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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



ARNOLD BAX
IDEALA: The Love Letters and Poems of Arnold BAX

edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland
Fand Music Press
published September 2001
ISBN 0-9535125-3-3
320pp hardback


AmazonUK £50.00

What we have here are all the poems of Arnold Bax or at least all the ones known to Colin Scott-Sutherland, the editor, who is also the first Bax scholar in modern times. The poems are as written under Bax's own name as well as those published under the name of his Irish 'doppelganger', Dermot O'Byrne. The editor has also in-gathered a selection of the composer's teenage love letters.

Colin's dogged dedication to the Bax cause - sharing Bax's creative work with the world - complements the now more celebrated work of fellow Baxian, Lewis Foreman. Lewis's Bax biography published in centenary year 1983, rather eclipsed Mr Scott-Sutherland's 'Arnold Bax', published by Dent in 1973. The Dent book, in any event, was promptly remaindered alongside other valuable music studies in the Dent catalogue including Santeri Levas's Sibelius memoir and Myrrha Bantock's chatty but engagingly flavoured life story of her father.

Pages 15 to 281 comprise the poems and letters. There are eight appendices and an introduction by the editor. The book is laid out in sections coinciding with the various collections and previously unpublished sources:-

Poems in Red Notebook
First (typed) collection
Letter to Isobel Hodgson
Seafoam and Firelight
Letters to Mary Field
Second (typed) collection
Harriet Cohen and the Princess's Rose Garden
Elsa Sobrino
Verses - third typed collection
Love Poems of a Musician
A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems
Memoir 'The Two Brothers' (Francis Colmer)

There are two indices. The first keys the poems by title (it is notable that Bax gave titles to all the poems here). The second is a general index to people, works, places and events. This will be valuable to Bax enthusiasts and scholars.

There are some 280 poems collected together for the first time. It is not the first collection. For that we need to go back to a classically slim volume from Thames in which 90 or so of the poems were published under the editorship of Lewis Foreman. Each poem in Ideala is carefully footnoted to explain obscure references. Alternative versions are also recorded with variorum diligence.

The book lacks a dust jacket and this may be a material drawback in years to come especially if heavily used. It is very solidly case bound in bleached cream boards inlaid with gold stamped titling and using rondel designs from an early edition of Swinburne's 'Atalanta in Calydon' (itself a poem set as a symphony for voices alone by Bax's yet more neglected contemporary, Granville Bantock).

We must not forget that the letters and poems are the product of an artist between the ages of year 1904 to 1916. Where published at all their presentation to the general public was long delayed.

There are plentiful photographs and other plates. Some of these appear for the first time including a 1920 photo of Mary Gleaves (whom Bax met in 1926). This reveals a face of witchery and an elfin bone structure. We take away some insight into what it was that drew Bax to her.

Bax's revelling in youthful amours helped him through his forties and fifties. He strove some would say rather pathetically to keep in touch with the dangerously delicious spirit that lit his privileged youth and which fed his music. When even that burned to ash his music too lost its wayward conviction, its dangerous imagery and its Hy Brasil enchantment. His last poems date from the end of the Great War written at the age of 25. By the time another 25 years had passed he had completed his Seven Symphonies and the works that followed evince hardly a sign of the flame-chased conviction that burned in his greatest music. A more ruthless verdict would draw the line not at 1945 but at 1935.

Bax's literary efforts are youthful. This was a youth to which Bax bade a regretful, anxious and not very convincing farewell. It was across these ravines, over these cliffs, touching these yielding hills, that Bax developed as a man. His youth shackled him but at the same time liberated from him music unique in the world's art. Without his infatuation with youth and without the pain of its trickling and then accelerating loss his music would have been less than it is.

Bax's verse, even his sparer style of the later years, is not for those who crave the instant gratification incited by the present day. It requires time. I wonder if it will appeal to the poetry press. I am intrigued to see how the book is received in those quarters. For Baxians and even for those who have just been caught up by a chance hearing of a Bax work this poetry, refulgent, pained, ecstatic, sensuous, will add volume, mass and dimension to the listening experience. I wonder how long it will be before these poems are used as an oration to one of Bax's works.

The poems offer evidence of Bax's psychological landscape. That evidence is probably even more valuable than his letters though possibly harder to interpret. In verse the emotional language of youth (at least of Bax's generation) is most likely to have been freed to express itself.

I do not underestimate the dedication invested in this work by the editor and the publisher. It must have been a phenomenal task and it is the fate of such dedication that it will almost certainly see other Bax poems emerging from private collections. It is intriguing to think that further poems may yet be found amongst the Harriet Cohen papers which came into the public domain last year.

This is a prominent landmark in the Bax literature and another magus-key to one window into Bax's musical legacy: a magic casement indeed.

Rob Barnett

 

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