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BAX - A Composer and his Times
by Lewis Foreman
25 b/w illustrations
616 pages
Size: 23 x 15 cm
10 digit ISBN: 1843832097
13 digit ISBN: 9781843832096
Binding: Hardback
Boydell Press
Price: 55.00 USD / 29.95 GBP

 


 

It is more than twenty years since Lewis Foreman’s pioneering study of Arnold Bax –‘a composer and his times’ was published. Though he had spent some fifteen years in research before this it was obvious that much more was to come. There were tantalising references to compositions that had not been found, let alone performed or recorded and now with the third edition of his book, we must give Lewis credit for his assiduity in hunting down and persuading artists and recording companies to take up these long ignored works – in which enterprise he had the support of the Arnold Bax Trust.

While in the 1960s and 1970s pitifully few works were available on record – with Chappell’s disastrous fire in 1964 leaving most of Bax’s music out of print – it is astonishing, with the advent of the CD that Bax’s music is now at a high point with rave reviews and virtually all his work available and even several complete cycles of the seven Symphonies! For this Lewis must take considerable credit since apart from the prestigious Catalogue of Dr Graham Parlett - much more than merely abstract details - Lewis’s study is, for the moment at any rate, the sole complete critical account of the music. And with this text should be read his innumerable programme and sleeve notes. His account of the music is interleaved with a richly documented portrayal of the life of one of the most complex personalities in music … "and not only" as Richter said of Elgar "in this country".

I have minor reservations about emphases, chiefly in the symphonies but all will come into true perspective when other critical studies are written by other commentators of varying persuasions.

It will be realised that the raison d’être of this present third edition is to take account of the papers of the pianist and Bax’s life-long lover and exponent, Harriet Cohen. These she had deposited in the British Library in 1967 with access under embargo for thirty years. These have now become available for study – and with what is already known about their relationship speculation as to the nature and content of this ‘cache’ (1) can now be satisfied. Could it contain yet unknown music? Or does it contain personal material that might well be destined for the tabloids? (2)

It appears that Lewis, for the moment, has contented himself with reproducing letters that have much relevance to the ‘life’ – enabling him to place more accurately performances and critical opinion. There is too a welcome photograph of the elusive Natalia Skargynska whom he pursued to Russia – compare the face with that of Evelyn, his sister, and that of his mother!

It does seem to me that the sensual Bax of most of the letters, even to his cousin Freda (3) is that aspect of the duality in Bax - made explicit in the person of Dermot O’Byrne. This belongs to an ‘escapist’ world – unlike the world of his music which was for him the real world – perhaps rather the reverse of what might seem normal?

Even when the relationship with Mary Gleaves provided a less feverish liaison he could not help, in his fifties, a brief excursion with the young Christine Ryan.(4).

Something of the real Bax is glimpsed amongst his cricketing fellows at Broughton Gifford (then Clifford’s home) and this is illuminated by a fascinating letter to Harriet here quoted by Lewis:-

"all day long I was wondering why men and women could never be simply and easily happy together as men are with other men. There is always struggle and unhappiness in the world of sex – the menace of storm behind the sunlight. (Even from the first) I frankly can’t understand you at all now"

It is doubtful, despite the wealth of material relating to the man if any of "those who knew him intimately – ever really knew that inner self whose soul is riven in the climaxes of the seven symphonies. Even while wandering in Eire with his friends of later days he revealed little of himself or of his music And suddenly, among his companions he would become abstracted, withdrawn, as if encountering something of that visionary experience that makes grim and fascinating reading in the tales and the scores. For Bax, the romantic experience – ‘within us the desire becomes an agony to live for a single hour with all the might of the imagination, to drown our beings in the proud sunlit tumult of one instant of utter realisation even though it consume us utterly …" flooded that forlorn twilight with a brilliantly clear light. And in that light we too can look – even momentarily – upon that pristine world. (5)

We are closest to the real Bax in the world of his music.

********************************

The book itself is handsomely produced, and as before contains the Appendices on Dermot O’Byrne, King Kojata and The Happy Forest. There are copious notes – but unfortunately a printer’s error has resulted in the notes from Chapter 15 to the end being reproduced from the earlier edition – so that much useful information and acknowledgment is lost. The printer has I understand agreed to provide corrections.

The book is certainly the English Music-lover’s ‘Bible’ to which David Owen Norris has provided a quirky Foreword. What I wonder does he mean by Bax’s life is ""littered with creative duplicity"? It is therefore a ‘must’ at the most reasonable price (£22.46 to British Music Society members!)

Colin Scott-Sutherland

see also review by Rob Barnett

Notes:-

  1. 4 metal trunks containing (inter alia) 1500 letters from Bax to Cohen; 350 letters Cohen to Bax: "letters from close men friends" – "letters from lovers and greatest men friends" – and "another small collection (significance unknown).
  2. Lewis indicates that there are also naked photographs of both Arnold and Harriet
  3. "I longed that you should be here that we might steal down when the house was quiet and out into the dark. It would have been magical to be naked in the long grass under the apple trees and to feel the soft night breezes moving over our bodies."
  4. My own excursions into this has been confined to study of the early female relationships (which prompted the publication ‘Ideala’ ) and it is apparent that casting each old flame aside as he discovered another Bax treated the girls rather badly – particularly the sensitive Dorothy (with whom he escaped to the Bohmischer Schweiz (see Farewell my Youth page 38.))
  5. Arnold Bax (Colin Scott-Sutherland) page 192 with quotation from ‘The Lifting of the Veil" in "Children of the Hills"


 


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