Thursday, 9 January 2014

Arnold Bax: Magician by Yorke Bannard,

This short article was published in The Musical Standard October 13, 1917. It was written at a time when Arnold Bax was beginning to establish a reputation for himself. However it was before the composer had declared himself as a symphonist. The article needs little commentary, however I have provided a handful of footnotes.  I have also provided new musical examples.

Arnold Bax is a front bencher in our English Musical Constitution. In that Constitution he represents the Celtic West. He is to our music what W. B. Yeats is to our literature.
There are two elements at work in Bax- the classic and the Celtic. The former is seen in an honest love of fact, scholarship, fidelity to Nature; the latter stands revealed in love of colour, emotion, sentiment, quickness of perception, a pressing onward towards the impalpable, the ideal. The classic stream and the Celtic current met in his person; skill and scholarship are carried away into the mysterious atmosphere of Celtic mythology. Nearly all his orchestral works, as he himself states, are ‘based upon aspects and moods of external nature and their relation to human emotion’ [1]-the very essence of Celtism.
Bax's quick feeling for what is noble and distinguished, his abhorrence of the commonplace, gives his music style -not an acquired manner or mannerism, not a conscious eccentricity, but a full pressure of personal force. There is life behind it, the life of the mind. His personality gives it passion. His sensibility, his soul, gives it fairy charm and magic. Youthfulness is on his side, not the youthfulness of immaturity, but the youthfulness of a spirit that has strengthened itself in the joy of the earth and all its immeasurable liberations. No mere journeyman, he breaks away from the bondage of existing formulae. His music breathes freedom. There is space in it, and height, and depth.  It contains within it the sense of enlargement and enfranchisement and' 'escape.
Bax was born in 1883. In 1900 he entered the R.A.M. where for five years he worked at composition under that distinguished professor-Frederick Corder. As early as 1903 [2] he made his debut as a composer. Since that date a ‘Celtic Song Cycle,’ an orchestral work, Spring Fire, a Piano Quintet, a most exquisite orchestral poem, ‘The Garden of Fand’, and many other works of rare merit have fallen from his prolific pen.
Amongst pianists his popularity is largely assured by four solos [3]- ‘In a Vodka. Shop,’ ‘The Princess's Rose Garden,’ ‘Sleepy Head’ and ‘Apple-blossom time,’ These four pianistic productions reveal Bax at his best. ‘In a Vodka Shop’ breaks away from the old ideas of rhythmic outline; its time signature is free, containing sometimes six, generally seven, and rarely eight crotchets to the bar. A coarse roughness is intended throughout, as seen in the following quotation, fairly representative of the whole.
This element of unhewn bareness and rude simplicity gains in strength and character by being sandwiched between passages of lighter and more delicate texture, There is a certain recklessness of speed and movement throughout it, but everything is safe and so its general effectiveness is delightfully fresh and stimulating.
There is natural magic about the second number-‘The Princess's Rose Garden.’ The spirit and ecstasy of the movement are captured and ‘photographed’ in a wonderfully near and vivid way. Magic is the one word for it- the magic of Nature; not mere realism so typical of the German school, nor a laboured beauty of Nature so much in evidence in much of modern French creative art; but the intimate life of Nature, her weird power and captivating charm. It is large in idea and in treatment, full of big beautiful melody, growing from elaborate details which conveys the richly coloured blooms of a soft June landscape; while overall hangs a veil of mystery and melancholy, suggesting that the latter pages in the book of summer have been reached and that the season of death and decay is fast approaching. ,
A soft twilight pervades ‘Sleepy-head.’ There is just light enough to make the trees magic and the pavements shine like silver, and darkness enough to make shadows velvety, purple, and full of errant fancies. In the language of the Lotos-eaters [4]:
‘There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass…
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.’

Here are the opening bars:-

"Apple-blossom-time" is interesting, playful, very direct, in short, almost choppy phrases, with a quiet section for variety set in the middle. There is, perhaps, something crude in its vigour; but tenderness there is too, deep and lovely, as at the end where the music dies down after the exuberant climax of the central section:

These four pieces should be far more widely played than they are. All advanced pianists should know them. As studies of modern art they are of extreme value; as pieces of music they are magnificent.
[1] This quotation seems to be derived from the earliest article published about Arnold Bax in the Monthly Musical Record 1 November 1915.
[2] Bax’s first composition was ‘Butterflies all White’ for voice and piano, composed in 1896.
[3] The four piano pieces discussed were composed as follows: ‘In a Vodka Shop’ (Jan 22nd 1915) dedicated ‘To Tania’ –Harriet Cohen. Although the printed score is inscribed ‘To Miss Myra Hess.’ It was subsequently orchestrated in 1919 as a part of the 'Russian Suite'.  ‘The Princess’s Rose Garden’ was dated Jan 9th -13th 1915 on the manuscript.  It was dedicated 'To Tania'.  ‘Sleepy Head’ was the only piece that Bax dedicated to his wife, Elsita. It was written c.1915 (May 24th 1915 on the printed score)  'Apple-Blossom Time' was dedicated to the composer/artist S.H. Braithwaite. The printed score carries the date May 1915.
[4] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Song of the Lotos-eaters’, 1833.

These four piano pieces can be heard performed by a variety of pianists. Perhaps, Ashely Wass on Naxos is a good place to begin exploration. They are on Naxos 8.557439 and 8.557769  

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