The Celtic explorer
In the decades between the First and Second World Wars, Arnold Bax and his music reached a peak of productivity and apparent success. His seven symphonies were quickly and quite widely performed. He wrote ballet music for the London operation of
Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company. And besides his sizeable orchestral output,
he composed a burgeoning quantity of songs, chamber and piano music.
Today’s picture is different. The CD era has seen much attention to Bax’s orchestral works and solo piano music. Yet apart from a flurry of interest during the composer’s centenary year in 1983, Bax’s music has for decades remained almost absent from concert halls – a victim of the strange contemporary schism between an enthusiastic record-buying public and supposedly resistant concert-goers. The conclusion of Bax’s detractors is straightforward: music publicly played as little as this has to be third-rate. Meanwhile his fans (and they’re a passionate bunch) continue their supportive crusade which concert promoters, with rare exceptions, ignore.
One suspects that Bax himself, looking at his situation today, would have reminded us that his was a maverick musical face that had never really fitted. He was born into money – in 1883, the son of a successful London barrister – and grew up in an affluent Hampstead home, where his fluency as a pianist and appetite for reading both emerged early. Studying at the Royal Academy of Music, he found an affinity with the passionate chromaticism and bold structural innovations of Wagner and Liszt, influences then still considered subversive.
But the defining moment of self-discovery came when, in 1903, Bax read WB Yeats’s The Wanderings of Oisin and other poems.
The result was something deeper than ‘influence’. The writers of the Irish literary renaissance, and Yeats’s early plays and verse in particular, defined Bax’s artistic life. Almost at once he travelled to Ireland on the first of many visits. His identification with Ireland’s landscape, people, and culture were total. He learned Irish Gaelic; wrote and published poetry and short stories under the pen name Dermot O’Byrne; befriended Irish nationalists; and composed early examples – including his symphonic poem Cathleen ni Houlihan (1905), based on Yeats’s play – of what became a large musical output in many genres. The Donegal village of Glencolumbkille – near County Sligo, the country of Yeats’s youth – was like a second home.
There were other adventures too. Back in London, Bax in 1910 became infatuated (or thought he did) with a Ukrainian girl, Natalia Skarginska; when she returned to Russia, he pursued her there. ‘I have always been a brazen Romantic,’ he later wrote of himself; and for much of his life, he devoted himself to what was at least partly a Berlioz-like propensity for believing and acting out his own propaganda. Was he truly in love with Natalia? Or more in love with love itself? The relationship soon foundered, and before long Bax had retired hurt to London. Marrying a childhood friend on the rebound, he took her to live in Dublin. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he had completed or sketched out some intensely individual works, including the symphonic poems In the Faery Hills (1908), Nympholept (1912) and The Garden of Fand (1913) – and his First Piano Sonata (1910, later revised), in which he charted and exorcised the Natalia episode in music.
The dating of Bax’s orchestral works has to be imprecise, since he would often orchestrate them some time after composing them in short score: Nympholept and The Garden of Fand were not completed in this way until 1915 and 1916. Both take their subject-matter from Celtic mythology; and both show that Bax had developed into an orchestrator of world-class mastery and sophistication. He could also be a superb melodist, capable of the exquisite theme in the central section of The Garden of Fand – a work constructed with a purposeful clarity indicating something steelier in its composer than dreamy Irish Romanticism alone. Bax later denounced the wispier and mistier connotations of the ‘Celtic Twilight’ vogue as ‘bunk’, rightly pointing out that ‘primitive Celtic colours are bright and jewelled’. The original streak in his personality was already finding ways of pushing ahead from his ‘brazen Romanticism’.
His world then received a devastating shock with the Easter Rising of 1916, when Irish nationalist volunteers barricaded themselves in Dublin’s central post office, proclaimed a republic, and waited for the British army to put down the rebellion, which it did. Bax sensed at once that the Irish scene he knew and loved was now changed for ever. Meanwhile he found a hitherto professional relationship with the young and attractive pianist Harriet Cohen developing into a passionate affair. In 1917 the couple spent a summer holiday near the ruined castle of Tintagel on Cornwall’s north coast. The result was Bax’s symphonic poem of that name, whose music brought together his love of the Celtic scene and his post-Wagnerian orchestral inheritance.
Much of Bax’s piano music was written for Harriet and premiered by her: major statements include the Symphonic Variations of 1918 (a large-scale piano concerto in all but name) and Winter Legends (1930). But the couple’s happiness was not to last. Bax’s wife refused to divorce him; and his liaison with Harriet seems to have been one of those fraught relationships where two people can’t live in peace together, and also can’t live apart. By the late 1920s, Harriet’s central place in Bax’s affections had been taken by another much younger woman, Mary Gleaves. She was his regular companion on his working visits to the new country of his heart – the coast of Morar in western Scotland, where the greater part of his cycle of seven symphonies took shape.
Symphony No. 1 (1922) began life as a piano sonata: Bax then orchestrated its two outer movements and composed a new central one, whose startling bleakness recorded his response to the Easter Rising. The same events, now seen within a longer perspective, also lie behind the turbulent manner and poignantly beautiful interludes of Symphony No. 2 of 1926, with its tragic finale that seems to dissolve into nothingness. By now Bax had already evolved the three-movement symphonic format, with a finale culminating in a closing Epilogue, that he used in all seven works in the cycle. Symphony No. 3 – drafted beforehand and orchestrated during the winter months of 1928-29 in Morar – reaches beyond its composer’s post-Easter Rising desolation to achieve, in its Epilogue, a new serenity. Meanwhile its superb slow movement, one of Bax’s finest achievements, casts a retrospective gaze back to the pre-Revolutionary Russia he had come to know 20 years earlier, during his short-lived romance with Natalia.
Marking a change of direction, the massively orchestrated, sprawling Symphony No. 4 of 1931 is the cycle’s problem child, for which reason many Bax aficionados have a kind of embattled fondness for it which the rest of us can’t help admiring (from a safe distance). Next year came another journey into new territory with the more austere Symphony No. 5. The influence of Sibelius was not in itself new (Symphony No. 3’s slow introduction had been Bax’s response to hearing Tapiola), but it here became more far-reaching. Bax himself later came to see his Symphony No. 6 (1935), with its extremes of wild energy and its valedictory Epilogue, as the summation of the entire cycle – to be succeeded only by the less high-octane, but still restlessly poetic Seventh of 1939, of whose magical Epilogue the composer said it was ‘as far as I can go’.
There was more to come: but no more symphonies, as World War II and its aftermath did its best to consign Bax and his world to the oblivion of outmoded fashion. He fulfilled his occasional composing duties as Master of the King’s Music; wrote some film scores, including one for David Lean’s Oliver Twist; and installed himself in a hotel room in Storrington in Sussex, with Mary Gleaves in a house nearby. He died in 1953 during the last of his many visits to Ireland, and was buried in Cork – leaving an output whose long-term worth, even now, the musical world still can’t seem to make up its mind about.
Is the concert-hall neglect to do with fashion? Well, yes: but that neglect has gone on for a long time now, and there must be more to it than that. The bottom line is surely that Bax’s music conforms a lot less to its creator’s self-styled ‘brazen Romanticism’ than he apparently wanted us to believe it did. The works that most fulfil that agenda – the sumptuously scored, mostly quite short early-ish symphonic poems – now find themselves crowded out by a concert repertory fixated on long concertos for glossy, globe-trotting soloists and long, loud symphonies.
And Bax’s own symphonies? There seems to be a strange expectation that they ought to sound more like the work of an English or Anglo-Irish Sibelius. Mostly they don’t at all; and when they partly do, the dominant voice is still Bax’s own. This is an idiom in which magical happenings seem to unfold in a landscape of vast spaces, articulated with a strange, keening intensity of vision and imagination – orchestrated, too, with a different, leaner sound compared to Bax’s earlier music, and shot through with what one of his finest interpreters, the late Vernon Handley, described as ‘flashes of lurid paganism’. Yes, Bax can sometimes irritate. Those symphonic allegros, to which his chosen three-movement format repeatedly committed him, often seem to run out of steam sooner than they should. And after the Fifth Symphony’s brooding splendours, its Epilogue’s concluding lapse into bombast is unworthy of its composer. But English music is not so gifted with large-scale, prolific, strikingly individual symphonists that it can afford to put them down for not being Sibelius (or Beethoven). Meanwhile those fine recorded cycles are here for keeps. The happy thought is that Bax’s singular and, in its way, remarkable achievement can never now be lost to posterity.