THE BAX SYMPHONIES REVISITED.
(With a few digressions)
by Ian Lace
Contributions: David Lloyd-Jones, Vernon Handley, Colin Scott-Sutherland,
Lewis Foreman Robert Walker, Eric Fenby and others
David Lloyd-Jones’ acclaimed Bax symphonies cycle
on super budget Naxos is now (April 2003) almost complete with
just the Seventh remaining to be released. Naxos’s competitive
pricing will have enabled a larger, and probably newer, audience
to come to appreciate this landmark series of British symphonies.
Bax enthusiasts have always relished the prospect of Vernon Handley
recording them. Handley has a very real empathy with the symphonies’
colour and intense romanticism. Now there is talk that he will
record what will be a second Bax symphonies cycle for Chandos
(their first cycle with the late Bryden Thomson and the London
Philharmonic Orchestra – except the Fourth with the Ulster Orchestra
- was recorded between 1983 and 1988).
It is now some thirty years since Colin Scott-Sutherland’s
Arnold Bax (J.M. Dent & Sons) and twenty since Lewis Foreman’s
Bax - A Composer and his Times (Scolar Press). In 1997
I asked both authors if their views about their subject had changed
or if they wanted to contribute any new thoughts.
Commentators have made the point that the seven
symphonies are like a continuing saga, containing much autobiographical
material. Of course each symphony is a wonderful musical experience
in its own right, but I do recommend readers to listen to them
one at a time, in chronological order, on consecutive evenings.
I suggest that they do this not once but twice. The first time
to appreciate the overall design, and the second to appreciate
all the little details that will have escaped their attention.
I can assure you that more and more riches are revealed on each
Bax was an accomplished pianist and a phenomenally
gifted sight-reader of orchestral full scores at the piano. He
was also a writer. He was known as Dermot O’Byrne, the poet, in
Ireland where very few knew he was Bax the English composer. He
was also a linguist. He spoke Irish Gaelic enthusiastically and
he also spoke and wrote French and Norwegian. His friends and
relations considered him to be something of a wit and he was certainly
known to have said some caustic and witty things about his fellow
Bax’s music reflects his emotional response to
people, places and events. It is built largely on conflict reflecting
the contradictions of his own personality. Conflicts of tonality,
rhythm, register and texture are all found in the music. This
conflict was expounded by Colin Scott-Sutherland who wrote that
- "...his romantic temperament and his musical affinities
with the natural forces of his environment were characterised
by a wayward and wild spirit that bred conflict. And the conflict
between the intellect and emotion is as much a part of the music
as the duality of Arnold Bax and Dermot O’Byrne." [Colin
Scott-Sutherland sent me some of Tilly Fleischmann’s writings
in which she said she had once called Bax a wayward child. She
wrote, "He must have liked it because in subsequent letters
he frequently signed them - ‘from the wayward child,’" -
Scott-Sutherland also maintains that Bax was
both sensualist and philosopher - "‘the tireless hunter of
dreams’ sought not only satisfaction for that sensuality but peace
for the questing intellect that impelled his creative urge."
Both the sensualist and the philosopher are personified in the
music but they are often in conflict. His outlook is pantheistic
- pagan even and he is more concerned with man as a solitary individual.
"Bax’s spirit soars into strange and beautiful realms,"
wrote Scott-Sutherland. "But although Bax himself recognised
this, he is not shorn of his links with the earth:- ‘I am an appreciative
inhabitant of this world...yet a part of me is not of it’"
(Farewell, My Youth).
Bax was strongly influenced by Celtic and Nordic
folklore and nature mysticism particularly in relation to the
sea. The sea in all its moods figures prominently in work after
work: it crashes against the cliffs beneath Tintagel Castle, it
shimmers in splendour in the slow movement of the 3rd Symphony
and it permeates the whole fabric of the 4th Symphony and the
two Piano Sonatas. Stormy seas of the North around Morar, sweep
over the 6th Symphony and a seascape is the 7th Symphony’s first
movement, of which the slow interludes, in predominantly fast
music, according to Lewis Foreman ‘are colourful memories that
occasionally intrude into an ageing man’s physical enjoyment of
the waves smashing on the shore, of the Northern light and the
wild coastline with the dim purple shapes of the islands out to
sea. Bax himself is reported to have identified a passage in the
slow movement of the 6th Symphony as deriving from a view, at
Morar, of the islands across the wintry sea.’
Again, Lewis Foreman, in his book, paints an
evocative scene when he talks about the 5th Symphony - "The
brilliant pictorial opening of the slow movement - high tremolandi
on the strings, running harp colouration and fanfaring trumpets
- is breathtaking when first heard, and makes one think this is
a deliberate evocation of some long-cherished grand sweep of landscape.
In a book review [Celtic Twilight in Moderation] Bax referred
to the sensation of suddenly seeing the sea at the summit of Slieve
League, a favourite place of natural grandeur in the West of Ireland.
To ‘anyone going up from the South, the sea is hidden by the landward
bulk of the mountain itself, so that when it bursts into view
at a height of almost two hundred feet, the sudden sight of the
Atlantic horizon tilted half-way up the sky is completely overwhelming’.
It is some such experience which was being remembered in the splendid
and evocative opening to this passionate but autumnal movement."
The whole significance of the sea for Bax may
be summarised in his remark: "I like to fancy that on my
deathbed my last vision in this life will be the scene from my
window on the upper floor at Glencolumcille, of the still brooding
dove grey mystery of the Atlantic at twilight."
The influences through which Bax passed on the
way to forging his own style were many and varied and traces were
to persist through his creative lifetime. They included the Debussy
and Ravel and the Russian composers eg.- Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin,
Glazunov, Stravinsky and Rachmaninov. He was also influenced by
Wagner, Richard Strauss, Elgar and, later, Sibelius.
But there were also many influences outside music.
One cannot help feeling that the intensity of some of his writings
was transmuted into his music. His poetry is strongly romantic
and musical but his stories are equally extravagant. You sense
that his fairies are no puny little fluttering creatures but powerful
awesome entities to be feared and respected rather like Rutland
Boughton’s god-like beings in The Immortal Hour - "a
powerful fierce race to whom the comings and goings of humans
are no more important than the peregrination of ants." Some
of Bax’s stories are very lurid; slit throats and broken skulls
are described in horrific detail. His vision of a sea god being
worshipped in an undersea cave by terrified Irish fisherfolk and
peasants, says Scott-Sutherland, "found its musical counterpart
in the dark second movement of the 1st Symphony."
Then there was the Great War (which Bax escaped
on medical grounds) in which he had lost many of his friends.
Then came the Irish uprising during which he lost more. He was
fascinated by Ireland which he discovered in the early days of
the century. "I went to Ireland as a boy of nineteen in great
spiritual excitement", he wrote in his short autobiography,
Farewell, My Youth and, in a kind of mystical fervour,
heightened by his discovery of the writings of W.B. Yeats, he
fell completely under the country’s spell: Ireland’s people, history,
mythology and aspirations, and its countryside and seascapes.
Later this enthusiasm would spread to the topography and mythologies
of northern climes particularly those of north west of Scotland.
Bax made it a habit to travel by train to Morar,
in north west Scotland every winter from 1928 to 1940. It was
in Morar that he orchestrated his last five symphonies and, as
detailed above, much of the scenery there, influenced their composition.
He stayed in what was then known as the Station Hotel (now the
Morar Hotel) directly opposite the railway station. He occupied
a back bedroom (No. 11) which in those days had a wonderful view
out to the Atlantic with the Inner Hebrides islands of Rhum and
Eigg. Behind the Hotel is the lovely Loch Morar, deeper even than
Loch Ness. Bax spent much time in contemplation of all this scenery.
His favourite walk was by the side of the Loch to the music of
the water and the wind in the trees - as he once remarked to his
But Morar was only one of a number locations
- mainly Nordic and Slavonic - that inspired him. His travels
to Russia, Norway, Iceland and Finland were all influential
Then, of course, there were his relationships
with the women who played an important role in his life: the girl
he pursued in vain to Russia, the wife he left for Harriet Cohen
and Mary Gleaves who always accompanied him to Morar and whose
happy influence is celebrated in the 4th Symphony.
All these potent influences must have found their
way into the symphonies. Later in life, Bax was reluctant to admit
to any programme for his symphonies. This attitude dates from
the 1920s and 1930s when a reaction to full-blooded romantic music
was beginning to set in and perhaps he feared being scorned if
he revealed too much of himself as the brazen romantic. Then,
too, there were probably people and other considerations that
might have inhibited him. That is my conjecture but I cannot help
wondering if he might have been more open if he were alive today,
now that romantic music is once more accepted by the musical intelligentsia.
But in any case, does it really matter? There are so many clues
and we have so many facts about Bax to make up our own minds and,
in any case, the mystery captures our imaginations and probably
serves us better than the facts.
His seven symphonies were written between 1921
and 1939 though his reputation as a symphonist was only recognised
in 1930 when the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies were both first heard
Speaking about his approach to the Bax symphonies,
David Lloyd-Jones commented: "I have been listening to Bax
and, occasionally, performing him since the mid-1950s and have
naturally formed certain opinions about the way I feel his orchestral
music is best performed. At the outset of my Bax project, I talked
to Lewis Foreman because I suspect that he has listened to more
of this composer’s music than any other living person. I was gratified
when he confirmed my own personal hunch that tempi which avoid
the pitfalls of lassitude and rhythmic stagnation are best suited
to the works. After all, this is the line that Beecham maintained
he took with Delius. I think it is best to keep Bax’s music on
a fairly tight rein and not to be too distracted or seduced by
its wealth of detail and the rich complexity of its fabric. For
what it’s worth, the metronome marks point to this line of approach;
but then, that is nothing unusual - nearly all metronome marks
are on the brisk side and are slackened to some degree when the
composers have performed the music themselves."
David was kind enough to let me hear a final
edit of his recording of the 1st Symphony. I congratulated him,
particularly on his reading of the mystic and elegiac second movement.
The accompanying side-drum played, as Bax instructed, with snares
loosened ‘as at a military funeral’ and the inexorable rhythm
of the two harps is very clear and effective but I was also impressed
by the intense almost demonic anger, defiance and inconsolable
grief conveyed in the opening section in particular - it sounded
like some caged beast. David Lloyd-Jones confirmed such had been
his intention. He said, "This was a case in point where I
wanted to keep the music gently on the move particularly with
regard to those groups of five and seven quavers. They loose their
draggy shape if they become over-distended especially as they
are played on trombone and tuba. As you imply, this is a strongly
individual movement with a powerful mix of emotions. It’s a funeral
march and the main melody is a dirge which, of course, is a funeral
song. If it’s a song then it’s about singing and human breathing.
Personally, I hate melodies that are essentially vocal melodies
being played so slowly that nobody would be able to sing them
without having to take extra breaths in the middle of a natural
phrase. In other words, I think vocally inspired melodies should
be played at a pace which parallels ordinary human lung power
even if, as here, it requires the breathing resources of a Wagnerian
"I was allowed to plan this Naxos Bax cycle,
and the plan is for each CD to be devoted to one symphony plus
shorter supporting pieces, mostly tone poems. The 1st Symphony
disc comes with In the Faery Hills composed in 1909. This
is a wonderfully evocative work and its effect at the start of
the Bax cycle should be like opening a casement onto Bax’s very
distinctive world of enchantment. So the programme of this CD,
which also includes The Garden of Fand, is an interesting
juxtaposition of the early, other-worldly Bax with the starker,
tragic world of his post-Great War period.
"I did a lot of research in preparation
for these recordings and I uncovered some interesting material.
This particularly is particularly noticeable in the later tone-poem
The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew which accompanies my
recording of the 5th Symphony. When I was recording this fine
austere work with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, I was
using a set of parts in their library dating from the time when
Barbirolli was chief conductor of the orchestra in the mid-1930s.
This tone-poem, composed in 1931, was dedicated to Barbirolli
and the front desk string parts still have his distinctive blue
pencil bowings. The ending of Pine-Trees is a bit abrupt,
and in this set of parts there is an instruction to repeat the
first four bars of fig 57 which I have followed. I am convinced
that this is authentic. I have not been successful in locating
Barbirolli’s own full score, but as he was so closely associated
with this work, I feel sure that he discussed the ending with
Bax. Bax had, by then, heard the work in performance, probably
more than once, and doubtless decided that the ending could be
improved by repeating these four bars.
"But more importantly, there is a passage
in the recapitulation of Pine-Trees marked meno mosso
at fig. 46 that presents a real problem. Some people have conducted
this passage in four which makes the main theme sound unbelievably
slow and unnatural. I have always felt instinctively that this
must be wrong so I went along to the British Library to look at
the manuscript. At first I was disappointed that it did not confirm
my belief for it was exactly the same as the published score,
but then I found the manuscript of Bax’s original piano sketch
for the work and sure enough he has clearly marked the passage
alla breve; therefore, I feel justified in playing it in
this faster way. It really brings the music to life and does not
pre-empt the Maestoso that follows twelve bars later. So
I suppose I have made a small contribution to Bax studies!"
When asked what drew him to Bax, David Lloyd-Jones
replied: "No conductor could fail to enjoy his masterly writing
for the orchestra. Bax knows how to make an orchestra sound wonderful,
but this is not something that is just applied to the surface
but rather a by-product of his richly contrapuntal textures. There
is something very appealing about the fact that all Bax’s symphonies
have only three movements; I think that it is one of his greatest
contributions to the form. He is very consistent in his three
movement plan so he clearly felt strongly about it. As everyone
knows, it is usually in the finale that many composers come to
grief; often they seem not quite sure of what more they have to
say and I think Bax must have sensed this difficulty. Of course,
he compensates by usually making each of his three movements fairly
"Then there was that other special concept
of his - epilogues incorporated as the endings of his third movements.
It is a really effective and interesting addition to the general
scheme of symphonic writing, even though there had been precedents.
He used this feature from the 3rd Symphony onwards. The only trouble
was that this first use of his of an epilogue was, in the opinion
of most people, his best. It is really haunting. It is the music
which most closely resembles Vaughan Williams’s calm, mystic idiom.
[In fact RVW quoted from this epilogue in his piano concerto -
I.L.] I feel that it should sound other-worldly and serene so
that means avoiding a tempo that might make it seem turgid and
mournful. Again, it was good to be able to record the 3rd Symphony
from the RSNO orchestral parts used by Barbirolli. Interestingly,
he took these parts to Russia when he performed the Symphony in
Leningrad in 1935. Foreign orchestral players often sign their
parts, and one of the sons of Rimsky-Korsakov, who was a viola
player in the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, signed the part he used.
[Interestingly, some people have noticed a conscious or subliminal
quotation from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture
in Bax’s 3rd Symphony -I.L.]
"I have to say that I feel that Bax’s symphonies
are not all equally persuasive in terms of form, especially the
first movements and I am not judging him by Beethovenian standards.
I obviously realize that symphonic form comes in all shapes and
sizes; indeed one of my favourite composers, Tchaikovsky, could
be equally criticised about form if one felt so inclined. But
I do think that Bax sometimes digresses dangerously. The first
movement of the 3rd Symphony is an example of where his interest
in lyrical episodes and reveries do not always seem to be organic.
Sometimes, depending on your mood, you might feel that such movements
are outstaying their welcome."
I asked David Lloyd-Jones why he thought this
happened. "You know, I am sometimes a little suspicious of
composers who, like Bax, were wonderfully accomplished pianists,"
he replied. "You sense that in their compositions there is
an element that is still a kind of undigested improvisation. You
can see them sitting at the piano - possibly with a cigarette
in the corner of their mouths - just having fun and then thinking,
‘Oh, I like that, it’s rather good’, and they write it down. Then,
what had started out as a rather loose-limbed improvisation becomes
set in tablets of stone. In this way, they can be beguiled by
the spontaneous idea - Einfall, as the Germans call it - and forget
the form. But where Bax is concerned, I am being a bit pedantic
when there is so much fine, well-written music involved.
"I think the 6th Symphony is the most cogent.
It contains a lot of fastish music which Bax pulls off very well.
It has a different tone and inhabits a different world to the
rest of the symphonies. But so does the 7th Symphony which is
full of good music, though it is not so personal and therefore
not as persuasive as the 6th.
"The 4th Symphony is interesting. In addition
to the printed score, the publishers kindly provided me with a
photocopy of Bax’s manuscript with the markings of the first conductor,
Basil Cameron. These are not simply conductor’s performance markings,
for Cameron would certainly have gone through the score with Bax
before the first performance in San Francisco (16th March 1932).
Giving the premiers must have been a marvellous experience for
those conductors in the 1920s and 1930s - Wood, Beecham, Coates,
Harty, Cameron, Goossens and Boult. (I saw all of them conduct
except Wood and Harty.) Bax was an outstanding score reader and
he undoubtedly went through his scores with them in detail prior
to the first rehearsals. His advice would have been invaluable,
pointing out things he wanted emphasising, perhaps even things
he had not written into the score (for he was no conductor himself)
or had subsequently decided he wanted underlining."
[The 6th Symphony was premiered by Sir Hamilton
Harty at Queens Hall, London on 21st November 1935 and, interestingly,
the first performance of the 2nd Symphony was given by Koussevitsky
and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Boston, on 13th December
1929 (the first London performance was not until the following
May by Goossens and the Queens Hall Orchestra.) - I.L.]
Finally, I asked David Lloyd-Jones which of the
seven symphonies he thought was the best. "That is a difficult
question," he replied. "The first two have a lot to
commend them because you feel that Bax was so passionately engaged
in them, but with the 1st there is something mildly worrying about
a composer who does not know he has written a symphony until somebody
points the fact out to him. [Harriet Cohen and Arthur Alexander
suggested to him that his 3rd Piano Sonata was really a symphony
- I.L.] It was a symphony by default but, of course, none the
worse for that. It, and the 2nd Symphony have tremendous power
and integrity and are thoroughly committed works, whereas one
occasionally gets the impression with some of the others that
he is thinking, "Well, perhaps it’s time for another symphony".
But then, a lot of other people before Bax have shared and acted
on that feeling. Some commentators think that Bax was not a natural
symphonist. However, he was a natural writer of music for the
symphony orchestra and adept at handling big forms which gets
very close to being a true symphonist in the wider sense of the
Vernon Handley’s views about Bax’s music are
When I asked Handley what he thought about critics’
assertions that Bax’s music lacked form and his range was narrow,
Handley was quick to refute them. "You only have to make
a close study of any of his symphonies to discover a tremendous
emotional range," he asserted. "Although he does tend
to lurk in dark moods now and then, but so does Mahler - and nobody
minds that particularly. I think if you analyse any one of the
symphonies you will find an extraordinary ability to refashion
ideas, themes and tunes rather like Sibelius. Bax was a composer
who tended to rely on metamorphosis of ideas rather than using
a lot of fresh material. Even if you take the weakest symphony
of the set - the 4th Symphony - it displays an extraordinary unity
especially between the first and last movements. You can see how
the music has been constructed. Of course, he’s his own worst
enemy and I think critics have tended to be beguiled by the sound
and harmony rather than looking underneath for the skeleton of
the music. But it is there and to me this subtlety, the fact that
you have to look for it, is an added enjoyment; it’s not all there
on the surface.
" - But range: I don’t think the mood of
the Viola Phantasy conflicts really with the mood of Winter
Legends and I think the darkness of the 1st Symphony is
a long way from the idyllic tune of the second movement of the
2nd Symphony and both are some distance from the extrovert 4th
Symphony or from the more objective but apocalyptic 6th Symphony.
I think he has great range.
"Bax’s music poses certain problems for
the conductor. First of all you’ve got to study the music; you
need to know a lot of it in order to understand the language.
It is not a cross between Richard Strauss and Rachmaninov. It
is very personal. It is also hard to appreciate the form of a
Bax work because of all the beautiful melodies and harmony. Bax
is a resourceful orchestrator, the colours in his mind are so
varied that sometimes one is tempted to think there is impressionist
music before one but in actual fact there is thematic material
there. To present the thematic material, to present the form of
the work, poses great problems for the conductor. He has got to
make sure that all the tiny joins between one passage and the
next are made rather than shown because the more you sectionalise
the music in favour of the sensuous sounds the more damage you
do to the form. Indeed, I’m reminded of a passage in Bax’s autobiography,
Farewell, My Youth when he says: "I slammed the lid
of the piano shut and went out because I could not think of
a logical continuation." Now a man who is concerned about
logical continuation is clearly concerned about form, not just
with pretty pictures."
Finally, I asked Vernon Handley what was his
favourite Bax work and why. He admitted that it was a difficult
question to answer but said: "As an orchestral conductor,
the works that flood through the mind immediately are, of course,
all the symphonies, tone poems and concerti but I think probably
the 6th Symphony is my favourite because of its remarkable control
of form and its very tight argument. It addresses a very big universal
problem as well as a personal one for Bax. It is an apocalyptic
symphony and Bax was obviously very moved - and moved intellectually
- while writing it. I am torn between that and Mater Ora Filium
of which Norman Demuth in his wonderful book, Musical Trends
in the Twentieth Century, referred to as having been written
in white heat. I like to think that the passion of that work,
which is rarely heard these days, could be realised by a number
of today’s choirs. It moves me as much as any Bax but only my
predilection for formal edifices leads me to favour the 6th Symphony
Lewis Foreman contributed the following thoughts:-
"Bax’s works, especially the symphonies
are certainly better known now, particularly since the 1983 Centenary
celebrations focused attention on them plus the release of so
many new recordings. People have also recognised that the early
works which they tended to dismiss (eg. Spring Fire and
Enchanted Summer) were amongst his best. It is now recognised
that he reached his maturity and became a significant composer
some ten to fifteen years earlier than the time that was hitherto
generally assumed. He was a composer who had an intense vision
over a concentrated period of time and then lived on that vision
for the rest of his life. In one or two late works he had new
insights, typically the 3rd and 6th Symphonies. He developed a
tremendous technique which is apparent in the symphonies but by
the time he arrived in Storrington (at the pub, "The White
Horse", in Storrington, Sussex where he lived for the last
thirteen years of his life) he had lost his fire and the vision
"We have never really managed to really
tie down the music to know what it is all about. It has a peculiar
form surely because it has a hidden programme. I feel sure this
is so and a lot of critics have shared my view. Yet I don’t think
we have found any correspondence that has admitted anything in
any real depth. Whether, in fact, there were any depths to the
music that he could also articulate in words is a very moot point.
Perhaps some of the things the music says were quasi-autobiographical
in one way and another and yet could not be articulated in words
or he would have done so?
"Bax reacted to his adolescent teenage vision
and that of his twenties in the earlier less worldly compositions
and he reacted strongly to the Great War, and to the events in
Ireland equally strongly but in a more realistic fashion. But
he was an escapist. He did not become involved personally in either
of these cataclysmic events and he did not confront things. His
relationship with Harriet Cohen was never satisfactorily resolved
- at least from her point of view. Granted he was firm with May
Harrison who was forever chasing him. He was strong enough to
tell her that he wanted to remain friends, but that there could
never be anything more between them than friendship. But so many
times he fudged the issue. There is a letter written by his wife,
shortly after he left her for Harriet Cohen, which clearly indicates
her bewilderment, saying that even in the later phase of their
marriage he could be remarkably demonstrative and fond of her.
He often spoke of the women in his life as his "fairy princesses"
and there was quite a procession of them. If all these currents
and tensions were going on, you could well understand that they
could be reflected in the music."
I asked Lewis what he felt about the different
recordings of the symphonies. (Note this interview with Lewis
Foreman dates from before the first of David Lloyd-Jones Bax symphonies
for Naxos was released.) "The old Lyrita recordings were
very good," he replied. "Bryden Thomson’s recordings
were also very good but in a different way. They were remarkably
effective and, of course, they had the advantage of that marvellous,
rich Chandos sound. But I did disagree with ‘Jack’ over his interpretation
of the last movement of the 3rd Symphony which opened far too
slowly. To my mind, no recent conductor has performed the 4th
Symphony as it ought to sound. There is a tape made by Barbirolli
of the 4th Symphony where he really invests the waves, at the
beginning, with a tremendous amount of rubato so that they actually
do sound like waves. No later conductor has managed to make the
music sound like that.
"The Chandos records sold very widely, internationally.
The company received letters from all over the world and sold
their produce in large numbers. However, it is a pity that the
works have not yet been accepted in the concert halls. I do not
know whether that is because conductors have not taken them up
or the parts are not in the right places when they are wanted.
But I still think that we only need one big name conductor to
take up one of the symphonies. If the music was to be used for
a major film, I think it would go round the world and everybody
would be going mad about it." [A feature film like Michael
Collins, might have been the ideal subject for the 1st or
2nd Symphonies themes - I.L.]
For a view from inside the orchestra it is worth
recalling the comments of Bernard Shore, principal viola, BBC
Symphony Orchestra (1930-39). In a television interview he said,
"When we came to a new Bax work - or even one of the well-known
ones - we adored playing it. His part writing was superb but the
one complaint we had was that his notation was so difficult; he
would mix up sharps and flats galore! I remember a player murmuring
from the back: ‘There he goes again, look at him - B sharp; D
flat; E double sharp; F flat!!! Why can’t the bloody man write
a simple scale of C Major!?!’"
As a digression, the rest of Bernard Shore’s
interview is interesting:- "I remember receiving a letter
from Bax when he was older and living in Storrington. ‘You know
of an evening it’s just like an officer’s mess here’, it said.
‘It’s full of public school and ‘varsity types’ all exactly alike,
all indistinguishable except for an inexhaustible thirst for beer.’
At the end of the letter he went on to say, ‘I am more lively
minded now than I was in 1940, or 1918 even, for composition but
what’s the point of it?’
"I went along to see him at the "White
Horse". I went into this scruffy little parlour and it really
was scruffy. There was a kind of desk pushed against the wall,
a table and one or two pub chairs but nothing vaguely comfortable
in sight; and on the wall was a picture of the King and Queen,
torn in one corner and hanging by one drawing pin. I was appalled."
Bax’s god-daughter, Jess Aggs, speaking in the
same programme said, "He never had a piano or a radio there.
He used to come up to us to hear it. I remember him listening
to a performance of The Garden of Fand on our radio
and he heard the first performance of his 2nd Cello Sonata on
it too. He was a very private person indeed. He was a lovely companion
with a great sense of humour and he never talked down to the young.
He didn’t like to mention that he was a composer."
The composer Robert Walker who at one time lived
at Brinkwells the country cottage close to Storrington, where
Elgar composed his Cello Concerto and chamber works, also contributed
to the TV programme. Walker said of Bax, "I think Bax’s orchestration
is the most important thing. He makes the most marvellous sounds
in the orchestra. Take The Garden of Fand, for instance.
It is wonderful the way the flutes and strings cascade up and
down and up and down. It’s a shimmering sound with strands of
single lines underneath which has a beautiful effect - it’s like
film music, giving a very accurate description of shimmering water.
"Bax’s music is not in the mode of what
Constant Lambert somewhat derogatorily termed the "cow-pat
school" of English composers; his is a general response to
nature. But I do think that Bax’s music is really about all things
wild. Images of the sea are both pictorial and part of a sexual
imagery that runs through so many of Bax’s works, including the
symphonies. In Tintagel, it is probably the strongest because
Harriet Cohen made it so. [Bax had left his wife to elope to Tintagel
with Harriet Cohen - I.L.]
"When you listen to Bax you have to listen
very carefully because it is an intellectual kind of music but
nevertheless, at the same time, there is a level on which you
can listen to it where he simply rushes ideas at you, one tumbling
over the next, without any feeling that he needs to pause and
reflect on anything he has just said. There is this strong feeling
of impulsive spontaneity - so the escapism he comes to, is the
escapism in his music.
"Bax was an escapist and he would often
escape to remote places especially in Ireland which was his spiritual
home. He identified with the Irish people. At Glencolumcille (West
Donegal), with its nearby Megalithic Tombs, the inhabitants made
him comfortable but it is not a comfortable or even a comforting
place. The people there face a turbulent, wild barrier that is
the Atlantic and they have, or had, to eke out a very meagre existence.
We all say at, one time or another, how nice it would be to get
away from it all, get away from the telephone get away to some
such place as Glencolumcille. Bax was something of a Peter Pan
figure. He never really grew up and this was a typical adolescent
response in going to such an isolated spot. But it did inspire
so much wonderful music. In any case, Bax, himself, confessed
that he was ‘a brazen romantic’ a definition which he went on
to explain: ‘My music is the expression of emotional states -
I have no interest whatever in sound for its own sake’"
Colin Scott-Sutherland sent a great deal of interesting
material when I told him I was compiling this article. I felt
strongly that one item - a copy of a letter Colin had received,
in October 1963, from Eric Fenby about his impressions of Delius
and Bax - must be included here. It said:-
"Few ventured on Delius at his home in rural
France, but Bax was always welcome. Routine for visitors was usually
the same; descent at Bourron or Fontainebleau stations; a drive
through the forest in the old Ford to Grez; lunch; a stroll by
the river whilst Delius had a nap; tea; departure.
"My first impression of Bax remains; Bax
in his prime with Delius at Grez. Quick, ruddy, shy, untidy, reticent
about music, expansive about books, and constantly searching for
matches for his pipe. The aged, owl-like figure who greeted me
years later at Balfour Gardiner’s Memorial Concert in London seemed
strangely out of context. I never saw him again. (Did truth or
eccentricity conspire with Balfour to plant his Dorset trees and
name them after his friends - "Arnold’s plantation"
- "Gustav’s Plantation" - should their music not live?
I have often wondered since.)
Bax, apparently, went to few concerts, loved
travel, preferred the country and hated London. I sensed some
antipathy to music not his own, but weak compared to Delius’s.
For him, he said A Song of the High Hills was the "most
convincing, virile Delius."
Delius, I knew, professed a liking for Tintagel
and The Garden of Fand but had no patience at all with
One day I found him ruffled and agitated. "Bax
wants to make a cut in the First Violin Sonata. He’s going to
record it with May Harrison. Explain it to me at the piano"
(Delius was then blind and paralysed.) He pondered the matter
in silence that day, then dictated a flat refusal. Such criticism,
however was not one-sided.
After one of Bax’s visits, Delius remarked to
me, "I like Bax. I’m glad he came. If only that boy would
concentrate he’d do something fine. His forms are too loose. He
May Harrison’s comment on hearing of this was
- "Strange! What strikes one most when rehearsing with Bax
is his absolute passion for form!"
When I asked Colin Scott-Sutherland if he had
had any further thoughts or any change of opinion since his book
was published in 1973, he replied, "No, I have not changed
my original thoughts about these fine works since I wrote of them.
This is perhaps surprising because when I wrote the book I had
no recordings to go by - other than the Barbirolli 3rd Symphony*,
a memory of the 4th under Goossens at the Proms and recordings
that Harriet Cohen had of the 5th and 6th Symphonies. I had to
write of Winter Legends with the MS score only - so I am
amazed, now that I have heard so many new recordings, that I do
not think I need to revise anything that I had written then."
I can testify that Colin is not being at all
egotistical in his reply; he is merely giving the facts as he
sees them: he is a very scrupulous and scholarly writer.
Of the symphonies, Colin Scott-Sutherland has
said in his book:-
"...The primary symphonic material with
which Bax deals in the 1st Symphony, and develops in subsequent
works is found in its earliest form, in the 1st Piano Sonata,
a work which was the outcome of considerable emotional stress.
And, significantly, though it is part of both first and second
subject material, it is found in the first six bars (in the upper
line of the theme, G sharp, A, F sharp, E sharp) and at the
allegro passionato statement of the second subject derived
from this. This thematic device, with its major/minor ambivalence
and drooping semitone, is re-echoed even more strongly in the
second Violin Sonata, where, from its appearance in the first
two bars, it dominates the entire work. It is further elaborated,
with the addition of a tail-like ‘descent’ pattern of four consecutive
notes, in the second of the sonatas for piano. It reappears in
November Woods, almost in the same guise, and from then
on becomes a kind of personal fingerprint. But in the 1st Symphony
the mask is ripped off and the terrible darkness of these primary
forces is revealed!
"The violent energy of this work was to
power not only the 1st Symphony but the whole seven. The entire
1st Symphony, like its opening germ theme which is symbolic, heaves
itself, saurian-like from the gloom of the primeval slime, with
a fearsome challenge only to sink back - a monolithic erection
whose root goes deep, but whose opening gesture led Bax onward,
through twenty more movements, to the ultimate vision of the close
of the 6th Symphony and the final 7th. It is quite apparent from
the final passages of the 1st that resolution of conflict was
beyond the scope of one work. The musical idea was truly symphonic
but its relevance and design were not properly apparent until
the completion of the 3rd in February 1929.
"And even then the consummation was only
partial. For it remained for the 5th and more finally, the 6th
to show that the most positive expression of both primary and
secondary material (the first subject theme groups and the second
subject central, so-called Celtic, more lyrical subject matter)
had the same origin in the exposition of each work, and, in the
overall pattern of the seven, deep in the prototype of the 1st
"So closely identified do the primary and
secondary materials become that their ultimate fusion is essential
and logical. Both are creative manifestations of Bax’s spiritual
force. The two facets of the same basic germ are seen darkly and
obscurely veiled - and reflected in a clear and transparent light-
and it is not difficult to see the revelation of the brutish opening
of the 1st in the epilogue of the 5th.
"In this sense, the symphonies are cyclic.
But the cycle is circumambulatory rather than repetitive. The
basic material, amorphous or not, is seen from a cosmic viewpoint
as its centre is viewed in changing lights from varying angles
by the composer, as if he were in some vehicle revolving in space
around the sphere of his inspiration..."
Although Bax, the symphonist, was mainly associated
with Morar, I cannot help feeling that the greater, more pervasive,
lasting influence was Ireland, especially Glencolumcille. Our
farewell view of Bax is surely significant and apposite. In the
Autumn of 1953, Bax, then in his seventieth year, travelled to
Cork for the annual examinations of the music school staying with
Professor Aloys Fleischmann of the faculty. (Fleischmann revived
Into the Twilight with the Cork Symphony Orchestra
during the 1960s) It was the custom to arrange an outing with
friends to some local beauty spot and on this occasion it was
decided to visit The Old Head of Kinsale.
As Colin Scott Sutherland has so eloquently written,
" It was a clear, calm evening and Bax stood for some time
gazing out over the Atlantic towards the legendary Tír
na nOg - the ‘Hidden Isles of Eternal Youth’ - in rapt contemplation
of what was the very stuff of his musical imagery. We will never
know what thoughts passed through his mind as he gazed at the
scene, for that evening, at the home of his hosts he passed peacefully
away. To the end, he had retained the passion and romanticism
of a young man, but now, at last, the closing words of his memoir
were finally vindicated. ‘Farewell, My Youth’ indeed.
Ian Lace, copyright 1997 and 2003.
[This article originally appeared in British Music Society
News and was published in Fanfare.]