BAX: Symphonic Poems
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
The son of cultured and well-to-do English parents,Arnold Bax was born in Streatham but spent much of hischildhood in Hampstead, where the family later settled,taught at home by a private tutor and strongly influencedby the cultured and comfortable environment in whichhe found himself. His early interest in music persuadedhis father, a barrister, to allow him to enter the RoyalAcademy of Music in London at the age of seventeen.
There he became a piano pupil of Tobias Matthay, whilestudying composition under the Wagnerian FrederickCorder.
In 1902 Bax came across the poem The Wanderingsof Usheen (Oisin), by the Irish poet W.B.Yeats, anddiscovered in himself a strong Celtic identity, althoughracially descended from a family long established inEast Anglia. He and his brother, the writer Clifford Bax,made their first visit to Ireland and were captivated.
Here they established themselves for a time, associatingwith leading figures in Irish cultural life, while Baxhimself won a reputation as a poet and writer, assuming,for this literary purpose, the name Dermot O'Byrne andstudying Irish legend and the old Irish language. A visitto Russia with a Ukrainian girl that he had met inLondon and her Italian friend, introduced a furtherinfluence to his cultural formation. While his pursuit ofthe Ukrainian girl came to nothing, he was able toabsorb something of the spirit of Russian music, secularand sacred, and was dazzled by the glories of theImperial Ballet, as he was to be by Dyagilev's Balletsrusses on his return to London. His return also broughtmarriage to the daughter of the then distinguishedSpanish pianist Carlos Sobrino and the present of ahouse from his father. Bax, however, could not settle inLondon. Before long the couple had rented a house inIreland, and then returned to England, living in variousplaces, but eventually separating, thereby allowing Baxto pursue his own musical and amorous ventures in ameasure of freedom. His prolific career reached itscreative height in the years up to 1930, the period inwhich the present tone-poems were written. He was laterappointed Master of the King's Music, a position illsuitedto his talents and temperament, whichnevertheless allowed the composition of a CoronationMarch in 1952. He died while staying in Ireland thefollowing year.
Tintagel owed much to Bax's relationship with theyoung pianist Harriet Cohen. In the late summer of 1917they had spent a few weeks on holiday in Cornwall atTintagel. The resulting tone-poem, dedicated to her, wasto become the most popular of all Bax's compositions.
For a performance in Leeds in 1922 Bax provided aprogramme note, in which he declared his intention as'simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle-crownedcliff of ... Tintagel, and more especially of the longdistances of the Atlantic, as seen from the cliffs ofCornwall on a sunny, but not windless, summer day.' Hehad in mind, too, the legendary associations of theruined castle, the stories of King Arthur and King Mark,of Tristan and Isolde. The first theme in the brass seemsto represent the castle, while the following string melodysuggests the expanse of the ocean. In a more turbulentsection the historical events associated with Tintagel arereflected, leading to a climax in the tumult of the sea,which subsides, leaving the castle 'still proudly frontingthe sun and wind of centuries'.
An earlier work, The Garden of Fand wascompleted in 1916, described by Bax as the last of hisIrish works. In his introduction to the published score heexplains that the garden of Fand is the sea. The pictureat first is of a calm sea, over which a small ship sails intothe sunset, to be tossed by a wave onto the shore ofFand's miraculous island. There the voyagers are caughtup in the endless revelry of the place. Fand sings hersong of love, enchaining the hearts of her hearers forever: there is dancing and feasting, and then the searises, to overwhelm the island, leaving the immortals toride on the waves, laughing at the mortals drowned inthe depths of the ocean. Twilight falls, the sea growscalm again and Fand's garden is seen no more. The storyof Fand is part of the saga of Cuchulain, the great heroof Irish legend.
The tone-poem The Happy Forest was finished inshort score in May 1914. Bax orchestrated the work in1921, dedicating it to the conductor and composerEugene Goossens, who conducted the first performancein London in July 1923. Described in its title as NaturePoem, the work has a literary source in a prose-poem byHerbert Farjeon, a contribution to the quarterly Orpheus,edited by Clifford Bax. The Farjeons were neighboursand friends of the Baxes in Hampstead and HerbertFarjeon won a considerable reputation as a drama criticand as a writer of revue sketches. Here, however, heprovided a pastoral scene that almost suggests the worldevoked by Mallarme and Debussy. The writer is lying inwoodland, surrounded by wild flowers, observing aclearing where, at noon, two shepherds compete in theirverse, one with another, in praise of their beloved, ascene recalling the classical eclogues or bucolics ofVirgil or Theocritus. A third shepherd appears, awardingone of the contenders the victor's garland and playinghis pipe. A satyr, perhaps Pan himself, appears, dancingand leading the shepherds, joined by one figure afteranother, until the procession dances away into thedistance. Herbert Farjeon's prose-poem is quoted in fullin the authoritative study of Bax by Lewis Foreman.
Bax completed The Tale the Pine Trees Knewtowards the end of 1931 and the work is a reflection ofthe composer's association with Scotland. In his ownprogramme note on the work he writes that he had been'thinking of two landscapes dominated by the pine trees- Norway and the West of Scotland - thinking, too, of theNorse sagas and of the wild traditional legends of theHighland Celt', but continues to disclaim any intentionat direct programme or narrative. The main theme isgiven to the brass, after the scurrying strings havesuggested something of the wind sighing through thetrees. There is a slower central section before a build-upto the return of the principal theme, leading to the finaltranquillity of a violin solo, as the Celtic mists gatheronce more.
The evocative November Woods was completed in1917. Bax insisted that the work was not to be taken asa mere depiction of a wood in the Chilterns in lateautumn, dank and stormy, but rather as a reflection of hisown troubled experiences of the period, with the secondtheme suggesting a feeling of happier days in the past.
The main theme forms the substance of the first part ofthe tone-poem, its varied textures leading to a secondtheme, after the curious rattle of dry sticks from thecellos, briefly marking the passage that, with its oboemelody, immediately precedes this Andante con moto.
Here there is a melody for cor anglais, bassoon andviola, coloured by the sounds of the celesta andmounting to a climax of feeling. A solo violin is heard,followed by four violins and then by eight, in avariegated texture that continues to suggest the changingweather of a winter scene, as the wind blows, bringingthe stillness of icy cold. There are broad elements oftripartite sonata-form in the structure of the work, withthe return of the earlier material, in changedinstrumentation, leading to a gentle conclusion, as thesound of the bass clarinet fades away to nothing.Keith Anderson