MANCHESTER, England – Two new works were heard at the sixth Hallé concert – one of which, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, was new only to Manchester; the other, Arnold Bax’s tone poem, November Woods, had its première anywhere. The Rachmaninoff concerto afforded a brilliant opportunity to Cortot of showing off his surpassing gift as a pianist, being a work of enormous difficulty throughout, and in the last movement, one of fiery and flamboyant energy. At a first hearing, it cannot be said to have usurped the place of the second concerto of the same composer, or indeed done anything to dim the luster of that beautiful work, which has won a warm place in the affections of pianists the world over.
Keener interest naturally attached itself to the new work of the young English composer. Mr. Bax was a student of the Royal Academy. He has devoted himself to composition and has had great difficulty in getting his reputedly numerous compositions published. True, many of his works have been performed once or twice from manuscript and have obtained friendly and even flattering recognition from eminent authorities. Mr. Hamilton Harty has ranged himself with these and spoken of Bax as the "most absolute genius among all our younger writers"; but publishers have hitherto fought shy of him, and his music has remained in MS.
In the present chaotic state of the music publishing business nothing is surprising, not even the well-nigh incredible statement made the other day, on the authority of the Manchester Guardian, that an enterprising publisher, struck with the injustice of this long neglect, had set aside a sum of £20,000 to be used solely for the publication of Mr. Bax’s music.
"November Woods," according to its composer, is a series of impressions of the dank and stormy rain, of nature in late autumn. It naturally suggests the Waldweben of Siegfried, but there is no echo of Wagner in it, or indeed anything of the elemental grandeur of the nature-music of The Ring. The inevitable comparison is only made to be rejected. "November Woods" enshrines some of the composer’s own personal experiences in this floating picture of Buckinghamshire woods where the idea of this work came to him.
In a private letter he says, "If there are sounds in the music which recall the screaming of the wind and the cracking of strained branches, I hope they may suggest deeper things than these at the same time. The middle part may be taken as a dream of happier days, such as may sometimes come in the intervals of stress, either physical or mental."
It is well that the composer should be chary of providing too literal a programme as the basis of his tone-poem lest the thoughts of his audience should be diverted from the deeper and more humane qualities of his music, the emotional appeal of which does not by any means end with the mere outward aspects of the autumnal season it ostensibly depicts.
There is certainly an underlying significance in the music which assures one that Mr. Bax has something original to say, and the way in which he develops his theme gives assurance of his ability to say it. There is more than mere accomplishment in it – a real power of orchestral expression, with none of the crudities and cacophonies which disfigure so much of the merely clever orchestral writing of the younger school of composition.
There is always a sense of melody implicit in the web of his score, though there is nothing of the far-sweeping melody of the older composers. His aim is more in harmony with that of Delius, which ebbs and flows and produces a more or less atmospheric effect, as of a golden and melodious haze. Broken chords are not so much in evidence as of wailing, wind-like figures, which are thrown into relief by solo passages for individual instruments. In this respect he steers a middle course between the diatonic manner of the classical tradition and the dissonance of the moderns. If there is no profound originality in his work, one always feels that it is real genuine music and in the line of legitimate development.
The fact that Mr. Bax was present in the audience, and that he was called twice to bow his acknowledgements to the public was proof that November Woods made a direct appeal to the musical appreciation of Manchester music lovers. Mr. Hamilton Harty, by his energy and skill, has done all that was possible to insure a worthy hearing for a composer who, in the north of England at any rate, had for many years been only a name. With the warmth of public encouragement, Mr. Bax will be spurred to achieve more of that power and felicity at which his November Woods does scarcely more than hint, though the hint is an unmistakable one.
The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, USA, Saturday, January 8, 1921