONY NO. 7
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
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
FOOTNOTES: THE BAX SYMPHONIES
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
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
17 Foreman 1987, 109.
SYMPHONY NO. 1
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,
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.
23 Colin Scott-Sutherland: Arnold Bax, London 1973, p. 116-118 and
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.
26 Havergal Brian: The first Symphony of Arnold Bax, in Malcolm
MacDonald (ed.): Havergal Brian on Music I, London 1986, p. 235.
SYMPHONY NO. 2
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.
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.
SYMPHONY NO. 3
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,
39 Burnett James: Unpublished Essay on Bax. Quoted from Lewis
Foreman: Bax. A composer and his times, Aldershot/Brookfield, 1987,
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
44 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Arnold Bax (1883-1953), in Vaughan
Williams: National Music and other essays, Oxford etc. 1986, p.
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.
SYMPHONY NO. 4
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.
SYMPHONY NO. 5
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.
SYMPHONY NO. 6
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.
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.
SYMPHONY NO. 7
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.