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The Visionary Music of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax

The Visionary Music Of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax

The name of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax (1883 – 1953) hardly qualifies as a household reference even among people with serious musical interests.  Yet Bax claimed a significant following in his day and in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, after a long period of diminished currency, his large tranche of compositions finds near-complete representation in the catalogue of recordings.  What would have seemed impossible in 1970, that three complete recorded traversals of Bax’s seven numbered symphonies would one day compete with or complement one another and that these would vie with two partial traversals and numerous one-off items, is today a fact.  Indeed, a recording now exists of Bax’s early, unnumbered and discarded symphony, written as a graduation exercise when he attended the Royal Academy of Music as a piano and composition student.  The twin phenomena of Bax’s virtual disappearance from musical consciousness in Europe and North America and of his subsequent reappearance are themselves of interest, since they offer a glimpse into the relation of art and ideology in the Late Modern Period.  In this way, Bax remains anomalous.  Other English composers – although it might be more accurate to call Bax a British composer – suffered abasements of their reputations in the aftermath of World War Two, not least Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but none suffered from such a full eclipse as Bax.  It was the usual pattern of modern arrogance. The postwar musical establishment in Britain, while embracing the supposedly inevitable trend of abolishing beauty in art, simultaneously directed sustained contumely against the musical tradition and its practitioners.  Elgar became the icon, quite unfairly, of a now-despised Edwardian imperialism.  Snarky critics referred to the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams as “cow-pat music.”  Despite this, Elgar’s music and Vaughan Williams’ continued to be performed and recorded.  They always had advocates.  With his death, Bax vanished.

I. In The Brandy of the Damned (1963), Colin Wilson, in assessing English music, wrote of Bax that, “When one turns from Vaughan Williams to Sir Arnold Bax one confronts another of those problems whose answer may be obvious to future ages, but that seems unanswerable today: Why one should be held in high regard and be so well represented on record, while the other is ignored.” Wilson characterized as “the composer of seven symphonies that are in many ways as remarkable as those of Sibelius” and “of a large number of fine piano works.” Wilson recognized Bax as an exponent of Romanticism although not of the blatant Romanticism of, say, Tchaikovsky; rather Bax’s aesthetic struck Wilson as “delicate, subtle, [and] intelligent.”  In seeking an answer to his own question, Wilson observed that “although [Bax’s music] is romantic music, it has none of the easily remembered melodies of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky”; and “this means that Bax does not make an immediate appeal to the kind of unsophisticated listener who knows each composer by his best-known melody.”  Wilson argues that the subtlety of Bax’s scores might explain why they go unheard in the concert hall, but not why they are (or were at the time) so thinly available in recorded performance.  In the early 1960s, Wilson was one of the few writers of musical sensibility even to take heed of Bax.  He deserves credit for that despite his characterizations being a bit off the mark.  Everyone can hum the tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, but who can hum the opening subject of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, as striking as it is?  Bax does have a relation to Sibelius, not least in being more concerned with musical, especially symphonic, processes than with melody, as such.  Nevertheless, pace Wilson, Bax wrote numerous memorable melodies.

The first major study of Bax appeared only in 1973, a full decade after Wilson’s single paragraph – Colin Scott-Sutherland’s Arnold Bax, with the title omitting the honorific.  Scott-Sutherland, like Wilson, was a musical amateur, being a bank manager by profession, a writer by avocation, and a lover of fine music.  It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Scott-Sutherland’s book, which began the critical rehabilitation of the Bax’s musical legacy and without a doubt provoked sympathetic musicians to take up his scores once again and even to record them.  It is interesting to compare Scott-Sutherland’s introductory characterization of Bax’s aesthetic with Wilson’s in The Brandy of the Damned.  As did Wilson, Scott-Sutherland affirms Bax’s self-designation in his autobiographical Farewell, My Youth (1943) as a “brazen Romantic.”  Beyond that, however, Scott-Sutherland’s discussion of Bax’s aesthetic plumbs deeper than Wilson’s – and that is perfectly natural considering his many years of investigating Bax both from the perspectives both of his life and his music.  Scott-Sutherland writes that when Bax invoked his “brazen Romanticism,” the phrase sprang from his conviction of himself as an heir to things Celtic: “His music is both Celtic and Romantic, but neither term will do as a pigeon-hole into which we may unceremoniously bundle his work without closer scrutiny.  Within the man and the artist was a dichotomous personality, possessed of immensely fertile imaginative gifts which found expression through a prodigious and often intuitive technical ability.”  Scott-Sutherland calls Bax “a poet of vision and a mystic,” words that link the composer to the turn-of-the-century Irish literary revival with its trope of the “Celtic Twilight,” exemplified most notably by W. B. Yeats, in which Bax directly participated not only as a composer and musician but as a poet and writer of short stories on Irish subjects.

Bax read Yeats, as Scott-Sutherland remarks, when he was nineteen, and the encounter stimulated him to explore a wide variety of literature, from the other stellar figures of the Irish Literary Revival to occultists like Eliphas Levi and Helena Blavatsky and to the magnum opus of that Scots classicist and anthropologist Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough.  The mention of Frazer is significant.  If one had to categorize the main impulse behind Bax’s artistic creativity, one would most appropriately label it as mythopoeic, to which Scott-Sutherland’s ascription of mystic and visionary correspond closely.  Again, Bax shows his similarity to Sibelius, with whom he was acquainted through via the pianist Harriet Cohen, and to whom he dedicated his Fifth Symphony (1934); both men immersed themselves in, and drew inspiration from, the myths, folktales, and landscapes of the people with whom they respectively identified – Sibelius with the Finns, although he descended the Finland-Swedes, and Bax with the Irish and Scots and later also with the Norwegians and Swedes.  As is the case with Sibelius, Bax’s mythic sources appear in the titles of many of his works.  Among the tone poems occur such names and appellations as Tintagel (1917), with its reference to the birthplace of King Arthur; The Garden of Fand (1916), referring to the mermaid palace of an ancient Irish sea-goddess; November Woods (1916), with its powerful sense of the spirit in nature; and Winter Legends (1929), a large-scale symphony concertante for piano and orchestra that reflects the character of the Icelandic sagas and their heroes.  About both Bax and Sibelius hovers something of the archaic shaman or spirit-seer, the outsider-specialist of the tribe whose lore puts him in communion with powerful forces on whose good disposition a modicum of human happiness depends.

Lewis Foreman, whose mighty tome Arnold Bax – A Composer and his Times (2007) outbulks Scott-Sutherland’s study by four hundred pages, has remarked how, in a program note apropos a performance of his early tone poem In the Faery Hills (1909) under Thomas Beecham, Bax let on concerning his hope musically “to suggest the revelries of the ‘Hidden People’ in the inmost deeps of the hollow hills of Ireland,” while also confessing his indebtedness to Yeats’ epic poem The Wanderings of Oisin, especially the passage where the faery people “surround and whirl… away” a human bard.  Yeats implies that the rapture comes with a price, but that the spell of intense pleasure and self-overcoming that the subject experiences, justifies the tariff.  This is precisely the import of Bax’s Arthur Machen- or Lord Dunsany-like short story “Ancient Dominions,” one of items collected in Children of the Hills (1913), which Bax published under his pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne.  The unnamed narrator, a resident of Glencolumcille on Ireland’s remote West Coast, witnesses from concealment a coven of peasant folk, nominally Catholics, enacting a ritual to the old god Manannan in the ruins of an ancient temple concealed in a vast sea-cave under cliffs.  The narrator fears the propensity of the coven to murder him should it discover his uninvited presence, but a young girl whom he once saved from unwanted advances by a drunken man lets him escape.  During the fantastic episode, vividly described, the narrator feels the thrum of the tide becoming one with the beating of his pulse; he hears whisperings from the surf; and looking on the broken but beautiful temple he witnesses preternatural lights and ghostly apparitions.  Despite the terror, the ordeal has elevated him spiritually.  Bax was for thirty years a visiting resident of Glencolumcille.

Foreman also observes Bax’s rebellion against the distortions of modernity, a conviction strongly related to his Romantic view.  Foreman quotes one of Bax’s letters, which, contrasting Glencolumcille with places like Manchester, with its “fearful villains everywhere and jazz bands,” concludes with the words, “I do so loathe all civilization.”  The story “Ancient Dominions,” in addition to telling its weird tale, also comments on modernity and the reigning civilization, which stood at the precipice of a catastrophic war.  The narrator divulges in the beginning that the prelude to his supernatural adventure was a foul mood brought on by exposure to the contaminating cheapness of progress, so-called, and the jejuneness of the prevailing taste or lack thereof.  Recently, the narrator had attended the consecration ceremonies in a newly built cathedral in Letterard.  Newspaper accounts lavish praise on the new structure, but the narrator sees it otherwise: “The alleged beauty of the cathedral had left me cold.”  He calls it “non-descript,” refers derisively to its “meaningless flying buttresses, apparently added as a happy afterthought and completely destroying any accidental grace or symmetry inherent in the original design.”  The second-rate character of the cathedral architecture signifies, the narrator says, “the glamour of a tawdry alien civilization only half understood and never to be assimilated.”  Later in life, Bax found renewed solitude in the village of Morar on the west coast of Scotland, where he lodged himself in rooms above a pub.  He traveled to London or Manchester only when necessary, preferring isolation in closeness to natural sublimity.  Vaughan Williams by contrast was mainly a Londoner and a city-dweller by preference but then he was also a teacher at the Royal College of Music.  Bax, financially independent, held no position; he could and did devote himself entirely to his creative activities.

II. What of Bax’s music itself? A consistent feature in accounts of Bax’s music is how personal and powerful the reaction to it tends to be – Bax befalls his aficionados rather like a revelation. Composer John Pickard (born 1963) tells a typical story in an interview with Richard Adams: “I borrowed the 5th Symphony score and LP from the town library simply because they were there… I still remember the excitement of hearing the coda of that symphony that first time.”  Pickard was in his mid-teens at the time.  He sought out every Bax recording that was available.  I can recall my own discovery of Bax in the very early 1970s, probably around 1972 or 73.  I had an interest in English music and had acquired on vinyl LP the two symphonies of Elgar, some of the symphonies and assorted choral works of Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst’s Planets, the First Symphony and Violin Concerto of Sir William Walton, and a few works of Frederick Delius in the reissued Beecham stereo recordings.  I had read of Bax, and what I read made me curious about him, but despite the policy of Vogue Records on Westwood Boulevard in the vicinity of UCLA to be as thorough as possible in its “classical music” offerings there was simply no Bax discography in the bins.  The manager of Vogue Records, Joe Cooper, knew of my musical predilections and one day called my attention to a program of English music conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.  This consisted, as I remember it, of an “A” side devoted to scores by Delius, and a “B” side featuring a work by John Ireland, possibly his London Overture, and one by Bax, his Tintagel.  As soon as I could, having let the amplifier warm up, I pulled the headset over my ears and dropped the needle on the “B” side of the LP, where Tintagel was first on the program.

The opening bars of Tintagel, played by the full string orchestra emphasizing the cellos and basses, with flute highlights, and with the brasses soon adding their richly harmonized melody to the accompaniment, struck me immediately as evocative an elemental scene – waves breaking on the rocks, seagulls riding the winds, and beetling cliffs.  After a number of brassy climaxes that are like the sun breaking through the mist comes the big tune, given in its exposition mainly to the strings.  I recall a sense of direction.  Bax had the knack, perhaps because he was a writer of stories, of imbuing his music with the character of an unfolding and perfectly coherent narrative.  Detractors have accused Bax of over-scoring.  Tintagel offers itself as a typical Bax score, requiring a large orchestra, which its composer exploits for the full array of effects.  Bax commands a vivid palette of many colors, which he conjures through his combined mastery of polyphony and of orchestration.  Always in Tintagel many things are happening at once, but the impression is not one of confusion.  One hears rather the convergence of destinies so typical in saga and legend.  The critic Wilfrid Mellers once wrote, with deliberate exaggeration, that English music was held prisoner by the ostinato.  Bax uses ostinati in Tintagel but he is hardly held prisoner by them.  Bax’s ostinati are the eternal cycles, the cosmic rhythms, so to speak, from which arise the mythopoeic visions of the seer.  The effect on me on my first audition of Tintagel was, I might say, one of total enthrallment.

Tintagel reveals Bax as drawing on the Impressionism of Claude Debussy, but also as transforming it.  Tintagel maintains affiliation with La mer (1905), but as for La mer, it evokes the uninhabited waters, the desert of the ocean; whereas Bax’s tone-poem populates its seascapes and landscapes with men and women.  Debussy’s ocean corresponds to a type of thing-in-itself while Bax’s gives scope and provides a backdrop for the destinies of the heroes to whom its title alludes.  These destinies are one with the sense of narrative movement that I earlier mentioned.  It might well be that musical narrative exceeds verbal narrative in its evocative capacity.  In this sense Bax owes as much of a debt to Richard Wagner as he does to Debussy.  In 1973 I thought that Wagner’s words got in the way of his music because his music told the story better than his words.  Tintagel has the urgency, the flow, of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey or Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.  It even quotes a melodic motif from Tristan und Isolde, whose legend is connected with Cornwall.  Given the dearth of recordings, however, how would I realize my quest to hear additional scores by Bax, especially the seven symphonies, on which David Cox heaped eloquent praise in the chapter he had supplied for Robert Layton’s two-volume Penguin symposium The Symphony?  The same chapter mentioned numerous other works by Bax, which only whetted my eagerness and deepened my disappointment.  As it turned out, I had made my discovery of Bax – or more properly Bax had ensnared me – at a propitious moment.  The filmmaker Ken Russell, who was deeply musical, had subsidized the professional recording of Bax’s orchestral music by a Londoner, Richard Itter, who had created his Lyrita label more or less for that purpose.  Soon in the bins at Vogue Records the “Lyrita Recorded Editions” began to appear.  By the middle of the 1970s one could access through the Lyrita LPs Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7 and a number of the tone poems including an alternative traversal of Tintagel under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult.

Bax wrote no opera despite having planned one – it would be hard to imagine an opera by Bax although he composed songs and choral-orchestral scores.  Bax found his compositorial forte in instrumental music either for the full orchestra, the chamber ensemble, or the solo instrument.  He composed, for example, five monumental piano sonatas, one of which metamorphosed into the first of the seven symphonies.  The symphonies – which actually add up to nine if one were to count the early Spring Fire (1913) and the middle-period Winter Legends – form the robust spine of Bax’s musical corpus.  They constitute a highly unified sequence for which, perhaps, only the seven symphonies of Sibelius would offer a plausible peer.  Like the Finn’s symphonies, Bax’s symphonies resolutely place themselves in the Twentieth Century while yet disdaining any compromise with the contumacious anti-Romanticism of the self-consciously modern composers, of say the dodecaphonic or neoclassical schools.  Indeed Bax’s symphonies, themselves frequently contumacious, take severely to task avant-garde tastelessness and resolutely imply a critique of whatever currently posed as musically and contemporaneously en vogue.  David Cox writes in his chapter on Bax in Layton’s symposium that in the symphonies Bax’s “combination of pantheism and mysticism often finds expression in pages of haunting beauty, such as the Epilogue of the Third Symphony.”  Cox also remarks that “although there is no specific ‘programme’ for any of the seven symphonies, their feeling, their range of moods, is similar to the best of the earlier orchestral works – the tone poems with definite pictorial and associative titles, such as In the Faery Hills, The Garden of Fand, and Tintagel.”  The discussion that follows will confine itself to Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5, and 6, but it will first give an account of Spring Fire, a symphony in all but name.

Scheduled for performance under Balfour Gardiner in the year after its completion, Spring Fire should have been Bax’s breakthrough score.  Arguments between Gardiner and his players, however, and the events in faraway Sarajevo scotched its premiere.  Bax, no doubt from extreme disappointment, put the score aside as though to distance himself from its bad luck – and it remained unheard in his lifetime.  In fact, it had to wait until 1987 for its first concert reading under Bax-advocate Vernon Handley, who then recorded it for Chandos, as part that label’s second traversal of Bax’s music, the first having been the pioneering effort of Bryden Thomson.  More recently Mark Elder has taken up advocacy of Spring Fire, playing it in concert with the Hallé Orchestra and recording it for that orchestra’s house label.   Elder calls Spring Fire “one of the great English Romantic masterpieces” and “one of the unknown English symphonies.”  It is, Elder says, “A gorgeous piece in the richest meaning of that word.”  A few lines from Algernon Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon (1865), a pantheistic effusion celebrating the renewal of life, as symbolized by the advent of Pan, in the returning vernal season, with the complete paraphernalia of the Arcadian nature-cult, seem to have instigated Bax, but the rest was his entirely.  Spring Fire, which requires about thirty minutes in performance, divides itself into five movements: “The Forest before Dawn”; “Daybreak and Sunrise”; “Full Day”; “Woodland Love – Romance”; and “Maenads.”  Bax regarded the first movement as an introduction to the second, which would endow the work with the usual four-movement structure of a standard symphony.  Scott-Sutherland detects a hidden tripartite structure, the plan that Bax adopted for his symphonies properly named.

Bax attempts in Spring Fire, with its allusion to ancient customs and rituals, to deliver the listener from himself and to effectuate a revelatory “Lifting of the Veil,” a phrase that he gives as the title of one of his Irish stories.  Bax himself, as his stories suggest, has experienced this mystic elevation, this communion with profound forces, and he recognizes it as the anti-toxin against the taint of the corrupt civilization that so impersonally and sacrilegiously dominates the modern world.  In the hushed first movement, “The Forest before the Dawn,” those profound forces make themselves present in an unhurried ostinato pattern given to the flutes while the strings with backing from the horns give out a melody, quite memorable, that will appear in different guises in subsequent movements.  The second section, “Daybreak and sunrise,” begins with imitations of bird-calls and proceeds to an adumbration in the muted trumpets of the fanfare that will usher in the next section, “Full Day,” which arrives in a great blaze of brilliant orchestration rivaling that employed in the Daphnis and Chloe ballet by Maurice Ravel.  For Bax, the musical score in its execution before an audience stands in for the customs and rituals, long vanished, by which the pre-modern ancestors maintained their link to the full panoply of life, the earth, and the greater cosmos.  Bax knew that ritual, like music, exercises its power by carefully judging its alternation between phases of tension, phases of détente, and the final phase of ecstatic communion.  The sequence of movements in Spring Fire corresponds to such a pattern.

It is unfashionable, and has been since the 1920s, to ascribe to music the power to convey images or to embody specific meanings.  Bax clearly rejected this sterile denial.  Acutely aware of the steady disappearance of meaning under the reign of modernity, Bax fights a rearguard action on behalf of a threatened Tradition, now Erse, now Scots, and now Norse, but in any case stemming from a long-eclipsed notion of the world that is more rational, precisely for admitting the non-rational than the spiritually sterile world of modernity, with its positivistic and utilitarian outlook.  In “The Lifting of the Veil,” Bax’s narrator writes how “in the lives of all men there must be fleeting moments invested by the imagination from some intangible cause with a vast and awe-inspiring significance out of all proportion to the actual event.”  He speculates that, “On very rare occasions it happens, perchance, to some men to be able to seize for a fraction of a second the hem of the departing dream, and between the clouds of its twilight hair to catch a half-glimpse of those fateful eyes before they fade again into the folded shadows of the ages.”  The date of Spring Fire is hardly without significance.  The year 1913 saw the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of spring in Paris.  In Britain the same year saw the publication of Jane Ellen Harrison’s Ancient Art and Ritual and Gilbert Murray’s Four Stages of Greek Religion, later revised as The Five Stages of Greek Religion.  Both books give sympathetic accounts of archaic religious practices and link them to the development of the independent arts.  Whether Bax read Harrison and Murray is not known, but his interest in Frazer brings the idea within the horizon of possibility.

III. The concept of influence carries with it a degree of banality.  A more important concept is absorption.  Bax habitually absorbed what spoke to him.  Readers of Foreman’s biography will discover, for example, that Bax, a formidable sight-reader, once played through, with a partner, the eight symphonies of Russian composer Alexander Glazunov.  No few characteristics of Bax’s orchestration come from his having nourished himself on Glazunov and other Russian composers.  It would make for a provocative evening if one of the current Bax-advocates were to program, say, Glazunov’s and Bax’s Sixth Symphonies on one program.  Bax seems also to have absorbed Wagner, whose continuous flow of interweaving melodic material animates both Bax’s tone-poems and his symphonies, to the latter of which the discussion now turns.  The date of Symphony No. 1, listed as being in E-Flat Minor, is technically 1922, but as has already been mentioned that work started life as a piano sonata that would have been the fourth in a series going back to the Piano Sonata No. 1 of 1910.  Its composition probably began in 1919 or 1920.  When Bax contemplated the finished score, it occurred to him that the work required orchestral garb and that he should rework it as true symphony, replacing the central movement with one more appropriate to the scale of the composition.  The First Symphony broods, growls, marches, and laments; it strikes its listeners as being a deeply felt personal response to a world-scale enormity.  Whereas Bax had not served in the Great War, he hardly remained untouched by its many horrors.  Not only the continental war, but the violent suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, in whose aftermath people known personally to Bax were tried and executed, appalled and angered Bax.  Does the First Symphony refer to the Great War or to the Rising?  It refers to the grimness of a civilization tearing itself apart.

As does Tintagel, the First Symphony commences with a characteristic Baxian evocation of powerful movements unleashed and seeking their goals, but whereas in Tintagel these movements will provide a background for chivalrous heroism so that the composition in toto is upbeat, in the First Symphony the currents are dark, inhuman, and frightening in their implacability.  Bax well knew how to exploit chromaticism.  The dissonance of this work is consistently high – high enough that Peter Pirie, writing in his English Musical Renaissance (1978), compared it to The Rite of Spring.  That comparison runs formally askew, as The Rite is episodic and Bax’s symphony is through-composed and impressively continuous in its development across all three of its sections.  Pirie hears the score as “challenging in its austerity, its harshness, and its forbidding mood,” but he grants that “it is well constructed, closely argued, and immensely imaginative.”  Lest my own reference to “movements” and “forces” seem far-fetched or overly metaphorical, it is worthwhile quoting Scott-Sutherland on Bax’s score: “The entire first Symphony, like its opening germ-theme… heaves itself saurian-like from the gloom of the primeval slime, with a fearsome challenge, only to sink back.”  The sentence goes on for several more clauses, but the quoted part gives its flavor.  Scott-Sutherland remarks what will be apparent intuitively even to a first-time listener – that Bax derives the entirety of his thematic material from his opening “germ-theme.”  Symphony No. 1 gathers to itself the visage of an apocalypse.  As Scott-Sutherland writes, “It offers no escape, no solution.”  It is Man, face-to-face with his worst impulses and the bleakest of his deeds.  The symphony conforms to a tripartite sequence: I. Allegro moderato e feroce – Moderato expressivo – Tempo I; II. Lento Solenne; III. Allegro maestoso – Allegro vivace ma non troppo.

In this age of the Internet, when every recorded composition of every composer has migrated to YouTube, a trend has emerged in respect of Bax and especially regarding his symphonies.  Those who upload recordings to YouTube invariably add a visual element to the performance.  The uploader, if that were the word, who administers the YouTube channel “Unsung Masterworks,” has illustrated Bax’s symphonies with fantastic, often science-fiction-like vistas of alien prospects.  The image complementing the First Symphony, for example, consists in what appears to be a subterranean city of oddly shaped towers, chasm-like rifts, and huge outcroppings of undressed rock.  A ghostly purplish light pervades the scene.  It is inhuman – uncanny – intimidating.  These things deserve mention because the added pictorial layer subtly links Bax’s music to the fantastic literature of the Twentieth Century.  The great conflict of good and evil in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings comes to mind, an affiliation by no means arbitrary given the common inspirational sources of the two artists.  Equally significant is the musical aesthetic that composer John Williams chose for his classic Star Wars accompaniments, in which he incorporates Baxian techniques and mannerisms.  The “Imperial March” echoes many a glowering moment in the First Symphony.  But once again whether it concerns Tolkien or George Lucas – or Bax – it is a matter of the mythopoeic vision, which entails an intuition of epic morality.

Bax followed up the First Symphony four years later with Symphony No. 2, listed as being in E-Minor and C-Major.  Bax scores the Second Symphony for an even larger orchestra than he had employed in its precursor-symphony.  The instrumentation now includes an organ, used with discretion to support the bass line at key moments, an orchestral piano, and a variety of percussion well beyond the usual tympani.  The sequence of movements resembles that of the previous symphony: I. Molto moderato – Allegro moderato; II. Andante; III. Poco largamente – Allegro feroce – Molto largamente.  Given the deliberate irresolution of the First Symphony, the Second Symphony can only take up the catastrophic story where Bax left it in the previous coda.  The commentators agree that the First and the Second maintain a close sibling relation.  Foreman, who judges the Second Symphony “one of Bax’s best works,” writes of it that “it is music of such evocative power and impact as to make almost all contemporary works, at least by British composers, appear very pale.”  Foreman remarks the qualification, however, that “even in this tempestuous score, we are allowed flashes of lyrical beauty… even if in the last analysis it is the lyricism of the unattainable.”  Cox comments on the work’s thematic economy: “The four main themes, heard in the introduction, reappear in all the movements.”

The Second Symphony exemplifies Bax’s genius for colorism in unusual instrumental combinations.  Like Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov or once more like Glazunov, Bax made use of what, in the case of the Russians, the musicologists call magical orchestration.  What is magical orchestration?  Such instruments as harp, celesta, triangle, tambourine, sleigh-bells, and castanets, among others, tend to stand out against the strings, woodwinds, and brasses first in the manner in which they produce sound, next in the quality of the sounds that they produce, and finally in possessing a certain archaic character associated with ancient religious ceremony.  When against, say, bowed quartet, or woodwinds, or brasses the harpist plucks his strings, the contrast of timbre makes itself immediately evident and produces as it were a spark of light in the auditory texture.  Light implies space and space implies destiny.  The harp, combined, say, with tambourine or castanets, ably produces hypnotic ostinati, whose auditory patterning has the capacity to transfix the listener.  The opening bars of Symphony No. 2 exemplify the practice.  In the opening three minutes of the First Movement the listener will hear a type of instrumental snarl in the low brass – a menacing sound; the solo oboe introduces an important theme; cellos and basses expose a new version of the snarl.  An ostinato in the solo harp (eventually two harps will make their presences felt) generates its ritualizing effect, assisted by deep chords on the orchestral piano playing quietly.  When Foreman compares the First Movement to November Woods, a tone-poem, he perhaps has the instrumentation in mind.  In the past critics took Bax to task for the frequent density of his orchestration.  Bax produces density where he requires it.  Elsewhere he orchestrates precisely in order to generate the appropriate affect in the listener.

It belongs to the siblinghood of the First and Second Symphonies that their slow middle movements resemble one another formally while following divergent emotional trajectories.  Bax designates the slow movement of the First Symphony as Lento Solenne; that of the Second Symphony as Andante.  Both movements begin and end in rhythmic rocking and both feature several contrasting episodes in between.  Through the dark mists of the Lento Solenne every variety of phantasmagorias slowly percolates.  Quirkiness attaches itself to the designation, as lento suggests relaxation as much as it suggests a moderately slow tempo.  Even the rocking rhythm heard at the outset and then again in the coda suggests something threatening, not relaxing.  The listener encounters a number of brassy processions, one of which strains toward being hopeful, but it cannot achieve that state and collapses back into a retreating dirge.  The listener finds himself in the modern Waste Land.  Bax’s verses from his poem “Valley of the Bells” seem apposite to the musical landscape: “I saw a valley underneath the moon / Walled in by somber ghosts of rocky hills”; it is a place where “Demoniac gods… rule beneath the ground.”  In the Andante, by contrast, the bracketing cradle-rhythm actually manages to sound consoling.  The sequence of episodes includes the repetition of a long-drawn melody from ten years earlier, from an orchestral In Memoriam for Padraig Pearce, but Bax alters the harmonies to make it hopeful or at least wistful rather than mournful.  It testifies to the creative genius of Bax that two movements in so many ways so similar could, in fact, be so different.

Just as the First and Second Symphonies form a pair, so too do Symphony No. 5 (1932) and Symphony No. 6 (1935).  The two intervening symphonies suggest the resolution of the crisis articulated in the First and the Second.  The Third Symphony (1929) is by and large one of the most serene of entries and the Fourth Symphony (1930) in its entirety one of the most extrovert in Bax’s catalogue.  By the mid-1920s Bax had established himself as one of the leading British composers.  His peers were Vaughan Williams, some eleven years his elder, and Arthur Bliss, eight years his junior.  By the time of Bax’s Fifth Symphony, Vaughan Williams had produced three works in the genre, the latest being the Pastoral Symphony (1923), along with many other scores; Bliss had produced his Colour Symphony (1922), more a suite than a true symphony, and his Morning Heroes (1930), which while it calls itself a symphony is more in the character of an oratorio.  In 1932, the year of the Fifth Symphony, Bax could justly have claimed the title of the preeminent British symphonist after Elgar.  This would especially have been the case if Spring Fire and Winter Legends were counted as symphonies, which they are.  Vaughan Williams would produce his Fourth Symphony, which echoes the vehemence of the first two of Bax’s symphonies, only in 1934.

IV. Scott-Sutherland devotes nearly five full pages to the Fifth Symphony, listed as being in C-Sharp Minor, and Foreman a bit less although he reproduces sections of the score in illustration of his commentary. Scott-Sutherland declares that “Bax’s fifth Symphony is perhaps the most difficult of all to analyze although it is by no means difficult to comprehend.” He refers to the middle movement (Poco lento –Molto tranquillo) as “a strange dark experience” resembling “an initiation ritual.”  In Foreman’s view, the Fifth Symphony is “an epic score,” its first movement (Poco lento – Allegro con fuoco) constituting a compositional “tour de force.”  Foreman links the middle movement to Bax’s description of seeing the Atlantic suddenly on reaching the summit of a seaside peak on the Irish West Coast, a sight for which Bax’s word, which Foreman quotes, was “overwhelming.”  Foreman’s apposition of score and literary image accords itself with Scott-Sutherland’s idea of “an initiation ritual,” at the climax of which the initiand witnesses an epiphany.  Both Scott-Sutherland and Foreman acknowledge Bax’s deference in his score to certain procedures associated with Sibelius, who knew and liked Bax’s music just as Bax knew and liked his.  Bax dedicates his score to the Finn, with whom by the mid-1930s he had long been amiably acquainted.  Take Bax’s first movement, which nods consciously to the middle movement of Sibelius’ own Fifth Symphony (1919).  In Bax’s hushed opening, the clarinets intone a motif from which the remaining thematic material, not only of the movement, but of the entire symphony, will, through a series of ingenious metamorphoses, derive.  Bax’s melody shows kinship with Sibelius’ melody.  Scott-Sutherland refers to the apparent motion of this self-extending motif, regularly ascending and descending, as “wavelike,” which I take to be significant.

Oceanic references occur frequently in Bax’s oeuvre – in Tintagel, for example, in The Garden of Fand, in the middle movement of the Fourth Symphony, and in the first movement of the Seventh, to name but a few.  Something of what the sea symbolizes for Bax one might glean from his poem “The Glen of Starry Peace.”  Bax writes: “This is the end of the old troublous earth, / The door of the sea, the outer court of heaven; / In this old peace the pondering soul gives birth / To august dreams that chanting float beyond the starry seven.”  The sea and a type of salvation go together.  The seashore offers itself as a threshold beyond which the possibility of profanation remains high.  The initiate – who seeks absorption in the sea’s sublimity – dares cross the threshold only after his ordeal of expiation.  Struggling up the seaside peak atop which sight of the sea overwhelms the climber belongs to the same idea.  The phrase “starry seven” refers perhaps to the constellation Orion or by metonymy to the star-strewn sky generally, beyond which in the classical cosmos lay the Empyrean, the remotest, rarest, and purest circle of being.  The sea appears in the poet’s metaphor as the medium across which the impulse from the Empyrean reaches the bard, but the bard must put his foot in the water at least in order to receive the impulse.  If the sea were “peace,” it would also be the realm of personal dissolution – of ecstasy and of fusion with the deep currents.  The Fifth Symphony’s final movement, after a number of episodes, generates from the “germ-theme” of the first movement a great and slowly swelling chorale.  This chorale rises and falls with a sea-like undulation; it possesses a chant-like character, as though it fulfilled the highest stage of the mysteries.

Bax’s Sixth Symphony has especially endeared itself to me by virtue of its having been the first of the seven symphonies to come into my acquaintance.  That would have occurred in the mid-1970s when the Lyrita LP with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Norman del Mar first arrived in the record bins.  I knew by that time five or six of the tone poems, the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1918), and some of the solo piano music.  I had read Cox’s analysis of the Sixth in Layton’s symposium.  Cox’s assessment is worth quoting.  “The Sixth… represents a peak in Bax’s symphonic achievement,” Cox writes, adding that the work “ends in a magnificent reconciliatory Epilogue of great beauty.”  Cox remarks that like the First and Fifth Symphonies – the Sixth generates the totality of its thematic material from an urmotif heard at the outset of the first movement, and that in its procedures it once again displays Bax’s admiration for Sibelius.  Scott-Sutherland describes the ostinato-dominated first movement – perhaps the single most concise of all Bax’s symphonic movements – as having “a catastrophic granitic beat.”  Many of Bax’s first movements require a slow build-up to the main tempo, but the first movement of the Sixth begins as though in medias res.  The designation moderato misleads somewhat: Steadily or relentlessly might fall closer to the mark.  In accelerating to allegro con fuoco, “fast and with fire,” the movement becomes a charge through wild landscapes that, after a number of episodes, ends with surprising but effective abruptness.

In its way, the first movement is complete in itself such that the remaining movements, including the Epilogue, are all of them epilogic.  After the cataclysm of the first movement, the path of restoration runs long and winds its way through many detours.  The middle-movement Lento sets itself in contrast to the allegro con fuoco, being almost Delius-like in its quiet beauty, despite a rambunctious interruption midway through its progress.  Bax’s designations suggest the formal complexity of the Finale: Introduction (Lento moderato) – Scherzo & Trio (Allegro vivace – Andante semplice) – Epilogue (Lento).  As in the case of the first movement, however, the listener experiences musical continuity without any apparent joints to get in the way.  The Finale involves what Bax himself referred to as the “liturgical theme.”  This has gradually developed from the six-note urmotif heard at the outset of the first movement until it furnishes the sole subject of the Epilogue, as though the self-generating structure of the symphony had arranged to reabsorb itself in hushed beauty in its final, swelling and fading, moments.  Beauty, it seems, has at last subdued brutality.  The pilgrimage to consolation has achieved its goal.  According to Foreman, Bax judged the Sixth to be the best of his symphonies and despite the fact that the Seventh would follow it in 1939 the Sixth really completes a sequence.

Colin Wilson asked in 1963, how is it that Bax’s rich musical authorship remains a secret?  Bax’s musical authorship is less a secret today than it was in 1963, but Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, and Gustav Holst still receive performances in the concert hall while Bax’s audience depends largely on recordings.  Of course, the audience for rarified experience will always be small and forcing that experience on a larger audience can provoke a deleterious effect.  Think what adopting the “Ode to Joy” as the anthem for the European Union has done to poor old Ludwig’s inspired tune: It has rendered it banal through repetition and tainted it by a nefarious association.  Maybe belonging to the small circle of initiates is a necessary part of the pleasure that acquaintance with a miracle of rare device gives.  As the old saying puts it, “Two’s company and three’s a crowd.”  On the other hand, keeping beauty to oneself would be – selfish.  Maybe the “Baxian” question could be broadened out or lifted to a higher level.  Why does the present phase of modernity reject beauty?  The answer comes thusly, that the present phase of modernity rejects beauty because it rejects reality, and beauty is one of the few things that are supremely real.  Bax himself was acutely aware of the reality of beauty and he understood submission to beauty – the exposing of oneself to it – as a type of conversion experience.  My own encounter with Bax, through Tintagel, affected me as would a genuinely religious conversion experience, which undoubtedly explains why I remember it so vividly.

The English philosopher Roger Scruton, in his Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, remarks how in a secular-progressive society an attitude of puritanical anti-traditionalism prevails under which the repudiating mentality rejects and seeks to dismantle all inherited customs.  This inheritance, as Scruton argues, includes the rituals of initiation that belong so centrally to pre-modern societies.  Culture, including high culture, roots itself in religion.  Scruton writes, “High culture and common culture can be acquired only by initiation.”  The very purpose of high culture is to “offer a rite of passage into a higher world.”  Ritual initiation into high culture entails instruction in “how to perceive and discard our fake emotions, and how to speak and feel with a cleaner and clearer insight into why it matters to speak and feel sincerely.”  For Scruton, high culture qualifies as truly critical, not least because high culture has absorbed its own history and amounts to the codification of three millennia of human experience.  Rites of passage are also important in Scruton’s view because while “we have abundant scientific knowledge of our world and technical mastery over it,” yet “its meaning is hidden from us.”  To arrive at genuine maturity, a person must undergo the “Lifting of the Veil.”

The life of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax took the form of a continuous quest for meaning, a quest conducted against the backdrop of a decreasingly meaningful modern world.  In Bax’s lifetime, two world wars testified to the distortion inherent in modernity.  Bax’s lifework is a vast exercise in criticism of all and everything from a traditional perspective.  Repudiation lowers the veil; the true criticism, articulating itself as beauty, lifts the veil.

Thomas BertonneauThomas Bertonneau

Thomas Bertonneau

Thomas F. Bertonneau is an intellectual and professor and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. His articles and essays have appeared in a diverse array of scholarly journals, including William Carlos Williams Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, Studies in American Jewish Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Academician, Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, and Profils Americains.

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