BAX: Symphony No. 5
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 5; TheTale the Pine-Trees Knew
Arnold Bax was born to an affluent, cultured family where it followednaturally that he should be introduced to music at an early age. When he wasten years old his father took him to the Crystal Palace Saturday Concerts andhis keen musical interest quickly became apparent. The concert programmes werekept neatly bound by his father and Bax spent hours amusing himself byimprovising piano pieces from the short musical extracts printed in them.
During his mid-teens he showed significant pianistic talent and in 1900 heentered the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Frederick Corder.
Compared to the Royal College of Music, where composition was taught with arather Brahmsian bias under Stanford, the Academy tended to be freer and angledmore towards the directions of Wagner. Corder himself was a devoted Wagnerian,but influence of the Russian Romantics was equally strong, as was Liszt (whomthe Principal had known in person) and Richard Strauss. In this sympatheticatmosphere with the encouragement of established musical figures and giftedpeers, Bax was free to develop an extraordinarily imaginative and complexmusical style entirely his own.
In 1902 Bax made a discovery which had tremendous influence on the restof his life: the heady poetic world of W.B. Yeats. He related naturally toIreland and Celtic folklore, its aspirations, mythology and history firing botha musical and literary vision. In 1904 he wrote A Celtic Song-Cycle andbegan publishing novels in Dublin under the pseudonym Dermot O'Byrne. One ofmany highly evocative tone-poems, In the Faery Hills (1909), wasfollowed by his first Piano Sonata (1910), an expressive piece redolentwith memories of Russia after a recent trip in pursuit of his first love. Womenplayed an important part in his life, including a short-lived marriage whichfailed as soon as he encountered the pianist Harriet Cohen, for whom he wrotenumerous pieces, and friend and lover Mary Greaves, who travelled with him toScotland on frequent occasions.
In addition to his passion for all things Irish, the wilds of Scotlandsimilarly captivated Bax and each winter from 1928 to 1940 he escaped thebustle of London and journeyed to Morar in Inverness-shire. There, the bracingair and breathtaking views across the Atlantic to the Hebridean Islandscatalysed his seven symphonies. They speak with his deeply personal voice ledby harmony and instrumental colour, with emphasis on the metamorphosis ofthematic ideas. With the onset of the Second World War, Bax's compositionslowed considerably and he wrote nothing between August 1939 and the summer of1942. From 1941 to 1953 he lived in a hotel in Sussex during which time he madea brief foray into film music, but it was clear that his youthful vision hadconsiderably faded. He died peacefully while holidaying with friends inIreland, by then a much-honoured composer.
At the same time that Bax discovered Morar he was drawn to the uniquesound-world of Sibelius and the Norse legends, having been intensely moved bythe profundity of expression in Sibelius's Symphony No 1. From this timeon his work took on a distinctly Nordic feel, and Bax himself described musicincluding his Symphony No. 5 and The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew as his'craggy, northern works'. Bax was undoubtedly influenced by Sibelius and,having met him personally, dedicated to him the Symphony No. 5, begun in thewinter of 1931 at Morar.
The work is a closely woven fabric enriched by impressionistic blocks ofinstrumental colour and enormousemotional range represented in conflicts of rhythm, texture, tonality andpitch. Throughout the first movement, the music moves seamlessly from fast,thrusting sections into slower, lyrical moments with perfectly balancedprecision. It begins with a winding clarinet theme rising and falling whilepulsating bass and timpani beat out a mysterious march. Tension is increased bymuted strings and wind and off-beat rhythms culminating with waves of brass andstrings until the music pauses completely - a breath of air before launchingheadlong into the main body of the movement. Complicated rhythms and awkwardaccents introduce a new theme (which Bax ordered the strings to play 'withconfident ferocity') and soon the music garners new energy from bouncing,staccato strings and woodwind, driving the music on further still. Slowly thepace quietens, blurring the sharp edges with muted brass, glockenspiel andharp, followed by wistful solo viol in and oboe melodies. After reaching afinal climax the music subsides, eventually revealing the initial clarinettheme before a quiet close.
Shimmering strings andtrumpet fanfares catalyse the feeling of otherworldliness that begins thesecond movement, before the violas, cellos and basses present a sombre melodyechoed by the woodwind. The rich texture of a cor anglais solo is followed by amuted tuba solo, pervaded by the undulating arc of the flute line until despitebrazen interjections from the brass, the movement slips into a final pool ofcalm.
A driving 'liturgical'string line begins the finale, interrupted by the opening theme of the firstmovement that appears in chattering woodwind. A strong rhythmic drive propelsthe music forward with repeated figures in the trombone and tuba, leading to aclimax before the tension starts to dissipate, preparing the way for the final Epilogue.
Here the triumphal resolution of the liturgical theme is completed withexultant strings and blazing brass resounding with solemn splendour before thework ends with a full orchestral flourish.
The Tale thePine-Trees Knew was completedin December 1931 and its imaginative atmosphere clearly informs the atmosphereof Symphony No. 5. It begins with running semi-quavers on the violas rushinglike wind through the trees. In fact at this time he wrote to Mary Greaves,'The pine trees...sighed and sighed and I longed for you to be with me'. Althoughhe was keen to refute any strong extra-musical significance of his work, Baxdid admit that during its composition he was 'thinking of the Norse sagas andwild traditional legends of the Highland Celts'. The principal theme appears onbrass while strings wind up and down with great energy. A long slower sectionfollows with muted strings and harp punctuated by sections of solo wind andhorn piercing through the haze. The tempo draws itself on again and builds up,gradually leading to a vigorous statement of the main theme with brass andpercussion. It is not long, however, before a violin solo restores the previousquiet atmosphere and ends the work in the mists and shadows of the forest.