Arnold Bax

Picture of Arnold Bax

I suppose I was on more friendly terms with the Irish composer, Arnold Bax, than with any other English composer - with the exception of Donald Tovey, though the relationship with Tovey was that of master and pupil. At any rate Bax and I called one another by our first names, we exchanged letters and I visited him a few times at his house in St. Johns Wood. We had much in common. To begin with, we were both famous sight readers of full scores: put any score in front of Arnold Bax and he would play it at the piano like nobody's business; put any score in front of Erik Chisholm, and he would play it like billy-o. I could grind out a Mahler or Bruckner symphony from a full score, and so could Arnold, if he wanted to, but never did (as he didn't like Mahler or Bruckner.) Pretty few English musicians did in the 20's and 30's. "Frightful stuff", growled Eugene Goossens when he saw a score of Mahler's sixth symphony on my piano desk in Cape Town a few years ago. Eccentric, long-winded, muddle-headed, interminable Landler" are some of Bax's pithy comments on Mahler.

If you think I'm boasting about my powers of instantaneous condensation of a 60 stave orchestral score to a 2-hand piano arrangement, look me up in the index of Tovey's essays; as Bax pointed out, however, there is nothing much in this to make a song about - it is merely a natural gift like thin hair or strong teeth.

In his charming, witty, revealing and altogether delightful autobiography "Farewell my Youth", Arnold Bax tells us that he was officially born in Streatham, Surrey, and not on an island in the middle of a bog-lake in County Mayo, which seems far more likely. He first went to Ireland when he was 19: he tells us how the poetic genius of Yeats, the "Aran Islands" and plays of Synge, the legend of Tir na-n'Og, everything which is summed up by the words Celtic Twilight, Celtic Wonderland, seeped into his soul. Bax's first visit to Ireland was to him like a great religious conversion - a deep spiritual experience which turned his musical leanings away from Wagner and Strauss, towards writing in a limpid, transparent, leisurely, decorative Celtic idiom; it is this Irish element in him which is perhaps the principal characteristic of his music.

By degrees, he developed, in his own words "a second personality," he steeped himself in Irish history, songs, folk-tales, even learned to speak the Irish language, and wrote books under the name of Dermot O'Byrne, which were published in Dublin. Bax states that the poetry of Yeats meant more to him than all the music of the centuries. When staying with us for his Glasgow concerts, he spoke of Ireland as Bartok spoke of folk music - with deep-lying emotion, with the all absorbing enthusiasm of a fanatic. He spoke of the magical effect the scenery had on him - of the dramatic atmosphere and meteorological effects witnessed on the Donegal coast - where there is no land till you reach the Polar ice: of the dim-veiled but wondrous spectrum of a lunar rainbow he had once seen in Clencolumcille and of "the strange and wondrous sights to be seen in that wonderful country of the Wee Folks, of the Fairies."

In 1910, Bax had a passionate but brief love affair with Loubya, a Russian emigre, straight out of Dostoievsky, whom he followed to Moscow, Kief and St. Petersburg, and accounts for such works as his "Gopak", "May Night in the Ukraine", "In a Vodka Ship", piano pieces which I used to play in my youth. His Irish works include the Four Orchestral Pieces, Festival Overture, "Moy Mell", "In the Fairy Hills" and "The Garden of Fand": the Celtic idiom became a permanent - if subconscious - feature of his later works, even in his apparent abstract chamber music.

The major works of Bax are, of course, the seven symphonies, as many symphonic poems - "The Garden of Fand", "Tintagel", "November Woods", "The Tale the Pine Tree Knew" and an impressive quantity of chamber music. Bax confessed himself "a brazen romantic - by which I mean my music is the expression of emotional states. I have no interest whatever in sound for its own sake, or in a modernist isms or factions."

The first example of Bax's music you will hear is the opening of his one-movement Elegaic Trio for harp, viola and flute, written in 1916. It begins with harp arpeggios, and the theme that follows on viola - then flute - has a Celtic lilt and curve about it. It is typical Bax of the period - leisurely music with easy flowing melodic lines, in modo romantica. The second subject has some Slavonic twists - probably harking back to Bax's ratee affaire, Russia 1910.

Here is how Bax's early orchestra sounded - lush, alla Wagner and Strauss; an early recording of "Tintagel"

No one has done more to advance his music than Harriet Cohen, the pianist. She was to Sir Arnold (he was knighted in 1947) what Peter Pears is to Benjamin Britten - an artistic partner and devoted friend - his alter ego: Bax dedicated many of his works to Harriet, who performed them publicly whenever she could.

At his first Active Society concert, three sonatas were played - for viola and piano (dedicated to Lionel Tertis) - No.1 for violin and piano and the cello sonata. I played piano in the violin sonata, Bax in the other two. I don't know if Bax was ever recorded as a pianist; although a very fine player, he was very diffident about his performing talents. Here is the second movement of the viola sonata - composed in 1921 - played by William Primrose, one of the great violists of today (born in Glasgow; of course) and Harriet Cohen.

I have a note about this particular movement: "Grotesque and fantastic ideas appear and dissolve in this Satanic scherzo as it sweeps along its restless course with terrifying momentum".

My wife, at that time, was Hon. secretary of the Active Society and she has some personal comments to make about Bax, who stayed with us which may interest you. She described him "as a man of moderate height, with deep set eyes, rather ruddy complexion, dark straight hair, with a lock of it falling over his forehead. He certainly did not resemble in any way my preconceived idea of a musician, rather the reverse; more like a 'gentleman Farmer' - an ambiguous term which sort of suggested a farmer who was not prepared to do his own dirty work on the farm but strolled around like a chieftain among his potato patches while hired helpers (often from the local 'looney-bin') toiled the ground. By the time he had had a wash and clean up, I found that Bax had not worn a dress suit for ten years; he asked me anxiously if I could smell the moth balls, and was his suit very shabby? He told me he loathed getting into evening dress, and that the thought of doing so the following night filled him with horror: that he had not accepted a 'social date' since he had last worn his 'tails'.

The supper was a great success. At the end of the meal he asked me if I had made the soup myself, because if I had, would I please, if it was not too much trouble, make it every day for lunch and supper, while he was staying with us.

After supper, my husband and Arnold (I had, by this time, been promoted to calling him by his first name) sat discussing music, musicians and books. I realised then that Clifford Bax, the playwright and author was his brother. He told us that when he really wished to concentrate he went up to a little village in the West Coast of Scotland because, there, he felt in touch with life mystical, with faeries, good and bad, and with all things that have made the fairy folk-lore of Scotland so famous.

Was it possible that this man honestly believed in faeries? Or had I misunderstood? Had Bax really seen Faeries? 'Yes' in Ireland. No doubt about it, he had definitely seen 'The Faeries'. I quote 'The Faeries' because I noticed in subsequent conversations, people initiated in such matters always say "The Faeries". According to an old Scottish proverb, there are only three words which are entitled to the prefix "THE" - The Pope, The Devil, and The Chisholm". The proverb was out of date… "The Faeries" had it too.

Arnold Bax was no uneducated country yokel with a deeply ingrained superstitious mind, but a man of culture and intellect swearing to a firm conviction of the supernatural. It is true that once, as a child ,I thought I had seen a faery, and even today I am not prepared to say it was a figment of my imagination. She came dancing out of my mother's pet aspidistra. A lovely little person, like a Dresden china doll, with wings marked with a glittering phosphorescent substance, the colour of the rainbow, with flaxen hair, and skin like velvet. Rather hesitantly I told Arnold of my experience - at the same time waiting for the derisive hoots of laughter from my spouse. By this time he was so intrigued by Arnold's stories, that he was quite prepared to accept even an Aspidistra faery to keep the family end up.

Arnold Bax did not laugh either or merely politely accept my story as though I were trying to go 'one better'. Quite the reverse. He asked me for all the details, and said I was very lucky indeed to be blest with the power to ;see', as it was seldom that a town dweller was privileged to meet any of the little people.

People, in the city, he said, had long since lost the art of seeing the Faery-folk, although he assured me they were there, if only we had the eyes to see. By this time, it was well past mid-night and being conscious that fairies and ghosts generally choose that hour to' start wandering around, and feeling not a little uneasy about the whole conversation, I made some tea for us (and took a couple of aspirins on the sly) and went to bed. But, once in bed, I suddenly remembered an old song my father used to sing to us when we were children. He would come into our bedroom at night to tuck us up and put out the light, and sometimes he would stand at the foot of the bed, with a lighted cigarette in his hand, making a circular movement with it and sing these words.

"I'm the son of John James Benjamin Binns:
And I was caught by Death in the midst of my sins;
When the clock strikes 12, I'm let out for an hour or so,
When the Cock begins to crow, Farewell Benjamin Binns”

Bax' s second concert was also given in 1932, and consisted of his second violin sonata, Legend for viola and piano in which Arnold mated (musically speaking) with the brilliantly frivolous Margaret Ludwig, his 3rd violin sonata (Edward Dennis and myself) and some songs by Mona Benson, a serious young Edinburgh singer who affected earphone montage on her hair; she was in very bad form but Bax seemed unperturbed. Indeed, Bax was always very pleasant about our Active Society's work although, he said, it wasn't the only society of its type and told us of the London Musical Club, presided over by Alfred Kalisch, critic of the Star, which flourished around 1908. Kalisch was a lovable little man; in person - with his barrel-like trunk, thick colourless skin, squat features and habitual cigar, suggesting the gentleman constructed entirely of motor tyres who used, at one time, to figure in Mr. Michelin's advertisements. The Club members were mostly elderly and notable for wealthy paunchiness and stertorous breathing. Bulging pinkish bosoms straining at expensive décolletages, and mountainous backs were generally displayed by the ladies, whilst among the men ruddy double-chins, over-flowing their collars at the back of the necks, and boiled eyes were rife.

The club decided to invite eminent foreign composers as their guests, and to glut them with copious food, strong wines and selections from their own works. The first of these was Debussy. The great composer, an inordinately shy man, was planted in a chair in the exact centre of the platform facing the audience. He was clearly utterly non-plussed, did not understand a single word of English, and could only attempt to solve his problem by rising and making a stiff little bow whenever he recognised his own name amid Kalish's guttural mumblings - intended to be a welcoming speech. This part of his ordeal over, he was permitted to shamble dazedly to the rear of the hall, where he confided to Edwin Evans that he would rather write a symphony to order than go through such an experience again. After the concert of Debussy’s works, at which Bax accompanied some American singer in "Ariettes Oubliees", Debussy thanked him for his share in the evening's music. "I never shall forget" wrote Bax in his biography "the impression made upon me by that thick-set clumsy figure, the huge greenish, almost Moorish face beneath the dense thicket of black hair, and the obscure dreaming eyes that seemed to be peering through me at some object behind my back. As he lumbered vaguely forward, extending a cushioned hand, he looked like some Triton arising from the glaucous caverns of old Ocean." Recalling that morbidly sallow complexion of his, Bax conjectured that even so early, the malignant foe, destined to be his death in his early fifties, was already prowling within his body.

Another victim of the Music Club was Sibelius. "He looked" said Bax, "as though he had never laughed in his life and never could. That strong taut frame, those cold steely-blue eyes and hard-lipped mouth, were those of a Viking raider, insensible to scruple, tenderness, or humour of any sort. An arresting, formidable-looking fellow, Sibelius is the composer of seven great symphonies and a dozen other big orchestral works; but he also wrote hundreds of banal characterless piano pieces and songs which hardly seem to come from the same pen; and they never change as the composer ages: the works written in 1930 might well have been dated 1890, and vice versa. As the Concert Club could only aspire to performance of these undistinguished pieces, they constituted the entire Sibelius programme; it was thought that this lamentable affair was a serious setback to the acceptance in England of Sibelius' best work. The composer sat the entire evening, looking glum and seemed to suffer even more than Debussy."

The fourth and last concert of this pre-Active Society entertained Schonberg who, possibly to advertise his indifference to and contempt for the sentimentalities of his youth (only very early works were played at this concert) kept the company waiting three quarters of an hour for his arrival. I make no apology for giving you Bax's impressions of Debussy, Sibelius and Schonberg, for both Schonberg and Sibelius were honorary vice-presidents of the Active Society. Incidentally, I once invited Schonberg to give us a concert in Glasgow. He wrote back "Sure, any time you like. My fee will be a thousand per concert" - which is one way of saying "No".

I cannot leave Bax's delightful biography without quoting a few characteristic Baxian phrases: He speaks of "out-moded British works from the back shelves of Messrs. Novello's stores - composers whose mildness might well be described as "sheep in sheep's clothing". Of the habitual London concert goer "No longer a churchgoer, he salves his conscience by going instead to Bach, and seeks to do his duty by his God in undergoing four Brandenburg concertos in succession without an anaesthetic. And when the final pedal-point mercifully arrives, he experiences the same smug self-complacency and sense of thankful deliverance his father felt when the Scottish divine pronounced "And now, my brethern, seventhly and lastly."

On a lesson with Tobias Matthay "I, for one, could never play anything approaching my best at my lessons with him. It nearly always happened that just as I would begin to forget my self-conscientiousness and play something like freely, "Toby" would bump my forearm from beneath and say excitedly "What's this? Key-bedding? To the sound, not further, remember'. Again now! Don't think of yourself.' Think of the music.' Beethoven'. (and he would assume an expression and attitude of Sublimity) "Beethoven's messenger!!. (in a thrilling voice) That's you." and he would poke a long forefinger hard into one's midriff. Another trick he had was to charge one off the piano-stool, like a heavy~weight footballer, and play the passage quite unintelligible himself."

During his ill-fated amorous excursion into Russia in 1910, Bax attended a performance of "Prince Igor" at the Bolshoi Theatre - an occasion honoured by the presence of the Czar himself. "Lead by Chaliapin, everyone in the house rose to join in the majestic Czarist national anthem - the management had "papered" the stalls beneath the royal box, with the royal initials N.R. picked out in bald heads."

Although Bax spoke with great admiration of the music of Elgar, and confessed himself one of the composer's most enslaved admirers, nevertheless I thought I detected a touch of malice when he told me that Elgar was unable to proceed with his third symphony, commissioned by the BBC and paid for in advance.

From 1941 until his death in 1953, Bax was Master of the King's Music, composing "Fanfares for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh", "A Morning Song" dedicated to Princess Elizabeth, and a Coronation March.

He confessed that the later music of Schonberg was beyond his comprehension (just as Debussy was unintelligible to his one time composition teacher, Frederick Corder.) "Wozzeck", "Pierrot Lunaire" were to him "manifestations of neurosis, surpassing the most liverish and kidney-racking scenes in "Salome" and "Electra" "We are all alike," he wrote "In the vanity and arrogance of youth, we boast that no new development in our art could ever perplex us, and sincerely believe it. But after about the 35th year, myopia sets in, and we are apt to make ourselves as ridiculous in the opinion of the next generation as our fathers and grandfathers seemed to us. Atonalism appears to be a cul-de-sac, cluttered up with morbid growths, emanating from the brains, rather than from the imaginations, of a few decadent Central European Jews. It is true that this idiom is now nearly 30 years old (this was in 1943) and has never found favour with any but the actual personal disciples of its prophet; but who shall say with any certainty that the thing is worthless?"

Bax was interested in an opera of mine that I was writing at the time, called "The Feast of Samhain" for I had adapted my libretto from a book of James Stephens "In the Land of Youth." Stephens was one of Bax's Irish friends, after Bax had married and settled in Dublin, just before the first world war. Stephens became famous almost overnight with the publication of his "Crock of Gold", to be followed by the delightful fantasies "The Demi-Gods", "Irish Fairy Tales", "Deirdre" and several volumes of enchanting poetry. It was A.E. (Ceorge Russell) another of Bax's friends in Dublin, who once said of Stephens: "I think Stephens is a little too free with Gawd. His attitude is rather like that of an African heathen towards his boss. When things are not going well with our friend, he bangs God about and pitches him into the corner amongst the rubbish. And then an hour later, feeling some compunction at the forlorn appearance of the old fellow, he sets God up again, and seeks to propitiate him with libation and sacrifice." A.E. - alleged to be clairvoyant - initiated Bax into the dubious realities of the Irish Fairy-Host. On one occasion, while the two friends were quietly reading one evening, Bax became suddenly aware of strange sounds around him the like of which he had never heard before. He described them as a kind of mingling of rippling water and tiny bells tinkling and yet sufficiently clear in pitch that he could have written them out in musical notation. On another occasion he saw "dancing shafts of flame (the wee folk?) and a white sword in a quivering circle of deep red" (The Druid Sword of Manantann , the sea-god of the ancient Irish?)

Looking back on these and similar airy-fairy, eerie experiences, Bax would confide, if he were in an expansive mood, that he really did believe in the physical reality of Irish fairies. W.B. Yeats and Padric Colum were leaders in the Irish Literary Renaissance, and both intimate friends of Bax. Colum was editor of the "Irish Review" a monthly magazine devoted more to literary works than to politics, and printed a short play of Bax called "On the Hill" and a wild and semi-humorous tale of Donegal tinkers. Later Bax published a full length book "Children of the Hill" and divided his labours almost equally between music and writing and became a recognised literary figure in the city. Colum, ever alert as a robin-redbreast, was interested in everything: as someone remarked on him "Colum absorbs knowledge, not only through his ears and brain, but through every pore of his skin." You might like to hear the voices of these talented literary friends of Bax. First the voice of Ireland’s greatest poet, W. B. Yeats: - Yeats, by the way, was tone deaf, like another great poet, the Scot Hugh MacDiarmid. Recorded in 1937.

Now James Stephen, author of the "Crock of Gold" who is all but singing in his deep fruity voice. and lastly, Padric Colum, a poet and editor with a noble profile and a tiny body.

Programme cover of one of Bax's Active Society concerts
The opening page of his E flat Symphony: look at the extreme left where the names of the instruments are listed: and read from the top downwards: 4 flutes + Bass flute and piccolo, 4 oboes - or rather 2 oboes, an alto and a bass, 4 clarinets, 2 bassoons and a contrabass-sarrusphone. No wonder the Cape Town Orchestra doesn't perform it. The score - like nearly all Bax's works - is published by a piano firm, Murdoch, Murdoch and Co. Bax's major works remained in manuscript for years, until a series of articles on them by Ernest Newman forced attention on them - and this piano firm Murdoch, Murdoch and Co. who had never published a page of music before or since, shouldered the responsibility of publishing the lot - a very noble gesture from a quarter not known for noble gestures. The symphony is dedicated to John Ireland
A sample of Bax’s handwriting - a bit like Bartok's don't you think?
A photograph of Bax in the twenties
A photograph of Bax in the twenties: looking dreamy and Irishy mystical!
Last week someone sent me a copy of this play of Bax - written under the name of Dermot O'Byrne - and here is a page of it. It is full of the gloriously extravagant language which is the chief attraction of "Playboy of the Western World" and other Synge plays. Bax so completely identified himself with the literary and political aspirations of Ireland that a volume of poetry he wrote was actually banned by the English censors
In later life, Bax made his home at a Sussex inn and a part of the day was always set aside for working crossword puzzles. I remember him seizing on our Glasgow newspapers - not to read a notice about himself - but to tackle the crossword puzzle, at which he was a considerable expert