Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Arnold Bax: November Woods and article from the Sackbut by Edwin Evans

In pursuance of their plan for publishing the larger works of Arnold Bax, Messrs. Murdoch, Murdoch and Co have just issued their first orchestral score, that of his tone poem November Woods. It is a fine piece of printing, clear and not too crowded in view of the complex nature of the music. Moreover, it bears on its title-page two inscriptions which should make a wide appeal. To the patriotically inclined that which reads ‘printed in England’ will be welcome. Those whose instincts are more materialistic will be equally glad to learn that this sumptuous score can be obtained for the price of twenty five shillings, (£1.25p) which, as things go, is very moderate for nearly one hundred pages of full score. The Garden of Fand is to follow in the near future.
November Woods is one if the most interesting of Arnold Bax’s orchestral works. Appropriately enough its first performance took place in [18th]November 1920, at Manchester, under Mr. Hamilton Harty, who also gave the first London performance, a month later, [December 16th 1920] at a concert of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Since the perennial discussion of programme-music has recently broken out afresh it is perhaps advisable to accentuate that it is essentially a poem and not a picture.
It is not so much “the dank and stormy ruin of Nature in the autumn” that is its basis as the moods and impressions which are attuned to such surroundings. The idea took shape in a Buckinghamshire wood in November, but “if there are sounds in the music which recall the screaming of wind and cracking or strained branches, I hope” the composer writes, “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 intervals of stress, either physical or mental.”
Bax is evidently anxious to disclaim any intentional realism, but a perusal of the score shows little ground for his concern. Such descriptive elements as can be discerned are employed symbolically, and in a tone-poem such as this there is an obvious advantage in taking symbols from Nature in preference to manufacturing arbitrary note-patterns and pinning labels to them. Aesthetically the process has more kinship with the impressionism of Debussy than with the illustrating methods of Strauss and other modern Germans. But in its application it is strictly personal, owing nothing to either. Impressionism of this kind employs suggestions, not for their own sake, but a contributory material for the moulding of works of beauty.
Had Bax been preoccupied with recording sounds heard in the woods, he must necessarily have deviated from his path towards a form of tone-painting which would have admitted unbeautiful sounds. To do so would have been utterly foreign to all that we know of him as a composer, for in his works, great and small alike, he has proved himself to be preoccupied with tonal beauty. In November Woods he takes a harsh mood of Nature, and presents its human reactions without the cheap aid of cacophony. In the truest sense of the word his poem is lyrical. Just as a literary poet inspired by the same subject would naturally fall into the use of words the very sound of which, apart from their significance, assisted to express his mood, Bax has employed elements of sonority, melodic, harmonic, and instrumental, which are charged with suggestion, but his use of them is lyrical. Therein lies the entire difference between tone-poetry and tone-painting. The divergence is that which divides musical opinion of today upon the subject or programme-music, and this work should be in itself sufficient to prove, if it were necessary, that Bax is on the right side of the dividing line- that is to say, the side on which pure music lies.
It is in keeping with this that, as in most of Bax’s works, the main melodic ideas are diatonic, and chromaticism is used for subsidiary purposes, though with his habitual freedom. In a technical sense this employment of chromatics is so characteristic that it would furnish proofs of identity in almost any page of his writing that had contrived to stray away from its context. An endless variation of ornament, of chromatic arabesque, is, as it were, his sign-manual. This is his personal solution of the problem of combining formal consistency with fluidity of invention. In the moulding of works of beauty it is the mark of his potter’s thumb. But enough of craftsmanship. There is already far too muck discussion of composer’s method. November Woods is the work of an inspired ton-poet, and it is of far greater importance that the details of its orthography.
Edwin Evans The Sackbut February 1922 pp33-4

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