Sunday, 20 July 2014

A Musician of the North (Arnold Bax) by Watson Lyle

The music critic and author Watson Lyle provided this short pen portrait of Arnold Bax. It was the result of an ‘interview’ with the composer at this North London house. The two men had been acquaintances for a number of years. The piece was published in The Bookman, February 1932. I have made a few minor editorial changes and provided a number of explanatory notes.

Bax was expecting me, and came downstairs himself to open the door of the tall house in a quiet road of the older part of Hampstead [1], where I recollect visiting him first quite ten years ago.
‘Remember your way up?’ he asked, in his terse yet kindly fashion, indicating the stairway to his studio. ‘Perfectly I answered, for remembrance of my surroundings began to function from the mental pigeon-holes of the past, and as I subsided among the cushions in the large easy chair to which he motioned me, the big, well-lit apartment seemed oddly familiar. There across one corner at the back of the room, was the tall, upright grand pianoforte; by the windows, papers, music MSS, and books in orderly array on tables; a similar evidence of work on the table in the centre of the floor where he now seated himself on a small chair. The many pictures on the walls, the comfortable furniture, the lived-in atmosphere of the place and the blazing fire – all seemed as of yesterday.
A place inducing intimate thought, and so perhaps a study rather than a studio.
Of course his congenial self helped towards the kindly atmosphere, for in the interval between my visits we had often met since we were both, willy-nilly, in the milieu of London musical life.
He smiled at me from his seat by the table. ‘Well?’ he asked, his pointed, freshly-coloured face, with plentiful humorous lines at the corners of the eye sockets, and curiously mobile, sensitive lips, an invitation to confidences, ‘what shall we talk about for The Bookman?’
I looked up at his clear blue eyes, twinkling, if ever eyes twinkled, electrically, as I pondered the opening to the conversation. Then I replied to his question with another: ‘I’ve been wondering on my way here what ideas are at the back of your new work for pianoforte and orchestra, Winter Legends, which I believe is to have its first performance in England at the BBC Symphony Concert in Queen’s Hall on February 10th?’ [2]
He looked at me quickly, his blue eyes serious, yet still lambent, ‘It is abstract music, of course.’ He spoke rather rapidly, in his decisive way, ‘and any ‘programme’ and ‘programme’ remember is a curious thing – any concrete ideas that may be in it of place or things are of the North – Northern Ireland, Northern Scotland, Northern Europe – in fact, the Celtic North.’
‘Something of the stark wildness of nature one finds reflected in your November Woods, [3] I expect.’
‘Possibly. The form is free; although the pianoforte has an important part, the work is in no way a pianoforte concerto, remember.’
‘A kind of fantasia for pianoforte and orchestra?  Is it continuous in performance?’
‘No; there are three separate movements,’
‘With some reference in the last to material from the first, as in the Epilogue in the last movement of your ‘cello sonata? [4]
He considered his reply. ‘No; I scarcely think that can be said to occur. But music often means something quite different to the composer from what it does to other people. The same work can have so many different interpretations, all more or less satisfying.’
‘Do you find that the form of a composition, and the colour – the harmonisation, the quality of the instrumental tone to be used –are suggested by the melody, or by cerebration over ideas of the work?’
‘Sometimes in one way, sometimes in another.’
He seemed to be voicing a meditation rather than talking to me, gazing right before him. Then with a return to his characteristic, swift animation he went on: ‘I have known practically the complete work to come to me at once.’ (Later, if I remember rightly, he alluded to his Northern Ballad for orchestra, [5] performed for the first time here at the Philharmonic concert on December 3rd, as a special example of this figuratively, mass inspiration. )
‘But usually the growth of a work is more gradual. One feels the colour in accordance with the character of the music, and so builds. In the case of a work for orchestra I do not feel the colour in terms of the pianoforte,’ he added, rising and beginning to walk about the room with just a hint of excitement in his voice as he continued speaking. ‘Indeed I find myself more and more thinking in terms of purely instrumental tone colour, and the orchestra, instead of chamber music, of which I do not think I will write any more.’ [6]
‘And songs?’
‘No, I shall not write any more songs,’ he said decisively. [7]
‘My thoughts seem to be wholly occupied with the orchestra.’ (One remembers the emotional bigness of his Third Symphony which aroused enthusiasm afresh last Prom. season. Also I thought, as he spoke, of an invitingly laid out fresh sheet of orchestral ruled music score paper I had noticed, as I sat sown, now lying on a table behind me. What was it destined to record?) [8]
But since there are some things that even an old friend may not ask an artist about his work I merely said: ‘I should think composers work out their ideas technically, employing the tone-colour they feel to be right, much as a writer chooses particular words because of their aptness to his purpose of the moment, and of their inherent suggestion to convey the exact import of what he has to say.’
‘Probably,’ he replied cautiously. I’ve rather enjoyed reading Neil Munro.’ [9]
As we walked the short distance to the tube station in a regular hurricane of rain, we talked of Northland, of the Highlands, particularly of the West.  A retreat of his in Ireland I do not know, but, by what he told me about it, it must surely be mirrored musically in the loveliness with which the slow movement of his ‘cello sonata begins.
The Bookman February 1932 p.268

[1] Probably 155 Fellows Road, Swiss Cottage, demolished in 1938.
[2] Concert held at the Queen’s Hall on 10 February 1932 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Works included John Ireland’s Symphonic Rhapsody ‘Mai Dun’ for orchestra dating from 1921, Beethoven’s King Stephen’s Overture and Brahms Violin Concerto. Harriet Cohen was the soloist in Bax’s Winter Legend.
[3] November Woods for orchestra c. 1914/17 First heard at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Hamilton Harty.
[4] Cello Sonata, dated 7 November 1923 and first heard at the Wigmore Hall played by Beatrice Harrison (cello) and Harriet Cohen (piano) on 26 February 1924.
[5] Bax wrote three Northern Ballads. The one referred to here is No.1 which was completed in short score on ‘Nov 1927.’ The performance that Watson Lyle alludes to was the London premiere, the work having been first heard in the St Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow on 14 November 1931 under Basil Cameron with the Scottish Orchestra.
[6] Clearly Bax did not really mean what he said about not writing any more chamber music. A number of works were to be composed in subsequent years including a Sonata for clarinet and piano, an Octet, the Legend Sonata for cello and piano and a Trio for piano, violin and cello.
[7] There were to be a few songs written between 1932 and his death.
[8] Possibly the rarely heard Sinfonietta for orchestra, the Cello Concerto or maybe one movement from the Fifth Symphony.
[9] Neil Munro (1864-1930) was a Scottish journalist and novelist. Author of many historical novels, but probably best remembered for his delightful portrayal of life aboard a puffer on the River Clyde, in his Para Handy Tales

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