"BAX AND ELGAR" a
lecture by Ian Lace
THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE
Last Modified May 7, 1997
The following text is taken
from a lecture given by Ian Lace. Ian is a prominent music scholar
and critic (he writes for the BBC Music Magazine, Fanfare, Classic
CD and the British Music Society). I greatly appreciate his
willingness to allow me to post the text of his lecture here. For
groups and organizations interested in hearing Ian present this
lecture in person, he should be contacted directly at 100742.155@CompuServe.COM
(.) This presentation is complete with nearly 200 slides,
musical excerpts and interviews with Vernon Handley and Robert
Walker etc; The text quotes liberally from Bax's autobiography,
Farewell, My Youth. This invaluable resource is available through
Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Gower House, Croft Road, Aldershot,
Hampshire, GU11 3HR United Kingdom. Tel: +44 (0) 1252 317700 Fax:
+44 (0) 1252 343151.
Arnold Bax was, in his own
words, a brazen romantic. He was a Peter Pan figure and a nomad. A
man from a background of considerable financial resource, he never
owned his own house. At various times he lived in a scruffy two room
flat in Hampstead, in a spartan hotel room in Morar, Inverness-shire
during bleak winter months and for the last thirteen years of his
life, in a room above a pub in Storrington just a few miles away
from Brinkwells where Elgar composed his Cello Concerto and the
Connections between Bax and Elgar spread in all directions. My
sources are, (1) Lewis Foreman's Bax - A composer and his Times
which must be regarded as definitive. (2) Scott-Sutherland's book
which preceeded it, although rather technical, is nonetheless very
valuable too. It has some intriguing insights. (3) Harriet Cohen's A
Bundle of Time is very entertaining. In it she sketches many
illuminating portraits of musicians and writers. (4)Farewell, My
Youth is Bax's autobiography, written between 1940 and 1943. It
covers his early years only. It is a very good read and it also
includes telling portraits of leading musicians. Better Bax tell us
his own story from Farewell, My Youth. I have edited some of his
words for smoothness of presentation:
BAX & ELGAR
"I have been informed, in
print, that I was born on an island in the middle of a bog lake in
County Mayo. I was once sent a cutting from a Dublin paper
proclaiming that Arnold Bax was a pseudonymn, adopted solely for
musical purposes by a west of Ireland poet and novelist named Dermot
O'Byrne. These fantasies are picturesque but unfortunately not true.
"I reaffirm that I was born uninterestingly - except to my
mother and myself - at Streatham on November 8th 1883."
(In the July of that year Elgar became engaged to Helen Weaver and
his Intermezzo - Serenade Mauresque was performed for the first time
in Birmingham by Stockley on December 13th)
"I distinctly remember my first conscious apprehension of
beauty. (Bax was nearly six). I was taken one September evening to
the top of Arundel Park. It was the hour of sunset and as we stood
there, an unimaginable glory of flame developed in the west so that
all the wooded heights seemed on fire. Even the east was stained
with pale coral. It might have been Ragnarok the burning of the Gods
in Norse mythology. I watched speachlessly. The hour was
(Only a few miles away from
this scene is Brinkwells - the Sussex cottage where Elgar composed
his Cello Concerto and the later chamber music.)
"My earliest distant acquaintance with the orchestra came when
I was taken for the first time to one of the Crystal Palace Saturday
concerts. My father had been a subscriber since 1860 and had
religiously attended every Saturday afternoon. He had kept every
analytical programme from the beginning of his concert going career.
I used to sit in vast and delicious awe of the conductor August
Manns who always appeared in white kid gloves and a white rose or
carnation in his buttonhole.
"In 1896 my parents moved to Hampstead and a far more
interesting social milieu. There were literary clubs, book
societies, annual exhibitions of paintings by Hampstead artists, and
the Joachim Quartet at the town hall...
"It has always been a matter of deep regret to me that I was
not brought up in the country but, failing that, Ivybank and its
garden could be counted the next best thing. At the back of the
house was a large lawn screened from westerly winds by a noble row
of chestnut trees. Beyond these was a second green. Here, during the
summers of our youth, Clifford and I, our friends and one or two
gardeners and policemen, played cricket - to the peril of the
"With the coming of the Hampstead Tube Railway, in the first
decade of the new century, there occured settlement in the
foundations and outer walls of the house. Ceilings collapsed in the
night. The place was becoming a public nuiscance when my father sold
it in 1911.
"After being a student at the Hampstead Conservatoire which was
ruled by the afterwards celebrated Cecil Sharpe, I entered the Royal
Academy of Music, then in Tenterden Street, in September 1900. I
found amongst my fellow students Eric Coates, Montague Philips, W.H.
Reed, and York Bowen. Later on Myra Hess and Irene Scharrer arrived
as very small and eternally giggling little girls. I remained at the
R.A. M. for five years. My senses were drunk with Wagner and my
nerves a-twitch to the titillating pervisities that Richard Strauss
was obtruding for the first time into a fundamentally diatonic
style. Wagner had made music the language of passion, and now
Richard the second was turning the art into neurosis become vocal.
"Debussy did not reach England until the spring of 1905, my
last year as a student. My A Celtic Song was produced at an Academy
concert soon after the French composer's work was becoming known.
One critic wrote: This young man should be sedulously kept at
present from further study of Debussy. I had never heard of Debussy
when I wrote these songs.
"In 1904 I had won the Charles Lucas Medal at the R.A.M. with a
set of symphonic variations. Afterwards a letter from the Royal
College of Music arrived charging me to present myself there to
rehearse my work. Sir Hubert Parry was to be there; so after careful
deliberation I decided to array myself in my seldom worn frock-coat
and tall hat. The heat was intense during my journey and I arrived
perspiring not a little. Sir Charles Stanford approached me at once
and said, rather brusquely, 'So here you are. You are Bax aren't
you? Well you can go up there and work your wicked will on the
"My knees knocked together. I stammered in a very small voice
"But I have never conducted in my life" 'Never mind that.
You've got to begin sometime my boy. Go on with ye.'
"Overharrowing it would be to resuscitate in any detail the
pity and terror of that scene. I would naturally conduct with my
left hand and I probably did so then. But I really don't know. In
all my life I have never consented to conduct again. The
embarrasement, the horror I endured that sweltering afternoon! The
orchestra players were stoically long suffering. Only once did a
politely ironic voice query "Excuse me, but are you beating in
twos or threes?" After some 45 minutes of mental and physical
misery I stumbled off the platform. "Ye look warm young
man", observed Stanford.
ELGAR AT BIRCHWOOD 1901
"Coming down to breakfast at
Ivybank one autumn morning in 1898, I found my father seated at the
table, his favourite Standard open between his small and beautiful
hands and looking quite excited. 'You should read this, my boy,' he
exclaimed before I could take my seat. 'A new English composer has
turned up and the paper says that he is something like a genius!' He
handed me the sheet, and I read a long and highly laudatory account
of the first performance of Caractacus. This was my earliest
introduction to the name of Elgar, for although he was already past
forty and not unhonoured in his native Worcester, I do not think
that his work was at all known to the public at large, or that much
of it had yet been played in London. Eagerly I procured the vocal
scores of Caractacus and King Olaf, and was soon one of the
composer's most enslaved admirers. Two years later to this
admiration was added reverence, for The Dream of Gerontius took utte!
r possession of what religious sense I have.
"In Malvern lived an Academy friend of mine, one George Alder,
a horn-player, a wag of no mean order, and well acquainted since
boyhood with Elgar. I saw much of him during August 1901, and one
day he perturbed and delighted me with the proposal that we should
walk over to Birchwood, the woodland cottage where Gerontius had
been scored and where the composer was still living, and pay him a
visit. As we approached the unpretentious but charming cottage I
almost regretted my temerity in coming. My tongue and throat were
dry and my heart a-flutter with nervousness, which was part allayed
and part aggravated when we were told by a maid that Mr Elgar was at
present out somewhere in the woods. But he would be back at tea-time
or soon after, and meanwhile would we sit in the garden where the
mistress would join us at once. The composer's wife, a
pleasant-looking fair-haired lady, with - it struck me - rather an
anxious manner, welcomed us very kindly in her gentle, slightly h!
esit ant voice. Almost at once she began to speak enthusiastically
and a little extravagantly about her wonderful husband and his work.
She was speaking of her Edward's early struggles for recognition
when I became aware of the footsteps behind me. 'Oh, here he is!'
cried Mrs Elgar, and I rose and turned with suddenly thudding heart
to be introduced to the great man. Hatless, dressed in rough tweeds
and riding boots, his appearance was rather that of a retired army
officer turned gentleman farmer than an eminent and almost morbidly
highly strung artist. One almost expected him to sling a gun from
his back and drop a brace of pheasants to the ground.
"Refusing tea and sinking to a chair he lay back, his thin legs
sprawling straight out before him, whilst he filled and lit a huge
briar, his rather closely set eyes meanwhile blinking absently at
us. He was not a big man, but such was the dominance of his
personality that I always had the impression that he was twice as
large as life. That afternoon he was very pleasant and even
communicative in his rumbling voice, yet there was ever a faint
sense of detachment, a hint - very slight - of hauteur and reserve.
He was still sore over the Gerontius fiasco at Birmingham in the
previous autumn, and enlarged interestingly upon the subject. 'The
fact is,' he cried, 'neither the choir nor Richter knew the score.'
'But I thought the critics said...' I started to interpose.
'Critics!' snapped the composer with ferocity. 'My dear boy, what do
the critics know about anything?'
"Now I have always been curious about other people's workaday
methods, how long it takes them to get through a job and such-like
matters, and so Elgar was asked what number of pages of full score
represented his weekly average whilst he was working on Gerontius.
'Oh! about forty, I suppose,' he replied carelessly. Having at the
time no experience whatever of the Egyptian labour that is
orchestration, this quantum seemed to be surprisingly small; but
now, after all these weary years at the grindstone, I realize that
he might have spoken more boastfully. Particularly, if he meant that
he completed his pages in all that scrupulous detail which so
admirable characterized everything he wrote.
"Knocking out his pipe, he suggested that we might like to have
a glance at a huge kite that he had recently constructed. We duly
appreciated the lines of his mighty toy, though as there was no wind
its excellencies could not be practically demonstrated, and we were
then led into a small wood adjoining the garden where we found
Elgar's little daughter sitting on a swing. 'Showing rather more leg
than I care about, young woman!' remarked her father crisply. Thus
admonished, the child dutifully slipped to the ground and I paused
to say a few words to her whilst the composer passed on with Alder.
The latter told me as we were returning to Malvern that during my
short absence Elgar had asked him what were my musical ambitions. On
being told that I intended to devote myself to composition, Elgar
had made no comment beyond a grimly muttered, God help him!'
"As a personal contact, my youthful experiences of him at
Birchwood proved for me the best of Elgar. A shy captious man, he
suffered neither fools nor anyone else with consistent gladness. His
manner to others was a matter of mood, as many found to their
disconcerted embarrassment. The next occasion on which I was to meet
him was at the solitary festival of the short-lived Musical League
held in Liverpool in 1909. He was there, in high spirits and his
most genial temper. To my pleasure and surprise he called out on
seeing me, 'I do not need to be introduced to Mr. Bax again.' Later
at dinner he startled me by shouting up the table, 'Mr. Bax! was it
you who told me the story of the two-and-ninepenny crab? whatever
that recondite-sounding jape may have been.
"In the following year I was invited for the first time to send
in a work for performance at a Queen's Hall Promenade Concert, and
when I went to Sir Henry Wood for a preliminary run through he told
me (to my intense pride) that it was none other than Elgar who had
recommended him to take up my work. It seems that he never forgot my
visit to Birchwood (I think his days there counted as the happiest
in his tormented life, and he kept a special regard for anyone who
had seen him in those surroundings).
"The last time I saw him was on his birthday in 1933. That
evening Toscanini had given an ever-memorable performance of the
Enigma Variations, and Harriet Cohen and I, with one or two others,
repaired to the Savoy Grill after the concert for supper. There we
discovered Elgar, characteristically surrounded by actors, Norman
Forbes and Allan Aynesworth amongst them. Harriet, of whom Elgar was
really very fond, rushed up to him and began vivaciously and
charmingly to congratulate him upon the anniversary and the
evening's wonderful music. With - as I thought - rather ridiculous
affectation and ungraciousness, the old composer turned to his
actor-friends and spreading out his hand in mock mystification,
exclaimed, 'What on Earth are these people talking about?'
Mind you, Bax could give as well as he took. He was well known for
his witty comments about his fellow musicians as Lady Susana Walton
remembers in her book "Behind the Facade". She relates
that "Walter Legge admired William's music and that a friendly
rival, Arnold Bax, used to say: 'It was enough for Walton to fart
for Legge to record it'"
Dresden 1906-7 attending
Richard Strauss's Salome:
"Marie Wittich sang Salome
gloriously. But she was long past her first youth and her charms
were somewhat generous. She scarcely suggested the lithe and catlike
Jewish dancing girl. I was told that at the final rehearsal she had
attempted the Dance of the Seven Veils herself, and that Strauss,
sitting in the stalls, was so appalled by the spectacle that he
covered his eyes with his hands. He subsequently tactfully suggested
that the double role was too cruel a physical strain upon the
singer. It was arranged that her place for the episode be taken by a
professional dancer who shortly before her cue was smuggled
crouching through the stage crowd to a position behind the cistern
in which Jochanaan was incarcerated. From here she ran on to take
Frau Wittich's place before the footlights whilst the panting singer
took cover in her stead. (The effect was somewhat bizarre for it
would seem that Salome's complicted sexual inhibitions had, in a
moment, caused her to loose several stones in weight)
"Symphony concerts also took place in the Opera House. One
programme included movements of Mahler's Sixth Symphony.I was
introduced for the first time to the work of this eccentric,
long-winded, muddle-headed yet always interesting composer. The
restless perversity of the very individual orchestration excited me
W.B. Yeats, Ireland and the
"Yeats was the key that
opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth, and
his finger pointed to the magic mountain whence I was to dig all
that may be of value in my own art.
"I came upon Yeats's "The Wanderings of Usheen" in
1902 and in a moment the Celt in me stood revealed. It has been
said:The Celt has ever worn himself out in mistaking dreams for
reality, but I believe on the contrary that the Celt knows more
clearly than the men of most races the difference between the two
and deliberately chooses to follow the dream. There is certainly a
tireless hunter of dreams in my own make-up.
"I went to Ireland as a boy of nineteen in great spiritual
excitement, and once there my existence was at first so utterly
unrelated to material actualities that I find it difficult to
remember it in any clarity.
"I do not think I saw men and women passing me on the the roads
as real figures of flesh and blood: I looked through them back to
their archetypes, and even Dublin itself seemed peopled by gods and
heroic shapes from the dim past.
"I spent most of my time in the west, always seeking out the
most remote places I could find on the map, lost corners of
mountains, shores unvisited by any tourist and by few even of the
"I spent more and more time alone in places lorded by the
Atlantic and the dream light of old tradition. It was all no doubt
very young and extravagant but at times I know the mood and those
dreams even now. Under this domination my musical style became
strengthened and purged of many alien elements. In part at least I
rid myself of the sway of Wagner and Strauss and began to write
Irishly, using figures and melodies of a definitely Celtic curve. I
would like to point out though that only once in my career as a
composer have I made use of an actual folk-song.
Glencolmcille is isolated in
Donegal in the North West corner of Ireland. A small remote
community, with nearby cliffs that must rank amongst the highest in
"In winter I would often linger at my window, too fascinated in
watching the implaccable fury of the Atlantic in a south-westerly
storm to sit down to work. The savagery of the sea at times was
nearly incredible. I have seen a continuous volume of foam sucked,
as in a funnel, up the whole six-hundred-foot face of Glen Head....
One evening I saw over Glen Head the most astonishing and beautiful
aurora borealis imaginable. Swords and spears of red and gold poured
down the northern sky, with fan like openings and closings of the
Bax fell under the spell of a
young Russian girl.
"I first met Loubya Nicolyevna Korolenko at a friend's house in
Swiss Cottage in 1909. Emotionally I was floundering in very deep
and turgid waters. and even to others signs of this were evident.
Yes, I loved her - she appealed to my imagination as a fair
unfortunate heroine of some slavonic fairy tale. "I know now
that she had not the slightest insight into my true nature. Secretly
I am sure she despised my romantisicm as boyish and sentimental and
mocked at my idealization of her ashen coloured soul."
Bax pursued her to her home in the Ukraine via St Petersburg.During
an extended visit to Russia he absorbed much of the country's music.
However the girl was not so keen on him and she quickly abandoned
him and married another suitor in front of his eyes. Bax was
The Choral Work Enchanted Summer dating from 1909/10 marks the peak
of Bax's early development. It was written against the love affair
that had taken him to Russia. Enchanted Summer is set to words from
Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. The opening music suggests the
"profound depths of the great summer woodland and of the elfin
and unhuman inmates of this Arcadian world"
Shortly after the unfortunate affair in Russia and the completion of
Enchanted Summer, Bax married Elsita Sobrino the daughter of a
Spanish concert pianist and professor of piano at the Guildhall
School of Music.
"By 1911 I was married and
at last was able to realize a long-cherished dream of actually
setting up house in Ireland. For two winters I rented a furnished
villa in Rathgar. From the back windows there was a clear vista of
parklike wooded country and beyond that of the complete ring of the
untamed Dublin Mountains."
Marriage and Life in Dublin
Bax's brother Clifford was himself an accomplished poet and
playwright. He took Arnold round to meet George Russell (AE). In
Russell's studio he met many writers and artists including Padraic
Colum, James Stephens and Ernest Boyd.
"By degrees a second personality came to birth within me that
was Dermot O'Byrne who later on was to turn author and find his
books accepted by Dublin publishers.
"I had begun to write short stories - always on Irish subjects
- in 1909 and two of these Clifford had printed in one of a series
of booklets in association with his art magazine Orpheus. By degrees
I accumulated more than enough material for several books.
"These collections found favour with many of my Dublin friends.
"Arnold, you have a completely Gaelicised mind", said
George Russell once to my pride and delight."
But turbulence was around the corner. First in the shape of:
According to Harriet Cohen they
had met at a picnic party in the Dublin Mountains in the Spring of
1912. She was then a piano student at the Royal Academy of Music.
They met again at a Balfour Gardiner Concert when Bax's Christmas
Eve or Christmas Eve on the Mountains as it was known then was
"I became aware of a small dryad face beneath a cloud of jet
black hair and a pair of bright eyes brimming with mischief peering
at me..." And later as he nervously awaits the orchestra to
begin playing his music ..."Out of the corner of my eye I
noticed that black haired student...Turning my head I found that her
eyes were trying to catch mine. That accomplished, she smiled gaily
and gave a little wiggle of enthusiasm...how beautiful she was! The
flame of her beauty burnt through me, stinging my overwrought nerves
and making the great mass of lights in the ceiling swing backwards
and forwards alarmingly."
Then there were the Troubles in Ireland
Arnold Bax also began to meet with Irish revolutionary figures
including Padraig Pearse.
"Scarcely had Pearse shaken hands shyly than he sat down by the
fire and stared into the blaze as though absorbed in a private dream
but his eyes were lit with the unwavering flame of the fanatic.
Somebody said, "Pearse wants to die for Ireland you know".
Indeed he did not have much longer to wait before his desire was
granted. As he was leaving he said to his host "I think your
friend Arnold Bax may be one of us. I should like to see more of
Bax left Ireland not long before the outbreak of the Great War not
to return for over four years. Bax, always the dreamer never the
realist, was absent during the upheavals in Ireland and he was
excused war service in the Great war on medical grounds.
But - "I could not forget the impression that strange
death-aspiring dreamer (Padraig Pearse) made upon me when on Easter
Tuesday 1916 I read by Windermere's shore of that wild
scatter-brained but burningly idealist adventure in Dublin the day
before I murmured to myself, "I know that Pearse is in
As we have seen, Bax was influenced as much by forests and woodlands
and their mythology as by the sea. But the turbulence in his Tone
Poem November Woods, written in October 1916, also reflects his
passion for Harriet Cohen. They would meet clandestinely in a small
pub in Amersham. The inspiration were the woods nearby where he once
sheltered from a storm.
His poem Amersham sets the scene:
.....Storm, a mad painter's brush, swept sky and land
With burning signs of beauty and despair
And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake
And in our hearts tears stung and the old ache
Was more than any God would have us bear.
Then in a drowsy town the inn of dreams
Shuts out awhile October's sky of dread
Drugged in the wood reek, under the black beams
Nestled against my arm her little head
Soon after Bax left his wife in 1918, he composed his First String
Quartet which he dedicated to Elgar. When Bax forwarded the score to
Elgar, Elgar wrote that he liked the look of it but he never went to
hear it. For a time, between the wars, it became the modern quartet
most frequently performed in the UK. The first movement is genial
and tuneful and reminds one of Dvorak. The second movement carries a
quotation from Elgar's Violin Concerto.
In the same year, 1918, Elgar was at Brinkwells composing his string
quartet. The following year came Elgar's Piano Quintet. Harriet
Cohen and the Stratton String Quartet made a recording of it in
1933. Harriet remembered: "Sir Edward was taken seriously ill
early in October but I think no one outside the family, except his
beloved friend Willie Reed knew just how grave this illness was. Dr
Young tells us that Reed and Carice engineered a conspiracy of
silence so that her father might be allowed to live his remaining
days in some peace of mind. Mr Gaisberg wrote to me: "Sir
Edward listened to the Quintet in his nursing home yesterday and was
delighted." That was the first I knew of his illness - I burst
into tears. Then came a card from his daughter saying he was able to
listen to a portion of the records. He had managed to write on top
of the card: "You played splendidly EE!""
In the Centennary year of 1983 Harriet Cohen came in for a lot of
disparagement. Perhaps we can now observe her a little more
objectively. Yes, she has been accused of being jealous and
possesssive. And as Lewis Foreman pointed out, to judge her as a
concert pianist per se is very difficult for those who did not hear
her in her prime; little of her art exists on disc. Her limitations
had partly to do with the technical problems arising from her
inability to stretch more than an octave with either hand. And some
of Bax's most important works eg. The Symphonic Variations and
Winter Legends really needed more facility than she was capable of.
Nonetheless She was a most glorious looking woman when she was young
and many loved and revered her. Known to her intimates as Tania -
the name Bax gave her - she had an infectious enthusiasm for causes
and people. She introduced Bax to many literary and political
figures as well as to other musicians. She was widely respected as a
champion of British music and was held in high esteem by Kodaly,
Janacek, Bartok and Sibelius as well as British composers including
Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and - of course Elgar.
In any case it was not as if she did irreparable harm to Bax's
music. As Colin Scott Sutherland pointed out:
"Bax was drawn by a curious strength of interpretive power in
her playing of his music - and by her realization of that cold
ferocity which rose so often to the surface in his work. The vital
energies and sustained mental and physical effort needed for the
granite music of Winter Legends was counterbalanced in Harriet
(though in different proportions than in Bax) by a wayward and
capricious element in her nature - that feminine sensitivity which
informed her playing and understanding of Bax's piano music."
In 1917 both Bax and Elgar were approached by Mrs Christopher
Lowther for ballet scores. From Elgar she obtained The Sanguine Fan
and from Bax From Dusk Until Dawn. The ballet was produced in
December with Mrs Lowther dancing the lead. The stories of both
ballets are fantasies, From Dusk till Dawn tells the story of some
china figures that come to life one summer night.
Bax himself made a famous recording with Lionel Tertis in 1929 of
his own lushly romantic Sonata for Viola and Piano, written in 1922.
It will be remembered that Tertis transcribed Elgar's cello concerto
for the viola.
When I asked Vernon Handley what was his favorite Bax work, he
selected the 6th Symphony. Colin Scott-Sutherland, in a letter to me
recently, echoed Vernon Handley's choice of the Sixth Symphony.
Bax's symphonies like those of Neilsen, are linked - a progressive
saga. The opening theme of the first symphony leads onwards through
twenty movements to the ultimate vision of the close of the Sixth
This is Peter Pirie's perceptive note from the 1967 Lyrita
"Conflict lies at the heart of Bax's seven symphonies. The
first Symphony (1921/2) reflected a psychic upheaval that must have
shaken him to the foundations. He has denied that it was the First
World War and we must take it for granted that there was no
conscious influence but the Easter Rising was another matter. The
execution of his friend Padraig Pearse rocked Bax on his heels.
Great and subtle beauty, bleak austerity and sheer violence existed
side by side in his musical nature and they never learned to lie
"His First Symphony is a short grim outburst, his Second broods
over its implications with occasional eruptive violence; peace
fitfully comes to the Third. This conflict is devastating. The sound
of it is like great winged things tearing each other in flight. It
is obvious that Bax was deeply impressed by the Demon's Chorus from
his much admired Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. The Fourth Symphony
suspends the conflict for a moment in boisterous good humour, the
legendery Fifth brings to the fore, in its finale, a kind of theme
that Bax himself called "liturgical" which is heard over a
dance of pagan abandon. The seeds of further conflict are thus sown.
The calm, serene Seventh forms a kind of Epilogue to the whole
sequence. But in between the Sixth bursts in fury.
"The Sixth Symphony of 1934, the year of Elgar's death, was
written mainly in Morar in Inverness-shire. Those who know the
north-west coast of Scotland will find the Sixth Symphony one of
music's most uncanny psychic equivalents; this music is redolent of
that wild beauty.
It is not out of the question that Bax, like Walton, in his First
Symphony and Vaughan Williams in his Fourth was troubled by a sense
of the passing of worlds.
One could view the central movements of Elgar's Second Symphony in a
similar light. And surely the glorious ending of that Symphony is
echoed in the closing pages of Bax's Sixth.
Nothing Bax wrote afterwards reached this peak. He spent the last
thirteen years of his life living in a room above a pub, The White
Horse, in Storrington, Sussex and it was here that he learnt that he
had been appointed Master of the King's Music a post which Elgar had
held from 1924 until his death Bax died in Ireland - in October 1953
- shortly before his seventieth birthday. He had gone to examine the
work of young musicians in Dublin and Cork.
In listening to the finale of the Sixth Symphony, despite its
associations with Morar, I am reminded of another passage from
Farewell, My Youth:
"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
Glencolmcille, of the still brooding dove grey mystery of the
Atlantic at twilight."
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