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BAX - A Composer and his Times
by Lewis Foreman
25 b/w illustrations
616 pages
Size: 23 x 15 cm
10 digit ISBN: 1843832097
13 digit ISBN: 9781843832096
Binding: Hardback
Boydell Press
Price: 55.00 USD / 29.95 GBP




This is a whopping great book – in all senses - for a very small price. Here is the definitive voice on Bax and his music for £30. In real and possibly absolute terms this biography is now available at its most inexpensive price ever.

Of course it is not unfamiliar to Baxians or at least those who were around and taking an interest in 1983 and 1987 when the first and second editions came out. This is the third edition since Bax’s centenary year in 1983 almost a quarter century ago.

The story of the life and the music is woven together. The golden years of youth and the hectic musical and literary creativity were aided by his affluent family circumstances. He could choose to do whatever he liked and did so. Youth was a grail for Bax and when it left him he was bereft. Commissions and duty were uncongenial and the results showed this. His music for various films cost him dear as it did for his friend John Ireland. Speaking of Ireland, Bax’s circle is fully tackled: Paul Corder, his brother Clifford, Moeran, Ireland and Vaughan Williams among many others. There’s a considerable amount of new material incorporated since the last edition. Although I would have preferred to have heard more about Mr Foreman’s preferences and enthusiasms among the Bax works one can just about detect these.

In these pages Bax's exuberantly passionate love life is melded into his musical life. Harriet Cohen straddled the two worlds. His compulsion to compartmentalise life is brought out. He was to find compelling reasons for not introducing his love of mid-later years Mary Gleaves to his mother. The Cohen collection shows Bax in 1931 writing to both Mary and Harriet in erotic terms playing back their sensual encounters. Foreman tellingly quotes from a letter to Mary in which ecstatic references to lovemaking in the sea make explicit the psychological connection between the sea and sex. Bax's works are replete with sea music (Tintagel, Fourth Symphony) and this perhaps reminds us of Hugo Alfvén’s Fourth Symphony in which a Straussian orchestra is swelled by two vocalising voices - male and female. What a work Bax would have made of such a symphony.

What has changed since 1987 and the second edition? Quite a lot. The number of entries in the Bax CD catalogue has for example increased exponentially. There are now three complete cycles (Thomson, Handley, Lloyd-Jones) of the symphonies ... two on Chandos; the other on Naxos. Chandos have been reissuing their Thomson cycle at midprice while Naxos are at bargain price. The part cycle (1, 2, 5, 6, 7) from Lyrita is out on CD or will be by 2008. Even the pioneering Fourth Symphony and Symphonic Variations (Hatto, Guildford PO, Handley) are out on Concert Artist. Naxos, ASV, Dutton and others have swelled the representation of chamber music, piano solos and songs.

It has been an extraordinary renaissance by any measure and it shows no sign of slackening. Bax is however a resolutely rare presence in the concert hall. CDs - yes; studio recordings - yes. Broadcasts - yes. Concert promoters still steer clear although the 2007 Three Choirs has the First Symphony as does the Bristol University SO and earlier this year the Ealing SO did the very rare The Tale the Pine Trees Knew.

There is no Bax Society although there was one from circa 1964 to 1972. Tintagel gets a look in on concert programmes but little else. The major transforming factor for the new edition is the opening up to Bax scholars of the Harriet Cohen papers at the British Library. Foreman makes liberal use of this seeming mass of material. He is well placed to make the linkages having interviewed pretty well everyone he could track down with Bax connections. Quotes from those interviewed are valuably and liberally used.

Cohen does not emerge well - her precious expressions might be a feature of their time but the suffocation and suppression of performances by others, especially a younger generation of artists, stamped down on Bax's grave just as grievously as the concert hall neglect about which she wrote in protest to the Daily Telegraph in 1965. Similarly the destruction of Bax's letters to his wife Elsita and to Mary Gleaves.

Foreman writes well and has the intellectual reach and command to synthesise a seething archive of written and recorded material. In addition his perspective is naturally wide as his research from the 1960s onwards has covered the entirety of the British classical music scene from the 1870s to the present day; he is by no means a Bax exclusive. His librarian degree dissertation was on the sources of British music research – and remains an invaluable source for researchers.

So good is this book that it's only downside is that it tends to discourage other studies. It is as if all the Baxian oxygen has been drained off.

A fully reliable guide, this book does not set out to be everything although it manages to be most things and manages each task extremely well. Of course the book has blind spots.

The post-1953 history of the revival of Bax's music is insufficiently detailed. I wanted to know more about the Bax Society and its personalities. The weaknesses of many of the Bryden Thomson Chandos recordings of the symphonies pass without mention. Yet these CDs time after time raised and smashed my hopes in the early CD era.

I hope we will not forget the work of Colin Scott-Sutherland as writer of numerous articles and of the first Bax biography right at the crest of the revival wave in the early 1970s. It is of course in the bibliography but it does not feature prominently in the story of the early 1970s revival. Although a very different, more philosophical and more musico-poetic book, indulgently laced with literary parallels by the score, it was frustrating in its scant attention to biographical detail. It was important. It was the book which in my early twenties I rushed out and ordered from a Totnes bookshop and eagerly read, struggling and failing to understand the musical analyses and frustrated that I could hear only a small fraction of the works listed and referred to by the author. I cannot have been alone.

Another author hardly mentioned in the revival chapter is Peter Pirie a staunch Baxian whose much denigrated book The British Musical Renaissance still has much of value to tell us about Bax, Bridge and others even if his treatment of other Brits such as Finzi and Howells is dismissive.

Material only available on websites is treated as ephemeral and not cited. Of course I have an interest but this judgement is to my mind misconceived or at least inconsistent. Newspaper and magazine articles are ephemeral yet they are listed and are inaccessible to most readers. There is a problem of course – which I must concede - in that websites can disappear when the owner dies or can no longer afford the webspace. If the author loses interest they can become out of date very soon but not as easily as printed books. Yet CDs are deleted, magazines go out of print. For all its occasional lack of rigour and academic peer review, the internet is the first and often only source of reference for young and old enquirers and enthusiasts. The fire of enthusiasm catches most readily from the enthusiasm of others. A shame to slam the door on the legion of young music-lovers who are the next and sustaining generation of Baxians. A list of websites should have been given. At the very least readers should have been pointed to Richard Adams' splendid and still growing Bax site here on MusicWeb and Graham Parlett's online Bax catalogue.

What happened to the foreword to the second edition of this book. The first - from Felix Aprahamian – is reproduced.

There is one typo - I found one on p.352 where Vernon Handley became Veron Handley.

These are superficial cavils against the background of such a superbly written and presented book. First impressions are crucial so the cover of the book is well chosen – a brooding and intense experimental colour photograph of Bax at the age of 24 taken by Paul Corder.

This is a solidly and extensively detailed book. It will for most practical purposes be all you will ever need on Bax and first-time curious readers will come away from the experience wanting to hear the music (1).

Rob Barnett

 

Chapter titles
1 1883-1900: The Background
2 1900-1905: The Royal Academy of Music
3 1905-1909: Many Influences
4 1909-1910: Ireland and Russia
5 1910-1911: Marriage
6 1912-1914: Rathgar and London
7 1914-1916: The Great War
8 1916-1918: Harriet Cohen
9 1918-1920: Peace and Success
10 1921-1923: Triumph
11 1924-1925: Crisis
12 1926-1928: New Directions
13 1928-1929: Dreams and Reality
14 1930-1932: Going Northern
15 1933-1936: Past Fifty
16 1937-1939: `I can't grow up'
17 1939-1945: The Second World War: Storrington
18 1945-1953: Last Years
19 After 1953: Decline and Revival
20 Appendix A: Dermot O'Byrne
21 Appendix B: King Kojata
22 Appendix C: The Happy Forest by Herbert Farjeon
23 Appendix D: Bax's Symphonies at the Proms
24 Appendix E: Felix Aprahamian's Foreword to the First Edition [1982]
 
(1) For anyone exploring Bax for the first time let me make my own recommendations of works to seek out:-
November Woods
Symphonies Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6
Piano Quintet
String Quartet No. 1
Winter Legends for piano and orchestra
Mater Ora Filium – motet

 


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