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The Unwritten Operas of Arnold Bax
by Graham Parlett


Last Modified May 18, 1997

Note: Musicologist Graham Parlett is one of the most noted authorities on Arnold Bax's music. His orchestrations from piano sketches of Bax's tonepoems On the Seashore and May Night in the Ukraine have been recorded by Vernon Handley and Bryden Thomson for Chandos. He has written extensively on Bax and is in the process of preparing a complete catalog of Bax's music. This article on Bax's involvement with opera first appeared in the British Music Society Newsletter. I greatly appreciate Graham for allowing me to post it here.

In the autumn of 1922 Rutland Boughton's music-drama The Immortal Hour received its first fully professional London performance, and Bax subsequently wrote a letter to Boughton in which he referred to the work as undoubtedly the best opera written by an English composer. Many years later, in his radio talk of 1949, he singled out Benjamin Britten, with reference to Peter Grimes, as the only English composer who has ever shown a brilliant theatrical flair. In the case of Boughton's work it is likely that part of the attraction lay in the Celtic subject matter, the libretto being adapted from Fiona Macleod , whose poetry attracted Bax to a considerable degree, judging from the number of settings he made of it; and similarly the dominant role played in Peter Grimes by the sea, which entered very conspicuously (as Bax expressed it ) into his own music, doubtless heightened his appreciation of the dramatic qualities of Britten's work. Bax's own dramatic leanings were channeled mainly into semi-programmatic tone poems and absolute music (the symphonies especially), while opera, despite his enthusiasm for the music-dramas of Wagner, seems never to have presented itself as a natural means of expression. He considered himself to have no particular gift for the genre nor any technical theories about it, and on the whole (Boughton and Britten notwithstanding) he thought that it was unsuited to the English as a nation. (By this he perhaps meant that it was too emotional or extrovert an art form for the stereotypical English temperament.) Nevertheless, partly under the sway of his Wagner hero-worship ( an endearing trait in the young) Bax had attempted on at least two occasions to write an opera of his own. In 1907 Yeats published a three-act play based on the story of Deirdre. This tale, which is first found in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster, bears a close resemblance to that of Diarmid and Grinne and is probably the progenitor of the Tristan legend. It also provided the basis for plays by AE and J.M. Synge and the inspiration for poems by several Irish writers including Bax's own alter-ego, Dermot O Byrne, as well as for operas by Cecil Gray and others and a symphony by Havergal Brian (his sixth). Bax would undoubtedly have been familiar with Russell's play and with Lady Gregory's version of the story, which furnished Synge with the material for his play (published posthumously in 1910). Furthermore, he had been deeply impressed by the originality of Strauss' Salome, which he had seen in Dresden in the spring of 1906; in fact he had spent much of his time in the Saxon capital sampling the delights (and the longueurs) of the operatic repertoire. The combined efforts of Yeats and Deirdre on the one hand and of Wagner and Strauss on the other proved irresistible, and Bax set about writing a five-act, blank verse play of his own with the intention of turning it into an opera.

A typescript copy of the play (107 pages plus two pages of notes) came to light in 1977, having formerly been in the possession of the composer's son, Dermot. The full title is DEIRDRE. A Saga-drama in Five Scenes and a Prologue, and it is dated at the end of the foreword: Glencolumcille, Co. Donegal, Nov. 18th 1907. Shortly after starting on the music, however, Bax's interest in the project began to wane and it was finally abandoned. All that remain are three manuscripts now in the Boole Library, University College Cork. They are in short score with notes for orchestration and are undated, though the handwriting is consistent with their having been composed in 1908. This is confirmed in a letter which Bax wrote to his current girl-friend, Mary Field, in that same year (though the precise date is unknown): "At present I am in my usual condition in that I have too much work on hand, all of which is clamouring to be accomplished! As it is I am concentrating on the Deirdre music by main force."

The first manuscript consists of five pages and bears the title "Eir " [sic] Prologue. However, the word Eir has clearly been written over the top of something else which has been scratched out with a pocket knife. It seems almost certain that the erased word is Deirdre, since above the antepenultimate bar of the score is written the direction "Curtain rises" suggesting that the music was originally intended as the Prologue to the opera. In the end, after abandoning D irdre, the short score was orchestrated as Into the Twilight, the Prologue to the Eire trilogy of tone poems. The second manuscript, comprising three pages, is marked Adagio and is headed Deirdre | Cuid 5. The Irish Gaelic word cuid means a section or part, and since the work was intended to be in five acts, it is clear that the music was written as the prelude to Scene V, which in the libretto is entitled On the Sea-shore. The setting is described as follows: Dawn on a desolate strand. A cold hard light pervades the scene. The sound of the sea, a soft monotonous surge is heard. An old fisherman is mending an oar with a bright knife. As he works he croons a song under his breath. DEIRDRE enters slowly. She is clad entirely in black and her dark hair is loosened. Her great grey eyes glow like enormous jewels in her deathly pale face. The old man has his back turned towards her, and is not conscious of her presence. At the climax of the brief opening paragraph one can imagine the curtain rising on the baleful scene which Bax describes. Then comes the soft monotonous surge of the sea as the music huskily undulates: a sullen seascape far removed from the exhilarating tang of Tintagel or the gently lapping waves in The Garden of Fand. The old fisherman's song is perhaps suggested rather than depicted literally by the expressive oboe melody which is heard above the swell and touches all but one of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. After a climax which is suddenly cut short, a new theme, marked lontano, is heard which also appears in the Prologue to the projected opera and is surely intended as Deirdre's motif as she slowly enters unobserved by the fisherman. Finally the sound of the cold, grey sea returns and the music dies bleakly away. The third manuscript consists of six pages of piano score and is headed Deirdre Scene II The Gathering of the Chiefs. The piece is in simple ternary form, with an introduction and a faster coda, and was intended as a march accompanying the arrival of King Conchobar and his retinue at a feast during scene II: The sound of distant horns is heard, heralding the approaching company....A barbaric march tune is heard, and the heroes and nobles of the Red Branch [i.e. the Craobh ruadh, the king's warriors, the fiercest in Ireland] enter in procession. With them come a number of bards with beautifully carven harps, trumpet players with great curved instruments fashioned of bronze with decorated mouthpieces, tympan-players, ollavs (the administrators of law), druids and other dignitaries.

Loath to waste the material he had sketched for Deirdre, Bax orchestrated this score as Rosc-catha ( Battle Hymn ), the third part of the Eire trilogy. Only minor alterations were necessary to transform the operatic sketch into a symphonic poem. The opening off-stage fanfares Horns and trumpets (without) are preceded by two introductory bars and are slightly extended, and the fifth bar of the principal march tune is improved by the addition of a Scotch snap, which effectively puts a musical sting into its tail, where originally it had petered out on a sextuplet. Apart from these small changes, however, the two pieces are identical. There is a further off-shoot from Deirdre to be found starting at bar 13 of The Well of Tears from the song cycle The Bard of the Dimbovitza (1914 settings of Romanian verse), where there appears to be a direct quotation of another theme from Into the Twilight (the one beginning at bar 40). The title of this song inevitably brings to mind the fact that Deirdre's most common epithet is sorrowful , and it is tempting to postulate that the melody was somehow associated in Bax's mind with the notion of sadness.

A few years after he had finally abandoned Deirdre, Bax embarked on another libretto for a projected opera to be called Red Owen, a folk comedy rather in the manner of J.M. Synge based on the Irish tale The Twisting of the Rope. Sketches for the beginning of Act II of the play can be found written upside down on the reverse of folios in a black notebook on the obverse of which there is an unpublished story called The Horseman. This is undated but previous pages in the notebook evidently once contained another story, The Sisters, which was written in St Petersburg in April-May 1910; it has been torn out, presumably for publication in 1912, but the title page is extant. The play itself was completed and published in 1919 by the Talbot Press, Dublin. It concerns the itinerant, picaresque poet Red Owen Hanrahan, who in the first act gate-crashes a party and is finally ejected by means of a ruse whereby he is invited to help with the twisting of a hempen rope and manoeuvred in such a way that while he is occupied with this task he is unwittingly backed out through the open door, which is then bolted against him. During the course of the play Bax provided himself with ample opportunity for musical participation. In the opening scene a reel called Silvermines (the name of a place in Tipperary) is played by a fiddler, who is interrupted by the entrance of Red Owen carrying a harp slung over his shoulder (p.7). A little later (p.22) Owen half declaims, half sings a song as he is slowly and unwittingly removed from the scene. In the second act he sings the folk song Casadh an tS g in ( Twisting of the Rope ) in counterpoint with the dance music inside the house (p.26ff), and shortly afterwards (pp.35ff) there is a fever-dream, which would have provided an opportunity for some Straussian Fiebertrumerisch Musik. Finally, in the third act, the shade of Oisin appears and at one point (p.46) chants his lines; and when he has at last disappeared a strange music is heard (p.49) and a wild solemn dance takes place before Red Owen eventually expires.

Until recently there was no evidence to show that Bax wrote any music for Red Owen, but there are some sketches in private ownership which may well include brief passages intended for the projected opera. The first page contains a sketch for the last ten bars of the third movement of the Second Violin Sonata and can thus be dated roughly to the summer of 1915. This is followed by a three-line fragment in 6/8 time headed In a Donegal Kitchen; then a variant in, with another in 2/4 at the foot of the page. (Between the last two variants there is a thematically unrelated three-bar fragment.) The second page contains a single line marked senza tempo which is clearly intended to represent a violin tuning up (Ex. 1 above) followed by an extended (but incomplete) 32-bar jig version of the previous reel-like material on six two-staff systems (Ex.2 below - Only the melodic line is shown here. There are no phrase marks in the original).

(On another page there are seventeen bars of a lyrical variant of the tune.) The assigning of these sketches to Red Owen is based on two pieces of evidence: the title In a Donegal Kitchen is similar to the setting of the play, which in the 1919 publication is described as a kitchen in western Connemara (the location may have been changed between its composition and its publication); and the suggestion of a fiddle being tuned leading to an Irish dance is in accord with the stage instruction on p.7 of the play, in which a fiddler tunes his instrument and launches into the reel Silvermines. It has not yet been possible to ascertain whether the jig is a genuine Irish folktune or was composed by Bax; perhaps a reader of this website might be able to throw some light on the matter. Two more folios also contain pencil sketches which may have some connection with Red Owen. The first has seven two-staff systems including a waltz-like melody which was later used in Karissima's Dance of Joy from The Truth about the Russian Dancers (1920). The verso of folio 1 has a continuation with eight systems, and at one point the words whooping and laughter appear above the staff, suggesting a scene of revelry in a dramatic context. Since there is no extant dramatic episode by Bax other than Act I of Red Owen in which such a scene occurs, it is tempting to associate this sketch also with the projected opera.

There are two other extant plays by Bax, both in one act. The first is called On the Hill and was published in The Irish Review for February 1913 (pp.648-63). The other, which only survives in a twenty-six page typescript copy, is The Grey Swan, dated 29 April 1919. But there is no evidence that he ever considered turning either of these into an opera. Harriet Cohen mentions in her autobiography that at a much later date he was persuaded to contemplate the possibility of writing such a work; and the late Christopher Whelen told me that the composer once considered adapting one of Clifford Bax's plays to this purpose; but nothing ever came of these projects. Why, then, did Bax fail to come to serious grips with the task of writing an opera?

We have seen that in his radio talk of 1949 he had observed that the medium was unsuited to the English [not British ] as a nation, and for this reason it is significant that the two libretti which he completed were firmly entrenched in Celtic lore and written in the Anglo-Irish dialect. Perhaps a more basic reason was connected with Bax's feelings about setting words to music. He held that verse has its own intrinsic rhythm and melody and that at its highest should be reverently let alone, an opinion apparently shared by Yeats himself, who once told John Foulds that none of the composers who had set his poetry to music had been able to enhance it but that in every case.... the effect of the songs was appreciably less than would have been the case had the poems been beautifully declaimed without music. As an example of his reservations, Bax went on to explain that he had always refrained from setting to music any of Yeats verse, which he regarded with deep reverence: His poetry has always meant more to me than all the music of the centuries. All the days of my life I bless his name. As for his own literary efforts, Bax admitted that after he had written Deirdre and Red Owen neither of them seemed to call for music. It is surely not without significance too that of his 120 or more songs only three can be ascribed to the last twenty-one years of his life, while the majority were written before the mid-1920s. But apart from Bax 's increasing dislike of tampering with poetry and trying to associate it with another art (as he put it), there may well be another, less tangible reason for his failure to complete an opera.

The answer seems to be hinted at in a remark which he once made to Richard Walker about a theme in Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony: It goes on too long and becomes boring. Walker suggests that this comment reflected Bax's attitude not only to music but to life itself, and there are certainly many other examples of his impatience with things that go on too long and induce boredom which tend to corroborate this view. In his autobiography, Bax sarcastically complained of the heavenly length of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony and, although professing some interest in his music, considered Mahler long-winded. He proposed the hypothesis that the English actually enjoy boredom and derive some kind of spiritual, self-righteous satisfaction from sitting through four Brandenburg Concertos without an anesthetic. He expressed relief that an hour-long symphony he was engaged on in 1907 was never completed. Asked by Clifford Bax which operas they thought most likely to endure, he and Holst named seven works of which six are comic (and by inference easier to sit through); and as for the seventh, Tristan und Isolde, we have Patrick Hadley's testimony that Bax used to play through this work on the piano at well-nigh supersonic speed, while a fairly fast-moving performance at the opera house irritated him throughout because of its sluggish pace. He applauded Henry Wood's decision to omit the repeats in standard classical symphonies. Finally we have the evidence of Bax's own large-scale works, only a few of which take longer than forty minutes or so to perform. (The unorchestrated ballet Tamara is by far the longest at about two hours.) Asked to explain his extraordinary facility at sight-reading, Bax once told someone that he had always been able to see things very quickly, and asking for a handful of stones to be thrown into the air was able in a flash to call out the correct number. Many writers have alluded to this unusual mental agility, which may well be the reason for his tendency to become easily bored. It may also account for the avoidance of exact repetition in his music and a fondness for subjecting his material to a wide variety of moods often within a relatively short space of time, so that (as Vernon Handley has pointed out) both performers and audiences are apt to go into a new section with an emotional hangover from the previous passage. All this leads one to the conclusion that Bax's disinclination to complete an opera is due to the fact that they tend to be protracted affairs and as such were unsuited to the composer's restless temperament. But even this does not explain why he never produced an opera along the lines of The Wandering Scholar or Riders to the Sea, and we must conclude that his lack of success in this field was due to a combination of the factors outlined above.

As a postscript to this brief review of Bax's operatic aspirations, attention should be drawn to an article which his brother Clifford wrote for a British Music number of The Radio Times (issue dated 5 January 1934, p.11). It was called The British Composer in the Theatre, and in the opening paragraph the dramatist expressed his opinion of English opera unequivocally: "Let us put aside Grand Opera, for although there are people in this country who relish it, most of us find it insufferably tedious; and our composers, knowing that no English opera is likely to be performed anywhere, are seldom willing to spend two years in the creation of an unwanted work. It is not that we are unmusical but, rather, that we have more sense of literature than of any other art; and to this we might add that most Englishmen like to experience their music and their drama separately....we do not care for opera nearly as much as we care for drama."

Clifford Bax went on to discuss the revival of ballad operas, for which he himself had written several libretti and for which he maintained that the English have a distinct flair. This infuriated Eugene Goossens, who wrote an indignant letter, published in The Radio Times for 23 February 1934 (p.539): "Since when has the erudite brother of one of our most eminent composers become so pompously derisive on the subject of opera ?" He poured scorn on Clifford Bax's championship of ballad opera ( that fragile art-form ) and suggested that the true spirit of opera comique should be revived in its stead. He concluded: "Can it be possible (perish the thought!) that it is due to your baneful influence that your illustrious brother has so far rigorously abstained from enriching the operatic literature of this country? If such be the case, I must immediately pen an open letter to Arnold himself and thus attempt to remedy an intolerable situation."

I am grateful to Colin Scott-Sutherland for kindly supplying me with photocopies of some of the manuscripts described in this article and for his encouragement.

This text is copyrighted by Graham Parlett

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