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Last Modified September 28, 2007

Lewis Foreman, Bax: A Composer and his Times.

Third revised and expanded edition.

Woodbridge : The Boydell Press (imprint of Boydell & Brewer Ltd.), 2006.

570 pages. £29.95.  

Review by Graham Parlett

‘I wish you could have lessons with Arnold Bax. He is the greatest living composer’ ― Rachmaninov.  

This startling quotation, on p.339 of Lewis Foreman’s revised biography, is just one of many fascinating new pieces of information deriving from the Harriet Cohen material in the British Library. When she died, on 13 November 1967, her will was found to contain a bequest to the British Museum Library (as it then was) of all her papers on the understanding that nobody should be allowed to see them until thirty years after her death, and I remember Foreman telling me, half-jokingly, that he would be on the steps of the library on the day that the moratorium came to an end. In practice, it was not until several years after 1997 that the library staff began the Herculean labour of sorting through the papers, and the cataloguing process is still not complete. There are over 1500 letters from Bax to Cohen alone, as well correspondence from many of the famous names of the 20th century ― from Albert Einstein and George Bernard Shaw to Gracie Fields and even Pierre Boulez.  

The first edition of this full-scale biography came out during Bax’s centenary year (Scolar Press, 1983), ten years after Colin Scott-Sutherland’s pioneering work (Dent & Sons, 1973; out of print). It was brought up to date in the second edition of 1988, but so much has happened during the intervening two decades ― including the publication of unpublished works and the discovery of hitherto unknown manuscripts and biographical facts ― that a third edition was inevitable. Rachmaninov’s opinion of Bax may not be shared by everybody, but the increase in performances and recordings over the last few years suggests that his music is now more widely appreciated than at any time since the peak of his reputation in the 1920s and early 1930s.  

The layout of the book is much the same as before, but there is now a new foreword by David Owen Norris, who has himself done so much to promote Bax’s piano music, and a new preface, which is followed by the prefaces to the two previous editions. There are nineteen chapters, which trace Bax’s life and music in chronological order, and then five appendices: ‘Dermot O’Byrne’; the scenario of the ballet King Kojata (better known by its original title, Tamara); the prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon that inspired The Happy Forest; ‘Bax’s Symphonies at the Proms’, from which we learn the extraordinary fact that only one symphony (No.5) has been played in the fifty-four years since the composer’s death, and that was twenty-three years ago; and finally Felix Aprahamian’s foreword to the first edition. These are followed by the endnotes; a catalogue of Bax’s writings; a catalogue of his music; a discography; and a select bibliography.  

The letters in the Cohen collection have revealed not only fresh information  about Bax’s activities, opinions and relationships but also much about his music, including the existence of two otherwise unknown orchestral works, In Life’s Springtime and Don Quixote; Frederick Corder, his composition teacher,  told someone that the latter ‘Out-Straussed Richard Strauss!!’. I suspect that In Life’s Springtime , which was performed at the RAM in October 1902, may be the orchestral version of the Love-Song that Bax had completed in short score eight months earlier. Foreman, on the other hand, suggests on p.21 that Love-Song may have been the original version of the missing tone-poem A Song of Life and Love (1905?). In the absence of any further evidence, both suggestions must remain speculative. Although it is not mentioned in the book, another fascinating snippet from the letters reveals that in 1952 Bax was asked to write a recorder piece for Carl Dolmetsch, but this, unhappily, was not forthcoming.  

Bax’s apparently verbatim description of his interview with Alexander Mackenzie and Frederick Corder at the RAM in September 1900, which is reproduced on pp.10-12, is wonderfully vivid. It shows the ear for natural dialogue that would later stand Bax in good stead when he came to write his plays. Here is a brief extract:  

A I’ve brought some of my compositions.

Mac Oh let’s see them. (Looks at Cantata.) Oh, yes, he’s got an idea of it. This’ll be all right. (Corder looks at songs and seems to approve.) (Mackenzie looks at one part.)

Mac Hullo he’s been at Schubert! (Hums the beginning of the scherzo of Symphony in C.)

(To A): Do you like Schubert?

A Not particularly. I wasn’t thinking of him when I wrote it.

Mac No, I know, that sort of thing does happen sometimes. (Sounds as if he’d done it himself.)  

(The cantata that Bax brought along may have been The Pied Piper of Hamelin, mentioned in the memoirs of his private tutor, Francis Colmer, but now lost.)  

Other useful pieces of information gleaned from letters include, on p.332, a confirmation of what has long been suspected, namely that both the first and second movements of Bax’s aborted Viola Sonata No.2 were incorporated into the Sixth Symphony. ‘I am starting the intricate task of turning the ill-fated Viola Sonata into a Symphony ― beginning with scoring the Slow movement’, wrote Bax to Cohen on 21 November 1934 . I wonder what lay behind the phrase ‘ill-fated’. It may have referred to the apparent difficulty that the composer had had with the third movement, of which only the opening page is extant, and that crossed through.  

Rachmaninov’s opinion of Bax as ‘the greatest living composer’ was related to him by the Irish pianist Charles Lynch and prompted him to remark, ‘I don’t know why he should think so, except perhaps because I may have said something in my third symphony [admired by Rachmaninov and Medtner] which he has always wanted to say himself. We are both melancholy creatures with little use for the ways of this world’. The newly revealed letters also show us some more of Bax’s likes and dislikes among his fellow composers. Bloch’s Piano Quintet No.1, which he has just played through, is ‘probably like his other things better at the second hearing than at the third’. He is clearly very jealous of Walton’s success: ‘Keep Willie in his place’, he wrote to Cohen, ‘He has had quite enough spoiling!’ (p.338). John Ireland had a similar opinion, and the remark attributed to Bax in Susana Walton’s book and elsewhere to the effect that Walton only had to break wind for it to be recorded by Walter Legge is far more likely to be something that Ireland would have said; Bax is known to have disapproved of vulgar language. He certainly felt that Belshazzar’s Feast was a work ‘written in utterly cold blood with an eye to effect and nothing else’. He found the first movement of Walton’s First Symphony ‘really splendid’, but ‘the scherzo has always merely bored me’. The coda ― not surprisingly, in view of the haunting, Baxian trumpet solo towards the end ― he also liked very much. Elsewhere he wonders whether, deep down, Walton may not after all be a shy and sensitive person.  

He loathed Malcolm Sargent: ‘There is no more dislikeable person on earth, to my mind!’, an opinion that seems to have been shared by many other musicians. After a performance of In the Faery Hills, Bax wrote the conductor, Nicolai Malko, a letter of thanks and was pleasantly surprised to receive a charming reply. ‘Can you imagine Malcolm behaving so courteously?’, he commented. It is interesting to read his thoughts on Mozart (p.347), whom he regarded as incapable of ‘untrammelled passion and exstasy [sic]’. I was amused to see Bax referring to Elgar as ‘Colonel Bogey’ and to his own Overture to a Picaresque Comedy as his ‘Douglas Fairbanks overture’. Interesting too to learn that Bax had such a low opinion of what he referred to as the ‘second rate’ Overture to Adventure. I am still mystified, though, by Foreman’s unwarranted suggestion (on p.99) that Bax himself was the person mentioned in Farewell, My Youth who ‘insisted on speaking Gaelic’ in a train corridor, refusing to let people pass who were unable to reply in the language and causing AE (George Russell) to lose his temper. This would have been utterly out of character for someone as shy as Bax, who, in any case, told Eamonn Andrews in an interview that he had never progressed very far in the matter of speaking Irish, though he could read it easily enough.

The correspondence between Cohen and Bax reveals even more forcefully than ever before how manipulative and egocentric she could be and how Bax was constantly having to write reassuring her of his love. She was jealous of other women who found him attractive and seems to have been especially suspicious of his professional relationship with May Harrison , whose love for him was clearly unrequited. ‘What is this nonsense about May Harrison !’, Bax wrote. ‘To the best of my belief no-one is “after me” at the present time ― and in any case you must know that that type does not attract me in the very least ― at the lowest reckoning a third too large!’. While Cohen could be egotistical and demanding, in fairness it cannot be denied that Bax himself was often equally self-centred. It is also clear that he had more affairs than have hitherto been known about. On p.265 we find Cohen writing and chastising him for having had an affair behind her back with her friend Gwethen (surname unknown). On a single day he even wrote love letters to two different women (Harriet Cohen and Mary Gleaves). But Cohen herself also had many affairs. In Dido Davies’s biography of William Gerhardy (OUP, 1991), p.201, there is a quotation from a letter that she wrote to him complaining about having a black bruise (‘sinister on such a place’) after what sounded like quite a strenuous session with him the previous evening.

To counter-balance this negative view of Harriet Cohen, I should point out that I have been told by people who knew her that she was a loyal friend and extremely generous to young, up-and-coming artists, often, for instance, agreeing to perform without a fee at their concerts. Rebecca West wrote: ‘I never knew her to betray a confidence, repeat a spiteful story, or fail to repay a kindness by a greater kindness’ (from Cohen’s posthumous autobiography A Bundle of Time, 1969, p.11). She was certainly a larger-than-life character, and it is easy to see how she could have had such a wide circle of friends and admirers. She may have hag-ridden Bax in later years and hindered performances of his works, but she was also the inspiration behind some of his finest. Mary Gleaves, his other great love, whom I met on several occasions in her later years, was her complete opposite: quiet, shy, shrewd, and non-musical. Where Bax’s letters to Harriet are often defensive or tactful, his letters to Mary are more open and clearly written in a much calmer frame of mind.  

The Catalogue of Bax’s works (pp.465-506) gives details of manuscript whereabouts, orchestrations, dates, and so forth, though some of the publication details are out of date, and several works that have been published during the last decade or more are still listed as ‘unpublished’. For the record, Fand Music now publishes In the Night, Legend and the Four Pieces for piano; Fatrock Ink publishes the Sonata for flute and harp and the Valse for harp; Corda Music publishes the Concert-Piece for viola and piano; Saga Music published Rosc-catha, though this had hardly any circulation and may be impossible to obtain now; and Thames Publishing publishes the song ‘Dermot Donn MacMorna’. The manuscripts of Summer Music (first version), the second and third movements of the Sixth Symphony, and the Legend-Sonata for cello and piano are not lost, as claimed: they are in the British Library, The Grainger Museum, and the Bodleian Library respectively.  

Some of the twenty-four plates reproduced in this new edition appeared in the earlier editions of the book, but others have seldom or never been reproduced before. The most intriguing of these is undoubtedly a studio portrait of Natalia (Natalie) Skarginska (‘Loubya’ in Farewell, My Youth), the Ukrainian girl Bax pursued to Russia in 1910 and to whom he dedicated his First Violin Sonata (pl.6). ‘Oh! Loubya was like a naiad for beauty’, he wrote, ‘a golden Roussalka with ice-blue eyes!’. From his description I had conjured up an image of her that now proves to have been totally wrong. The eyes, it is true, are striking, but the rest of her sharp, unsmiling features are not how I had imagined them at all, and Bax’s ‘golden’ clearly does not refer to the colour of her hair. She certainly looks to be a forceful, even haughty, character, though of course it is quite unfair to judge someone solely on the basis of a photograph. Nevertheless, the daughter of her companion, Olga Antonietti (‘Fiammetta’), would later describe Natalie in an unpublished memoir as ‘a very attractive, totally selfish, temperamental and go-getting little bitch [who] pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes except Dolly Corder’s, who hadn’t a good word for her’. Another intriguing (though technically poor) photograph is of Bax with Harriet Cohen and Zoltan Kodály (pl.15), taken in the late 1940s; the two composers met on several occasions and apparently got on well together. The photograph of Bax with Henry Wood (pl.17) is a rare portrait of the composer from this period (c.1930), showing him midway between the skinny youth he had once been and the tubby gent familiar from so many photographs taken in the 1940s and early 1950s. A sketch in oils by Richard Walker (pl.22) is also reproduced here for the first time (as far as I know) and shows Bax in 1952 sitting on the fender of the fireplace in the White Horse, Storrington. Walker ’s fascinating account of their meeting is described on pp.396-7. The dust jacket illustration is Paul Corder’s splendid colour photograph of Bax taken in about 1907, though it appears lighter and pinker here than the original print, which has more of a blue tinge.  

It is always easier to spot someone else’s mistakes than one’s own, and a few are inevitable in a book of this size and complexity. Two misprints occur in contributions from myself, so purely in self-defence I must point out that in the translation on p.331 ‘the devout choir’ is misprinted ― as it was in the first edition of the book ― as ‘the devout chair’ (a surreal concept); and in the discography ‘Sonata for flute and harp’ has been altered to ‘Sonata for harp and flute’, thus rendering the cross-reference from ‘Sonatina for flute and harp’ incorrect. As is by now well known, there is also a muddle with the footnotes in four of the chapters, where the numbers in the text do not match up with the numbers at the end. (A correction slip is obtainable from the publisher.) But these lapses in no way detract from Lewis Foreman’s splendid achievement not only in assembling such a huge amount of factual information but in arranging it into a logical and coherent whole.  I learned a great deal about Bax from reading this book and strongly recommend it, especially at such a reasonable price.  

 Copyright © 2007 Graham Parlett