‘His Poetry Has Always Meant More To Me Than All The Music Of The Centuries’

Arnold Bax
Arnold Bax
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The title quotation – referring to the poetry of W.B Yeats – is, you might think, a pretty extraordinary thing for a composer to say. But Britain has been blessed with many extraordinary composers, and Arnold Edward Trevor Bax was one of them.

Bax, (1883-1953) was born in Pendennis Road, Streatham (now part of South London) into a well-off family with a private income. Never having to rely on paid work, he lived a life of enviable privilege, free to pursue his creativity with an uncompromising selfishness. Having grown up playing through Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde on the piano, Bax’s musical inheritance was that of mid-European late Romanticism, but as a young man he discovered the poetry of Yeats (particularly the epic folkloric poem The Wanderings of Oisin) and this proved to be an epiphany. In his memoir Farewell, My Youth Bax describes how: ‘in a moment the Celt within me stood revealed […] his was the key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth, and his the finger that pointed to the magic mountain whence I was to dig all that may be of value in my own art’. He took it upon himself to travel around Ireland and fell equally in love with Yeats’ homeland, seeking out the most isolated islands off its turbulent west coast, teaching himself Gaelic, even writing poetry and prose under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne.

The gestures and shapes of Irish music found their way into Bax’s composition, but he retained a late-Romantic musical language, dripping with chromatic harmonies and orchestrated with a sophisticated Impressionist’s palette; his affinity to Yeats’s poetry, and to Ireland, was something that ran deeper. Throughout his life Bax frequented Atlantic coastal landscapes, staying repeatedly at Scotland’s Morar and Donegal’s Glencolmcille, both remote villages at the ocean’s edge, and a holiday visit to Tintagel on Cornwall’s north coast inspired his most often-performed orchestral work of the same name. The magic of such places loom large in his work, with their strange half-lights, furious storms, dizzying cliff-drops and mesmerising sunsets over the sea. The shifting atmospheres translate to an array of emotional states, while forming a back-drop to musical story-telling with an epic quality. It’s not surprising that Bax was an admirer of Sibelius, who translated his response to Finland’s great forests and lakes into music. Bax even dedicated his fifth symphony to him.

Bax with the concert pianist Harriet Cohen, who was a champion of his works. The two were also lovers for some time.

The single-movement Quintet for Harp and Strings of 1919 encapsulates Bax’s style beautifully. It opens with a restless theme whose development flows at a fast pace, with rapid shifts of texture and harmony. But soon this dissolves and a gorgeous lilting tune emerges over strummed harp chords. Clearly in the spirit of Irish folk music, with inflections of the mixolydian mode, it then blossoms into a passionate song with a rippling scale pattern in the bass.

This is typical of Bax’s style: the quicksilver inventiveness and feverish mental energy of a highly sensitive Romantic, giving way to a window into a world of dream-like fantasy, here a shiningly lyrical one. Yet just as often that vision is something more inscrutable and strange; at the centre of the work is a tranquillo section of grey, muted mysteriousness. After the recapitulation of the first section’s themes, the piece ends on the subdued hush of a minor chord.

It was the dizzying variety and intensely felt qualities of Bax that led me to a teenage obsession with his music. Here, particularly the epic symphonies, was a seductively powerful and finely detailed world I could immerse myself in, with a thousand fascinating and beautiful shades. Listening to Bax is a rich experience, one that at first hearing can be difficult to digest, but which rewards repeated listening. Some people find his music too meandering, though the great conductor Vernon Handley (a lifelong Bax champion) always emphasised the underlying form in his works. But Bax is not Brahms, and nor does he need to be. The surface sensuality and the rapidly shifting moods are part of his singular artistic vision. Incidentally, there are fascinating parallels between Bax and his contemporary but now-somewhat-forgotten British novelist John Cowper Powys (1872-1963). Both had a highly personal style drawing on a deeply felt, even mystical response to the natural world. Both were fascinated by coastal landscapes and the pagan Celtic past. I don’t know whether either was ever aware of the others’ work, it would be very interesting to find out.

Like Edmund Rubbra, whom I blogged about recently, Bax was no trailblazer; but he was an artist who determinedly trod his own path and produced music with an authentic voice. Such artists don’t fit easily into our understanding of the sweep of music history, being hard to categorise and market to an unfamiliar audience: like Rubbra, Bax’s music is scandalously rare in our concert halls. Having said that, it’s hard not to conclude that Britain has done a terrible job of engaging with the full diversity of its classical musical heritage, leaving many genuinely distinctive composers like Bax and Rubbra out in the cold. We should be grateful then that at least a few record labels – particularly Naxos and Chandos – have taken it upon themselves to record their works, often resulting in good sales and critical acclaim, showing that there is an appetite to hear this music.

So with that positive in mind, if you’re new to Bax I recommend exploring the third symphony, a work in which his ‘Celtic wonderland’ is most lucidly realised. Its closing ‘Epilogue’ is genuinely some of the most hauntingly beautiful music I have ever heard. By contrast the sixth symphony is a rigorously powerful work, a searing cauldron of emotion whose magnificent final movement reaches, after a long-fought battle, a hard-won reconciliation. But most of all, I recommend that you give his music time. It does not give up all its secrets at once. We may have few opportunities to hear Bax in concert, but the many musical riches of this unusual and complex man are still there, waiting to be discovered.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

A Kaleidoscope Symphony: Edmund Rubbra’s Path To Transcendence

Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.