BAX: Symphony No. 3 / The Happy Forest
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
The Happy Forest
The son of cultured and well-to-doEnglish parents. Arnold Bax was born in Streatham but spent much of hischildhood in Hampstead where the family later settled, taught at home by aprivate tutor and strongly influenced by the cultured and comfortableenvironment in which he found himself. His early interest in music persuadedhis father, a barrister, to allow him to enter the Royal Academy of Music inLondon at the age of seventeen. There he became a piano pupil of TobiasMatthay, while studying composition under the Wagnerian Frederick Corder.
In 1902 Bax came across the poem TheWanderings of Usheen (Oisin), by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, and discoveredin himself a strong Celtic identity, although racially descended from a familylong established in East Anglia. He and his brother, the writer Clifford Bax,made their first visit to Ireland and were captivated. Here they establishedthemselves for a time, associating with leading figures in Irish cultural life,while Bax himself won a reputation as a poet and writer, assuming, for thisliterary purpose, the name Dermot O'Byrne and studying Irish legend and the oldIrish language. A visit to Russia with a Ukrainian girl that he had met inLondon and her Italian friend introduced a further influence to his culturalformation. While his pursuit of the Ukrainian girl came to nothing, he was ableto absorb something of the spirit of Russian music, secular and sacred, and wasdazzled by the glories of the Imperial Ballet, as he was to be by Dyagilev's Balletsrusses on his return to London. His return also brought marriage to thedaughter of the distinguished Spanish pianist Carlos Sobrino and the present ofa house from his father. Bax, however, could not settle in London. Before longthe couple had rented a house in Ireland, and then returned to England, buteventually separating, thereby allowing Bax to pursue his own musical andamorous ventures in a measure of freedom.
In many ways it must seem that the 1920sbrought Bax his period of greatest success. He was prolific in his creativityand his works were widely performed. With the end of his marriage he was ableto continue his close association with the pianist Harriet Cohen, although thisdid not preclude other relationships. He wrote a quantity of piano music forHarriet Cohen, including a piano concerto for the left hand after the injury in1948 that made use of her right hand for a time impossible. The 1930s broughtpublic honours and at the end of the decade appointment as Master of the King'sMusick, although his gifts did not lend themselves easily to the composition ofoccasional celebratory works. as the position seemed to demand. The changes inmusical style and taste left Bax to some extent alienated from the world inwhich he found himself. Composition continued. however. including a CoronationMarch in 1952 for the accession of the new monarch. He died, as he mighthave wished, in Ireland, while staying with his friend, the German-born Irish composerAloys Fleischman in Cork, the place he loved best.
Bax started work in earnest on his SymphonyNo.3 during the winter of 1928-29. In a cold room at the Station Hotel inMorar, on the west coast of Scotland, he developed the sketches he had made athome in London into what was to prove at one time the most popular of hissymphonies. He dedicated the work, described by the viola-player Bernard Shoreas 'as thrilling to playas to listen to,' to Sir Henry Wood, a champion of hismusic, who conducted the first performance of the symphony in March 1930.
The work is scored for a large orchestraand includes in its percussion section side drum, bass drum and tenor drum,cymbals, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, gong and anvil. Thefirst of the three movements, scored initially for wind instruments, offers amysterious opening bassoon melody that slowly unwinds, its first three noteslater to assume unifying importance. The lower strings introduce a new element,an accompaniment to solemn open chords from the brass, before the music growsfaster and more urgent in tone, with the emergence of a new and insistentrhythmic theme, leading to a dynamic climax. The music subsides into a gentlermood, led by five solo violins into a second section of greater serenity,slowly developed before the interruption of the figure with which the movementhad opened, emphatically stated, and now taking on a continuing role. Thewinding theme of the introduction is entrusted at first to muted violas,leading to the return of thematic and motivic elements of the earlier part ofthe movement, in their starkness or meditative tenderness, before a fierceconclusion. A horn solo starts the second movement, followed by the shimmeringof the lower strings and the entry of a solo trumpet with an evocative melodyin music of some poignancy. This reflects a less menacing landscape of greaterpastoral tranquillity but has a growing feeling of nostalgia about it. The moodis shattered by the opening of the third movement, which soon leads to avigorously rhythmic theme, the suggestion of an energetic scherzo, whichproceeds to further thematic material before the return of the serene secondsubject of the first movement. This leads to the Epilogue, starting withan oboe and clarinet theme over the steady tread of a string and harpaccompaniment. Here What has passed is recalled in tranquillity.
The tone-poem The Happy Forest wasfinished in short score in May 1914. Bax orchestrated the work in 1921,dedicating it to the conductor and composer Eugene Goossens, who conducted thefirst performance in London in July 1923. Described in its title as a 'NaturePoem', the work has a literary source in a prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon, acontribution to the quarterly Orpheus, edited by Clifford Bax. TheFarjeons were neighbours and friends of the Baxes in Hampstead and HerbertFarjeon won a considerable reputation as a drama critic and as a writer ofrevue sketches. Here, however, he provided a pastoral scene that almostsuggests the world evoked by Mallarme and Debussy. The writer is lying inwoodland, surrounded by wild flowers, observing a clearing where, at noon, twoshepherds compete in their verse, one with another, in praise of their beloved,a scene recalling the classical eclogues or bucolics of Virgil or Theocritus. Athird shepherd appears, awarding one of the contenders the victor's garland andplaying his pipe. A satyr, perhaps Pan himself, appears, dancing and leadingthe shepherds, joined by one figure after another, until the procession dancesaway into the distance. Herbert Farjeon's prose-poem is quoted in full in theauthoritative study of Bax by Lewis Foreman. Bax's work, with the direction Vivaciousand fantastic, opens with the sound of muted horns and harp, but soon gathersmomentum. It can only be considered programmatic in the broadest sense,reflecting the general picture evoked by Farjeon's words, rather than theevents recounted.
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Formed in 1891 as the Scottish Orchestra,in 1951 the ensemble, now full-time, took the name of the Scottish NationalOrchestra, later assuming the title 'Royal', in recognition of its importancein the musical life of Scotland. Distinguished conductors who have worked withthe orchestra include Karl Rankl, Hans Swarowsky, Walter Siisskind, BrydenThomson and Sir Alexander Gibson, the last named becoming the firstScottish-bom principal conductor in 1959. Neeme Jarvi, who was conductor from1984 to 1988, is now Conductor Laureate; Walter Weller, Music Director andPrincipal Conductor from 1992-97, is now Conductor