Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 7 Tintagel
Arnold Bax was the son of a barrister who had no inclinationor financial need to practise at the bar and devoted much of his time insteadto antiquarian pursuits and genealogical research. He had traced his Quakerforebears back to the landed gentry of sixteenth-century Surrey, but thesurname itself is of Dutch origin, probably short for Bacszoon, 'son of Bac'(like English Jacks for Jackson). There was certainly no Irish blood in thefamily, and it was Arnold's intuitive response to the narrative poem TheWanderings of Oisin by W.B. Yeats that introduced him, at the age of eighteen,to the distinctive atmosphere of the Celtic world. 'Thereupon', he remarked, 'Iinstantly became a sort of honorary Irishman'. This revelation immediatelyprompted him to visit Ireland, where he immersed himself in its culture,history, legends and language. His burgeoning musical style, hitherto under theinfluence of Wagner, began to absorb elements from Irish folk-music, and hisname became associated with the so-called 'Celtic Twilight', though Bax himselflater dismissed the gloomy connotations of this phrase as 'bunk' dreamed up byEnglish journalists from the title of an early work by Yeats. He pointed outthat 'Primitive Celtic colours are bright and jewelled', an observation echoedby the Welsh composer William Mathias, who wrote that 'Rite and magic, jewelledcolours, the spirit of play, haunting wistfulness, lyrical warmth and ardour,and (above all) rhythmic vitality -- these are all qualities associated withCeltic art and tradition'. They are also qualities to be found in abundancethroughout Bax's music.
Following a romantic escapade in Russia during 1910, Baxmarried on the rebound and set up house on the outskirts of Dublin, remainingthere until the outbreak of the Great War brought him back to London, where hesoon fell in love with the beautiful young piano student Harriet Cohen. InAugust 1917 the couple spent an idyllic six-week holiday at Tintagel, on thenorth coast of Cornwall, and this experience inspired Bax to compose atone-poem that was to become the best known of all his orchestral works.Although he wrote it out immediately on his return to London (the draft scoreis inscribed 'Oct 1917'), he delayed orchestrating it, and the final manuscriptdates from January 1919. It bears the dedication 'For Darling Tania with lovefrom Arnold', Tania being Harriet's pet name; but when the work was laterpublished, this had become the more demure 'To Miss Harriet Cohen'. The firstperformance was given by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Dan Godfreyon 20th October 1921, and Bax wrote a note describing the piece:
This work is only in the broadest sense programme music. Thecomposer's intention is simply to offer a tonal impression of thecastle-crowned cliff of (now sadly degenerate) Tintagel, and more especially ofthe long distances of the Atlantic, as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on asunny, but not windless, summer day. The literary and traditional associationsof the scene also enter into the scheme. The music opens, after a fewintroductory bars, with a theme, given out by brass, which may be taken asrepresenting the ruined castle, now so ancient and weather-worn as to seem anemanation of the rock upon which it is built. The subject is worked to a broaddiatonic climax, and is followed by a long melody for strings, which maysuggest the serene and almost limitless spaces of the ocean.
After a while a more restless mood begins to assert itself,as though the sea were rising, bringing with it a new sense of stress, thoughtsof many passionate and tragic incidents in the tales of King Arthur and KingMark and others among the men and women of their time. A wailing chromaticfigure is heard, and gradually dominates the music until finally it assumes ashape which recalls to mind one of the subjects of the first Act of [Wagner's]'Tristan and Isolda' (whose fate was, of course, intimately connected withTintagel). Here occurs a motif which may be taken as representing theincreasing tumult of the sea. Soon after there is a great climax, suddenlysubsiding, followed by a passage which will perhaps convey the impression ofimmense waves slowly gathering force until they smash themselves upon theimpregnable rocks.
The theme of the sea is heard again, and the piece ends asit began, with a picture of the castle still proudly fronting the sun and windof centuries.
There is no unequivocal proof that King Arthur or any of theother shadowy figures mentioned in Bax's note had any connection with Tintagel.(The name comes from the words din and tagell, meaning 'fortress' and'constriction' in the Cornish language, and refers to the narrow ridge leadingto the castle ruins from the nearby village of Trevena.) Nevertheless, standingon the cliff-top there, with the magnificent fury of the Atlantic rollersbattering the rocks far below, one can readily appreciate how the legends andthe scenic grandeur must have fired Bax's imagination into producing some ofthe most vivid sea music ever written.
Nearly four years after completing Tintagel, the premi?¿re ofBax's First Symphony was greeted with the newspaper headline 'Wonderful NewWork Performed at Queen's Hall'. Over the following twelve years he wrote fivemore symphonies, but after completing the sixth in 1934 his compulsion to writemusic began to wane. He went on, nevertheless, to produce several notablechamber and orchestral pieces, including a Violin Concerto, and it was soonafter finishing this in March 1938 that he embarked on his seventh and final symphony.The work had been fully sketched by October, and the orchestration was finishedat Morar, on the west coast of Scotland, in January 1939, the very month thatsaw the death of Bax's beloved Yeats and exactly twenty years after thecompletion of Tintagel. He originally dedicated the symphony to the conductorBasil Cameron, but when it subsequently became an official commission for theNew York World's Fair he was required to change the dedication, which nowbecame 'To the People of America'. It was first played by the New YorkPhilharmonic-Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on 9th June 1939 under SirAdrian Boult.
Like all of Bax's symphonies, the seventh is in threemovements, the first of which is largely characterised by surging energy andbuoyant optimism, as can be heard in the opening paragraph. After a briefpause, the mood becomes more playful, but the music soon reverts to moreserious matters. A new, animated woodwind theme characterised by repeated notesleads into a syncopated passage revealing Bax at his most exuberant. Contrastis provided by a rich, lyrical melody first heard on cellos and cor anglais,and the development section is by turns strenuous, wistful and mysterious, butalways with an underlying sense of momentum. The recapitulation culminates inthe lyrical melody soaring confidently towards a harsh climactic flourish(brass and timpani) before the movement returns to the shadows from which itemerged.
Bax once curiously described the slow movement of thissymphony as an 'intermezzo and trio', though intermezzi are not normally asextended and eventful as this one; and in praising Boult's first Britishperformance he wrote that it 'expressed all the heavy summer languor which Imeant to convey'. The outer sections may be predominantly languorous, but thereare also moments of violent upheaval, as if the dreamlike atmosphere has beeninvaded by some dark nightmare. The central 'trio' bears the marking InLegendary Mood and features a more purposeful melody beginning on low woodwindagainst a busy solo violin accompanim