Tuesday, 19 July 2016

‘Some Chamber Music by Arnold Bax’, by Hubert J. Foss: Part I

Hubert James Foss was born in Croydon on 2 May 1899. He was a composer, pianist, music editor, educationalist, author and composer. Foss was educated in classics at Bradfield College, Berkshire. At the age of 20 he was assistant editor of the wartime journal Land and Water.  In 1924 he became musical editor at Oxford University Press, and founded their music department.  Foss died in London on 27 May 1953.  In 1933 he published Music in my Time which is still important to music historians examining music from the first third of the 20th century. He is best remembered for his Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Study (1950) which was the first book-length analysis of the composer’s life and music.

Almost exactly five years ago, an orchestral concert[1] was given to indicate the range of Arnold Bax's talents; on October 20 last, a chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall demonstrated his achievement in chamber music.[2]
The length and variety of these two solitary exhibitions have been their special value. They have enabled musicians to stop and make a sudden critical survey of Bax's music; to wonder, could any other English composer produce an equal accumulation of effect? This prolific and varied talent not only survives, but even needs, such an ordeal as this for displaying itself; so that these concerts have helped to establish Bax as a big composer. He is not yet fully recognized as a big composer; though some of his works have been performed on the continent (at Prague, Salzburg, Berlin, and Paris chiefly), and at Cleveland, Ohio, one may say he is virtually unknown outside Great Britain, and even here there is a tendency still to regard Bax as a promising young man and not as a real composer. With such a catalogue of works at 44, and one of such a quality, his magnitude must surely be accepted; and any criticism of him must be founded upon this base.
[Only such an assumption, therefore, permits one to examine—without any attempt at assessing finally an imagination which has not yet reached its fullest powers—certain characteristics in the four works of Bax recently heard in London—the quintets for piano and strings and for oboe and strings, the sonata for viola and harp, and the second string quartet.
I should add that his chamber works number, besides these four and many smaller works, two piano sonatas, two violin and piano sonatas, a quartet and quintet for strings, a quintet for strings and harp, two trios for violin, viola, and piano and flute, viola, and harp respectively, a phantasy and a sonata for viola and piano, a sonata for 'cello and piano, and 'Moy Mell' for two pianos (four hands), all of which, as well as the choral and orchestral works, are integral to a consideration of the whole Bax!] (Originally a footnote in the article)

Bax's sheer ability to compose music is phenomenal; his invention of sounds never ceases. One wonders, vaguely, as one has wondered of Reger, whether there could in the future be another Bax: whether, mathematically, music could stand it. But Bax writes sounds where Reger often writes notes. The thousand and one musicians who so seriously toy with composition might well despair at the score of, say, the second quartet. But it is not a mere collection of counterpoints, a charming interlaced pattern printed upon a leaf.
It is a map of effects in sound, planned only by intimate knowledge and imagination. The music in Bax is so essentially on the instruments, and the paper notation nothing but a skilfully used aid to the players—an order of procedure not common enough among composers. Compare in this connexion the opening of the second movement of the quartet, or the lovely end to the first movement of the oboe quintet, the last movement of which shows Bax's capability in a clearer texture than he usually contrives. There are times, of course, when the mere music pleases one more than its presence at a particular juncture; one of these, I think is the ending of the second string quartet’s first movement. The E major statement of the second theme (itself not quite convincing to me) leads so suddenly to an exquisite twenty bars of coda, where the first subject, of which we had hoped great things, dwindles to a slightly acid reminiscence in a passage of exquisite sounds.
The Fantasy-Sonata for viola and harp is, technically the highest achievement I have met of Bax’s musical invention. It is extraordinary that with this limited combination he could have devised sounds that are always interesting for so long a time. Even on a first hearing, one could recognize the superb musical thought for the instruments employed, the beautiful writing for them, if one would not dare come to a final aesthetic judgement about the work as a whole. As a technical feat at least this work is remarkable.
In this ability of Bax’s to fit his musical thought to the instruments, to pin it on to them as it were, does one find a trace of the failure of his musical individuality? His mastery of the physical capabilities as well as the characteristics of the various ‘sound producers’ is obvious; and it is as right as it is inevitable that these distinctive characters should affect his musical ideas as they are born in him. But I feel that sometimes the sounds are too much for him, as if they had escaped beyond this proper limit. He produces a complicated texture for the string quartet with as much apparent ease as the organist a single chant, and it seems to me that his very talent leads him sometimes away, not only in matters of form, but also in the quality of the musical thought itself.
The sounds may be more appropriate to the instruments, that is to say, than they are to the final effect of the work; most of all perhaps in the oboe quintet.
So much good and new music from these works passes through one's mind during performance and a study of the scores that one tries, at the end of it all, to decide what one has really liked best without reference to any earlier feelings one may have had about other works of Bax. Always I find myself saying: 'What a moment!' or 'How beautiful! 'about the quieter, more veiled, more softly romantic passages—about that superb entrance on the piano of the second subject proper in the piano quintet, for example. Whatever this may tell of the reagent, it must also, and I firmly believe does, tell something of the cause of the reaction, too.

It is not misleading to speak thus precisely of a certain mood in Bax's music, for his themes and tunes wear their hearts upon their sleeves. The meaning of a particular work may be obscure and its moods elusive and remote, but, in external characteristics, the musical ideas in it are well, almost excessively defined. In sharpest contrast to this softer music comes the music always spoken of by annotators as 'rough', and in preferring the former I am not forgetting such fine things as 'Beg-Innish',[3] or the emphasis of the oboe at the end of the quintet, or the magnificent opening of the quartet—the finest passage at the concert perhaps. There remain those times when Bax. speaks rhetorically, as in the opening theme of the quintet, and others when the piano bangs and the oboe brays because we are all, as it were, going to be violent now—by way of contrast.
There are the sul ponticello and martellato[4] passages, the heavy chords on the strings and the elaborate passage work—fortissimo—when the effect seems perhaps a little unreal and flimsy in comparison with the effort—a feeling never present in me in the moments of lyrical harmony or reminiscence, however complicated in texture.
Hubert J. Foss The Dominant December 1927.
Continued in next post...

[1] The concert of Arnold Bax’s orchestral works was organised by his publisher, Murdoch, Murdoch and Co., London and was held on 13 November 1922 at the Queen’s Hall. It featured The Goossens Orchestra and its conductor, Eugene Goossens, the Oriana Madrigal Society under Charles Kennedy Scott, Harriet Cohen, piano, Lionel Tertis, viola, and John Coates, tenor. The concert opened with the tone-poem, The Garden of Fand. Songs were sung by John Coates and accompanied by Bax: they included ‘The Market Girl’, ‘I heard a Piper Piping’ and ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’. Harriet Cohen gave a performance of the Piano Sonata No.2 in G major in the first half, after the interval she played the piano character pieces ‘Lullaby’, ‘Hill Tune’ and ‘Burlesque.’ The Sonata was followed by ‘Mater Ora Filium’ for unaccompanied double choir. The next work was the Phantasy for viola and orchestra, which is effectively Bax’s ‘Viola Concerto.’
In the second half Coates sang the Four Traditional Songs of France. The Oriana Singers presented two carols, ‘Of a Rose I sing’ and ‘Now is the time of Christymas’. The second half of this marathon concert closed with the orchestral transcription of the piano piece, Mediterranean. An exhausting evening!
[2]  The Arnold Bax [Chamber] Concert held at the Wigmore Hall on 20 October 1927 included four major chamber works. The String Quartet No.2, the Fantasy-Sonata for harp and viola, the Oboe Quintet and the Pianoforte Quintet.  The players were Maria Korchinska, Leon Goossens, Harriet Cohen and the Virtuoso Quartet (Marjorie Hayward, violin; Edwin Virgo, second violin; Raymond Jeremy, viola and Cedric Sharpe, cello.  The String Quartet No.2 was completed at Glencolmcille, County Donegal, on 18 December 1924. It had been premiered by the New Philharmonic Quartet at the Grotrian Hall (formerly the Steinway Hall) on 15 March 1927.  The Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp was dated ‘April 1927.’ It is dedicated ‘To Madame Maria Korchinska.’ It was first heard at the Grotrian Hall on 10 June 1927. Raymond Jeremy was accompanied by the dedicatee. The Quintet for oboe, 2 violins, viola and cello was completed at the end of 1922. It was dedicated to Leon Goossens.  The first performance was at the Hyde Park Hotel on 11 May 1924, with Goossens and the Kutcher Quartet. The final work played at this long concert was the early Piano Quintet composed between June 1914 and April 1915. It was dedicated to Edwin Evans. The premiere was a private performance on 19 December 1917 at the Savoy Hotel. Harriet Cohen was the pianist along with the English String Quartet, which included the composer Frank Bridge (viola).
[3] ‘Beg-Innish’ was the fifth song in the cycle of Five Irish Songs (1921). The text was written by J.M. Synge.
[4] The terms sul ponticello and martellato mean ‘play near the bridge’’ and ‘hammered’ respectively.

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