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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


ARNOLD BAX - déja vu? a composer’s musings by Arthur Butterworth
PROLOGUE




As a small boy at Junior school, the high-light of the week was the last lesson on Friday afternoons, when we would have stories read to us by our young lady teacher, whom we all loved and idolised, for she was very attractive, even to a young boy of nine or ten. These romantic tales of Vikings, ancient legends of the northlands, of heroic deeds in the far west, of the Celtic twilight, tales of King Arthur, Tintagel, galleons under full sail dipping into a deep red sunset, tantalised and captivated my imagination. Trudging home from school on November afternoons, watching the clouds gather in the late afternoon dusk, and the vivid impression of the tales we had been told, stirred something deep and unfathomable within me .

Some little time ago, a cousin of mine, clearing out a drawer of old family papers, came across a childish hand-painted Christmas card of the early 1930s. “Do you remember this, Arthur?” she said. It was something that I had made myself all those years ago. It depicted an ancient sailing ship sinking away into a rosy sunset and had the caption: “My thoughts are always far away.” We smiled at this, indulgently remembering the innocence of childhood imagination.

The summer of 1939 was memorable; anxious too, though perhaps as a sixteen year- old one did not realise it fully at the time. My mother had died some few years before, but my father took me on holiday to Devon. It was a devastating awakening: for I fell in love with a girl who was a year younger; that holiday remained one of the most vivid memories of a lifetime; a real Romeo and Juliet situation in its pure innocence. But within a few weeks the war had come and we were only ever to meet briefly once again. It left me with vague but tempestuously recurrent dreams of sea-scapes, and ecstatic meetings with my unattainable beloved in the far west.

Although as a youth I had occasionally seen in ‘ Radio Times’ the name of Arnold Bax; I could never remember ever having heard any of his music until one day after the war was long over and I had returned from the army to civilian life. It happened this way: I was a music student in Manchester and had entered the first of the then Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra’s conducting scholarships. The sight-reading test - for which we were allowed about quarter-of-an-hour to glance through the score - was Bax’s Tintagel. I did not win the scholarship, but the experience of conducting Tintagel at sight was a revelation. It was comparable to a similar experience I had had a year or so before whilst in a barrack room, one quiet, lazy afternoon whilst still in Germany, when through a crackly radio, I first heard Tapiola, a work which first brought me under the overwhelmingly powerful spell of Sibelius, and which, along with that of Bax, has influenced almost the whole course of my own music ever since; no matter how unfashionable that might have seemed in some musical circles during the past quarter-century or more. The sudden and unexpected acquaintance with Tintagel inevitably brought to mind the yearning dreams about the west country in the high summer of 1939, and my own awakening eroticism. I sought to find out more about Bax, so that it was hardly surprising when read of his boyhood experience one September sunset at Arundel, of being overwhelmed by the transitoriness of all lovely things.

My professional life began as an orchestral player in the then Scottish Orchestra (now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) in Glasgow. The geographical situation was important because it meant coming to live on the fringe of the Celtic domain so to speak. Much of my free time was spent exploring the far west and north west of & Scotland, and although at that time I had never been to Ireland, I was soon to do so. Reading some years later of Bax’s own youthful experience, especially the impulsive cherchez la femme incident in Russia, I felt a sense of déja vu, or at least a feeling that I too had had a somewhat parallel experience. It came about this way: in the Scottish Orchestra of that season, 1949-50, were lots of young people straight out of college; I was one of them, another was a young girl, a viola player from Ireland with whom I had a passionate, but tempestuous affair. We talked endlessly about Ireland, she bought me books about the far west, Galway, Achill Island and other places, and generally infused in me a romantic notion about going to live there. When the winter season was over (the orchestra was not then a full-time, all year engagement as it now is) she cajoled me to visit her family home near Dublin. It was an ecstatic time, but ended, as did Bax’s visit to Russia a generation before, most unhappily and I returned home miserable and wretched. I began to see parallels, for we had even toyed with the idea of a visit to Morar! Inevitably the incidents of 1949-50 passed and I got on with being a professional orchestral player.

A few years later I left Scotland to join Barbirolli’s Hallé Orchestra, then at the height of its fame. It was at the Cheltenham Festival of 1957 that Barbirolli conducted and championed my own First Symphony. By this time I had been married to my Scots wife, Diana, to whom this First Symphony is dedicated. Its long genesis, although not completed until we were living in Manchester, had been the outcome of the years spent in Scotland. It was bemusing, yet undoubtedly gratifying, to read the review of its first performance, when writing in ‘The Times’, the distinguished critic, Desmond Shaw- Taylor commented:

"... a certain affinity with Sibelius comes as no surprise; parts of this symphony also suggest a kind of latter-day Bax ......"

Practical acquaintance with performing Bax, has, unfortunately, been limited, and this is one of the regrets of my professional life. By the late 1940s and early 1950s Bax’s music was not in vogue; post-war taste (like that of the very early 1920s) did not favour this kind of romanticism; the new Second Viennese School (detested by Bax) was quickly finding adherents among intellectuals, and with the sea-change of BBC music policy after 1959, "our" kind of music - the long tradition of English music - was held in some contempt by those in power. Apart from Tintagel and The Garden of Fand, I never took part as an orchestral player in any performance of Bax.

At the Edinburgh Festival of 1954, an American ballet company, for which the Scottish National Orchestra provided the accompaniment, performed a ballet they had entitled "Picnic at Tintagel", but oddly enough, the music used for this was actually The Garden of Fand. It was a most romantic Edwardian scene on stage with a most romantic, idyllic, sensuous aura; love-making among the sand dunes, jealousies, rivalries between elegant Edwardian gentlemen and swooning love-lorn ladies in gorgeous costumes, parasols, buckets and spades, hampers, bottles of champagne, and that wonderful whooping horns theme, orgasmic in the extreme.

My knowledge of Bax’ s music has grown steadily over the years in spite of opportunities either to take part in or just listen to live performances. One keen conductor, was George Weldon, who did Tintagel splendidly. Barbirolli of course championed Bax too, but by the late 1950s it seemed to be Weldon who, at least with the Hallé, did more Bax performances. I always regretted never having played Bax under Basil Cameron, whom I got to know very well, and who was reputed to have been a keen interpreter of Bax. It was also my regret never to have known Arnold Bax personally; I came onto the Hallé scene a little too late ever to have known him, but I do recall seeing, fleetingly at a Cheltenham Festival, the by- now-mature, but effusive, and elegant figure of Harriet Cohen, as she was pointed out to me by one of the older Hallé players. I do quite clearly recall my youth again in this respect: having frequently seen ravishing photographs of her in ‘Radio Times’ - and, at a distance - having fallen in love with her picture. Later on I began to be jealous of Bax in retrospect so to speak, when I began to realise what a relationship he had had with her!.

I cannot say by any means that present-day conductors play his music too slowly, A parallel might lie with Elgar in this respect: Elgar’s own recordings (crude by contemporary standards of recording techniques) always seem fast, and even a bit matter-of-fact, I think the explanation being that, first of all, in those days when they had to cram into a short four or four-and-a-half minutes as much as they could on a wax disc was apt to make performers anxious to get on with it, not to make self- indulgent rubatos. Secondly, composers, especially no-nonsense English composers of Elgar’s stamp, would not exploit their players by making too much fuss over ‘purple passages’ (unlike some continentals who these days drool over the more banal passages in Mahler). There is a feeling, conducting one’s own works, of being almost apologetic for having taken up the players’ time by being unduly self-indulgent; we feel a shade embarrassed at hearing our own effusions and want to get on with it. Maybe this is a good reason for letting someone else be the interpreter; a professional conductor who is not the composer, stands no nonsense from sometimes uncooperative or prosaic minded players, and makes them rehearse and makes them get things as carefully and minutely correct as possible, even if it does try their patience and take a minute or two longer, or require yet another recording take. So I do not think present day conductors play his music to slowly. Players as far as I can see like performing his music; it is always grateful to handle technically (unlike a lot of avant garde music which has its technical perversities from time to time, with not much to show for it, as an emotional experience, in the end). Of course individual taste cannot be accounted for, there must be some players who do not like it at all, just as there are some who detest Elgar (quite a lot did in the 1950s), or Brahms, or Mahler. Weldon certainly liked Bax, and said so; curiously I never heard Barbirolli say one thing or the other. He must have done so at one time since we know how often he had performed things in the more distant past. Although I knew Boult well - he did the premiere of my own Second Symphony - I never recall a single occasion when we had cause to mention Bax. Maurice Miles most certainly loved Bax; it was he who, as conductor of the now-defunct Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, chose Tintagel as the sight- reading test for the would-be apprentice conductors. I never met Leppard. Bryden Thomson, who did a lot of things of mine obviously felt great attraction towards Bax. One of the most vivid of all recollections however, is of an occasion when I was invited to a studio broadcast of Bax's First symphony by the BBC Scottish Orchestra under their long-standing conductor, Ian Whyte, a Scot of decidedly Celtic temperament who had little love for Sassenachs. This was the first time I had heard a Bax symphony most meticulously rehearsed and then broadcast live. Whyte was a good musician, but dour; inclined to pedantry and devoid of even the slightest whiff of the jet-setting showmanship of many of today’s conductors. This was a memorable performance indeed; totally convincing, probably on account of the dark, sullen atmosphere he created in the first two movements. This was the spark that ignited my own enthusiasm, and so the recollection of it has remained over more than forty years.

Bax’s brass writing is excellent and most rewarding to play; the puzzle was why he never composed anything for brass band; but the reason is probably a sociological one: Bax’s upper class circle would never have deigned even to think of the brass band of those days as worthy of consideration. Had he been alive now, the situation might have been quite different. For my own part, I don’t think his music ‘inspired respect’ in the way that Elgar’s does, although some of the high-sounding liturgical passages have a ‘nobilmente’ quality at times, but sheer indulgent affection for the colour and the erotically arousing hedonism. Nor I do not feel in the least irritated if others find parallels or influences from other composers. Wagner is often mentioned in this respect, the ‘Tristan’ influence being uppermost in most people’s estimation, although I have been left almost utterly unmoved by Wagner and cannot see what others claim to be the ‘most erotic music ever written’ in such as ‘Tristan’. I have never found it even mildly sensuous; merely slow, tedious and boring, heavily Teutonic, all that opera stuff!). I think the parallels with Sibelius only feint. Sibelius’s harmony and structure is far more taut; whereas Bax luxuriates to the point of extravagance and a complexity, which, for all that its colour and sensuousness is alluring, is not nearly so coldly clear- cut as the often stark sounds of Sibelius. Sibelius, even in the ‘Kalevala’ inspired tone poems, seems to convey a real life musical experience (such as Shostakovich was later to do with regard to Soviet Russian life, whereas Bax transports the listener to a land of make-believe. This latter consideration is probably one cogent reason for its comparative decline in wide popular taste, notwithstanding the enthusiasms of devotees such as ourselves, and the signs of a revival of general interest. So, while Bax’s music is of enormous personal interest to me - because I too felt some of the same youthful sensuous longings - I began in 1983, on listening to the many BBC programmes which celebrated his centenary, to understand why it had been neglected for so long, and why for most people it did not seem able to win the high acclaim enjoyed by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, or Walton. Bax’s music is still important to me because I know what it has meant in the past in my own development as a composer.

It is worth recounting something that Vaughan Williams once said to me when I went to him for a lesson: In that ardent, gushing, enthusiastic way that young men often have I had said to VW how deeply I felt about his music. He looked a bit non-plussed, and then calmly said to me.

"Well, I’m glad my music means a lot to you, but in another thirty years or so, when you are older and more experienced, you must not think, that if you begin to find my music does not mean as much to you as it does now, that you are being disloyal to me; taste changes with time, and what we might once have found so wonderful, might not, after the passage of time, be all that marvellous after all".....

He was so right! - for this is precisely what I have found about my present reactions to his music. And so it has become with Bax.

So has Bax influenced my own music? Certainly not to the extent that Sibelius has, for he still remains the most potent influence of all for me. Still, much of Bax’s colour, orchestration especially, has ever been for me a potent model. I don’t think his structures and form has yielded a great deal to my own way of designing large musical structures. It may seem churlish to go on to quote something else that Desmond Shawe-Taylor remarked on in that critique of 1957; he continued: " though Butterworth rarely allows his music to sprawl as Bax sometimes did " I must say this has always brought about a slight feeling of embarrassment at being compared to Bax, as it were, in this instance more in my favour than his!

One supposes there are several parallels with other composers both his contemporaries and those of an earlier time. Wagner has often been mentioned, so has Elgar, and some nineteenth-century Russians; but none of these, at least to my ears, can be heard in Bax. His music, if it sounds like any other at all, is more akin to Delius, Warlock, and above all Moeran, that other, even more neglected Anglo-Irish composer. Also there are passages in Bliss notably A Colour Symphony of 1922, the same year as Bax’ s First Symphony, so this is hardly surprising. His orchestration while being tantalisingly colourful (for example the unique ‘dark purple’ sound of the sarrusophone in the First Symphony, which I was fortunate enough to be provided with a player for - instead of the more usual substitute, the contra-bassoon - when I had the opportunity to do this splendid work three or four years ago. For this I shall always be grateful to the enterprise of Adrian Smith and the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, and the support they had from the Arnold Bax Trust in promoting the performance. I cannot honestly say that I find Bax’s symphonic structures as compelling as his sense of orchestral colour.

This, in a sense, might seem to place him in a category similar to Debussy, or other impressionists, who have often been admired for their sense of sheer colour at the expense of solid, clear-cut structure. Whatever other works of Bax I have come to know, the First Symphony is still my own favourite. Preparing this for a performance with a good amateur orchestra was a particular pleasure; it was as if I were privileged to lead them on a journey of exploration into a musical realm few, if any of them, had ever known before.

Tintagel never posed any difficulties; it was familiar to players through having heard it before, and technically it did not seem particularly demanding; exhilarating certainly, but never daunting. I must confess that the opening of Tintagel provided me with a passage in one of my own works, Trains in the Distance, in which I used a poem which nostalgically describes a train journey to South Devon; the sea wall by Teignmouth, and other scenes in the halcyon days of summer holidays between the wars.

For all the present revival of interest in Bax, the 1950s lack of interest in his music was worse than that suffered by Elgar because of the very prosaic post-war attitudes that prevailed; Bax’s music was just too imaginative to be believed in, whereas Elgar, and certainly Vaughan Williams, had always had a universal real-life appeal.

Of the music that deserves to be revived, three of the symphonies particularly appeal to me: l, 3 and 6, in that order. November Woods, The Garden of Fand, Spring Fire, the Cello Concerto. Tintagel needs no assistance, and the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy seems a trifle out of character. However, this leads to considerations of other composers who have some emotional and spiritual connection with Bax. Most notable to me is Moeran, another composer who I never met, although he was a close personal friend of one of my Hallé colleagues. In 1951, Festival of Britain year, all British orchestras were bidden to appear at the then newly-opened Royal Festival Hall. I don’t know who allotted the programmes, but the newly- established Scottish National Orchestra from the remnants of the old Scottish Orchestra referred to above was given the task of performing the Moeran Symphony in G minor which had made such an impression in 1938 when it first came out. We rehearsed this most thoroughly, on and off, for several weeks before the Festival Hall concert, under Walter Susskind; but for some reason this was the sole performance, we never did it again, yet I thought at the time how appropriate it would have been to Scottish audiences. I have always liked this work and place it side by side with Bax’s First Symphony.

While tonal music, fortunately, seems to be enjoying something of a revival, I feel a lot of listeners could still be perplexed by Bax’s individual, but highly intricate and often elusive harmonic language which is tantalising and alluring, yet really quite difficult to pin down when listening to it. In this it is unlike the hard, yet crystal clear harmonies of Sibelius, or Vaughan Williams, even Moeran. This is hard to explain, since audiences have long come to terms with the Second Viennese, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and the later French composers, Messiaen in particular, or other continentals; such as Szymanowski, Lutoslawski, or, coming right up to date, Schnittke. I suppose the answer might be that all these others are, or were, ‘mainland’ voices, expressing the culture of the huge communities they lived in, whereas Bax inhabited something of a remoter back-water on the fringe of Europe, Ireland itself and of course Inverness- shire. Some of us like to visit there in spirit, and some of us have actually been there and even toyed with the idea of living there, but that does not go for the majority. Another - by now even remoter figure - is that of Bantock, whose interest is kept alive in certain quarters. (For example the Leeds Symphony Orchestra did the Hebridean Symphony about three years ago - it was a splendid performance - and within a few weeks from now are to do the Pagan Symphony). I took part in a performance of the Hebridean Symphony in Scotland in the early 1950s and thought it marvellously evocative. His brass band music is kept up to some extent in the rather closed atmosphere of the brass band. Prometheus Unbound and The Frogs are still played. Prometheus Unbound was one of the first - and influential - brass band scores I ever saw. In the late winter of 1940 I was introduced to Bantock at a massed band concert; the occasion was important for me because it marked the first public performance of anything of mine; a concert overture, long since lost, which Bantock congratulated me on, and hoped that one day I might become a good composer!

© Arthur Butterworth


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