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Revival! The forgotten works of Arnold Bax

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Every week, CBC Radio 2's In Concert digs up an unjustly forgotten composer from the sands of time and devotes the final segment of the show to that composer’s music. This week, we’ve got an English symphonist whom some used to call the successor to Elgar: Arnold Bax.

Who was Arnold Bax?

Bax was a full-throttle romantic, born about 50 years after his time and possibly in the wrong country. Although an Englishman, Bax wrote music with a distinctly Celtic streak running through it, and he became Ireland's definitive composer during the turbulent early 20th century.

Like most artists, Bax excelled in certain specific genres, namely the symphony, the tone poem and the love letter. His life story is riddled with tales of unrequited or misplaced love, in spite of his passionate eloquence.

"Yes, I too felt that little intermezzo on the Academy stairs was a wonderful moment," he once wrote to a lover. "I think you and I ascended higher in that instant than we have ever gone before together — we seemed to touch the fiery mist didn’t we — I have thought of it ever since."

Let us all collectively go "Hmm."

Bax's love for Ireland prevented him from being seen as a "proper" English composer, and led to a certain amount of ire over his 1942 appointment as Master of the King's Musick. However, in retrospect, that appointment seems an entirely fitting honour to bestow on a musician who was certainly one of the major British composers of the time.

Why have I never heard of him?

During his lifetime, a number of major U.K. orchestras and musicians performed Bax's works, but they couldn't counterbalance the popular notion that Bax was old fashioned. He took his cues from the Romantics, from Debussy and from his fellow musical nostalgics like Sibelius. Bax had no interest in modernist trends like Schoenberg's 12-tone method, or Stravinsky's primal rhythms. While that probably made him more accessible to his audiences, it kept him from being taken totally seriously.

That may be why there were almost no recordings of his works until the late '60s. Since then, there's been a slow-simmering renewal of interest in Bax, but performances of his works are still scant compared to other major British composers of the 20th century.

Why should I check him out?

If you're into the more tuneful side of the 20th century, Bax is essential listening for you. It may be oversimplifying to call him the Anglo-Celtic Sibelius, but that ought to point you in the right direction. Think big, colourful orchestral music with big emotions, big melodies and occasional clangorous harmonies. The stuff neo-romantic dreams are made of.

1. In Memorium

In the 1910s, Bax found his way into a circle of literary and political big-thinkers in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin. At one of their legendary tea-and-bun gatherings, Bax met the Irish political dissident Pádraig Pearse. They only ever spoke once, but Pearse left a lasting impression on Bax. When he was executed after the Easter Rising of 1916, Bax plunged into depression and wrote several bad poems in memory of Pearse, as well as this lovely orchestral piece.

2. Piano Sonata No. 2

During the First World War, Bax's music took on a tragic tone, fitting the world events he saw unfolding around him. But this piano sonata comes from just after the war ended, and its influences are harder to pin down. However, we do know that Bax had been obsessing over the music of Anatoly Lyadov. Maybe this is the sort of thing that Lyadov would have composed, if he'd had the patience to write something longer than 10 minutes. 

3. String Quartet No. 2

Bax's biographer, Lewis Foreman, claims that Bax was studying the works of Jean Sibelius around the time he wrote this quartet. If you can hear any trace of Sibelius's sublime lyricism in this angular, complex, spare work, please let me know because I'm completely at a loss. It is lovely, though.

4. Symphony No. 3

One day in 1912, Bax was sitting with his friend, the poet and painter George William "AE" Russell, in a thatched cottage on a hill in Glencolmcille, Ireland. "I suddenly became aware that I was listening to strange sounds, the like of which I had never heard before," Bax wrote. "I do not know what it was we both heard that morning and must be content to leave it at that." But that didn't stop Bax from trying to work those mysterious sounds of the Irish countryside into the finale of his third symphony — maybe his greatest work of all.

5. The Tale the Pine Trees Know

OK, now I'm hearing Sibelius. The fact that this tone poem is about trees — Sibelius's calling card — is a dead giveaway. During this period, Norwegian myths joined the Celtic ones as sources of inspiration for Bax's music.

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