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Sir Arnold Bax: a man born out of his time?

Updated on March 25, 2015

Arnold Bax (left of picture) with fellow composer E. J. Moeran and Tilly Fleischmann

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Why Bax?

He was one of music’s greatest orchestrators. He could write as good a tune as any of his contemporaries. His music is tuneful, colourful, sumptuous, full of life, variety and vigour. The epilogue sections of his 3rd and 6th symphonies are of heart-stopping beauty. His works are as carefully constructed as those of Bartok or, for that matter, Schoenberg. He ought to be a household name. But who these days listens to the music of Arnold Bax?

Neglected composers in a "Land Without Music".

A German scholar once said that Great Britain was “the land without music”. The scholar in question was a certain Oskar Adolf Hermann Schmit who, in 1904, actually published a book under that title. From the vantage point of the 21st century it seems absurd that anyone should call Britain a land without music. The 20th century saw the appearance of world-class British composers such as Holst, Vaughan Williams and Britten. In the latter half of that century, groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones laid the foundation for much of the European and American musical culture of today.

Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that Britain has not always supported and promoted its own music very successfully. So much great music has been written by composers who remain virtually unknown beyond these shores, such as Ernest Moeran, Granville Bantock, Havergal Brian, Malcolm Arnold, George Lloyd, Robert Simpson – the list goes on. And yet the saddest neglect of all, I think, is the music of Arnold Bax. Yes, most of his major work has been recorded. But it is seldom performed. People don’t know it. Why?

A pub called "The Bax Castle", near Horsham, West Sussex.

Richard Adams, creator of the Bax website, assures me that the name of this pub refers to the composer, but the source of the name is uncertain.
Richard Adams, creator of the Bax website, assures me that the name of this pub refers to the composer, but the source of the name is uncertain. | Source

Some biographical details

Bax was born in London in 1883. He was born into a wealthy family and never had to rely upon his music in order to make a living. He lived through two world wars but, for health reasons, actively participated in neither. His major work spans the first four decades of the 20th century.

Bax was a fine pianist and an exceptional sight-reader. He was also very active as a writer – he published poems and short stories under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne. As that pseudonym suggests, Bax always felt a strong affinity with Ireland. Irish myth, legend and literature inspired many of his works. When Bax retired from public life he went to live in the White Horse Hotel in the West Sussex village of Storrington. The White Horse has been refurbished many times. I usually visit it about once a year. When I do, I can always somehow sense the presence of Arnold Bax…

Bax died in Cork in October 1953.

Storrington in West Sussex, the village to which Bax retired. Part of the White Horse hotel can be seen of the far right of the picture.

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A contradictory figure

On first acquaintance, Bax is a somewhat puzzling and contradictory figure – an Englishman who seems to have regarded himself as more Irish than English, a composer who was also a serious writer, a creative artist who lived through two world wars but whose art appears to bear little direct imprint of the upheavals through which he lived. He described himself as a “brazen Romantic” but produced his work at a time when romanticism was no longer fashionable. As a creative artist he was rather a conservative figure, but he lived through a period when radicalism, in all forms of art, was all the rage. He wrote seven symphonies, four piano sonatas, three string quartets, various chamber music, choral works and tone poems – a nineteenth century output from a twentieth century composer.

Bax, in his own words...

The ruined castle of Tintagel, home of King Mark of Cornwall

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Tintagel

Perhaps the best introduction to Bax is through his tone poems. He wrote around eighteen of these, many inspired by Celtic myth and legend. Of these, by far the best known is Tintagel.

Tintagel is a ruined castle, built in the early Mediaeval period, between the 5th and 8th centuries AD. It stood on a cliff, looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean. There are many legends connected with this castle. It was said to be the place where King Arthur was conceived. Tintagel was also the home of the legendary King Mark of Cornwall and was therefore the backdrop to the story of the love of Tristan and Isolde. Tintagel is specifically mentioned in Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem Tristan, one of the sources for Wagner’s great music-drama.

The tone poem is in three sections. The first section contains the main material of the piece, a theme on the brass which, according to Bax, represents the ancient ruined castle, and a longer and very beautiful tune for strings. This opening section can be thought of as a musical picture of the ruined castle of today, high on a cliff, basking in warm sunshine. But in the middle section, echoes of the castle’s stormy past start to break through. You will notice a descending chromatic figure which gradually becomes ever more prominent. This is an allusion to, rather than a quotation from, Wagner’s opera. This middle section is interesting because while it seems to be a somewhat rambling orchestral improvisation it is in fact a very tightly constructed web of thematic and motivic development. Some passages may remind you of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe and Debussy’s La Mer. Finally comes a reprise of the opening material and the great and glorious return of the beautiful string tune.

Enjoy Tintagel!

Bax's tone poem Tintagel

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    • Neil S Hall profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Neil S Hall 

      3 years ago from Horsham, West Sussex, England

      Many thanks, Wrath, and I'm really delighted you enjoyed Tintagel. Yes, there are certain similarities with Appalachian Spring but I'm not sure Copeland knew any Bax. English music has so many buried treasures...

    • Wrath Warbone profile image

      Terry Chestnutt 

      3 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      The trill in the beginning of the Bax's tone poem seemed a little silly at first but it just builds in builds into such a magnificent splendor! The inspiration for Copeland's Appalachian Spring? I like this Bax's version much more, frankly. Thanks.

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