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'A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax'              

by Graham Parlett.


Last Modified May 9, 1999

Published by Oxford University Press
(Clarendon Press) 11.3.99 412 pp. ISBN  0 816586 - 2 £ 60.00

Reviewed by
Colin Scott-Sutherland

Dr Parlett here enters the lists with Köchel, Kirkpatrick and Robbins Landon with this scholarly production, listing some 386 compositions  - complete not only with details of scoring, dates of composition and  performance, duration, dedicatee(s), whereabouts of manuscripts and  publication, but also accounts of the score paper used. In addition there are readable and informative notes which, unlike many academic treatises brimming with such information, are tempered with an in-sight born of years of study into the human subject. These make the whole volume an engrossing read - a history of a man’s acheivement.

The listings of the music (in chronological order,) occupy some 250 pages - the remainder cataloguing Bax’s own literary work as ‘Dermot O’Byrne’ -which is considerable- a discography, bibliography and several useful indices, all prefaced by a thoughtful - even thought-provoking - introduction. There follow ten pages of preliminary notes providing a guide to the layout which, given the extent and nature of Bax’s output could easily have become a maze. The book is handsomely produced, the cover with a strong portrait of the sixty-year-old composer by Howard Coster and, despite the price, worth every penny and indispensable not only to those who wish to study the music, but in particular to those who are sensitive to the uniquely phantasmagoric world of Bax.

Dr Parlett produced the first comprehensive listing of Bax’s music (for Triad Press in 1972). In that pioneering, but necessarily tentative work he had the acuity of vision to remark: ‘Barely half of [Bax’s] vast output actually reached publication and it would be defensible to argue that a certain amount of his finished work rewards students of the man and his style rather than the catholic music lover.’  This earlier list covers, in titles only, some 350 compositions - and while the additional items now added to the catalogue are, in the main, early songs and incomplete (but nonetheless significant) sketches, it demonstrates the depth of Dr Parlett’s original exploration into this rich musical world. The amount of detail now provided against each work is fascinating, but also invaluable for those contemplating performance, as the extensive filling out of the perspective with many pertinent observations by writers, musicians and by the composer himself, gives body and colour to the mere academic record of facts.

Dr Parlett manages also to disperse some of the long-held and still current myths about Bax - that he was only a purveyor of Celtic escapism: that he wrote nothing after becoming Master of the Royal music (some forty works listed including the enchanting ‘Morning Song’, the Concertante for three solo instruments, and the Concertante for piano (LH), as well as two time consuming film scores) - and that popular acclaim, or the lack of it, is no criterion of stature (heaven knows how true that is in our present age!) One has to remember that many of the recordings now available are of comparatively recent date and preconceptions based on ignorance of much of Bax’s output are hard even yet to dispel. Dr Parlett is careful to add "the only opinions expressed about individual scores will be found in quotations from other writers" many of whom must be considered authoritative. There is however one in-stance in which I would take serious issue with him - he writes, in the introduction, ‘it cannot be denied that Bax was an uneven composer whose output includes moments of disconcerting banality (my italics), as well as pages of tremendous power and beauty.’ There are, in my humble opinion, no passages that merit such treatment - an over-harsh judgment even of ‘the insipid Mediterranean’ or of that tamest of scores, the Variations on the name Faure. It is not even possible fairly to categorise thus ‘prentice compositions in which Bax so often showed the considerable powers of an unusual imagination -often undisciplined, it is true - which Clifford, his brother,described so aptly as: ‘Music fierce as fire, or hazed with unrelinquished Adolescent dreams of more than life can give.’ (1)  Any music of Bax that might be considered unimpressive will be found only in works of very late date when in Bax, as he himself confessed, the fire of inspiration had dimmed and he had retired, by choice, ‘like a grocer’ - from which occasionally importunity dragged him. But from roughly age thirty to age fifty he wrote music that, far from being mere additions to the repertoire of the concert hall, were an exploration into those spiritual realms that are the last great human experience. (2)  As he himself wrote ‘I am absolutely certain that the only music that can last is that which is the outcome of one’s emotional reactions to the ultimate realities of Life, Love and Death (all damned romantic but, I believe, true.)’ (3)  For that alone he will survive the fickle fortunes of the distraught world of today.

The question of Bax’s future position in the canon of British music - or indeed on any wider canvas - which Dr Parlett raises, but leaves more or less unanswered (rightly so) is beyond the scope of a volume such as this. We cannot with any conviction determine whether the work of any artist will last in these tumultuous days where values are quickly debased in the clamour of popular fashion. Suffice it to say that, should such as Bax not survive, then neither will Beethoven, nor indeed any of the pantheon of those ‘greats’ whose place in history has apparently been assured. Arnold Bax experienced, in his art, things that it has been given to few to encounter. ‘For Bax, the romantic experience -’within us the desire becomes an agony to live for a single hour with all the might of the imagination, to drown- our beings in the proud sunlit tumult of one instant of utter realisation even though it consume us utterly ‘flooded that forlorn twilight with a brilliantly clear light. And in that light we too can look - even momentarily - upon that pris-tine world’. (4)

(1) Farewell My Muse Clifford Bax Lovat Dickson 1932 p 50
(2) one of the finest appraisals of Bax’s work was written by L Henderson Williams in ‘The Sackbut’ for March 1931.
(3) Bax, quoted by Arthur Benjamin Music & Letters January 1954 Vol 35/1 p.3
(4) ‘Arnold Bax’ Colin Scott-Sutherland Dent 1973 p 192.

© Colin Scott-Sutherland.

Reviewed by
Richard R. Adams

In Graham Parlett's magnificent new catalogue of Sir Arnold Bax's works, he questions whether a composer's importance can in some ways be determined by the number of publications devoted to that composer.  Using that criteria, he says Benjamin Britten would  be considered a more important composer than Arnold Bax.  Few would doubt that the greater composer will likely inspire the better research and therefore generate the superior publication. So while the number of publications devoted to Bax may be relatively small, the quality of what does exist -- the two biographies, the collection of letters and this brilliant new catalogue -- is unusually high. This fact alone seems to suggest that Bax's music is remarkable enough to have inspired such comprehensive and superior publications.

Surely Graham Parlett's new catalogue is a model of its kind.   I think of catalogues as dry, academic texts filled with dates, references and lists but containing little actual meat to make for an interesting read.  That is adamantly not the case with this new catalogue which begins with Parlett's own very perceptive essay on Bax's place amongst his contemporaries.  It is here that Parlett repeats the often-made assertion, challenged by Colin Scott-Sutherland in his review above, that Bax's output is uneven.  Both of these eminent Baxians are correct in my opinion  With the exception of Tintagel,  few of Bax's scores being programmed by today's conductors show him at anything close to his most inspired.  It doesn't help Bax's reputation that the public continues to hear his  lighter works such as Mediterranean, The Happy Forest and Overture to a Picaresque Comedy and nothing else. Of course these works are delightful in their own right but they give almost no indication of  Bax's unique qualities as a composer.  For those you need to go to his symphonies, concertante works, chamber music and the more searching tone poems where his inclination for haunting melodies, complex harmony, tight structure and brilliant orchestration are more evident.

This catalogue has been in the making for nearly 30 years and the results of such comprehensive research are evident throughout.  Each known work by Bax is listed in chronological order starting with Butterflies all White, a work for voice and piano from 1896, and ending with What is it Like to be Young and Fair, a work for unaccompanied chorus from 1953.  For each work listed, we are provided with  the date of composition, dedication, first performance, alternate arrangements, duration, text sources and facts about the availability, location and type of print of  the manuscript.  This latter information will be particularly useful for musicians and scholars wishing to locate scores for performance and study.  I also found fascinating the details on earlier versions of some of Bax's scores such as Christmas Eve in the Mountains and Festival Overture. Almost every work includes a comprehensive note by Parlett on the historical aspects of that work and it is these notes which makes the catalogue so enjoyable to read.   It helps that Parlett's writing style is concise, clear and objective.

In addition to the list of works, the catalogue also includes a classified index of music, a concordance of manuscripts, a list of recordings, an index of poets, an index of dedicates, unfulfilled projects and commissions, literary works and occasional writings and an appendix on photographs, portraits, personalia  (including a listing of all of Bax's addresses).   The index is well organized and very thorough.  There is an unbelievable wealth of information provided and I suspect this is a book I will turn to often, either to browse for pleasure or when in search of an answer to a question about a Bax work.  This catalogue advances Bax studies considerably and Oxford University Press is to be thanked for producing such a beautifully produced and engrossing work.

© Richard R. Adams