BAX: Viola Sonata / Concert Piece / Legend / Trio in 1 Movement
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Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Viola Sonata • Concert Piece • Legend • Trio
It has become a cliché of musical history that the celebrated British viola-player Lionel Tertis generated much of the modern British solo viola repertoire when he encouraged young composers, notably those associated with London's Royal Academy of Music, to write works for him in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Up till then the viola was very much the Cinderella of the orchestra, and there were few recognised soloists. All of Bax's viola works were written with Tertis in mind. While a student at the Academy Arnold Bax came under the influence of Tertis, who taught viola there, and Bax and his contemporaries responded to Tertis's enthusiasm and the quality of his playing – and the big tone he drew from a very large instrument. And in the last analysis, a performance is a performance when all is said and done.
Although Arnold Edward Trevor Bax was born in south London, he spent his most impressionable teenage years in a rambling Victorian mansion surrounded by well-tended gardens in Hampstead. Bax remarked it was 'the next best thing to living in the country' and here he enjoyed all the delights of the country with the musical opportunities of nearby London. Although his father was of a nonconformist religious persuasion, he was well-off, and Bax always had a private income which meant that he never had to take a paid position to earn his living. In his twenties, particularly, this gave him an enviable freedom to travel and to devote himself to music and to composition.
Although Bax has been best known for his orchestral music, especially his tone poems and seven romantic symphonies, he also composed a large corpus of highly individual chamber music. His sonatas include four for the piano, five for violin and examples for cello, clarinet but most noticeably for viola, one of his greatest and most characteristic works, written at the highpoint of his career.
It was while he was a student at the Royal Academy of Music from 1900 to 1905, that he found himself part of a circle of brilliant pianist-composers. Of these York Bowen and Benjamin Dale established big reputations while young but are now not so well remembered as Bax. All were commanding pianists, and Bowen appeared before the public at a young age. Bax also had a reputation at the Academy as a fine pianist, but although he appeared in his own music, particularly when he was young, he did not try to establish a career as a pianist, indeed he shied away from it, though a recording survives of him playing his viola sonata with its dedicatee Lionel Tertis in 1929.
While a student Bax also conceived a lifelong enthusiasm for Ireland and things Irish. He first visited the far west in 1902. After having read W. B. Yeats's early poem 'The Wanderings of Oisin'he wrote: 'The Celt within me stood revealed'. Soon he discovered the Donegal village of Glencolumcille on the wild Atlantic coast. Under this Irish influence he later wrote poetry, short stories and four plays, for which he adopted the pseudonym 'Dermot O'Byrne'. Even as early as 1904, in his Concert Piece For Viola and Piano he noted in his programme note for the first performance: 'It will be observed that a Celtic element predominates, free use being made of the flattened seventh, the falling intervals of the pentatonic scale and other features peculiar to Irish folk music'.
Bax wrote his Concert Piece in the spring of 1904 specifically for Tertis, who gave the first performance with Bax at the piano at London's Aeolian Hall on 6 December 1904, during a Patron's Fund Concert. The Patron's Fund had then been only recently established by Sir Ernest Palmer to promote performances by young British composers. Bax's music was seen as revolutionary, one critic writing of its 'spirit almost of rebellion and violence throughout its fervid pages'. While it is difficult now to appreciate its revolutionary traits, it is remarkable for its effectiveness and for the elements of Bax's later style already present.
After the First World War, Bax, by then becoming recognised as one of the leading British composers of the younger generation, came under the influence of Tertis again, writing for him a Concerto (soon renamed Phantasy) in 1920, and in 1921 working on the Sonata for Viola and Piano. The first movement is dated 9 December 1921 and all three movements were completed a month later. It was first performed by Tertis and Bax, again at the Aeolian Hall on 17 November 1922, and was almost immediately regarded by most commentators as one of Bax's most important works, an assessment that has lasted to today.
During the First World War Bax's youthful world in Ireland had been ended by the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, when friends were killed or executed. There followed a number of memorial works from his pen, as well as poetry that in 1918 was so vivid that it was banned by the British censor in Ireland. The Irish Civil War, the Troubles, followed and Bax was tormented by it all. It is possible that the Viola Sonata may have been one of his last tributes to the escapist Celtic wonderland of his youth and its sad fate. He had to confront reality.
The sonata is in three movements, a fast, diabolical scherzo flanked by more reflective outer movements, a form later adopted by many British composers not least Walton in his Viola Concerto, only seven years later. Although the work is not cyclic in the true sense of the word, the opening idea reappears at the end of the last movement. The music reveals a genuine poetic vision, and achieves a quiet but intense beauty by comparatively simple means. Of particular importance are a rising figure heard at the outset, and leaps of an octave and of a fifth. The opening, with its high tinkling piano offsetting the sombre hue of the lower register of the viola, immediately transforms us into Bax's personal world as the music slowly emerges from this tentative opening to the superbly glowing climax. While not overtly 'Celtic' in manner, and with no subjective programme admitted by Bax, here we are surely hearing his final absorption of his various influences into a remarkable personal style and a universal expression.
In Ireland Bax had witnessed local folk-dancing in the countryside and the spirit of the ceilidh at its most uninhibited is present in many of his scores. This fierce scherzo has much of the character of a wild Irish dance, Bax demonstrating he had known the real thing. At the end after a beautiful rhapsodic central interlude, the poignant last movement closes with what the critic Robin Hull called 'a truly diabolic coda founded upon the first subject … gradually working up to a terrific climax whose dramatic tension is probably unsurpassed anywhere in Bax's music'.
Bax's last completed work for viola (and one has to emphasize 'completed', for from the 1930s we have fragments of what was intended as a second sonata which eventually he abandoned and re-worked as the Sixth Symphony), the Legend for Viola and Piano, was written to a commission from the American musical patron Mrs Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, and first heard, yet again at the Aeolian Hall, with Arnold Bax accompanying Lionel Tertis. This is Bax's least flamboyant viola work, launched in a mood of gloomy menace but eventually after revisiting the worlds of his earlier viola works a