Monday, 20 March 2017

Arnold Bax's Violin Sonata: a review by Felix White

I found this splendid (if a little quirky) study of Arnold Bax’s beautiful Violin Sonata No.1 in E (1910-1915, rev.1920/1945) in the Musical News and Herald, January 14 1922. Felix White (1884-1954) was a prolific composer of music in virtually every genre. His name is largely forgotten in 2107.

OF SONATAS, as of eggs, there are many kinds. There is the type in which the composer throws the ample Sonata-cloak over a body with badly nourished limbs on which the meagre flesh hangs but loosely, and its folds do not succeed in hiding the thin bones of what might have been - in better chosen circumstances - perhaps an effective Suite. Clearly a matter for counting every finger it has with your ribs! Then there is the variety where the time-honoured name of Sonata - sometimes used with a qualifying adjective - is retained, and yet no signs of its familiar pattern are discernible. There is the case, too, of the wearer whose normally light, airy step is sadly trammelled by the formal vesture, and is thereby transformed into an
awkward, shambling gait distressing to behold. Lastly, and also, alas! the most frequently met with are the well-meant, perfectly constructed works of MacIddenfifth [1] in every country.

Arnold Bax's first Sonata for Violin and Piano in E (dated March, 1915, and just published by Murdoch, Murdoch and Co.) [2] unmistakably belongs to none of these dismal-sounding types. The formal design is extremely clear and satisfying, while, at the same time, presenting none of those irritating musical sign-posts that often so unnecessarily proclaim to the discerning
listener ‘Look! this is the way we are going!’ A singularly happy instance of this avoidance of formal finger-posts is the manner in which the radiant outburst into E major on p. 14 [3] of this work is devised, at what is - after all - the recapitulation. The principal subject of the first movement - and, indeed, of the whole Sonata - is an ingratiating piano-phrase of, withal, quite modest contour that hovers delicately round the major third of the scale.
Within its two-bar confine is enclosed a concentrated power of emotional expression which I have no hesitation in declaring that few men, living or dead, could surpass.
Here it questions; there it pleads; here it affirms; there it denies. Everywhere an assured power of thematic metamorphosis is strongly evident, nowhere more amazingly so than where what the composer calls his ‘idyllic and serene’ first theme takes on a dancelike shape, and assumes then an air that irresistibly recalls some of those delightfully disreputable trollopy Irish tunes, such as ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, O,’ which Mr. Herbert Hughes [4] has rescued from oblivion.
The second theme is entrusted to the violin, and, in mood, is a little akin to the unforgettable beauty of that long ‘singing’ melody in ‘Dream in Exile,’ [5] which all lovers of Bax have by this time taken to their bosoms. With these two themes, with a little help from a subsidiary episode or two, the composer presents a most varied and attractive movement.
The following Allegro Vivace might well be deemed a Scherzo did not that word usually imply something light or playful in texture. Here - save for a brief while in the middle section - all is dark and menacing, moving along with a sense of furtive haste, which later culminates in a brilliant passage wherein the violin seems to reproduce the wild skirling of bagpipes on some wind-swept heath.

Close inspection of the treatment in certain places here, reveals a little of the influence of Max Reger (who, however turgid and cumbersome his other movements were, nearly always contrived an extremely good Scherzo - often caustically ironic, and sometimes gargoylishly grotesque). A rage appears to seize upon the composer here, and he would seem to exclaim, with the old Elizabethan poet [6]
‘Fly not sparkles from mine eye.
To show my indignation nigh? ...
Better a thousand lives it cost.
Than have brave anger spilt or lost.’

In the third - and last - movement, somewhat of a return is made to the mood of the opening of the work, inasmuch as it begins with yet another version of the initial melody. The general design, however, does not present so many vivid contrasts within itself as does the earlier movement, though beauty - sometimes of an exotic character - holds sway throughout. Two specially notable points may be singled out. One is the second subject, where every violinist who relishes a good tune on the G string will find this craving satisfied; and the other is some particularly subtle handling of piano-colour towards the end. The actual close, in its tranquil exultation, fittingly crowns a work- that will, I feel sure, gradually come to be recognised as one of the outstanding things in British music.
Herbert Spencer [7] was wont to complain that the reviewers of his books did their work by cutting the pages of them and then smelling the paper-knife. That my opinion expressed above is one not lightly arrived at - say, after an hour's run-through with that none-too-
reliant organ, the eye—will I hope be believed when 1 say that before writing this review 1 have played this Sonata through some half-dozen times with a violinist friend, and have heard it twice in public. It is worthy of note that an unusual phenomenon at these two recent public performances was the manner in which members of the audience during the interval were
audibly humming" over the haunting principal theme of the work, for their own private delectation.
A good tribute, this, to the composer's power of invention!
It remains to be added that Messrs. Murdoch have issued the work in a format which reflects great credit on all concerned, though there is a bar left out in the violin part, in the first movement, which will occasion much hesitation and scratching of polls till it is put right.
Felix White. Musical News and Herald, January 14 1922.

[1] ‘MacIddenfifth’ is clearly Felix White’s ‘type’ for a pedantic professor of music, who knows how to keep to all the rules, but does not know how to break them.
[2] Arnold Bax’s Sonata of Violin No.1 in E has a complicated history. Michael Cookson on MusicWeb International (7 February 2007) gives a succinct account of the work’s genesis as part of his review of the Naxos recording of the work: ‘On the first disc is the three movement Violin Sonata No.1 in E major that Bax composed between 1910-15 and revised in 1920 and in 1945. It is documented that the Sonata No.1 was inspired by the composer’s infatuation with a Ukrainian girl named Natalia Skarginska. Bax must have been dissatisfied with the second and third movements of the score as Winifred Smith and Myra Hess only performed the first movement at the Steinway Hall, London in 1914. In 1915 Bax wrote new second and third movements. Bax on piano together with violinists Paul Kochanski and Bessie Rawlins performed revised versions of the 1915 score in London but we are not told about the first performance of the 1945 version that is recorded here [Naxos] in a slightly cut form.’ The earliest traced first performance of this last revision was given by Erich Gruenberg (violin) and John McCabe (piano) at The Maltings, Snape on 17 November 1989 at a recording session for Chandos. (Parlett, Catalogue, 1999)
Clearly, Felix White is talking about the 1920 version of this Sonata in his essay.
[3] I think Felix White meant ‘page 12’ of the score. This is where the piano plays ‘Joyous and exuberant’.
[4] Herbert Hughes (1882-1937) was a well-regarded Irish composer, collector of Irish folksongs and music critic.
[5] ‘Dream in Exile,’ was composed during February 1916. It a carried two titles before the present one was settled on: Capriccio and Intermezzo. The work was dedicated ‘affectionately’ to the Tobias Matthay, who was Arnold’s Bax’s first piano teacher. It has been interpreted as ‘a dream of youth’ or a ‘dream of Ireland.’
[6] The quotation is traditionally ascribed to the collaborative Jacobean playwrights, Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625).  The text is from the drama, The Nice Valour reputedly written by the two men between 1615 and 1625. Scholarship suggests that it may have been written by Thomas Middleton (1580-1627).
[7] Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist and classical Liberal political theorist. Perhaps his literary style was perceived by some as being a little turgid.

Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano:
(1) 1920 version: Henry Holst (violin), Frank Merrick (piano). Concert Artist LP: LPA 1099 (m); Revolution LP: RCB 20; Concert Artist/Fidelio TC: ATL-TC-5005; Concert Artist CD: CACD 9022-2 (m)
(2) 1945 version: Erich Gruenberg (violin), John McCabe (piano). Chandos TC: ABTD 1462; CD: CHAN 8845.
(3) 1945 version: Robert Gibbs (violin), Mary Mei-Loc Wu (piano). ASV CD: DCA 1127. 
(4) 1945 version and second and third movements from the 1910 version: Laurence Jackson (violin), Ashley Wass (piano). Naxos CD: 8.557540. (With thanks to the Arnold Bax Website)


Paul Brownsey said...

John, this is off-topic entirely, but I don't see another way of contacting you.

Can I persuade you to do a piece on Samuel Wesley's wonderful Confitebor? My choral soc did it a few years ago. If someone had tried to persuade me it was Mozart or late Haydn in full flight, I'd have believed themm (though possibly someone with greater musical knowledge would have differentiated...): a 70-minute piece full of terrific choral movements and spectacular solos.



John France said...

I will investigate this Paul. But never heard it. I guess it is not recorded...nor is there a score does make it a wee bit difficult!

Perhaps if I saw the programme notes for the performance??