Sunday, 7 August 2016

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

The Composer's Opinion.
‘Nereid’ is less formidable to tackle, but at the same time highly characteristic of the composer. It is, as he remarked to the present writer, “nothing but tone-colour - changing effects of tone,” and for that especial reason it is worthy of very careful study by the pianist who wishes to gain an insight into the modern treatment of his instrument. It will reveal to him much of the possibilities of the piano as a musical palette, in contradistinction to its too-familiar function as a physical gymnasium; and it will also give him a true impression of this particular composer's cast of musical thought.
The two other pieces that may be specially commended to players for the same reasons as the ‘Nereid’ are ‘A Hill Tune’ and ‘A Mountain Mood’. They are both composed on quite simple melodies of what we now consider folk-tune character, and they are wrought with rare skill and unfailing beauty.

‘Poking’ versus ‘Floating.’
All of the foregoing require a sensitive ear, much musical imagination, a beautiful touch, considerable variety of tone and complete command of the pedals for their rendering. Brilliance and endurance are not called for to any great extent. A preliminary note to ‘The Princess's Rose Garden’ may be taken as the general clue to the composer's intentions. It runs as follows: ‘This piece must be played as simply as the elaborateness of its detail will allow. No harmonic points should be [made] emphasized, and the accompaniment figures generally should be kept wholly subservient to the melodic line.’ Mr. Bax explains that he put this note because "when people see a peculiar combination of notes they poke it out—whereas, the whole thing ought to float. There should be no shock of arrival at any particular harmony. You don't hear crashes of harmonic points with a string quartet - the harmonies dissolve. So they should in this piano music."

The ‘Alert’ Pieces.
Let us now consider the pieces belonging to the other category. ‘In a Vodka Shop’ is a great contrast to any which have been mentioned. "Coarse and rough” is the indication for its rendering, and coarsely and roughly (but musically) it plunges into noisy tramplings of chords for an introductory six bars in seven-beat rhythm. With the seventh bar comes the melodic theme which is the core of the piece, and its rhythmical variety was something very "new" and uncommon in British music in 1915, the year of its publication. The numbers of crotchets in the bars constantly change from seven to eight and to six, the figure being indicated over the bar in question. To those of us who have not been in a vodka shop, the impetuous, stamping music recalls moments on the stage when the Russian Ballet gave us national characteristic dances; and on the last two pages the inconsequent way in which, after portentously dragging out the originally brisk theme, the two hands pursue each other uncertainly up the keyboard and then execute a pas de deux which is a grotesque likeness of previous passages, suggests irresistibly the effect upon deportment which one would expect to result from a little too much indulgence in the national drink.
The ‘Toccata’, as its name implies, is a showy piece demanding a great deal of endurance and executive readiness, although a certain amount of respite in the last page allows the player to recover enough freshness to make the ending thoroughly brilliant. The amusing ‘Whirligig’ is a ‘study’ in disguise, which requires strenuous practice for its mastery, but presents few subtleties of interpretation. The well-known ‘Gopak’ Mr. Bax considers not very characteristic (of himself), and ‘not really a Gopak’ [No.2 of Two Russian Tone-Pictures] although he admits that it makes a jolly Russian piece. ‘Mediterranean’, too, is ‘not really’ Spanish and Italian music, but a recollection of the racial types of those seaboards [1]. The ‘Burlesque’, as indeed any of these lively pieces, must be played with great spirit and humour, and the overcoming of their technical difficulties must never be allowed to rob them of their gaiety.

The Sight Reader and His Difficulties.
A good many people seem to be so pre-occupied with the ‘difficulty’ of Mr. Bax's music that they never win through to its real musical significance. This is an attitude which makes a composer a little impatient, for if a musician has given what is to him the natural and simple and sincere expression of his own clear thought, it is difficult for him to realise that other people may be puzzled or confused by it.
In preparing this article, the writer and Mr. Bax talked over this matter of ‘difficulty’ at some length, and he admitted that our method of notation does make the reading of highly chromatic pieces very confusing, “although,” as he had to add with a sly smile, “I myself can't remember ever having had any difficulty in reading anything.”
“But few people,” I protested, “have what is practically the fairy-gift that you possess. What do you advise the ordinary pianist or teacher to do, so that your music may not remain a more or less sealed book to them?”
He thought a moment, and then said: "Let them take a course of reading the Wagner piano scores - preferably not the simplified vocal scores with the inner parts taken out, but the piano reductions of the whole thing. There they will find the contrapuntal basis of harmony exemplified, and that, I think, is what bothers them in my music. My harmonies come about as the result of contrapuntal movement. It's no use thinking in up and down blocks of harmony if you're trying to read my things: each part must be taken as a melodic line. But, after all, there's nothing new in saying this. These people surely don't think, for instance, of Bach in up and down blocks of harmony. They think in the lines of the parts."
"Ah!" I said, "There you put your finger on the weak spot. It never occurs to 'these people’ to think of connecting your music with Bach's. Because you are 'modern' you are put in a watertight compartment."
He looked amused. ''Oh well, if they're going to take 'modern' music as a thing apart, without seeing the links by which it is joined to the past, there's not much hope for them. And if they're going to expect to find modern music without chromatics - if they stop short at the Classics—or if they expect it to be like Chopin, shall we say?"
A gesture filled in the gap, and then he added: “Why, what do they make of French writers? Of Mr. Ravel? Of Florent Schmitt? [2] If they ever do try to know anything of them. (But some pianists, you know . . .  well  . . . Of course vocalists are worse…But that's beside the point). John Ireland, now: do they find his music difficult? It can't be just mine that floors them?”
“No" I said, “it merely happens that yours is the case in point. It is typical of all that (by them) undiscovered country which lies on the other side of all undefined frontier. Those who cannot see it clearly, wonder if it is the Promised Land, or only a portion of The Wilderness. It is strange, but I really believe that, with the best will in the world, actual musical training can be an obstruction in the way of coming into contact with modern thought and inspiration. Education should, of course, give an open mind and make the trained person more receptive than the untrained; but in our own mysterious art, it really seems as if knowledge could be a barrier to further knowledge."
“Yes," he said. "The prejudices of learning are hard to overcome, and the result of that is that music is helped on to new positions by the sensitive amateur who listens without preconceived objections."
The Music Student Katharine E. Eggar November 1921 pp 65-67

[1] ‘Mediterranean’ was composed after a visit to Mallorca with Bax’s brother, Clifford, Gustav Holst and Balfour Gardiner. It is really a ‘postcard’ rather than a meditation on ‘racial types’. It has been compared to Maurice Ravel’s ‘Alborada del gracioso.’
[2] The French composer Florent Schmidt (1870-1958), wrote three symphonies, much chamber music and a number of piano pieces. His music has largely fallen into obscurity, although in recent years a considerable number of his compositions have been committed to CD. His music is eclectic, deriving his inspiration from ‘whatever took his fancy.’ 

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