Sunday, 17 July 2011

Arnold Bax: Tintagel - a review by Neville Cardus.

On Saturday 7 October 1922, Arnold Bax’s tone poem Tintagel was performed at the Leeds Festival. Neville Cardus was there to record his impressions of the piece for the Manchester Guardian.
At the morning concert a tone poem called Tintagel, of Arnold Bax, was played, and very beautifully played, by the London Symphony Orchestra.[1] The music made one think furiously of the pace of some of our English composers are moving at nowadays. Only a decade ago Mr. Bax was in the forefront of them, but now, though Tintagel shows his style to have developed naturally, he is definitely one of the right wing, and using an orchestral technique quite old fashioned compared with that of Holst or Bliss. For Mr. Bax apparently is still content with a homogenous orchestral texture, with massed tone and – may one call it? – the post-Wagnerian resonance. He does not seek to split up his colour and individualise his pigments.
Tintagel, the composer tells us, is only in the broadest sense programme music. The intention of it is ‘simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle crowned cliff of Tintagel, and, more especially, of the long distances of the Atlantic, as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny but not windless summer’s day.’
This work, one believes, preceded the fine ‘November’ poem of Mr. Bax [2]. At any rate, November shows a more concentrated power than Tintagel, which falls into harmonic coldness at the end just when it needed to have burned into splendour. Still, the singleness of conception in Tintagel makes you feel the composer had really something to express and was heart and soul in his job. The mood of his music is set harmonically and the melodies or themes come but fitfully through the orchestral mass, falling over the surge of it like gleams of faint sunshine. A repeated descending chromatic figure is reminiscent of that which runs through Isolde’s narration in the first act of Tristan, and Mr. Bax intended it to be reminiscent –for the Tristan legend has associations with Tintagel. At the end of Mr. Bax’s poem a theme comes through the orchestral ebb and flow which is intended to suggest the castle ‘fronting the sun and wind of centuries.’ But the theme is melodically commonplace, and so, with the orchestra losing power at the climax, the work ends, leaving one’s expectations frustrated. Still, with ‘November’ in mind also, Tintagel promises great things from Mr. Bax before long: he is one of the least obtrusive of the younger English composers, but maybe his voice will be heard long after others have failed from sheer hoarseness.
The Manchester Guardian 9 October 1922 Neville Cardus (with minor edits)

[1] Conducted by Albert Coates
[2] Graham Parlett notes that the short score of November Woods was 1914. However it was orchestrated in 1917 and was first performed at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester by the Halle Orchestra on 18 November 1920. The short score of Tintagel was completed by October 1917. The full score was finished in January 1919. The first performance was given by Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at Bournemouth on 20 October 1921.
[3] Tintagel can be read a ‘love-poem’ to Harriet Cohen, Bax’s mistress, who spent time with the composer at Tintagel. The work is dedicated ‘For Darling Tania (Bax’s name for Cohen)

No comments: