The Bax Symphonies REVISITED
by Ian Lace
THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE
Last Modified May 11, 2003
Bax with the pianist Harriet
Cohen. Cohen and Bax were life-long friends and occasional lovers.
She championed his music until the end of her life.
Note: The following essay on
Bax's symphonies is by Ian Lace. It first appeared on this site in
1997. Since that time, David Lloyd-Jones has recorded all the
Bax symphonies for Naxos and another cycle is underway from Vernon
Handley and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos. Ian has revised
his article and has kindly given me permission to post it here.
THE BAX SYMPHONIES REVISITED
David Lloyd-Jones, Vernon Handley, Colin Scott-Sutherland, Lewis
Foreman Robert Walker,
Eric Fenby and others .
Lloyd-Jones’ acclaimed Bax symphonies cycle on super budget Naxos
is now almost complete with just the Seventh remaining to be
competitive pricing will have enabled a larger, and probably newer,
audience to come to appreciate this landmark series of British
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 he is recording
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).
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).
I asked both authors if their views about their subject
had changed or if they wanted to contribute any new thoughts.
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.
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.
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.]
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,
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 30s 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.
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.
about his approach to the Bax symphonies, David Lloyd-Jones
commented: “I have been listening to Bax and, occasionally,
performing him since the mid-1950's 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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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!”
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.
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
Easter Festival Overture in Bax’s 3rd Symphony -I.L.]
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
depending on your mood, you might feel that such movements are
outstaying their welcome.”
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.
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.
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.”
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 Kussevitsky 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.]
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
Handley’s views about Bax’s music are also cogent.
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
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
- 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.
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
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
a man who is concerned about logical continuation is clearly
concerned about form, not just with pretty pictures.”
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
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.”
Foreman contributed the following thoughts:-
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
Storrrington, Sussex where he lived for the last thirteen years of
his life) he had lost his fire and the vision had faded.
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?
reacted to his adolescent teenage vision and that of his twenties in
the earlier less worldy 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
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.
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
Collins, might have been the ideal subject for the 1st or 2nd
Symphonies themes - I.L.]
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
a digression, the rest of Bernard Shore’s interview is
remember receiving a letter from Bax when he was older and living in
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?’
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.”
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.”
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.
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.]
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.
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’”
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
I knew, professed a liking for Tintagel
and The Garden of Fand
but had no patience at all with the symphonies.
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.
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!”
Harrison’s comment on hearing of this was - “Strange!
What strikes one most when rehearsing with Bax is his
absolute passion for form!"
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.”
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.
the symphonies, Colin Scott-Sutherland has said in his book:-
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!
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
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.
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.
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...”
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.
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 wrapt 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
My Youth’ indeed.
Lace, copyright 1997 and 2003.
article originally appeared in British Music Society News and was
published in Fanfare.