BAX: Symphony No. 2 / November Woods
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 2 in Eminor and C major; November Woods
The son of cultured and well-to-do English parents, Arnold Bax was bornin Streatham but spent much of his childhood in Hampstead, where the familylater settled, taught at home by a private tutor and strongly influenced by thecultured and comfortable environment in which he found himself. His earlyinterest in music persuaded his father, a barrister, to allow him to enter theRoyal Academy of Music in London at the age of seventeen. There he became apiano pupil of Tobias Matthay, while studying composition under the WagnerianFrederick Corder.
In 1902 Bax came across the poem The Wanderings of Usheen (Oisin), byIrish poet W.B.Yeats, and discovered in himself a strong Celtic identity,although racially descended from a family long established in East Anglia. Heand his brother, the writer Clifford Bax, made their first visit to Ireland andwere captivated. Here they established themselves for a time, associating withleading figures in Irish cultural life, while Bax himself won a reputation as apoet and writer, assuming, for this literary purpose, the name Dermot O'Byrneand studying Irish legend and the old Irish language. A visit to Russia with aUkrainian girl that he had met in London and her Italian friend introduced afurther influence to his cultural formation. While his pursuit of the Ukrainiangirl came to nothing, he was able to absorb something of the spirit of Russianmusic, secular and sacred, and was dazzled by the glories of the ImperialBallet, as he was to be by Dyagilev's Ballets russes on his return toLondon. His return also brought marriage to the daughter of the distinguishedSpanish pianist Carlos Sobrino and the present of a house from his father. Bax,however, could not settle in London. Before long the couple had rented a housein Ireland, and then returned to England, but eventually separating, therebyallowing Bax to pursue his own musical and amorous ventures in a measure offreedom.
In many ways it must seem that the 1920s brought Bax his period ofgreatest success. He was prolific in his creativity and his works were widelyperformed. With the end of his marriage he was able to continue his closeassociation with the pianist Harriet Cohen, although this did not precludeother relationships. He wrote a quantity of piano music for Harriet Cohen,including a piano concerto for the left hand after the injury in 1948 that madeuse of her right hand for a time impossible. The 1930s brought public hononrs andat the end of the decade appointment as Master of the King's Musick, althoughhis gifts did not lend themselves easily to the composition of occasionalcelebratory works, as the position seemed to demand. The changes in musicalstyle and taste left Bax to some extent alienated from the world in which hefound himself. Composition continued, however, including a Coronation March in1952 for the accession of the new monarch. He died, as he might have wished, inIreland, while staying with his friend, the German-born Irish composer AloysFleischman in Cork, the place he loved best.
Bax eventually completed his Symphony No. 2 in E minor and Cmajor in 1926, after intermittent work for the previous two years. Itwas dedicated to Sergey Koussevitzky who, after protracted negotiations withBax, conducted the first two performances in Boston with the Boston SymphonyOrchestra on 13th and 14th December 1929. Eugene Gooseens conducted the firstLondon performance with the Queen's Hall Orchestra on 20th May 1930. The symphonyis scored for piccolo doubling flute, two other flutes, two oboes, cor anglais,three clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, double bassoon, four horns, threetrumpets, two tenor trombones, bass trombone and tenor and bass tuba. A variedpercussion section includes timpani, bass drum, tambourine, cymbals, xylophone,glockenspiel, celesta, piano and two harps. Use is made of the organ and theorchestra is completed by the usual strings.
In a perceptive analysis of the symphony, Lewis Foreman has drawnattention to the four ideas heard in the Molto moderato introductorysection to the first movement, motifs that recur, particularly in the first andthird movements. The first of these appears, dark-hued, over a bass drum roll,near the beginning of the work. The eighth bar brings a second sombre element,introduced by the cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon. A short but significantmotif is heard from the lower strings and tubas, immediately followed by aslightly longer motif from three flutes and muted trumpets. Tension mounts asthe music moves forward to the Allegro moderato, with its emphaticopening before the related first subject, announced by the clarinets. The musicpresses forward as the material is developed. A second subject eventually appears,introduced Poco largamente, followed by flute and solo cello, marked Moderatosemplice. The material undergoes further development, with the motifs fromthe opening emerging from time to time in remarkable orchestral colours,suggesting at times the palette of Richard Strauss in its sonorities. Therecapitulation brings back the urgency of the first subject, the slower andmore lyrical second subject and interwoven reminiscences of the basic motifsthat give the work its unity. Flutes and harp open the second movement, againstwhich the rising third motif of the introduction to the first movement is heardfrom cellos and double basses. A lyrical melody is announced by the violins anda transition leads to a second theme in the strings. A dynamic climax isfollowed by a third element, underpinned by an organ pedal C. A solo violinprefigures the return of the first theme and the hushed closing section of themovement, in a positive B major. There is a short introduction to the lastmovement. Here the threatening third motif is heard, as in the first theme ofthe subsequent Allegro feroce. There follows a sinister march-likepassage, spurred on by a Mahlerian use of the trumpet, and then a more subduedelement, lightly scored, with a melody for bassoons and cellos against aninsistent violin rhythm. There is a direct quotation of part of theintroduction to the first movement, soon to be followed by the final section ofthe movement, similar in length to the initial introduction and bringing thesymphony to a whispered ending, always in the varied instrumental colours thathave marked the whole work.
The evocative November Woods was completed in 1917 and firstperformed in Manchester by the Halle Orchestra under Hamilton Harty on 18thNovember 1920. It is scored for a similar orchestra, but with a brass sectionthat is without bass trombone and a second tuba and with a percussion sectionof timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel and celesta. Bax makes use again of the mottotheme from his Violin Sonata No. 2 of 1915 and of a motif from his 1916piano-piece, Dream in Exile, presumably a recollection of Ireland.
According to the composer the work was not to be taken as a mere depiction of awood in the Chilterns in late autumn, dank and stormy, but rather as areflection of his own troubled experiences of the period, with the second themesuggesting a feeling of happier days in the past. The main theme forms thesubstance of the first part of the tone-poem, its varied textures leading to asecond theme, after the curious rattle of dry sticks from the cellos, brieflymarking the passage that, with its oboe melody, immediately precedes this Andantecon moto. Here there is a melody for cor anglais, bassoon and viola,coloured by the sounds of the celesta and mounting to a climax of feeling. Asolo violin is heard, followed by four violins and then by eight, in avariegated