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 Orchestras
conducting scholarships. The sight-reading test - for which we were allowed
about quarter-of-an-hour to glance through the score - was Baxs
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
Baxs 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 Baxs 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
A few years later I left Scotland to join Barbirollis 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 Baxs 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
I cannot say by any means that present-day conductors play his music too
slowly, A parallel might lie with Elgar in this respect: Elgars 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 Elgars
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 ones 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 todays 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.
Baxs 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: Baxs 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 dont think his music inspired respect in
the way that Elgars 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 peoples 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. Sibeliuss 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 Baxs 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. Baxs 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, Im 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 Baxs colour, orchestration especially, has ever been for me
a potent model. I dont 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 Baxs 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; Baxs 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 dont 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 Baxs 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 Baxs 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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