Thursday, 24 August 2017

Arnold Bax: A belated review of Robin H. Hull’s Handbook on Arnold Bax's Symphonies,

A few days ago, I posted a review of a concert of Arnold Bax’s chamber music given at the University of Edinburgh. This was a wide-ranging survey of music, albeit with a distinctly Celtic mood. Thirteen days later, an article appeared in The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s daily newspaper, which was effectively a delayed review of Robert H. Hull’s study of the first four of Bax’s Symphonies. Despite its date, this booklet is still of immense importance to Bax enthusiasts.  I include a few notes after the review.

‘The recent appearance in Edinburgh of Mr. Arnold Bax, at a concert devoted to his own compositions, imparts an additional interest for local readers to a Handbook on Arnold Bax's Symphonies, by Robert H. Hull (2s. net; London: Murdoch), which has just been published [1]. Mr Bax has written four Symphonies, the first of which is dated 1922, while the fourth was begun in October 1930, and was completed in February 1931:
There is a Scottish interest attached to the Fourth Symphony, in that it was written during a winter stay in Inverness-shire. [2] It may be recalled that its first performance in Britain (it had already been heard at San Francisco in March of this year) - took place in London, at a Courtauld-Sargent concert, just a little over three weeks ago. [3]
Of the composers who may to-day be styled ‘modern’, Mr Bax displays perhaps the most powerful individuality. ‘Modern’ music has all, in a greater or less degree, the quality of improvisation. It is fluid, elastic, and with patterns which have no mechanical regularity. The music of Mr Bax possesses all these characteristics; its development takes unexpected turns, and its ornamentation is luxuriant. But the composer is always the master of his improvisation never its servant, and while his design is not formal, in the classical sense, it moves forward, despite all its decorative exuberance, towards a definite and logical conclusion. There is less of the decorative element, no doubt, in the Symphonies than in the composer's other works.
When he wrote his first Symphony, he had already some sixteen years of work as a composer behind him, for the Trio for Violin, Viola, and Violoncello dates from 1906. The character of the First Symphony, Mr Hull describes as 'relentless, often despairingly grim, and dominated by a single idea of paramount austerity,’ although there are glimpses of ‘the distant peace towards which the composer is striving but which, until Symphony No.3, he never permanently obtains.’
In the second Symphony, a growing mastery of a more direct utterance is reflected in ‘a much more exacting process of refinement and compression.’ The third Symphony is ‘a singularly gracious work, easy to accept,’ while the fourth Symphony, criticism, has described as displaying precision of form attained without sacrifice of free improvisation, or richness of orchestral colouring.
Mr Hull has followed his scores very closely, and his practice of referring the reader to the pages and bars from which his musical illustrations have been taken is one which is to be commended’.
The Scotsman - Thursday 29 December 1932

[1] It seems that the author of this piece was a little behind the times. As noted below Hull’s booklet was published four years prior to this review.
Hull, Robert H., A Handbook of Arnold Bax’s Symphonies (Murdoch, Murdoch & Co., London 1932).  The price 2/- is equivalent to 10p, which would be about £7.50 at today’s prices.
It should be noted that this monograph covers only symphonies 1-4. Two years later, Hull addressed Symphony No.5 in the Monthly Musical Record (January 1934). In 1942 Hull submitted a lengthy article to Music & Letters (April 1942) which was ‘An Approach to Bax’s Symphonies’. This majored on all seven-canonical works. Later, scholarly endeavour has brought the unnumbered Symphony in F (1907, realised Martin Yates) to the public’s attention.
At the time of the writing of this review (December 1932) although Bax’s Symphony No.5 had been written, it was not premiered until 13 January 1934.
[2] The Symphony No.4 had indeed been worked on in at the Station Hotel, Morar, Inverness-shire as well as Glencolumcille in Donegal, Ireland. Graham Parlett points out that Bax told Graham Whelen that the work was ‘composed in London and Morar.’ 
[3] Arnold Bax’s Symphony No.4 was first performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Basil Cameron at the Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, on 16 March 1932. It was not heard in the United Kingdom until 5 December when it was given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent. The venue was the Queen’s Hall as part of the series of the Courtauld-Sargent concerts. Unusually for a ‘modern’ work it was repeated the following day and on the 9 December. 


Mathias Richter said...

I suppose Mr Hull errs with Bax's 1906 Trio. According to Graham Parlett's catalogue, Bax did not write a string trio. (Nice prospect, anyway!) The 1906 Trio was written for piano, violin and viola (or clarinet).

John France said...

Thanks for that! I should have clocked this fact...