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