Friday, 22 July 2016

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

The second instalment of Hubert J. Foss's article on Bax from The Dominant, Dember 1927:

This is, of course, a mere defect of Bax's quality of fluency, and one that seems -from the symphony, the harp and viola sonata, and the second quartet—to be lessening with maturity. But the same defect is present elsewhere—in ' I heard a piper piping’ no less than in the chamber works. I am not always convinced by the extended recitative passages in Bax, by the opening of the oboe quintet, for example, as well as the second movement, and in places in the other works. They indicate a looseness of direct thought which is easily pandered to with so fertile an imagination by means of sounds.
This same looseness of thought and its helpful but dangerous colleague—that most engaging musical imagination—come into reference again when the form of Bax's works is considered. All these works are planned upon a big scale; they have space inherent in them, and display a largeness of idea and a sense of dramatic values that are in themselves important.

But there comes a typical moment at the end of the long exposition of the piano quintet when one instinctively utters: 'Can he keep up to this level?'; and the answer is: 'He almost does '. It is partly that the composer has said so much, but partly that one knows his resources lie rather in fluency than in power. After this there is indeed much left to hear with intense feelings; there are the quieter passages, there are passages of strength, there is emotional fullness; but there is no really big moment. The repetition in varied forms (with extreme ingenuity) of the thematic material does not, somehow, carry one through; the harmony intensifies, but the structure does not help; the notes themselves become more full of passion, but the great moment is past. One longs for the simplicity of the first statement, just as in the oboe quintet for some quiet, wise utterance from the oboe to replace its antic lyricism, and to solve the problems set by this too subtle mind.

I have mentioned before the first movement of the quartet—its opening magnificent, its end a disappointment. Compare in this connexion the fugal passage in the last movement of the same work. This is a moment where, with such a subject, the strictest fugue (even if not carried to a close) could have done nothing but produce the climax which one lacked with the present lapse. Instead we are led to a sombre passage on the lower strings (lento), which, however welcome as a new mood, is but a substitute for what we were expecting.

This mood is often to be found in Bax's works—in the quintet (first movement), quartet (last movement), and oboe quintet (second movement) as well as in the symphony[1], in the form of a chorale. I do not quite understand it; musically, it has a 'churchy' effect, and is at the same time negative, sombre, and harmonically sober. It always seems to me to be Bax at his most ineffective, and yet in use it often succeeds, if it does not always.

After such comments upon a thesis, it would be ungracious not to offer proof on the positive side in favour of Bax's quieter moods and their great beauty. My notes are full of them; they are to be found in every work, particularly at the endings, when his musical thought seems to be transfigured, and his invention is taken up with endless harmonic and contrapuntal variations upon homely chords. They preside over the most beautiful of his songs and shorter works (' Youth' and 'Across the Door')[2]. They are the backbone of his works, for which all the rest of the music is acting a foil.
My conclusion at the end of the concert, borne out by study of the scores—was that the quartet was the finest of the four works, and with the symphony, perhaps his best work of all. It has immense skill, a really magnificent opening, a lovely second movement, and a fine ending. In it comes some, if not quite enough, of the hardness of structural purpose that I find lacking in Bax. For all the quintet's splendour, I find the second quartet the more satisfying.
Hubert J. Foss The Dominant December 1927.

[1] At the time of writing, only the First of Bax’s Seven Symphonies had been performed. The early Symphony in F remained in short score. It has now been orchestrated by Martin Yates and issued on Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7308).
[2] ‘Youth’ was a setting of a poem by Bax’s brother, Clifford. It was made in 1918. ‘Across the Door’ was the fourth song in the cycle Five Irish Songs (1921). The words of this song were by Padraic Colum.

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