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Some Unpublished Works of Arnold Bax
by Colin Scott-Sutherland


Last Modified May 18, 1997

Note: Musicologist Colin Scott-Sutherland is well known and loved to all Baxians. He wrote the pioneering study on Bax's life and music titled simply, Bax, which was published in 1972. He is currently working on a book that will explore the creative productions of Bax's teenage years. The article below was written back in 1963 for the Bax Society and it is as pertinent today was it was 34 years ago. I greatly appreciate Colin allowing me to post it here.

With the exception of those kenspeckle figures, Charles Ives and Khaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, I can think of few composers who deliberately hide their light under a bushel. The death of most creative artists who reach any status during their lifetime, and the subsequent bringing to light of unpublished sketches and MSS., seldom alter materially previous critical assessment of their work (This of course does not take into account such tremendous fragments as Doktor Faust, Lulu or Moses und Aron.). To the musicologist and biographer such discoveries are rare treasures - but the resultant illumination cast upon the music is, with few exceptions, a sidelight rather than a floodlight.

It is, however, disturbing to encounter amongst the unpublished compositions of a composer of such eminence as Arnold Bax, no less than five of his most significant major works, to say nothing of a very considerable handful of original and interesting scores of lesser dimensions. There is not room here to enter into the economics of the case. Whether the mere publication of these scores would greatly alter Bax's position today (November 1963) is open to argument. All his symphonies, with the lamentable exception of the Seventh, are at the present time available in full scores, admirable models of music printing. Yet amongst those MSS. lie such important compositions as Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, Winter Legends, for piano and orchestra, the violin Concerto - although issued in piano reduction - the Concertante for piano (LH) and orchestra, the Concertante for three solo instruments, and the great final seventh Symphony, all but the first, which is dated 1918, works of his maturity. Surely this indicates appalling neglect of one who, by virtue of his position as Master of the Royal Music alone ought, however strongly he would have repudiated such a suggestion, to have become a national institution.

Closer study of these relatively inaccessible scores reveals much that is not generally known, and helps greatly toward a correct critical assessment of Bax's work, putting into proper focus his creative inclinations. The first broadcast performance in this country of the seventh Symphony was damned with the faintest of praise by a journalist, in absentia, presumably without a score. Another writing of the first performance of the Concertante for three solo instruments (at a Concert in memory of Sir Henry Wood in 1949) remarked upon its unusual structure - a novel but only incidental feature of the work - adding almost as an afterthought, that it was in the "usual Celtic vein" - a totally unjustifiable assertion. To one who has some knowledge of the first six symphonies, closer study of the Seventh will reveal that work for what it is, a score of remarkable vigour, of great beauty, and the crowning achievement of Bax's symphonic testament. The score of the slighter Concertante shows indications, even to the cursory reader, of a mind of tremendous originality. This is particularly noticeable in the last movement whose joyous surging melodies bear no relationship to the darkened mise-en-scene of Celtic twilights.

The scores of lesser dimensions are without exception compositions of great beauty. Besides the early Nympholept (Nympholept - based on the poem of that name by Swinburne in Astrophel and other poems - was first performed in May, 1961 at the RAM under Terence Lovett) and the modest, yet no less poetic Three Pieces for small orchestra, there is the early Spring Fire, a fascinating failure which was eventually withdrawn from rehearsal. By no means jejune, it is a Bacchanalian orgy of symphonic proportions (vide the prefacing quotations from the first chorus of Atalanta in Calydon), the whole intricate manuscript a labour of love written in a delicate copperplate. Much of the material of this work was later incorporated in the Lento of the cello Sonata (This, a typically Baxian, so called "Celtic" movement, with its origin in Swinburne!), the Fanfares for the Royal Wedding, and in the piano piece Apple Blossom Time. The exuberant overture Work in Progress, written during the war years for Walter Legge, London Pageantry and Rogues Comedy Overture would rapidly find their own place in the repertoire if they were more widely known. The three major chamber works (A two-movement work for flute, harp and strings, of delicate and truly Celtic beauty, rescored from a Sonata for flute and harp written in the first instance for the late Count Benckendorff and his wife Maria Korchinska: A Threnody and Scherzo for bassoon, strings and harp inscribed to Patrick Hadley - thus entitled by the composer although listed in Grove as a concerto: and the ravishing and dark-hued Octet for horn, piano and strings written for Harriet Cohen and Aubrey Brain and dedicated to Mrs. Sprague Coolidge, the MS. of which is now in U.S.A.) have perhaps more chance of survival since the literature of the chamber group (and of the harp in particular, an instrument for which Bax wrote several original and important works) is slight enough to encourage enquiring search in odd corners. A recent hearing in Edinburgh of the lovely Quintet for harp and strings encourages the view that such a search would yield great and welcome treasure.

Two important orchestral scores, the two Northern Ballads (the first recently performed in Network Three under Basil Cameron to whom it is dedicated), if now more widely known would set quickly into true perspective the last three symphonies and perhaps finally achieve the eradication - from his later works at any rate - of that ubiquitous and totally misunderstood epithet "Celtic" which has dogged the fortunes of Bax from days prior to 1914. The first of these Ballads dates from the days of the fifth Symphony; the second, dedicated to Adam Carse, was completed at Morar in January, 1934, immediately prior to the sixth Symphony. Of the creation of these two symphonies, his greatest work, these two scores are an integral part. The Allegro Moderato: and the ensuing poco Lento Lamentuoso of the first, pre-echo similar patterns in the fifth (first and last movements) and the sixth (second movement) Symphonies. The "Scotch snap" in this Ballad re-appears in the second movement of the sixth Symphony, second subject, the whole passage exhibiting an interesting parallel. There are moments as ravishing as anything in Delius, and passages of uncompromising Sibelian severity that are the raison d etre of such pages as those of the opening of the sixth Symphony. The transfer of his affections from Western Eire to Morar is a strong indication that Bax s creative powers were veering for inspiration from magnetic to true North. It was in Morar, amidst the beautiful yet stark grandeur of the Western Highlands of Scotland that Bax the Symphonist was nourished. No one who has heard the sixth Symphony can fail to experience the tremendous power which drives the work, an experience that is very different from that encountered in In the Faery Hills, or in The Garden of Fand.

The second of the two Northern Ballads is a dark score which might preface the seventh Symphony; in which we may discern the seeds that flower majestically in the later work. This is doubly important since the work provides a link between Sixth and Seventh without which the Seventh stands supremely alone. For after the tremendous and poignant triumph of the pages preceding the Epilogue of the sixth Symphony, and the desolate peace of the Epilogue itself, the vigorous Seventh sets out on an entirely new path-although amidst the same scenery.

In order to trace the source of this vein of richness which overflows in the symphonic works, we may go as far back as 1910 to the first piano Sonata, and the important first and second sonatas for violin and piano. The first large-scale works in which this barbaric Nordic element is darkly resplendent - the fons et origo of the work - are the Symphonic Variations and Winter Legends, both for piano and orchestra. The first, a complex and romantic work (of which Sorabji writes in Around Music: "It occasionally reaches a pitch of fantastic and imaginative beauty that Bax touches nowhere else except in The Garden of Fand. It is incontestably one of the finest concerted works of the present day "), was partially destroyed by fire but is not beyond restoration. These are the roots from which the symphonies are sprung. An interval of ten years, during the course of which Bax embarked upon the creation of his seven symphonies, elapsed before the pattern was repeated in another vast and complex score for piano and orchestra entitled Winter Legends. It is worth devoting much consideration to the fact that both these works were written for, and are inseparably associated with Harriet Cohen. Her personality, her artistry, and the fact that she has an unduly small hand played a vital part in their composition. This and its predecessor in Variation form ought to be judged as music with the seven symphonies of whose spacious architecture they are essentially a part.

The final works of Bax s life free themselves almost entirely from the idiomatic tags that are used to "describe" his earlier compositions. The last movement of the Concertante for three solo instruments cannot be happily catalogued under the headings Celtic or Nordic. The music bubbles with an almost youthful exuberance in entirely Baxian melodic patterns that show how essentially the Irish and Northern elements have become a part of Bax's musical personality without ever stifling his originality. Here and there, however appear touches of colour that remind us of their ancestry. For instance, in "The Well of Tears" from The Bard of the Dimbovitza, a setting for voice and orchestra (MS. but published in piano score and dated 1941) of poems from the Roumanian peasantry, collected by Helene Vacaresco, a nostalgic pattern is heard, which, in spite of the fact that the mood of the poem might have been evoked by Yeats, links us directly to the "Rimskyesque" colours of the earlier sonatas and similarly, in "My Girdle I hung from the treetop tall" from the same set.

Passages, too, from the Concertante for piano (LH) and orchestra might have stepped straight from Borodin. But these have become, as have the Celtic curves of his melodic invention, so much a part of his musical nature that they no longer indicate personal allegiance.

The serenity of Morning Song-Maytime in Sussex, is typical of the mood of Bax s last works. Coupled with this, the leprechaun-like cavorting of the clarinet in the Concertante for three solo instruments although embalmed in a haunting Spring-like fragrance that is unusual in a mature artist of approaching seventy, leaves us with the impression that the truest Celtic side of Bax s nature is expressed in the discovery of these isles to which he had in the beginning travelled with Niamh and Usheen - that land of eternal youth where "God is joy and joy is God, and all things that have grown sad are wicked":

"O Usheen mount by me now and ride To shores by the wash of the tremulous tide Where men have heaped no burial mounds And the days pass by like a wayward tune".

This text is copyrighted by Colin Scott-Sutherland