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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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 repeated hearing.

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 musicians.

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,’" - I.L.]

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 host.

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 in London.

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 singer.

"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 extended.

"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 word."

Vernon Handley’s views about Bax’s music are also cogent.

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 a little."

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 had faded.

"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 the symphonies.

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 should concentrate!"

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 Symphony.

"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.]

 



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