BAX: Symphony No. 6 / Into the Twilight

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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

Symphony No. 6 • Into the Twilight • Summer Music

A commemorative plaque graces the house in Streatham where Arnold Bax was born in 1883, but it is unlikely that he would now recognise this busy London suburb as being what was then a quiet parish in the county of Surrey. Although there was no long-standing musical tradition in the family, his paternal uncle, Ernest Belfort Bax, a well-known socialist philosopher, had studied music in his youth and had even published a rousing song entitled ‘All for the Cause’ with words by his friend William Morris. According to his autobiography, Arnold’s own first composition was a piano sonata written at the age of twelve while he was recovering from sunstroke (‘very fittingly my enemies might snarl’, he quipped). Four years later he entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he soon gained a reputation as a phenomenal sight-reader at the piano but was overshadowed as a composer by several of his fellow students, though it is Bax’s work that has proved the most enduring. The turning-point in his life came in 1902, when he discovered the Celtic world through the poetry of W. B. Yeats. He soon visited Ireland, where he enthusiastically explored its culture, history and landscape; he even learned to read Irish Gaelic with ease but shied away from using it in the presence of native speakers. His music, which for some years had been under the sway of Wagner, now assumed an Irish identity, and he began to write what he called ‘figures of a definitely Celtic curve’. Having no need to earn a living, he was able to spend months at a time in a small coastal village in Donegal imbibing the local atmosphere and pouring forth a stream of emotionally charged poetry and music.

It was here, in November 1907, that Bax completed a five-act play based on the story of the legendary Irish heroine Deirdre of the Sorrows. He had intended it as the libretto for an opera, and during the following months he made some sketches for the music before eventually abandoning the project. Reluctant to waste good ideas, however, he turned the opera’s prologue into an independent orchestral piece, which he called Into the Twilight after the poem of that title by Yeats. It was to be the first in a trilogy of ‘symphonic pictures’ collectively entitled Éire, the other two being In the Faery Hills (1909) and Rosc-catha (1910), the latter also based on the Deirdre sketches. The manuscript of Into the Twilight is prefaced by Yeats’s poem, and in a programme note for the work’s only performance during his lifetime (under Thomas Beecham in 1909) Bax wrote that it ‘seeks to give a musical impression of the brooding quiet of the Western Mountains at the end of twilight, and to express something of the sense of timelessness and hypnotic dream which veils Ireland at such an hour’. The opening theme was almost certainly intended to represent Deirdre herself in Bax’s aborted opera, while the other main theme is borrowed from an earlier homage to Ireland, the ‘orchestral poem’ Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan.

By the time Bax came to write Summer Music his reputation had grown considerably, due in part to a series of colourful tone-poems of which The Garden of Fand and Tintagel are the best known. The new work, which is scored for a small orchestra, was written in London during the spring of 1921 and revised for publication in 1932 with a dedication to Beecham. Bax originally called it Idyll but later decided that there were already too many pieces of English music with this title and opted instead for something more evocative. Ever laconic in describing his own music, Bax wrote in a programme note that ‘The piece, a musical description of a hot windless June mid-day in some wooded place of Southern England, is lyrical throughout. During the greater part of it the strings are occupied in providing a murmurous accompaniment to the pastoral reveries of the various wind instruments, and not until near the end is there any great climax of sound’. In a letter to the conductor Adrian Boult he confided: ‘I am rather fond of this little bit of southern England under the sun and enjoyed revising the orchestration’.

During the decade that separated the original version of Summer Music from its revision, Bax completed five of his seven symphonies and found himself acclaimed by a German critic as ‘the head of the modern English school’. The slow movement of the Sixth Symphony, and perhaps also the bulk of the first movement, had begun life as part of a Viola Sonata that Bax had started writing in 1933. He soon realised, however, that the material was more suited to orchestral treatment, and the symphony was completed in Morar, on the west coast of Scotland, on 10th February 1935. It was originally dedicated to the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, whom Bax had met in England, but his name is crossed through on the manuscript and replaced by that of Adrian Boult.

The first movement opens with a prelude in which a repeated figure in the bass provides the accompaniment to a march-like theme on horns and woodwind. The turbulent Allegro, which follows a series of grandiose chords, is based on the preceding material and eventually gives way to a slower section with a new theme played by three flutes in unison. The fast music resumes for a stormy development section, followed by a brief respite before the movement rushes on in a whirlwind to its emphatic ending, like the slamming of a door. The slow movement is founded on two contrasting ideas: an expressive melody first heard on strings, and then a soft trumpet theme with a ‘Scotch snap’, characteristic of Scottish folk-music. Development of this material culminates in two march-like sections, the first harsh and baleful, the second a calm, stately procession leading to the peaceful coda. The tripartite finale (Introduction, Scherzo and Trio, and Epilogue) is the only one among Bax’s symphonies to open quietly. The solo clarinet’s sinuous melodic line, from which the movement grows, is repeated by the strings, now with accompanying harmonies, before the woodwind announce a new theme of a liturgical nature, very similar to the ‘Sine Nomine’ melody in Vaughan Williams’s later Fifth Symphony. At the end of the Introduction the pace gradually quickens, leading into the Scherzo, in which the opening material is now transformed into a kind of symphonic jig full of nervous energy. Contrast is provided by a slower section (the Trio), after which the Scherzo resumes its headlong course with an inflexibly rigid rhythm. A strikingly dramatic moment occurs with the horns braying furiously and the strings above them singing out a theme taken from Sibelius’s Tapiola, a work that had reduced Bax to tears when he first heard it. (The two composers’ admiration was mutual: in acknowledging the dedication of Bax’s Fifth Symphony, Sibelius called him ‘one of the great men of our time’.) There is a tremendous climax, with the liturgical theme blared out triumphantly by the brass, and this leads to the peaceful Epilogue, in which the clarinet’s enigmatic opening music is transformed by the solo horn into something of exquisite beauty set against a backdrop of rippling harp and divided strings. The musical texture becomes gradually sparer and the movement fades slowly away, bringing to a close what some regard not only as Bax’s symphonic masterpiece but as one of the finest symphonies from the twentieth century.

Graham Parlett

Conductor’s Note

At fig. 13 in the second movement of the symphony the autograph and published score show 14 bars for tambourine. However, they
Item number 8557144
Barcode 747313214426
Release date 02/01/2003
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Bax, Arnold
Bax, Arnold
Conductors Lloyd-Jones, David
Lloyd-Jones, David
Orchestras Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Producers Handley, Tim
Handley, Tim
Disc: 1
Summer Music
1 Moderato - Allegro con fuoco
2 Lento molto espressivo
3 Introduction – Scherzo and Trio (Allegro vivace -
4 Into the Twilight
5 Summer Music
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