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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

ARNOLD BAX

By

Greg Barns

[With acknowledgements and thanks to both the Australian Financial Review of 19 Sept 2003; and to Mr Barns for permission to use this here]

On the eve of the Second World War, the brilliant Russian music scholar, composer and conductor, Lazare Saminsky published a long essay on the contemporary music scene and what the future might hold for classical music. When it came to English music, Saminsky identified what he called the ‘diversity and catholicity of the British tonal mind’ in four, then contemporary, composers. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss, Eugene Goossens (who would come to Sydney in the 1950s to conduct its orchestra), and Arnold Bax. Of the latter, Saminsky had this to say – he is the ‘Celtic voice in English music.’ Only 40 years later, The New Grove, the UK’s leading music encyclopedia and chronicler, published ‘Twentieth Century English Masters’. That collection included essays on Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, William Walton, Michael Tippett, and Benjamin Britten. In those days, Arnold Bax didn’t rate anything other than a cursory mention on a couple of pages.

2003 represents the fiftieth anniversary of Arnold Bax’s death. He died in his beloved Ireland on October 3, 1953, one month short of his 70th birthday. Since the late 1980s Bax has made something of a comeback in the recording and concert world. The English recording label Chandos began championing his cause at this time. Now the redoubtable Naxos, the world’s fastest growing recording company, is churning out CDs of the chamber and symphonic collection of this fascinating composer.

‘Fascinating’ is an overused word in the arts but in Bax’s case it seems appropriate. Arnold Edward Trevor Bax was variously a poet and participant in the Irish literary scene of the first twenty years of the 20th century, a traveller to the then remote Ukraine, an opponent of the atonalist movement led by Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, a member of the English musical establishment, he became Master of the King’s Musick in 1942, and a Knight of the Realm. Bax was comfortably off – his father was a wealthy barrister - throughout his life he fell in and out of love or obsession with a number of women, generally younger than he was.

Bax was a child of the English bourgeoisie, born in 1883 into an upper middle class family. His mother in particular, doted on him and his brother Clifford. Indeed, life for Arnold Bax was such that he could afford to pursue his emotional yearnings and youthful intellectual and cultural interests with an unusual degree of personal freedom.

Aged 19, Bax as he was later to describe it, found that the ‘Celt within me stood revealed.’ It was 1902 and with his older brother, Clifford who was at the time an arts student, Bax set off for Ireland. Earlier that year, he had discovered the poetry of the leading Irish cultural figure, the poet W.B. Yeats. Clifford had met Yeats during one of his trips to Ireland in the early the 1900s and the two Bax brothers arrived in Ireland determined to pursue a deeply spiritual, mystical and intellectual journey in a country that was remote from the suffocating Edwardian strictures of much of England at the time.

Bax’s immersion in Irish tradition and its burgeoning contemporary artistic movements, was total. He travelled throughout the country learning the native Gaelic and like his modernist composer peers in eastern and central Europe, turning his ear to the folk music of the common people. By 1909, Bax had begun to use the nom de plume of ‘Dermot O’Byrne’ and published a collection of poetry. His biographer Colin Scott-Sutherland, describes the composer’s poetry as "marked by a delicate, sometimes bitter, but always haunting beauty … the lines are shot through with a sense of wonder at the endless phenomena of natural beauty which for the Celt has an especial meaning."

Bax’s 1909 poem, ‘Seafoam and Firelight’, for example, is redolent with that wistful longing to be immersed in the mythical endless "phenomena of natural beauty":

No careless mood of the gay old sun beguiles

The shades that wander there like midnight snow,

The endless grey sea-sorrow and the murmuring miles,

The windy riders trampling the waves that flow

From the sombre west; yet sometimes still the smiles

Of elder gods must lighten as long ago

The Aran Isles.

Bax wrote poetry often and well. He more or less moved permanently to Dublin in 1911 and this enabled him to deepen his connection with the giants of the contemporary Dublin literary scene – Yeats, Maud Gonne, and Seamus O’Sullivan. His verse took on an occasional political tone, demonstrating the depth of his passion for the struggles of the times. Bax’s response to the events of the Easter Uprising of 1916 was titled ‘Dublin Ballad’, while his poem ‘The Battle of the Somme’ ("War was red hell") was written in a manner redolent of the most poignant of the war poets, Wilfred Owen.

In ‘Dublin Ballad’, the anger that Bax felt towards his native England’s treatment of the Irish independence movement is self-evident. It was one of the few times in which Bax engaged directly in a political cause. Unsurprisingly, lines such as "To all true Irishmen on earth/Arrest and death come late or soon" drew Bax to the attention of the censors in the British government.

Bax’s literary output also included collections of short stories. Once again, the idiom was dramatic and mystical, emphasizing the folk tales and myths of the Irish countryside. One of these stories, "The Sisters and the Green Magic", illustrates the richness of Bax’s imaginative response to the ‘other worldliness’ of Celtish culture. It is a tale of two beautiful sisters, Sorcha and Noreen who love the same man. Sorcha marries the man who subsequently drowns, leaving her pregnant. Noreen dreams of seagulls and the child is born with the webbed feet of the bird. In describing the dream Bax writes of the "gorgeous twilight fantasies of the ancient and fatal sea", and of the "savage leagues of hazy rock and heather that rolled away unendingly to the west."

Intriguingly, Bax’s published literary output ceased in 1924. But Bax’s affections for his ‘adopted land’ never diminished and he spent much of his time there.

It was not only Ireland that fascinated Bax. His journey to the exotic Ukraine in 1910 equally fired his imagination. He had gone there pursuing a young Russian girl whom he called ‘Loubya Korolenka’ in his memoir, "Farewell My Youth". Whilst Bax’s passion and ardour for ‘Loubya’ eventually petered out, the young composer found himself in a land, which like Ireland, was earthy and sensual. In the words of Scott-Sutherland, Bax was inspired by the "velvety nights, the shimmering forests of silver birch … and the languors of the not very remote Orient."

From the Ukraine, Bax went on to St Petersburg and the vastness of the northern sky and landscape made a deep impression on him. In the Russian people, especially the peasantry rather than the inhabitants of the gilded salons, Bax found two "curiously antithetical ideas of beauty, a love of monotony, or endless repetition on the more sombre aspects of Nature, and a love of the most vivid, even violent contrasts of bright colour." But unlike the young Igor Stravinsky, who applied these sensory experiences to superb modernist effect in his ballets such as The Firebird, for Bax, Russia reinforced his sense of romantic mysticism.

In the years before his 40th birthday, Bax fell in and out of love on two significant occasions. In addition to the ‘golden Roussalka’ who’d taken him to Russia, he married Elsa Sobrino, a woman whose Spanish father and German mother were in Bax’s musical circle, in 1911. But by 1918 he had left her and two children for the young English pianist Harriet Cohen. Bax’s affair with Cohen was celebrated and passionate. She was an escapee from the dismal struggle of the First World War. As Bax described it, she was the "adolescent dream." A number of his friends and colleagues died in the slaughterhouse of France and for a soul such as Bax’s, often seeking escape from reality, Harriet Cohen was the right kind of tonic.

But even Harriet Cohen was not enough to sustain the restless emotions of Bax. In the early 1920s he met Mary Gleaves, an English woman 20 years his junior. She was not from the musical world and in her Bax had a mother figure – a woman of unerring loyalty and security. He did not break his liaison with Harriet Cohen who remained unaware of Miss Gleaves until 1948!

As a Bax biographer Lewis Foreman has commented, Bax sought in women "an intriguing mixture of child-like, wide-eyed innocence and wanton sexuality." But he also sought to recreate his indulgent mother who like Mary Gleaves would be his hearth and retreat from the demanding public world of a leading composer.

On the 6th May 1949 Arnold Bax presented a portrait of himself as part of a BBC radio broadcast series entitled ‘British Composers.’ It is disarmingly honest and self-effacing. But then Bax was regarded as such by most who encountered him throughout his life. In this ‘talk’ he eloquently set out what it was that influenced his music. The importance of emotional, sensual and intellectual episodes that were so integral a part of his youth and young manhood particularly his ramblings through rural Ireland, underpinned his romantic musical style. In this talk Bax describes himself as an Irishman and recounted that an Irish poet, whom he does not name, described him as having "a completely Gaelicised mind." It was the love of the Celtic culture that allowed Bax to purge himself as he put it, of the ‘alien elements’ of the central Europeans Wagner and Strauss so he could write "using figures of a definitely Celtic curve."

It was W. B. Yeats whom Bax clearly worshipped most. The BBC talk reveals just how in thrall he was of the charismatic poet. It was Yeats who was the "key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland and his finger that pointed to the Magic Mountain whence I was to dig nearly all that may be of value in my own art … all the days of my life I bless his name." Despite this veneration, Bax never set any of Yeats’ poetry to music, in contrast say to Benjamin Britten, whose ardour for Wilfred Owen led to the moving War Requiem composed at the commencement of the 1960s. In Bax’s view "it is sacrilege to tamper with great verse by trying to associate it with another art."

That Bax was a romantic in his musical idiom is without doubt. His tone poems such as "Tintagel", "The Garden of Fand" and "November Woods", all written or commenced during World War 1, are escapist and fantastic. Inspired by Celtic legend, there was no sign in this romanticism of the external chaos that was enveloping Europe, or Bax’s own life for that matter (his marriage was falling apart) at the time. As Lewis Foreman has put it, they are works that "sublimate personal emotion in favour of a musical evocation of nature." Bax used his Celtic ‘dreamland’ to seek respite from the War. Writing to a friend who had emigrated to New Zealand, he wrote in October 1915 that he was inclined to plunge "into a narcotic ocean of creative work."

But Bax was not totally oblivious to the potential of making a political statement or reflecting on the state of the world through the musical form. His "In Memoriam: Padraig Pearse", scored for a chamber ensemble, is an eloquent and passionate meditation on the bloody birth of the Irish Republic. And as Robert Stradling and Meirion Hughes, whose book The English Musical Renaissance 1860-1940 is a pithy and accurate summary of a nation searching for a worthy successor to 17th century composer Henry Purcell, observe Bax’s 1920 Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra includes the "triumphal intonement" of the IRA hymn, A Soldier’s Tale – the "political antithesis" of the more famous work written by Vaughan Williams at that time, The Lark Ascending.

In fact, it is fair to argue that Bax was not only as he himself put it, "a hopeless romantic", but also fearful of the convulsions in the cultural world that were occurring in and around the War. He spoke of ‘all the old values" being "disused." Unlike contemporaries such as Russian composer Igor Stravinsky or Hungarian Béla Bartók, for whom the tearing down or dissolution of the ‘old order’ presented a fecund climate for cultural experimentation and fashioning, Bax regarded it as a threat.

If there is any doubt that Bax, generally regarded as a thoroughly decent fellow by his contemporaries, was incapable of invective then his letter to the journal Music and Letters in October 1951 should put this myth to rest! His description of the musical qualities of Austrian modernist Arnold Schönberg is hardly the language one expects from a pillar of the English musical establishment. It was Schönberg’s 1911 composition, Three Piano Pieces that turned Bax against this giant of the 20th century musical and broader cultural scene.

Bax wrote that he "instantly developed an ice-cold antipathy to Schönberg and his whole musical system" after he heard this early attempt at the atonal sound that Schönberg essentially ‘discovered.’ For Bax there was "little probability" that the 12-note scale developed by Schönberg "will produce anything more than morbid and entirely cerebral growths. It might deal successfully with neuroses of various kinds, but I cannot imagine it associated with any healthy and happy concept such as young love or the coming of spring." Take that Stockhausen, Boulez and other young composers of the post World War 2 period whose mission in life was to advance the Schönbergian cause!

And indeed Bax was true to his word. His seven symphonies are deeply rooted in the Romantic style, Brahmsian structures with Celtic flourishes manifesting in mystical sounds such as those heard in the Second Symphony. There is also more than a hint of another contemporary in Bax’s later symphonies – the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Like Sibelius, Bax used the gestures of surging strings to create a vivid sense of surging power and the taut melodies of the woodwinds and violins to articulate "austere beauty," as Colin Scott-Sutherland put it.

Bax’s symphonic efforts attracted the big names when it came to conducting premieres. The Boston Symphony’s legendary Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Second Symphony on 13 December 1929 and Sir Thomas Beecham with the London Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the Fifth Symphony – dedicated to Sibelius – on January 15 1934.

Bax’s popularity and his political reticence in comparison with some of his more prominent peers, saw him elevated to the prize position of Master of the King’s Musick in 1942. But that appointment made by a no doubt pre-occupied Winston Churchill from the War Cabinet rooms in the bowels of Whitehall, came as a genuine surprise to Bax. He had told the musical world in the 1930s that given his age, he wanted to retire ‘like a grocer.’ Indeed many critics viewed his appointment with mild astonishment. In many people’s minds Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had assumed Edward Elgar’s ‘elder statesman’ role in English music was the more appropriate man for the job.

During his tenure as Master of the King’s Musick – an appointment he held until his death in 1953 – Bax wrote two film scores. The first, a 1942 film with Laurence Olivier as narrator, Malta G.C., and the second, the 1948 version of Oliver Twist with the marvellous Alec Guinness as Fagin. Bax did not enjoy either experience. He complained to Olivier that he did not approve of dialogue taking place on the film while his music was playing in the background!

Unlike those of Richard Strauss, who lamented the collapse of the Germanic and Austrian cultures from his Alpine retreat during the last years of the Second World War, Bax spent many of his later years in the English countryside, quietly watching cricket and drinking in his local Sussex pub.

After his death in Cork in 1953, his old friend Vaughan Williams described Bax as seeming "not to belong to this world but always to be gazing through the magic casements, or wandering in the shy woods and wychwood bowers waiting for the spark from heaven to fall."

It is this quality that makes Bax so listenable today – and thus the 50-year anniversary of his death worth remembering. Arnold Bax’s sense of cultural adventure, his preparedness to embrace the Celtic cause, and his solid defence of the Romantic tradition that gave it a few more years of life when it seemed dead and buried with the rise of Schönberg, Stravinsky, Alban Berg and Béla Bartók, provide ample demonstration of a fertile and insightful life.

Greg Barns © 2003

 



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