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The Pagan World of Arnold Bax
by Graham Parlett


Last Modified October 9, 1999

Note: Musicologist Graham Parlett is one of the most noted authorities on Arnold Bax's music. His orchestrations from piano sketches of Bax's tonepoems On the Seashore and May Night in the Ukraine have been recorded by Vernon Handley and Bryden Thomson for Chandos. He has written extensively on Bax and has completed a catalogue of Bax's music which is available through Oxford University Press.

The Pagan World of Arnold Bax

        Bax's musical language owes much to a variety of influences ranging from Wagner, Strauss and Sibelius to the Russian nationalists, Irish folk-music and Impressionism; but of equal importance in considering his musical personality are the various cultural and spiritual influences on his work. Although he is most popularly associated with the Celtic world as represented by the legends, customs, language and history of Ireland, and by the poetry of Yeats, a glance at the following list of some of his orchestral scores will show that this phase belongs to the early stages in his development and that other influences assumed equal importance during his creative life. Quotations in this table are from Bax's own writings:






Irish, after a poem by the Yeats


A Connemara Revel



Into the Twilight

Irish, after a poem by the Yeats


In the Faery Hills

Irish, after poems by Mangan and Yeats , based on a legend inspired by Mount Brandon in Kerry.





Enchanted Summer

Shelley, set in the world of Greek Mythology


Christmas Eve on the Mountains

Irish, inspired by Gleann na Smol in County Dublin


In the Hills of Home

Irish, later renamed ‘Irish Landscape’



Pre-Raphaelite, after poems by Swinburne and Meredith, with Classical Greek connotation


Spring Fire

Pre-Raphaelite, after a poem by Swimburne based on a Greek Legend


The Garden of Fand

Irish, Based on a legend


November Woods

English, inspired by a wood at Amersham in Buckinghamshire



Cornish, the castle with its Arthurian, i.e. Brythonic Celtic, associations


Summer Music

English; ‘some woodland place of Southern England ’.


The Happy Forest

English; ‘In woodland country’, after a Theocritan prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon


Symphonies 1-3

No. 3, ‘influenced by sagas and dark winters of the North’


Winter Legends

The North, specifically Viking and Icelandic


Symphony 4

‘My Sea Symphony’


First northern Ballad

Scottish, highland life before the Jacobite Rising of 1745


The Tale the Pine-Trees knew

Scottish and Norwegian forests


Symphony 5

‘Craggy, northern’


Saga Fragment

‘Violent and passionate scenes in a Northern land’


Second Northern Ballad

‘A dark North’


A Legend

‘Some northern land’


Morning Song

English: subtitled ‘Maytime in Sussex


This table reveals that most of Bax's earliest orchestral works do indeed have Irish backgrounds, while a few later pieces, such as November Woods, Summer Music and Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex), are entirely associated
with places in England. (Tintagel, incidentally, should be excluded from the latter: although the castle that inspired it dates from the 12th century, King Arthur, with whom it is romantically associated, was probably in origin
a Celtic chieftain who fought against the Saxons; indeed the Cornish language, closely related to Welsh and Breton, could still be heard in isolated parts of Cornwall at the end of the 18th century.) The Irish influence on Bax's music is inevitably mentioned whenever his name comes under discussion, and I remember about fifteen years ago a performance of the Sixth Symphony (of all pieces) being advertised in the Radio Times under
the ridiculous heading 'A Celtic Symphony'; but it should be remembered that Bax himself scathingly described the 'Celtic twilight' as 'all bunk derived by English journalists from the spurious Ossian and the title of an early
work by Yeats. Primitive Celtic colours are bright and jewelled.'  His views on Celtic art thus coincided exactly with those of the Welsh composer William Mathias, who once wrote: 'Rite and magic, jewelled colours, the
spirit of play, haunting wistfulness, lyrical warmth and ardour, and (above all) rhythmic vitality-these are all qualities associated with Celtic art and tradition.' They are also, of course, qualities to which Bax aspired in
his most characteristic  works.  Bax described The Garden of Fand as 'the last of my Irish music' (though the
Phantasy for viola and orchestra of 1920 has perhaps a better claim), and from the late 1920s onwards his interests took a strong turn towards the north-east. He had some knowledge of the Scandinavian languages and had been
interested in the Nordic world since childhood-at the age of thirteen he had written 'A tale of the Norse sea-kings'-but this interest became much more intense around 1929, just at about the time he was discovering Morar in Scotland and was becoming interested in the music of Sibelius. The combination of his interest in the Sibelian sound-world and the spiritual inspiration derived from the rugged scenery of the Scottish coast during
this period brought about a change in the contours of his melodic lines and in their orchestral dress, the former becoming more stark and angular, the latter tending to the deployment of blocks of primary colour rather than the
impressionistic textures favoured in earlier works. The fifth and sixth symphonies, as well as tone-poems such as the two Northern Ballads and The Tale the Pine-Trees knew, are representative of what Bax called his 'craggy,
northern works', which contrast sharply with the more soft-centred effusions of his youth, such as Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan and Into the Twilight.
         However, there are several works written in the years just before the Great War of 1914-18 that have nothing whatsoever to do with either the Celtic or Nordic worlds. Their 'pagan' background derives instead from
Classical Greece, as channelled through 19th-century English literature, and, while there is no specific musical influence to be described, they are linked by a number of common ideas. Enchanted Summer (1910), a setting for
chorus and orchestra of a scene from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, begins with what Bax describes as a musical evocation of 'the eternal youth and Theocritan serenity of the woodland', which leads to 'the glitter and glory
of the strengthening sunlight and the vernal force and surge of the youth of the year'. Nympholept (1912, orchestrated 1915) derives its title from Swinburne (from a Greek word meaning 'possessed by nymphs'), and tells 'how one walking at Summer-dawn in haunted woods was beguiled by the nymphs, and, meshed in their shining and perilous dances was rapt away for ever into the sunlight life of the wild-wood'. Bax also wrote of 'a perilous pagan
enchantment haunting the midsummer forest' and prefaced the orchestral version with a quotation from Meredith: 'Enter these enchanted woods | You who dare'. Bax himself also composed a poem with the same title, and the
basic idea of a mortal being enticed away by supernatural forces is paralleled in other orchestral works of the same period, such as In the Faery Hills (1909) and The Garden of Fand (1913-16). Another score, the
'Nature poem' The Happy Forest (1914, orchestrated 1921), bears the title of a prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon which was clearly influenced by the Idylls of Theocritus, the 'father' of Greek pastoral poetry; but it is apparent
from Bax's commentary on the work that he merely used it as a point of departure for painting a musical impression of yet another enchanted wood filled with 'the phantasmagoria of nature. Dryads, sylphs, fauns and satyrs abound -- perhaps the goat-foot god may be there, but no man or woman'.
         The most important of these scores, Spring Fire (1913), was based largely on the first chorus of Algernon Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon, quotations from which appear at the head of each movement in the score.
Completed at Tintagel and published in 1865, Swinburne's poetic drama is a retelling of the Greek myth which centres on the killing of the wild Calydonian boar by a band of heroes, among them the virgin huntress
Atalanta, and the poet said that the exuberant choruses in the work were directly inspired by hearing his cousin play choruses from the works of Handel on the organ. Spring Fire is thus connected with Calydon in Ætolia,
although the mention of Pan in Bax's programme note suggests that it too belongs spiritually to Arcadia, that haven of rustic felicity associated with the bucolic poets and described by Polybius as being proverbially isolated and old-fashioned, a relic of the Golden Age, its inhabitants devoted to music. In reality Arcadia is an austere mountainous area in the Peloponnese, and the idealized pastoralism associated with Theocritus and
with Virgil's Eclogues is largely due to the rose-coloured spectacles of later writers. But Bax is clearly less concerned with the love-lorn shepherds of this spurious 'Arcady' than with the earthier, more primitive
aspects of Greek mythology: the erotic capers of silvan demigods and the orgiastic frolics of the Bacchants and the followers of Pan. Indeed, all these elements are inextricably linked with the annual regeneration of Nature. Bacchus was not only the god of wine but also a vegetation deity, whose flowering into manhood was celebrated by the Greeks at the Spring Festival, when the trees burst into leaf and all living things become intoxicated with desire.
          In his programme note for Spring Fire, Bax makes several references to specific Greek ideas, especially in the last movement with its dryads (wood nymphs), maenads (female followers of Bacchus), and their foxskin-clad
companions, the bassarids, 'pursued relentlessly by Bacchus and Pan and their hordes of goat-footed and ivy-crowned revellers. (Compare this with the short orchestral piece Cortège of 1925, which he referred to in a letter as his 'Barbaric Cortège' and which clearly depicts another Bacchic rout.) Gradually elements from earlier parts of the composition become mingled into the thematic weft of this musical Daphnephoria'. This last word means 'Laurel-bearing' and refers to a Boeotian festival in honour of Apollo at which a laurel-bedecked staff was carried in procession. Bax may have come across this word in J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, where it appears in a footnote to an Irish May Day custom; or he may have been familiar with the famous oil painting 'The Daphnephoria' by Lord Leighton; either way, his use of the name of an Apollonian rite in a rampantly Dionysiac context seems singularly inappropriate. The Classical background to this group of works may seem remote from the sources of inspiration more usually associated with Bax, but he certainly had an earthy, 'pagan' streak in his nature that has close affinities with this world of 'goat-footed and ivy-crowned revellers'. Elemental
phenomena-the wild landscapes, mountains and the sea of which he frequently writes in programme notes and in his private correspondence-clearly had a powerful effect on his personality. His friend Mary Gleaves once told me
that Bax had what she called an 'almost erotic' empathy with trees, and there are obvious parallels with the sexual connotations of his sea music. The title of Spring Fire (although not found in Swinburne) reflects the
frequent use of the word 'fire' in Atalanta in Calydon, where it is used both literally-the fate of the protagonist, Meleager, for instance, is bound up with a fire brand-and as a sexual metaphor. Bax himself indirectly
acknowledges the non-Celtic nature of the ideas behind Spring Fire and the other scores mentioned above in his autobiographical volume, Farewell, my Youth (p.43), in which he explains that 'the true ecstasy of spring' and the
'affirmation of this life' are Hellenic concepts, foreign to the Celt: 'Pan and Apollo, if ever they wandered so far from the Hesperidean garden as this icy Ierne, were banished at once in a reek of blood and mist and fire . . .'
         Swinburne's recreation of this pagan world introduced a fresh element of ecstasy into English poetry which obviously had an enormous appeal for Bax, whose own youthful outpourings, both musical and literary,
are marked by an abundance of passionate intensity. Clifford Bax's description of his brother's early work as 'Music fierce as fire, or hazed with unrelinquished | Adolescent dreams of more than life can give' could
almost serve as a motto for Spring Fire, and it is known that the composer himself believed most of his earlier compositions to be 'pure and almost impersonal Nature-music' and that 'all original ideas derive from some
condition of untrammelled passion and ecstasy'.  It is surely significant too that all the scores mentioned above date from the period just before the Great War, when there was an artistic vogue for 'pagan' subjects. Nijinsky's
production of L'après-midi d'un faune was first performed in 1912, and The Rite of Spring in 1913. Other works of the period having musical affinities with the complex harmonic and colouristic world of Spring Fire include
Schmitt's La tragédie de Salomé (1907), Bantock's Omar Khayyam (1909), Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (1910), Dukas' La Péri (1911), Schoenberg's Gurrelieder (1911), Schreker's Der ferne Klang (1912), Skryabin's Prometheus (1913), and many others. In creating what is undoubtedly the finest of his pre-war compositions Bax was not only following his own 'adolescent dreams' but responding to a wide-spread trend towards opulent, mostly large-scale, romantic orchestral writing. But Bax's optimistic yearning for an imaginary Arcadian existence-'the ivory tower of my youth', as he called it in his 1949 radio talk-was soon to be swept away by the harsh realities of the conflict in Europe, the Easter Rising in Ireland and, on a more personal level, the disintegration of his marriage. Never again in his music was Bax to visit the world of Classical Antiquity, and rarely in later years did he
recapture the mood of unadulterated happiness and elation to be found in the closing pages of Spring Fire.

This text is copyrighted by Graham Parlett