I recently found an old copy of the Book and Magazine Collector (September 1996) in a second-hand bookshop. Amongst the discussions and bibliographies of E.H Shepherd, Miss Read, Victor Hugo and F. Scott Fitzgerald there is a superb study by Colin Scott-Sutherland of Arnold Bax’s literary alter ego Dermot O’Byrne. This is worthy of study. However one section of this review caught my eye in particular – the consideration of a book published in 1913 by Maunsel & Co called Children of the Hills. In this book Bax (O’Byrne) presented a number of savage tales.
Scott-Sutherland wrote that ‘one of the stories...tells of a strange experience which (he believes) eventually found its musical counterpart in the dark, ‘druidical’ second movement of Bax’s First Symphony. In this particular story called ‘Ancient Dominions’ O’Byrne describes ‘a strange nocturnal excursion in the moonlit incandescence of a May night in Donegal. Quoting from Scott-Sutherland book Arnold Bax (1973) he writes that ‘with growing apprehension of uncanny doings the teller of the tale stumbles on the entrance to a vast underground cavern in whose awesome bowels the dark tides of the Atlantic provide the backcloth to a strange unearthly ritual to the sea-god of the Ancient Irish.
Bax wrote: - And then suddenly over this threshold of vision a presence passed. For an instant I saw again the wave-crowded mouth of the cavern and the green light in which it was bathed invaded by something vast and dominating, whether breath or light or shadow I could not tell, but I knew that all those men and women below me were again kneeling with veiled heads, their brows almost to the ground, that all were shaken by some obscure ecstasy of terror and joy. Then over myself it swept like a sun-smitten storm and my soul seemed pierced through with shafts of blinding green light and to vibrate and rock in an awful and delirious rapture as though cradled within the soul of the sea.
The ancient sea-god of the Celts was a certain Manannán mac Lir who also had jurisdiction over the Isles of the Blessed and Mag Mell. Manannán’s wife was Fand, with whom Bax was to engage in later years with a magnificent description of her ‘Garden.’
The second movement, Lento solenne, of Bax’s Symphony No.1 can be heard on YouTube conducted by Bryden Thomson with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.