> Compopser of the Week Arnold Bax Marshall Walker - Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Composer of the Week



Marshall Walker

Professor of English, University of Waikato, New Zealand

Radio New Zealand, Concert FM, broadcast 26 and 27 August 2001


QUOTE 1: Harp Quintet, Chandos, CHAN 8391, track 2,10.53 to fade at 11.35

Where does. this haunting music come from? There are hints of Ravel, but it was Vaughan Williams, not this composer, who studied under the great Frenchman. The music is English in origin, yet not recognisably English in character. It's a Harp Quintet and the harp is the clue to something Celtic. It might be a clarseach (or clàrsach), an indigenously Irish or Scottish harp requisitioned by a strikingly independent musical imagination, classically schooled but romantically inclined. A dreamer.

In the West Donegal seaside village of Glencolumcille, outside a whitewashed tweed shop, an old weaver sits on a bench in the watery Irish sun. You join him.

'Can you tell me anything about an English composer who often came here in the early 1900s?'

'Sir Arnold Bax, Master of the King's Musick', comes the reply, quick as you like.

'Do you remember the other name he was known by in Ireland?'

'Dermot O'Byrne, story-teller and poet'.

You buy a length of the speckled cloth by way of thanks for the conversation. The old man has closed time's gap and put you there with Bax the musician, otherwise known as the writer, Dermot O'Byrne, in his juicy, impressionable twenties, relishing the gun-metal gloss or savagery of the Atlantic, the mythologising fantasies of Irish folk-tales and, most of all, the poetry ofYeats. 'I came upon W. B. Yeats's "The Wanderings of Usheen [Oisin]" in 1902', Bax says in his memoir, Farewell My Youth (1943), 'and in a moment the Celt within me stood revealed': [1]

...his was the key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth, and his the finger that pointed to the magic mountain! whence I was to dig all that may be of value in my own art ... 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. [2]

So when, on Elgar's recommendation, Sir Henry Wood commissioned an orchestral piece for the 1910 series of Promenade Concerts, Bax took from Yeats's tales of Oisin [pron. Usheen] the germinating idea for his tone poem, In the Faery Hills (1909). Oisin is seduced by Niamh [pron. Nieve] into a faery band. His song of merely human joy makes the immortals so sad that they throw his silver harp into a dark pool and carry him off to a 'wild and sudden dance' that mocks 'at Time and Fate and Chance'. [3] Bax said that he had tried to 'suggest the revelries of the "Hidden People" in the inmost deeps and hollow hills of Ireland'. [4] The music is suggestively atmospheric rather than slavishly programmatic; but perhaps this could be the moment when the faery throng sweeps Oisin into their dance of supernatural joy:

QUOTE 2: In the Faery Hills, Chandos, CHAN 8367, track 3, 11.27 to fade at 12.23

Yeats's magic mountain and Donegal's Glencolumcille were a long way from the prosperous, idiomatically English life of servants and private schooling Bax was born into on the 8th of November 1883. Substantial unearned incomes enabled " Arnold to follow his musical bent untroubled by other employment and his brother Clifford to devote his life to literature.


At Ivybank, their mild-mannered father's mansion in London's then rural Hampstead, life was crisply administered by their much younger, strong-willed but warm-hearted mother. The brothers read voraciously, played passionate cricket and left home as soon as they could. After five years as a student at the Royal Academy of Music, then ruled by Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie -'a man with a notable gift of frenzy' [5] - Arnold had won something close to notoriety for his prodigious ability to read and play on the piano the most modern scores at sight. Now he travelled to Dresden for the city's fleshpots, big helpings of Wagner, an early performance of Strauss's Salome, and his introduction to Mahler whose work he found 'eccentric, long-winded, muddle- headed, and yet always interesting'. [6] His love affair with Ireland met competition from a Russian girl 'with the cold pure face and spun-gold hair of a water nymph.' [7] She broke his heart when he accompanied her to Russia, but the Imperial Ballet captivated him as did the plush summer nights and shimmering birch forests of the Ukraine. Looking back, he remembered Russian extrovert jollity too in this 'Gopak':

QUOTE 3: 'Gopak', The Piano Music of Arnold Bax, Volume 3, Chandos, CHAN 8732, track 2,0.00 to 0.51

On his return from Russia Bax married on the rebound, shrank from the urban whirlwind of London and headed for gentler Dublin, but domesticity did not suit him. Soon after the outbreak of war his marriage failed and yet another dream died with what Yeats called the 'terrible beauty' of the Irish Easter Rising in 1916. Bax was faithful to Ireland until the end of his life, but in 1916 the romantic Ireland he had known as a young man was dead and gone. He had been acquainted with many involved in events surrounding the Rising, including Patrick Pearse the educator, orator and writer who was among those executed by the British.

In both of his names Bax wrote elegies to commemorate the 'holy rage' that had been suppressed. As Dermot O'Byrne he lamented the fall of the rebels in a powerful memorial poem addressed to Pearse, which caused the book in which it appeared to be banned as subversive by the British censor:

...you stand above

All memory that could hurt you or assail;

Down smashed familiar streets and haunted shore

Long may the suffering winds of Ireland wail,

Here in our world you shall be seen no more. [8]

From Arnold Bax the musician came a meditative Elegiac Trio (1916) and In Memoriam: An Irish Elegy, a similarly bardic piece for cor anglais, harp and string quartet. There's intensity of feeling in this second work, but, as in Yeats's poem, 'Easter 1916' no rant at all, just a sense of loss beautifully controlled:

QUOTE 4: In Memoriam, Chandos, CHAN 9602, track 9,6.01 to fade at 7.02 (Q!: 4.52 to 5.53)

In 1916 Arnold Bax is 33. Emotionally he has already lived a crammed, turbulent life. He has loved and lost women and the dream-lit golden age of his Ireland. Infatuated with the volatile pianist Harriet Cohen he has proclaimed his ardour in Tintagel (1917), the best known of his tone poems. He is cushioned by financial security, but looks back and pines for what is not, looks forward and fretfully wonders. The War ends; the death toll has included many friends. Even with Harriet as champion and vehicle of his music, his known world is, in Yeats's words, ‘All changed, changed utterly'. So he must push beyond the pageantry and evocations of the tone poems described by brother Clifford as 'adolescent dreams of more than life can give'. [9] It's time to face the complex, human condition of 'Time and Fate and Chance'. How should he begin? He is a commander of the orchestra and a devotee of form.


The obvious answer is the symphony. So a new journey of exploration and enquiry begins in 1921 with the First Symphony and ends in 1939 with the Seventh. There is darkness behind, is darkness yet to come? Here's how Bax works towards this question at the beginning of the First Symphony. First he arrests the ear with a dramatic proposition which is both a call to emotional arms and a challenge to confront the worst:

QUOTE 5: Symphony No. 1, 1st movement, Lyrita SRCD 232, track 1, beginning to fade at 0.39

Then comes the question:

QUOTE 6: Symphony No. 1, 1st movement, Lyrita SRCD232, track 1, 2.20 to fade at 3.24

The First Symphony is extravagantly grim in the spirit of Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach' where life is a 'darkling plain' of 'confused alarms' and 'ignorant armies' clashing by night. The alarms and clashes of Bax's symphony are identifiable only as the moods and conflicts of his turbulent emotional life. The seven symphonies make up an idiosyncratic but universalizing epic narrative of feelings, a drama of crises, exhaustions and hard-earned moments of repose, determinations to move on and question further. The emotion is always frontal, demanding attention. Nice work, if we can get it, but we can only get it if we sit down and listen through saturated textures to the detailed elisions and thematic metamorphoses inside. Colin Scott-Sutherland's pioneering book about Bax [10] shows that analysis reveals structural elegancies, and Lewis Foreman's study, Bax: A Composer and His Times amplifies our understanding of the composer in context [11]; but the true appeal of these symphonies is to the listener disposed to hear concentrated musical speech about primal human things, the 'foul rag and bone shop' of a composer's heart. For these reasons Bax's symphonies belong to the world


of Sibelius and to the Russian party of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich rather than the British party of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten or Tavener. Bax dedicated his Fifth Symphony to Sibelius and according to Harriet Cohen Sibelius called Bax 'my son in music.’ [12]

None of the symphonies gives clear answers to the fierce questionings of the First and Bax spoke of 'a kind of oppressive catastrophic mood' [13] in the Second. But the slow movement of the Second does propose different ways of feeling. If it's not an escape from darkness or an end to conflict -menace returns in no uncertain terms before the movement stops - it is a remission of relative calm. The opening bars of the movement may call to mind the stellar tranquillity of Holst's 'Venus'; but it's in the sea, not outer space, that Arnold Bax and Dermot O'Byrne locate the full range of human emotions. 'All my heart's warm blood is mixed/With surf and green sea-flame' [14] says O'Byrne, while his alter ego composes the Freudian waves that smash into the castle-crowned cliff of Tintagel, the Fourth Symphony's evocation of 'the sea at flood-tide on a breezy and sunny day' - as Bax himself described it, the enchanted island of Fand, and the benign sea airs of the Second Symphony:

QUOTE 7: Symphony No. 2, Chandos, CHAN 8493, track 2, 3.10 to fade at 3.34

From the pulsing ocean's rise-and-fall Bax brings his symphony's momentarily affirming song:

QUOTE 8: Symphony No.2, track 2, 4.08 to fade at 4.50


It's often said that Bax's music expresses affinities with the natural forces of his environment. This is hardly surprising when he so carefully chose environments which would accommodate his self-consciously romantic character. He found Ireland first, then its counterpart in Scotland. The village of Morar sits in its stone houses on a ridge in Inverness-shire above silver sands. The young Bax had sampled the coasts of north-western Scotland and surely found in them echoes of his beloved Irish landscapes. So in the autumn of 1928, in the youth of middle age at 45, he packed the sketches for his Third Symphony and took the train from London to connect with the Highland Line, bound for Morar. In summer the place is a tourist's photogenic dream: the sands flash white across the Sound of Sleat to the isles of Rhum, Eigg and Skye. But Bax went there at the end of the year, when the sands would be pock-marked by rain, episodically visible through mists or coldly lit by the short flare of a northern sun. In Room 11 of the Station Hotel he sat in 'polar conditions' [15], wearing a heavy winter coat, looking across (fade in QUOTE 9: Symphony No.3, Chandos, CHAN 8454, track 3, 2.39 to fade at 3.35) another moody, metallic sea to the numinous, purple isles while he orchestrated his most frequently performed symphony. During the 1930s Bax's habit was to sketch his works in London and colour them elsewhere, usually in Morar.

The Third Symphony is the newcomer's easiest point of entry into Bax's symphonic family of seven and it's a crucial stage in his individual development of symphonic form. He had settled on a structure of three movements for the first two symphonies, but had ended both with passages that pulled out from the argument of their last movements into summations or reflective backward looks at the journey taken. In the Third Symphony this concluding passage is extended into the first of his symphonic Epilogues. After the broodings, upheavals and perplexities of its first movement, the sea-music of the slow movement brings detachment without resolution, a sense of emotion observed. The third movement hammers out a hard

new question and tries to answer it with a jaunty dance of forced optimism. We are impressed by the effort, wish we could be convinced, but suspect whistles in the dark. The music subsides. What next? The Epilogue begins, bringing its answer and closing Bax's symphonic fable. If we are to be fully human we are doomed to probe the mysteries of brutality and beauty in the world and in ourselves. We must exercise our wills in the quest for what Herman Melville calls 'the ungraspable phantom of life'. We won't grasp the phantom, of course, though we must never abandon the search, but, if our effort is without stint, grace and repose may come from beyond the scope of human will, perhaps from nature itself, mystically, like this:

QUOTE 10: Symphony No.3, CHAN 8485, track 5, 7.50 to fade at 9.19

If that's one expression of Bax's idea of eternity, another is given in his setting (1925) of Robert Herrick's (1591-1674) poem on the subject:

O Yeares! And Age! Farewell: Behold I go,

Where I do know Infinitie to dwell. [16]

In the second stanza of Bax's setting, sung here by New Zealand's Patricia Wright, Herrick's vast eternity is typically Baxian, a sea in which moon, stars and night are drowned in 'one endless day':

And these mine eyes shall see'

All times, how they

Are lost i' th'

Sea of vast Eternitie.

QUOTE 11: 'Eternity', Continuum, CCD 1000, track 6, beginning or from 1.27 to 1.50

The emotional closure of an Epilogue became the trademark of Bax's large- scale orchestral works, including Winter Legends (1930) the 'sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra' which he composed at speed for Harriet Cohen between Symphonies 3 and 4. Of all his works in concerto or concertante form this is the most original and impressive. The Cello Concerto of 1934 is more intense than the alternately frisky and lyrical Violin Concerto of 1938, but Bax fails to write persuasive concerto scores except for the piano, his own instrument. The demands of other instruments seem to deflect him from the emotional purpose that drives his symphonies and tone poems. Winter Legends is a rhapsodic symphony in all but name with the piano acting as the orchestra's guide and providing links between the music's episodes. The work 'opens stormily:

QUOTE 12: Winter Legends, Chandos, CHAN 8484, track 1, beginning to fade at 0.39

So we are taken into a dark northern world of conflict in a tapestry of narrative segments which suggest battles and victories, festive celebrations, heroic exploits and fragile pastoral calms. The ear is stimulated not by a flow of obvious musical logic but by connected panels of activity. Finally, in the Epilogue the sun rises as nature prevails over the merely human:

QUOTE 13: Winter Legends, track 4, 5.29 to 6.06

Bax ends his own story of conflict and yearning in his Sixth Symphony. By comparison the Seventh Symphony is determined by musical rather than emotional values which, for some listeners, may make it the most relaxed and satisfying of the cycle. It stands as a last Epilogue to the strenuous journey of his symphonic cycle. The first movement of the Sixth Symphony returns to the raw questioning of the First. The journey is arduous. Respites are plaintive. We might think of Samuel Beckett's tormented consciousness crying, 'I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on'. [17] Bax goes on. The lyrical second movement changes direction, shifts keys in hope forlorn, speaks of weariness to the bone. The last movement climbs from a trough of melancholy to a clamorous peak of equivocation, then falls away into an Epilogue of exhaustion, quiescent but unresolving. 'Farewell My Youth', it may say, but what did it all mean? The music is beautifully ambiguous:

QUOTE 14: Symphony No.6, Chandos, CHAN 8586, track 3, 15.32 to fade at 16.27 (or 17.38 to fade at 19.00)

Arnold Bax died in Ireland, his and his Dermot O'Byrne's most beloved earth. After a visit to the University of Cork in his capacity as external examiner in music, he drove south with friends on 3 October 1953 to stand at the Old Head of Kinsale, looking out into an Atlantic lit by a spectacular sunset. He died later that evening. He had written, as he remarked to a friend, 'a devil of a lot'. [18] It is fitting that the last music of his own he heard was The Garden of Fand (1916) which (QUOTE 15: The Garden of Fand, Chandos, CHAN 8307, track 3,15.41 to fade at 16.22 [or 17.31 to fade -track ends at 18.42]) evokes the enchantments of the sea that had cast its elemental spell over all his life and arts and gladdened his final day. On his own terms, his death was a homecoming.


Numbers shown in brackets in the text

1 Arnold Bax, Farewell My Youth (London, 1943), pp. 41-2.

2 "Farewell My Youth", p.48. ..

3 W.B. Yeats. 'The Wanderings of Oisin', Book I, Collected Poems, 2nd edition (London, 1950), p. 418.

4 CD insert note by Lewis Foreman for CHAN 8367, p. 3.

5 Farewell My Youth, p. 19.

6 Farewell My Youth, p. 35.

7 Farewell My Youth, p. 64.

8 Dermot O'Byrne, 'In Memoriam Patrick. H. Pearse', A Dublin Ballad and other poems (Candle Press, Dublin, 1918), p. 8.

9 Farewell My Youth, p. 42.

10 Colin Scott-Sutherland, Arnold Bax (London, 1973).

11 Lewis Foreman, Bax: A Composer and His Times, 2nd edn. (Aldershot, 1988).

12 Harriet Cohen, A Bundle of Time (London, 1969), p. 152.

13 In a letter to Philip Hale, 22 Nov 1929, quoted in programme notes for first performance under Koussevitsky, Symphony Hall, Boston, 13 and 14 Dec. 1929. Foreman, p. 209.

14 Dermot O'Byrne, 'Love and the Sea', 14 June 1907. Quoted in Scott-Sutherland, pp. 70- 71.

15 Patrick Hadley [obituary tribute], Music & Letters, Jan. 1954, p. 8;

16 F.W. Moorman, editor, The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick (Oxford, 1957), p. 344.

17 Samuel Beckett, Three Novels (New York, 1959), p. 577

18 Colin Scott-Sutherland, Arnold Bax (London, 1973), p. 185.


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