Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Piano Pieces of Arnold Bax: Katharine E. Eggar Part !

Katharine Emily Eggar was born in London on 5 January 1874. She studied piano in Berlin, Brussels and London and composition at the Royal Academy of Music with Frederick Corder. In 1911, along with Marion Scott and Gertrude Eaton, she was a founder member of The Society of Women Musicians.
Eggar had a great interest in the works of Shakespeare and maintained the theory that the plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, Lord Oxford.   She wrote a considerable amount of musical criticism, much of it concentrating on British works.
Her compositions were mainly for chamber ensemble and piano solo, but also include a number of songs.  Katharine Eggar died in London on 15 August 1961.
‘The Piano Pieces of Arnold Bax’ was published in The Music Student, Volume XIV, November 1921. The essay is largely self-explanatory, however I have provided a few endnotes. I have made a few minor edits to the text.

The work of Arnold Bax [(1883-1953)] claims the attention of all who wish to keep in touch with the best in modern British music. His name is probably as familiar to our readers as that of any other of our important composers; but although so much of his work for the piano is in print and therefore readily accessible, the complexity of its thought and idiom prevents its being as well-known as it should be.
He has written two Sonatas[1] for the pianoforte. The first, in F [# major], was composed some ten years ago, revised four years ago and is now in the press. The other, in G [major], a recent work, was lately given its first performance by Miss Harriet Cohen.[2] These exceedingly difficult larger works lie outside the scope of this article, which will concern itself with the shorter pieces. There are about 20 of these latter, and most of them come within the practical politics of the ordinary pianist's repertory.
Roughly speaking, the pieces fall into two categories—the dreamy and the alert. Dreamy and delicate in fancy are ‘The Maiden with the Daffodil’, ‘May Night in the Ukraine’, ‘Nereid’, ‘Apple-Blossom-Time’, ‘The Princess's Rose Garden’, ‘A Hill Tune’, ‘A Mountain Mood’ and the ‘Lullaby’ [‘Dream in Exile’ and Sleepy-Head]. Alert and vigorous, on the other hand, are the ‘Toccata’, the ‘Burlesque’, ‘In a Vodka Shop’, ‘Gopak’, ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘Whirligig’.[3]

But however delicate and elusive the play of fancy, there is no uncertainty of touch in the workmanship; nor, however vigorous the handling, does one ever feel that a theme has been ‘brutalisé’ in the treatment. Beauty always matters to this composer - beauty, not of a superficial kind, but essential in his whole approach to music. He does not lay rough hands on it as if determining to shake the secrets out of it, and players who treat his compositions in a violent spirit will miss all their charm.
One sometimes hears Arnold Bax spoken of as “obscure” and “diffuse.” To condemn a work as obscure is sometimes a convenient way of absolving the accuser from lack of perception; and certainly the more familiar one becomes with these piano pieces the more one realises the underlying simplicity and the clearness of mind which has controlled the intricacies of their expression. Nearly all the ‘dreamy’ pieces are composed on very simple diatonic themes which are made to carry a wealth of delicate ornamentation, and though it is only natural that on a first hearing, the ear, and on a first reading, the eye, should fail to disentangle the melodic line from the accompaniment figures, a little loving attention will soon reveal the graceful proportions.

1910 and 1920.
The accusation of diffuseness is certainly not justified in the later piano pieces, but we will allow it in the case of the earliest, the ‘Nocturne, May Night in the Ukraine’, dated 1910 (No. 1 of Two Russian Tone-Pictures), which should be compared with one of the latest, the ‘Lullaby’, dated 1920. The composer himself may never have been conscious of any connection between these two, but to the student they form a curiously interesting example of evolution of style. Both are nocturnal in description, although probably widely divergent in mood of inspiration. Both are in the key of A, with the time signature 2/4, both have a simple theme embroidered, and in the left hand the first two bars of each piece are almost identical. But the difference in treatment is remarkable. Cheap this composer could never be, but in comparison with the reticence and subtlety of the ‘Lullaby’, the florid ornamentation of the ‘Nocturne’ is almost garrulous.
The ‘Dream in Exile’[4], an early work, is another which is open to the charge of excessive length, but in every other case the ideas are very concisely presented.

Music Fresh and Dainty.
Of the five Pieces dated 1915, perhaps the best known is ‘The Maiden with the Daffodil’, which it is interesting to contrast with Debussy's Flaxen-haired Maiden.[5]   The title[6], like most of Bax's, is discreetly chosen to suggest a mood rather than to give a programme, and by the words of direction, ''fresh and innocent…playful and capricious…bright…” which occur from time to time, the player's mind is attuned to express qualities which are the gracious attributes of music as well as of maidens and flowers. This piece is one of the most clear in sonority, a good many passages being for one hand alone, and it needs great spontaneity and freshness of rendering. 
‘Apple-Blossom-Time’ is a little piece full of moods and is considered by the composer to be, with ‘The Princess's Rose Garden’, the most difficult of his works to interpret. The opening Allegretto is marked ‘fresh and rhythmical’ and has a mazurka-like lilt (though without the slightest atmosphere of the ballroom—its suggestions are all of the fresh air). The ‘gay and playful’ portion which follows has a tripping (7/4) measure, and when the first theme returns, ‘exuberant,’ it showers light notes from itself. Then it gradually becomes ‘more serious,’ and at last, with falling petals, drifts ‘slow and sad’ into extinction.
‘Sleepy-head’ is in ‘slow and drowsy’ mood, and the softly shifting, drifting harmonies give the feeling of the faint sounds and flitting thoughts and fancies which come and go around one in the half-conscious moments of a delicious sleepiness. However, as the composer himself considers this piece not really suitable for the pianoforte, on account of the impossibility of making the melody carry as it should at the very slow tempo, pianists may relegate it to the wind-player, for whom, it is to be hoped, it will shortly be arranged.
‘The Princess's Rose Garden’ is another drowsy, languorous piece of music, soft all through, save for a broad and passionate few bars and one or two momentary crescendos. The immense number of accidentals, as well as a very complicated texture, make it very difficult to read.
To be continued in the next post...

[1] In fact, Bax wrote a number of Sonatas for piano, including works that are lost or incomplete. At the time of writing, Eggar would have certainly known the Sonata No.1 in F# major (1910, rev.1917-21) and the Sonata No.2 in G major (1919, rev. 1920).
[2] Harriet Cohen gave the first performance at the Queen’s Hall, London on 15 June 1920.  The original version was premiered by Arthur Alexander at the Aeolian Hall on 24 November 1919.
[3] ‘The Maiden with the Daffodil’ (1915), ‘May Night in the Ukraine’ (1912), ‘Nereid’ (1916), ‘Apple-Blossom-Time’ (1915), ‘The Princess's Rose Garden’ (1915), ‘A Hill Tune’ (1920), ‘A Mountain Mood’ (1915). ‘Lullaby’ (1920) and ‘Sleepy-Head’ (1915).  Alert and vigorous, on the other hand, are the ‘Toccata’ (1913), the ‘Burlesque’ (1920), ‘In a Vodka Shop’ (1915), ‘Gopak’ (1912), ‘Mediterranean’ (1920) and ‘Whirligig’ (1919). Interestingly, Eggar does omit a number of pieces that had been published including, but not limited to, ‘Winter Waters’ (1915), ‘On a May Evening’, (1918) and ‘What the minstrel told us’ (1919).
[4] ‘Dream in Exile’ was composed during February 1916 the year after many of the piano works discussed.
[5] Refers to Claude Debussy (1862-1918) ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ from the first book of Preludes for piano composed between 1909-10. It is often translated as ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.’
[6] Actually the inspiration for this work was seeing Harriet Cohen at a party wearing a daffodil in her dress. The piece was premiered by Myra Hess on 24 March 1915 at the Aeolian Hall.

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