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Bax and John Ireland
by John Longmire


Last Modified July 1, 1997

This article by John Longmire first appeared in the August 1969 (Vol. 6) issue of the Sir Arnold Bax Society Bulletin. Longmire had just published his study, "Ireland, A Portrait of a Friend" at the time this article was printed. I want to thank Rob Barnett for making this article available to me. It is a witty look into the friendship of two of England's most beloved composers.

There is an hostelry in Sussex which holds a special significance for me. I refer to "The White Horse," Storrington - a landmark to the many admirers of Sir Arnold Bax. For me, there is a duality in my affection for this old Inn, for it was here that I first met the Master of the King's Musick, in company with my old friend, John Ireland. It was the venue for many meetings between the two friends, at several of which I was the interested and appreciative audience - these were no two ordinary people, and had one been ignorant of the fact of their distinction, one would still have felt the strong personalities and striking individuality of these two fellow-musicians. Bax dedicated his First Symphony to Ireland in 1922. They knew each other of old, and when the latter made Ashington his pied-a-terre in 1949, as a relief from the increasing traffic noises which harassed him at-his home in Chelsea, they both derived much pleasure in driving around the country-side with Ireland at the wheel. He was a fast driver - unexpectedly so, and one of quiet and even seemingly slow reaction - and the outings were not without their thrills. They both loved Sussex, and it was a pleasure to share their enjoyment. The beauties, natural and architectural, were duly noted and commented upon. One day, driving past a long row of unimaginative and rather drab council houses, Ireland drew attention to their lack of beauty, to which Bax, in his kindly way pointed out: "But John, they are these people's Castles." It amused me when, long after, whenever we happened to pass these houses, Ireland would remark, in his drawl: "Those are Bax's Castles." A typical remark, for J.I. was not above a sly dig at his friend. When they were together this took the form of a duet in repartee, Ireland's the more caustic, Bax the more subtle, but thoroughly enjoyed by both parties. "Your work is too much in a shell, John - it lacks freedom." John listened attentively: "What do you mean, Arnold - in a shell?" Arnold knew exactly what he meant by his criticism, for there was as much diversity in their modes of expressing themselves musically as in their personalities: "Well you know, Arnold, I always think your Symphonies have too much tiddle-diddle about them," countered John.

They were old rivals, as well as friends - not only in music had they crossed swords - the subject of their mutual admiration had inspired Ireland to write his Sonatina. Nevertheless, Bax won the day, and Ireland was disconsolate. What he felt at that moment, when he realized he had lost the object of his affection is written across the pages of Sonatina with its central theme: C.A.D.

In 1953, Ireland sold his London house where he had lived for 38 years. My wife and I were, at that time, in New Zealand, and we had noticed that his letters had tended to become more and more despondent at the unfavorable changes which were turning his quiet Chelsea road into a noisy and objectionable highway.

A long letter arrives giving the glad news that he had found, and bought, the house of his dreams - Rock Mill was indeed after his heart's desire, for as he said: "I have never seen anything at all like it. It is in a superb situation, with a direct uninterrupted view of Chanctonbury Ring..."

It was a gay letter, full of detail and excitement, and ended:

"DO WRITE, without delay"

He had wanted to share his good news with us, and his old friend too was not forgotten. At the end of the closely written pages were the words:

"What will Bax say, I wonder?"

Alas their Sussex days were over - the letter was dated Sept 27th 1953 - only a short while before Sir Arnold Bax's death in Ireland.