Arnold Bax

Arnold Bax
8.11.1883 - 3.10.1953
Period:XX age


Sir Arnold Edward Trevor Bax, KCVO (8 November 1883 – 3 October 1953) was an English composer and poet. His musical style blended elements of romanticism and impressionism, often with influences from Irish literature and landscape. His orchestral scores are noted for their complexity and colourful instrumentation. Bax’s poetry and stories, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne, reflect his profound affinity with Irish poet William Butler Yeats and are largely written in the tradition of the Irish Literary Revival.

Bax was born in Pendennis Road, Streatham, London, into a Victorian upper-middle-class family of Dutch descent. He grew up in Ivy Bank, a mansion on top of Haverstock Hill, Hampstead, where he attended Heath Mount School. In Bax, A Composer and His Times (2007) Lewis Foreman suggests that, because of the family affluence, Bax never had to take a paid position and was free to pursue most of his interests. From an early age, he showed that he had a powerful intellect and great musical talent, especially at the keyboard. He often enjoyed playing the Wagner operas on piano. One of his first intimate meetings with art music was through Tristan und Isolde and its influence is seen in many of his later works, Tintagel for example. Bax was taught at home, but received his first formal musical education at age 16 from Cecil Sharp and others at the Hampstead Conservatoire. He was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in 1900, where he remained until 1905. At the Academy, he was taught composition by Frederick Corder, the piano by Tobias Matthay and the clarinet by Egerton. In his composition classes, Corder emphasized the examples of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner and pointed to their liberal approach to classical form, which led Bax to develop a similar attitude. He had an exceptional ability to sight-read and play complex orchestral scores at the piano, which won him several medals at the Academy and he also won prizes for best musical composition, including the Battison-Haynes prize and the competitive Charles Lucas Medal.

Bax had a sensitive and searching soul and drew inspiration from a wide range of sources. He was a voracious reader of literature and in this way he happened upon William Butler Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1902. He proved highly receptive to the soft, melancholy moods of the Irish Literary Revival and found in Yeats a powerful muse, from which he derived a lifetime of inspiration. He developed an infatuation with Ireland and began travelling extensively there. He visited the most isolated and secluded places, eventually discovering the little Donegal village Glencolumbkille, to which he returned annually for almost 30 years. Here, he drew inspiration from the landscape and the sea, and from the culture and life of the local Irish peasants, many of whom he regarded as close friends. His encounter with the poetry of Yeats and the landscapes of Ireland resulted in many new works, both musical and literary. The String Quartet in E (1903), which later was worked into the orchestral tone poem Cathaleen-Ni-Houlihan (1905), is a fine example of how he began to reflect Ireland in his music. Not only did he emerge as a surprisingly mature composer with these works, he also developed in them floating and undulating 'impressionistic' musical textures using orchestral techniques not yet heard — not even from Claude Debussy. Many of the works he wrote in the period from 1903 to 1916 can be seen as musical counterparts to the Irish Literary Revival. The tone-poems Into The Twilight (1908), In The Faery Hills (1909) and Rosc-catha [Battle hymn] (1910) echo the themes of the Revival and especially the soft, dreamy mood of many poems and stories.

The Irish influence is only one of many found in Bax's music. An early affinity with Norway and the literature of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson brought themes and moods from the Nordic countries into his music. From 1905 to 1911, Bax constantly alternated between using Nordic and Celtic themes in his compositions. He even attempted to teach himself some Norwegian and, in the song The Flute (1907) for voice and piano, he successfully set an original poem by Bjørnson to music. Later examples of Bax’s Nordic affinity include Hardanger for two pianos (1927) and the orchestral tone-poem The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew (1931).

In 1910, a youthful fling with a Ukrainian girl, Natalia Skarginska, brought Bax to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Lubny, near Kiev, which led to a fascination for Russian and Slavonic themes. The relationship with Skarginska resulted in an emotional agony from which he never completely recovered. His conflicting feelings are perhaps reflected in the First Piano Sonata in F sharp (1910, revised 1917-20). The Russian and Ukrainian influence can also be heard in two works for solo piano from 1912, Nocturne–May Night in the Ukraine and Gopak (Russian dance).

In 1915 appeared In a Vodka Shop also for solo piano. In 1919, Bax was one of four British composers to be commissioned to write orchestral music to serve as interludes at Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in London. For the commission, he incorporated the three above-mentioned piano works of Russian themes into Russian Suite for orchestra. In 1920, he wrote incidental music to J. M. Barrie’s whimsical play The Truth About the Russian Dancers, his last work based on a clearly Russian theme. The Russian influence may be found in many of Bax's other scores and is especially predominant in his first three symphonies.

In January 1911, not long after he returned to Britain, Bax married Elsita Sobrino, a childhood friend. They settled in Bushy Park Road, Rathgar, Dublin. Here Bax’s brother Clifford introduced them to the intellectual circle which met at the house of the poet, painter and mystic George William Russell. Bax had already had some of his poems and short stories published in Dublin and to the circle he was simply known by the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne (the name was possibly inspired by a renowned family of traditional musicians in Donegal).

As Dermot O’Byrne, he was specifically noted for Seafoam and Firelight, published in London by the Orpheus Press in 1909 and numerous short stories and poems published in different media in Dublin. It was at Russell’s house where Bax one night met Irish Republican Patrick Pearse. According to Bax, they got on very well and, although they met only once, the execution of Pearse following the Easter Rebellion in 1916 prompted him to compose several laments, the most noted being In Memoriam Patric Pearse (1916), which contains the dedication ‘I gCuimhne ar Phádraig Mac Piarais’.

The threat of war led to the dissolution of the Rathgar Circle as many members fled Ireland and Europe. Bax and his family returned to London; it was the loss of a blissful life. A heart condition prevented Bax from enlisting, and he spent the war years composing profusely. Although World War I unleashed previously unimagined horrors upon the world, it was the Easter Rebellion and the destruction of Dublin that especially disturbed Bax.

As his Ireland — a haven and a retreat — was lost to bitter conflict and war, he sought refuge in a liaison with the younger pianist Harriet Cohen. What had started out as a purely professional alliance — Cohen playing and championing Bax's piano music — developed into a passionate relationship. Yet their love could not be sanctioned by the contemporary social code, which brought to both parties considerable emotional suffering.

This difficult period in Bax’s life led to the composition of several attractive tone-poems, including Summer Music (1916), Tintagel (1917) and November Woods (1914–1917). In Tintagel, Bax reached back to legends and dreams — specifically that of the doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde. Tintagel is undoubtedly the best known of Bax’s tone-poems and includes a colourful evocation of the sea. Bax's relationship with Cohen led some commentators to assume a Freudian link between Bax’s alleged sexual passion and the sea-theme in Tintagel.

However, the opening of Harriet Cohen's private papers and the research into them by scholars, such as the Norwegian musicologist Thomas Elnaes, indicates that such a link is at best speculative. Bax's works from this time reflect deep psychological conflicts that point forward to the passionate yet deeply troubled First Symphony in E flat, completed in 1922. After the war, British music was in demand as never before in England; and Bax won considerable fame with his works, which were widely performed.

From 1928 onwards, Bax ceased to travel to Glencolumbkille and instead began his annual migration to Morar, in the west Scottish Highlands, to work. He would sketch his compositions in London and take them to the Station Hotel at Morar for the winter, in order to orchestrate them. At this time, he found a new love in Mary Gleaves; and she accompanied him to Scotland.

In the Morar period, which lasted until the outbreak of World War II, Bax rediscovered his interest in Norway and the Nordic countries, and found a new musical hero in Sibelius. At Morar, he orchestrated Symphonies Nos. 3 to 7 and several of his finest orchestral works, including the three Northern Ballads (No. 5 is actually dedicated to Sibelius and shares something of his stylistic austerity).

All seven of Bax's symphonies were composed within a relatively short span of time (1922-39) and are perhaps the most coherent cycle of symphonies by any composer. They reflect his many influences and are profound works of art with a deep psychological dimension tied to evocations of scenery. The symphonies earned Bax a reputation as the successor to Elgar, as Vaughan Williams, for instance, had only completed four symphonies by the time Bax had completed his seventh (Vaughan Williams's fourth is actually dedicated to Bax).

Bax received a knighthood in 1937 (Knight Bachelor), but he was not entirely prepared to enjoy this honour. He contended that there was a conflict between the knighthood and his profound affinity with Ireland, but accepted nonetheless. A feeling that his creative energies were drained started to manifest itself. Bax explained to his friends that he felt tired, restless and lonely. He contended that he had a hard time ‘growing up’. His increasing age depressed him, and he started to drink heavily. He also felt alienated by the new modernistic fashions in music, and realised, to his sorrow, that his style was falling out of critical favour.

In 1938 appeared his Violin Concerto. It was written for Jascha Heifetz, who disliked it and never played it; instead, it was premiered in 1942 by Eda Kersey (1904-1944).[2]

In 1942, Bax was appointed Master of the King's Musick, a decision the British musical establishment was not altogether happy with. To many, Bax was an atypical English composer, some especially pointing to the 'Irishness' of his music.

Of his later works, only the film scores for Malta G.C. and Oliver Twist were really successful. They earned Bax a renewed (and deserved) public acclaim, but their popularity could not compensate for his being considered old-fashioned by many younger composers and critics. He retreated from the public scene and lived quietly at The White Horse Hotel in Storrington, Sussex.

In 1929, Feis Maitiú Corcaigh, a prestigious music festival organized by the Capuchin Fathers, invited Bax to become adjudicator. It was Irish pianist Tilly Fleischmann who suggested him, knowing that he was familiar with Ireland and Irish conditions. This was also the first time Bax met Irish musicians in Ireland, other than folk musicians. In Cork, he was introduced to such outstanding musicians as the pianist Charles Lynch and singer Maura O'Connor, both of whom went on to give many performances of Bax’s music.

Bax’s first visit to Cork marked the beginning of a 24-year friendship with the Fleischmann family. As performances of Bax’s music grew increasingly rare in Britain, Tilly Fleischmann demonstrated to Bax that his music had wide appeal in Ireland. Bax, however, did little to act on this, or to support further efforts; and his music was not heard nationwide in Ireland until Aloys Fleischmann began conducting his orchestral works with the Irish Radio Orchestra in Dublin just after the end of the war. In 1946, Bax became external examiner with both University College Cork and University College Dublin, and he also gave individual tuition to aspiring young Irish composers. He received an honorary doctorate degree from the National University of Ireland in 1947.

In 1953, Bax was further honoured by appointment as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO), an honour within the Queen's personal gift. He died during a visit to the Fleischmanns later that year, possibly from a complication of his heart condition. One of his last compositions was Coronation March for Queen Elizabeth II.

Not long before he died, Bax was asked by the editor of the The World of Music which were his own preferred works. He provided the following selection:

The Garden of Fand (1916)
Symphony No. 3 (1929)
Winter Legends (1930)
The Tale the Pine Trees Knew (1931)
Symphony No. 6 (1935)

On another occasion, he said, of his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, which had been commissioned by and dedicated to Gaspar Cassadó, "The fact that nobody has ever taken up this work has been one of the major disappointments of my musical life".

He died at age 69 and was interred in St. Finbarr's Cemetery, Cork.

The first biography of Bax was Colin Scott-Sutherland’s Arnold Bax, published in 1973. It offers a description of Bax's life and some insightful analysis of his music, especially the large-scale works. Scott-Sutherland also published the works of Dermot O'Byrne (Bax's literary pseudonym): Ideala: Poems and Some Early Love Letters of Arnold Bax including the Collected Poems of Dermot O'Byrne (2001). Bax’s principal biographer, however, is the English writer Lewis Foreman. Foreman's first major contribution to Bax scholarship was a 1983 biography entitled Bax, A Composer and His Times. A second edition appeared in 1988 and a third edition in February 2007.

The principal primary source for information regarding Bax’s life and philosophy is his anecdotal autobiography Farewell My Youth (1943), which, for personal reasons, ends at the year 1914. In it Bax attempted to create several myths about himself, but many of his own statements are contradicted by things he wrote elsewhere. Lewis Foreman's 1992 edition of Bax's autobiography is the most recent currently available. Entitled Farewell My Youth, and Other Writings by Arnold Bax, it also includes photographs and some letters. Another compendium of primary source material is Cuchullan Among the Guns (1998), a selection of letters from Bax's correspondence with the British conductor Christopher Whelen, edited by Dennis Andrews.

A significant event in Bax musicology was the publication of Graham Parlett's exhaustive list of Bax's works entitled A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (1999). Recognising Parlett's achievement and contribution, Bax musicologists have now started to use his chronological numbering system as a universal system of reference (e.g. Bax's celebrated Third Symphony would be "Parlett #297" or simply P. 297). The doctoral dissertation of Dr. Paul R. Ludden and the M. Litt. dissertation of Thomas Elnaes (University of Dublin, Trinity College, 2006) use the succinct Parlett Numbers exclusively. As a composer Graham Parlett has also edited and orchestrated several Bax scores, including the Russian Suite and the film music to Oliver Twist.

After his death, Bax's music fell into neglect. He had always sustained a Romantic outlook, distancing himself from musical modernism and especially Arnold Schoenberg's serialism, which was now being embraced by institutions worldwide. He was increasingly pigeon-holed as a 'musical pastoralist' together with Vaughan Williams and others. Consequently, Bax's works tended to fall out of the repertoire of orchestras which had once given them frequent performances.

Because of this decline, Bax's music was slow to reach recording. As late as the mid-sixties, there were only two recordings of his symphonies, one long deleted and the other on an obscure label. But from 1966 onwards, a revival of his music began with a series of recordings on Richard Itter's Lyrita label. By the centenary of his birth in 1983 much of his music was available in modern recordings. The Lyrita recordings of the First and Seventh Symphonies were reissued in 2006; that of the Sixth Symphony, only previously available on LP, in June 2007; and those of the Second and Fifth Symphonies, also only on LP, in February 2008.

Naxos Records have released a complete cycle of Bax’s symphonies and tone poems, recorded by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of David Lloyd-Jones, along with much of his chamber music. Chandos Records have also championed Bax's orchestral music on CD with recordings of the tone poems often conducted either by Bryden Thomson or Vernon Handley, as well as two complete symphony cycles. The first cycle (released through the 1980s and 1990s) saw Bryden Thomson at the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for all except the Fourth Symphony, which was played by the Ulster Orchestra. The second (released in 2003) was played by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley, a lifelong champion and connoisseur of Bax's music. This box set, which also contains recordings of Tintagel and the Rogue's Comedy Overture and includes thoughtful interviews in response to questions from Andrew McGregor and Lewis Foreman, garnered glowing reviews and won a Gramophone Award. It was followed (in 2008) by a further widely acclaimed disc of three of the tone poems plus the posthumous Sinfonietta conducted by Handley in 2005, this time with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Chandos has also released a recording of the complete scores to Oliver Twist and Malta G.C. (with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Rumon Gamba). Despite such successful championship on record, Bax’s orchestral music remains rarely performed in concert.

Although he was an able pianist, Bax's appearances as a performer were few and far between. There are recordings of him partnering with May Harrison and Lionel Tertis in sonatas by Frederick Delius and himself. He made a rare concert appearance at the memorial concert for Peter Warlock in 1930. His piano music has been recorded by several artists, including Iris Loveridge, John McCabe, Eric Parkin, Ashley Wass and Michael Endres. However, no complete survey has yet been recorded. 

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