In 1965, a letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph from the concert pianist Harriet Cohen. She was writing about the programming of the BBC Proms, and recalling how one composer had been neglected at the festival in recent decades.
I, in company with dozens of people all over the country, consider it a grave wrong […] to have omitted ever since Sir Henry Wood’s death (so far as I remember) the yearly performances of the Third Symphony – played to packed houses and to scenes of incredible enthusiasm – that took place under the masterly and loving baton of Sir Henry, who told me, as did Vaughan Williams and Sibelius, that the work was one of his favourite modern symphonies.
Cohen was born in 1895, the same year that the Proms were founded. The composer of this symphony was a man she had met when she was a bright teenage talent at the Royal Academy of Music, way back in the 1910s. A married man twelve years her senior, their friendship would develop into a passionate love affair, and a fertile artistic partnership lasting for forty years. His name was Arnold Bax.
Bax’s third symphony was premiered by Henry Wood in March 1930, and under him it went on to be an enormous success. By 1942 he had conducted it at the Proms no fewer than eight times, and taken it abroad to Zurich, Rome, and Los Angeles. Its second movement was heard at the 1937 coronation of King George VI.
The story of Bax’s third symphony is one of music’s ephemeral power. How it can light up a moment in time, and linger long the memory of those it captivates. How its fire, if left untended, turns to embers and ash.
The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to the Scottish port of Mallaig. It is widely considered one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world. This is just as well, as even today a train takes five hours to complete the route. The penultimate stop is the tiny village of Morar, near a beach of silver sand and views of the islands of Rhum and Eigg.
Here in December 1928, Bax came to orchestrate a new symphony in the quietness of the Highland winter. As his train wound its way along the so-called ‘Iron Road To The Isles’, the short score he carried with him was inscribed with a quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
My wisdom became pregnant on lonely mountains; upon barren stones she brought forth her young.
Bax had an intense affinity for dramatic, ancient landscapes. As a young man, he had fallen in love with the poetry of W.B. Yeats, which sparked an infatuation with Ireland, particularly its rugged west coast. It would lead him to spend ‘more and more time alone in places lorded by the Atlantic and the dream-light of old tradition’.
The early poems of Yeats also fired Bax’s fascination with legend and mythology. ‘The sagas and dark winters of the north’, he later conceded, might have subconsciously influenced this symphony. There is always a sense that a hidden story runs through his music, and this is often reflected in his titles. The work he composed immediately after the third symphony would be called Winter Legends.
The narrative of the symphony is a complex, twisting one. Like the journey to Morar, Bax’s music is not just about reaching a destination, but also the variety of fleeting vistas along the way, the glimpses we are offered, however briefly, into other worlds.
Four notes – A, B flat, C sharp, D – are the puzzle that this symphony repeatedly tries to solve. We first hear a solo bassoon, rocking back and forth along this angular shape. Other woodwinds join in with harp, weaving a dense counterpoint in which key and pulse are both ambiguous. If the music evokes an ancient saga, this could be its untamed setting, a primordial woodland in sound.
The minor-third interval at the centre of this motif is a key driver in the music’s shifting moods – by turns it is mournful, mischievous, and mocking. What follows quickly escalates into a thrillingly vivid dance – savage repeated rhythms, lunging figures in the bass, and our four notes now a manic mantra in the violins.
And yet at the heart of this movement lies a wide pool of slow music. Bax introduces a romantic string melody, richly harmonised, but in a revealing detail asks that it is played con sordini: with mutes. As if shrouded in mist, we cannot fully fathom this place. It must remain half-unknown.
‘BAX’S MASTERPIECE’, proclaimed the Daily Mail. ‘An impressive outpouring of wild and melancholy music, sustained in a world of legend that is all his own […] the composer’s triumph is to keep us so engrossed in the strange, mysterious scenery that we hardly ask where he is or whither going.’
At the time of its writing, Bax was in his mid forties. He was at the height of his fame as a composer, admired at home and abroad. Cohen, who had been his lover for over ten years, was becoming one of the most celebrated pianists of her day, performing Bax’s music all over Europe.
Their relationship was passionate and turbulent, dogged by periods of insecurity. It was also an open secret in musical circles – Vaughan Williams, who was a friend to them both, was once greatly amused to find Cohen listed in a musical dictionary as ‘See under Bax’.
Bax’s family wealth meant that he had a private income. It afforded him a life of enviable freedom, in which he could travel and compose whatever he wanted, without seeking paid employment. It also enabled him to support various love interests throughout his life. These included Harriet Cohen, and but also his wife, Elsa.
It was Elsa whom Bax forsook for Cohen in 1918, financially supported with their two children, but emotionally abandoned. As Lewis Foreman puts it in his book Bax: A Composer And His Times, ‘Bax was not a married man by nature, but a nomad, and the encumbrances of married life stifled his free spirit’.
It would be easy to pass by Elsa. She is a mostly hidden figure, as Cohen insisted that Bax destroy her letters to him. But one letter does survive, in which she pours out her anguish and bewilderment to a friend, shortly after the separation. It gives us a poignant insight into the emotional wreckage of Bax’s affair, and her self-deluding optimism that he might come back:
To me, marriage always was the most sacred thing on earth, so much so, that once married nothing would justify a breaking of the word & promise given, and if one’s life partner turned out the most terrible bargain on earth, it is still up to one to be faithful and helpful in every way – that alone makes me act as I do – waiting until the return.
For Bax, the arrival of Cohen inspired an intense burst of creativity. In 1917, his passion for her shone with ecstatic splendour in his tone poem Tintagel, while the inner conflict he felt with his domestic commitments is thrashed out to exhaustion in the stormy November Woods.
‘She came at a most difficult period when all ideals seemed slipping,’ Bax wrote that year, ‘and now this that has happened has set them like fixed stars in the sky to burn for ever through what ever dangers and troubles may come’.
But with Bax’s nomadic lifestyle and Cohen’s performance schedule, their relationship would have to be played out through snatched periods together. Letters filled the gaps, and these now give us a precious insight into their romance. They are often passionate, sometimes erotic, and show they were both jealously possessive of the other. This is in spite of the fact that they both pursued other lovers – or maybe, precisely because of it.
In the mid 1920s, Cohen contracted a particularly virulent strain of tuberculosis. Bax paid for her to have a pioneering new treatment, which involved long stays in Geneva. This was a testing time, in which he fretted over the many admirers she was collecting.
‘Every man I meet seems to have fallen in love with me here,’ she wrote, teasing him. ‘I assure you I have had a very difficult time – they won’t believe in my mythical ‘fiancé’ in London. Is it true that I have got a marvellous figure? It’s all yours by the way.’
But it was also around the time of this long absence that Bax began an affair with a young woman called Mary Gleaves. It would be a relationship that had untold consequences for him and Cohen more than twenty years later.
A short walk inland from Morar village lies the western edge of Loch Morar. Dotted with forested islands near its shore, it stretches like a thin finger along a secluded valley for eleven miles. It is the deepest body of freshwater in Britain.
In February 1929 Bax wrote to Cohen:
This place is most enchanting when it is fine as it was this afternoon. I went down to the loch, and the silence and peace simply flooded me all through. It is impossible to feel disturbed about anything in such a place.
The second movement of the symphony seems to drink deep from this stillness. Here Bax achieved one of his most beguilingly gorgeous pieces of orchestration. A dim opening leads us through to an enchanted paradise, with glowing woodwind and brass, tinkling celesta, and lush divided strings. In the words of Colin Scott-Sutherland, it is like ‘a pristine world gradually illuminated by the first fingering beams of the morning’.
And yet, a bitter-sweet regret soon cuts across the landscape like a cold wind.
On the very same day that Bax visited the loch, Cohen was wowing Berlin on a European tour. There, she had the honour of an invitation to meet Albert Einstein and his wife at their apartment.
‘You are incandescent,’ the physicist told her, ‘you have a light within.’
Few days better illustrate the divergence of their lives, and the contrast of their personalities. Bax was a respected artist, but Cohen was a star. Not only a brilliant musician, she was a socialite with a seemingly magnetic attraction, one that drew in some of the most illustrious men of her day. As Helen Fry reveals in her biography, towards the end of the 1920s Cohen embarked on ‘a series of sexual liaisons’, though quite how many is impossible to say. She certainly kept close relationships with many men, including the author H.G. Wells, Daily Express proprietor Max Beaverbrook, and even Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
It is some testament to Cohen’s allure that she inspired several novels by those she knew. D.H. Lawrence had been an early admirer, and the character Harriet in Kangaroo may have been partly based on her. Around the time of the third symphony, Harriet Hume by Rebecca West told the story of a young pianist and a corrupt politician. The writer William Gerhardie, who definitely did have an affair with Cohen, used extracts from real letters between them in his novel Pending Heaven.
None of this glamour, of course, should distract from her musicianship. Major composers of the day composed for Cohen. Her repertoire encompassed music from Russia to Spain, and she was one of the first pianists to promote early English keyboard pieces. Her Bach was, for many, considered peerless. More impressive still is that she achieved this with a small hand span of barely an octave.
But her public role did not end at the applause. In the 1930s, she used her profile to lobby on behalf of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. In 1934, this cause would lead to a reunion with Einstein. Having since fled to America, it was he who played the violin with her on stage in New York, as they took part in a fundraising concert.
‘It is the best thing that Mr. Bax has given us so far’, announced the Daily Telegraph, ‘and, surely, one of the best things our contemporaries have produced’.
‘I was very delighted that the Symphony was so much appreciated,’ Bax wrote to his brother Clifford, ‘and somewhat taken aback at its strangely uproarious reception’.
‘We are very proud of him’, Henry Wood later said. ‘His brilliancy and even his complexity are alluring, and his output is staggering’.
Bax’s third symphony would go on to be admired by Rachmaninov and Sibelius. According to Cohen, the Finn once described him as ‘my son in music’, though it was a son he would outlive.
However, not everyone was completely won over. ‘I enjoyed the Bax’, noted the 16-year-old Benjamin Britten in his diary, ‘but didn’t understand it’.
The peace of Loch Morar is dispelled with a smash of a gong and a series of strident string chords. The third and final movement returns us to frenetic action, and a marching theme takes up the mischievous minor thirds. But there is a sense of optimism, even touches of sardonic humour in the story now.
With a triumphant brass climax, we sense an arc towards a blazing major-key close. But we are hoodwinked. It immediately starts to fade away, and a violin line slowly rises, as if vanishing up to heaven. We will not get to see the heroic endpoint of this saga, rather what Bax reveals to us requires another literary term, one that puts everything we have heard so far into sudden perspective.
There was a precedent for having an ‘epilogue’ in music. Vaughan Williams had drawn on that description for his London Symphony. Bax had been at its premiere in 1914, and the older composer even asked for his advice on a passage that had disappointed him. Bax persuaded him to add an oboe counter melody. The favour was returned at the time of the third symphony, with Vaughan Williams’ suggestion that Bax extend the abrupt ending of the first movement.
On paper, Bax’s epilogue looks simplistic, crude even. Low chords of C, D minor, and E minor repeat, each with a C and E over the top. A long high G emerges, cascading down the scale as a gentle melody.
But notation can never describe the magic of music, it merely offers us dark words with which to cast its spell. In Bax’s hands, these disarmingly simple gestures become something confoundingly beautiful.
As Foreman puts it, the chords in the strings and harp arrive ‘as if they have been going on for ever, but have only just come into our hearing’. The blend of unison woodwinds in the melody beckons us, like some far-off instrument not quite of our time. Meanwhile, the consoling loveliness of these shapes is gently disturbed by a low rumble, murmured half-thoughts in the music’s sleepy rhythm.
Vaughan Williams’ connection to this symphony has its own after-story. He so admired the epilogue that when he completed his piano concerto in 1931, he tucked away a brief quotation from it near the very end of his score. Naturally, Cohen was to perform this work. Vaughan Williams told her to play this passage ‘quite slow and very far off like a dream’.
But he later had a change of heart. This quotation was ‘a mistake for public performance’. The significance of this music was clearly personal for him. Quite what it meant is unclear. But an intriguing note lies beside these bars in the original score. It reads: ‘according to my promise’.
It was in 1944 that the symphony’s fortunes turned. That year, Bax’s music was wrapped up a Proms season that seemed to be strangely cursed.
It was wartime, and London was facing the new threat of ‘doodlebugs’ – V1 flying bombs. During a performance of Bax’s violin concerto, a doodlebug approach gradually became audible in the Albert Hall. By one account, the audience heard its engine cut out. The soloist, Eda Kersey, continued playing, ‘apparently oblivious to the fact that one ton of explosive was somewhat overhead. No one in the audience moved. It was a long wait. Then, at last, there came the muffled roar of the explosion’.
The next day, the BBC closed the venue for the rest of the season. It was a sad turn of events in the Proms’ 50th Jubilee year, and it thwarted a scheduled performance of the third symphony. But that summer would become sadder still. Eda Kersey died of cancer just two weeks after her performance, aged only 40. Then a month later came the passing of Sir Henry Wood himself. He had co-founded the Proms, and conducted its every season for nearly half a century.
With Wood’s death, this symphony’s great champion was vanquished. To this day, over 70 years on, Bax’s third has not been heard at the festival since.
It is therefore fitting that, in the very same year, the first recording of the symphony was released, conducted by John Barbirolli. 1944 marks the turning point towards this music’s modern fate: a creature beautifully preserved in amber, but never glimpsed in the wild. A collector’s curiosity, starved of the breath of life.
For now, this symphony remains the music that time forgot. Music which, through its own inspiration, chooses to forget time.
Elsa died in 1947. And in death, Bax’s wife would strike a final blow against his betrayal. Throughout their separation, her refusal to divorce had become convenient, effectively excusing him from any future commitments. He did not dare tell Cohen that he was a now a widower.
But such matters cannot be withheld forever. The following year, Cohen was recording Bax’s score for the David Lean film Oliver Twist, and over this period she discovered that Elsa’s will had been published.
‘All she wanted was to be Lady Bax’, Cohen’s sister would later say. But Bax was in no mind to remarry. Under pressure from Cohen, and possibly in the heat of an argument, he finally revealed his continuing affair with Mary Gleaves.
In the long saga of their love, they had both been unfaithful. But his rejection of marriage, combined with the revelation of a twenty-year mistress, must have been devastating. At some point in the following two weeks, Cohen severed an artery and damaged tendons in her right hand. She spent several days in hospital, and received nine stitches to her wrist. It was a terrible injury for a pianist, one her career would never fully recover from.
The cause was reported to be an accident while carrying a tray of glasses. In her biography, Fry pours some scepticism over this claim. We may never know if this injury was an act of self-harm – a cry for help, or even a suicide attempt. But you would expect that any accident so brutally damaging to Cohen’s craft would be mentioned in her memoir, A Bundle Of Time. Instead, there is silence.
It is unlikely that Bax wanted to hurt either women – from his letters, it seems, he loved them both. But a lifetime of duplicity and evasion had led to this juncture. Cohen’s injury would eventually heal, though her best playing days were now over. In the mean time, with one hand incapacitated, Bax composed her a Left-Hand Concertante for piano and orchestra.
A few months after her injury, Cohen wrote to Bax. She was still angry, and like all his betrayals, would never let him forget. But now she laid her cards on the table. She was nearly fifty three, and had loved him for over thirty years.
I’ve come to the conclusion that only complete happiness will make me well. It is all in your hands – all of me is in your hands – my life, and my future […] And you? Are you going to make an honest woman of me at last my precious? […] Perhaps everything had to happen to show you just how much you love me – & how awful a blank should you lose me. You never will, my love. I just won’t let go. Never will I go.
On some level, she must have known her plea for marriage would be futile. But she never did let go. And neither did he.
It was in keeping with Bax’s wishes that, in 1953, he died while visiting his beloved Ireland. In Dublin, he heard the music professor Aloys Fleischmann conduct a concert of his music. Unknowingly, it became a final tribute to two great forces in his creative life. The orchestra performed the early tone poem The Garden of Fand, perhaps the most passionate flowering of his youthful love affair with that country. And Cohen was there too, playing his Left-hand Concertante, a testament to the strangely unshakable bond they had forged across four decades.
That weekend, Bax was staying with Fleischmann in Cork. He was driven out to a local beauty spot on the coast, the Old Head of Kinsale. By the account of Fleischmann’s mother Tilly, he witnessed the most glorious sunset over the Atlantic – Fand’s garden itself. ‘The whole sky was ablaze with colour of every possible hue; red, deep orange, yellow and far away on the horizon, there was a pale blue mist. Arnold was lost gazing at it.’
In the evening, Bax fell ill. A doctor was called, but by 10pm he had suffered coronary thrombosis and pulmonary edema. He was gone.
‘I can’t grow up and long for home and children and settled things,’ Bax once wrote. Throughout his life, he retained a streak of restless, wide-eyed adolescence. It formed a wellspring of his art, one he channelled into music of incredible richness and beauty of expression. But it is also there, swirling in those currents, that we can sense a source of his personal shortcomings.
Cohen died two years after her letter to the Daily Telegraph, in 1967. In many ways she had led the more extraordinary life – a woman of brilliance, determination and enormous accomplishment. It was never quite clear how this extrovert force of nature became so inextricably entangled with Bax, the introspective dreamer. Perhaps it is something they never fully understood themselves.
‘I received two tremendous moral lessons from great men in those months,’ Cohen recalled in her memoir, about the period of the third symphony. The cellist Pablo Casals left her speechless when he described how he practiced as if he would live to be five hundred. ‘Those few words affected my whole life: the wavering flame in me was rekindled and I never doubted or flagged again’.
The other was from Einstein, on that February day when Bax was walking beside Loch Morar, the place where the waters lie deepest. As she left the great scientist’s apartment and stepped into the cold Berlin air, he shared with her a favourite saying by Lessing. ‘The search for truth is more precious than its possession’.
Some puzzles in this story must remain unsolved. Who knows when Bax came across the Nietzsche quotation, buried near the end of a chapter in his mysterious screed? Who knows on what level it spoke to him, or why he left it out of the full score of the symphony. In that part of the book, Zarathustra tells us of his Wild Wisdom, his lioness. It continues:
Now she runs foolishly through the harsh desert and seeks gentle turf – my old wild wisdom. Upon your hearts’ gentle turf, my friends, upon your love she would bed her most dearly beloved.
In the middle of Bax’s epilogue, our four-note motif returns. An eerie haze of tremolo strings and muted brass, it sounds like a distant memory, one whose meaning we can no longer quite remember.
But in the very last bars of the symphony, it builds to a deep brass rumble. Only now, with a twist of harmony, this figure melts into a radiant C major triad. In the music’s dying breath, its tortured shape has, at last, found its resolution.
The final C chord is lit up by woodwinds and harp, recalling that wild forest where our journey began. It hangs there, gently glowing. An island of perfect peace, forever beyond our reach.
All my blog posts are powered by caffeine. A cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.
With special thanks to Graham Parlett for his help with this article.
Sign up to the mailing list below.