BAX: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

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Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

Arnold Baxwas the eldest son of a well-off non-conformist family from south London, whose early talentwas encouraged by his mother, as was that of his brother, the writer andplaywright Clifford Bax. Bax was born in Streatham, then still Surrey, but his most impressionable years were spent inHampstead, then semi-rural, where in 1896 his father bought an imposingmansion, set in three and a half acres.

Bax studiedfrom 1900 to 1905 at the Royal Academy of Music with the composer Frederick Corderand the piano teacher Tobias Matthay. Leaving in the summer of 1905, he wasable, thanks to a private income, to develop his musical career as he pleased. Escapingthe constraints of parental influence, he adopted a semi-bohemian lifestyle,travelling widely, to Dresden, and subsequently Russia, and, best of all, tothe west coast of Ireland, where, 'lorded by the Atlantic', as he put it, andunder the influence of the early poetry of Yeats, he discovered the village of Glencolumcillein Donegal, to which, until the First World War, he constantly returned.

Imbibingall things Irish, Bax wrote poetry, short stories and Synge-like plays,published under the pseudonym of Dermot O'Byrne. Married in 1911, he set uphouse in a Dublin suburb, and moved in Dublin literary andnationalist circles; his friends and acquaintances included the poet and writerPadraic Colum, founder of the IrishReview, and Padraig Pearse, champion of the Irish language, who was executedafter the Easter Rising in 1916.

It is forhis orchestral music that Bax is now more widely known, in particular hisatmospheric tone-poems, the most famous of which is Tintagel, written in 1917 and orchestrated by 1919. Between thewars came seven symphonies, which enhanced his reputation at the time, andthere was also much piano music, as well as instrumental sonatas and manysongs. There is, however, also a large corpus of chamber music and he publishedthree string quartets, a piano trio, a piano quartet, a piano quintet and manyworks for larger ensemble including a nonet.

Two earlystring quartets survive from Bax's student years at the Royal Academy,followed soon after by a piano trio, though with viola replacing the usualcello, and then an extended string quintet. All these early chamber works herepudiated, although they remain worthy of revival. His first major work in themedium was his large-scale Piano Quintet,completed early in 1915, followed in 1916 by his Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp.

When Baxcame to write his first mature string quartet the war was in its last year,though curiously the quartet is a serene work and bears few overt influence ofthe times in which it was written. It is dated 1918 and was first performed bythe Philharmonic Quartet at London'sAeolian Hall on 7th June 1918. The published score is dedicated to Sir EdwardElgar who, in response to Bax's letter of 3rd March 1921 offering thededication, replied that he 'liked the look of it'. Bax had visited Elgar at Birchwoodat the age of seventeen and he wrote 'I should be very pleased if you willaccept this simple work in memory of an unforgettable day and all the pleasureyour own music has given me'.

The openingof the cheerful serenade-like first movement at first recalls the textures ofDvořak's late chamber music, and Bax certainly shows a remarkable commandof the varied textures of the medium. The first theme soon moves on to a second containing elements of the first and then aslower, wistful idea. This middle section moves through a succession of spectralmoods before the opening theme returns fortissimo. In the slow movement Baxwrites a sorrowing threnody, perhaps connected with the war or remembering lostfriends in Ireland,or regretting the passing of the years, the cause of severe depression in lateryears. A hint that it might be the last of these comes with a brief allusion toElgar's Violin Concerto. Performancemarkings include molto expressivo

(sic) and very delicate and expressive.

In a spectral middle section all are muted, as they are for the hushed ending. ThatBax's thoughts are in Ireland

is confirmed by the last movement, with its opening wild jig-like dance, startingin 2/4 but with a second idea in 6/8, as the music becomes wilder. The fastmusic gives way to a gorgeously memorable 'Irish' tune, which Bax claimed wasoriginal, but Irish audiences were convinced was adapted from the folk-song Ban Cnuic ?ëireann ?ôg (The Fair Hills of Ireland). Bax was afriend of Herbert Hughes, the arranger of Irish folk-songs, and Hughes's versionof this tune called The Lament of FanaidGrove was played by their mutual friend the cellist Beatrice Harrison, andlater recorded by her. Although differing metrically and in decoration from Bax'sversion, it seems likely this may have been his source. The music ends with thereturn of the dance and Bax in high spirits, concluding a work that wasprobably the best-known British chamber work between the wars, twice recorded on78s, but subsequently largely forgotten.

Bax wrotehis second string quartet in the winter of 1924-25. The three movements aredated 18th

December1924, 13th January 1925 and 5th February 1925. It was first performed by theNew Philharmonic Quartet at the Grotrian Hall, later the Steinway Hall, in London in a concert ofBax's chamber music on 15th March 1927. It was published soon after, but,unlike the first quartet, was not widely performed.

Writtenbetween the sketches and the orchestration of the despairing Second Symphony, the quartet seems toshare its mood. It opens with the solo cello in an extended recitative,eventually joined by the viola, but it is 39 bars before we hear a full quartettexture. In the introduction the cello has four different motifs which areelaborated in what follows. Eventually we reach a lyrical idea given to theviola, marked molto cantabile. At onepoint there is a ghostly reminiscence of this idea, but the return of this songis long-delayed, the assurance of the FirstQuartet now a distant memory, although echoes of its mood can be heard fromtime to time, notably distorted fragments of what once might have been an Irishdance. The richly textured slow movement opens with an expressive theme, thesource of most of what follows. It generates a contrasted second subject withan octave displacement near the beginning and returns finally at s
Item number 8555282
Barcode 747313528226
Release date 10/01/2001
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Bax, Arnold
Bax, Arnold
Orchestras Maggini Quartet
Maggini Quartet
Producers Walton, Andrew
Walton, Andrew
Disc: 1
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor
1 I. Allegretto semplice
2 II. Lento e molto expressivo
3 III. Rondo: Allegro vivace
4 I. Allegro
5 II. Lento molto espressivo
6 III. Allegro vivace
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