Friday, 18 August 2017

Arnold Bax: A Fine Chamber Music Concert in Edinburgh, December 1932.

I found this review of a concert of Arnold Bax’s music presented at Edinburgh University on Thursday 15 December 1932. It was printed in The Scotsman the following day.
It is a concert I should have liked to attend, as it features three of my favourite Bax chamber works. These were clearly chosen to reflect a wide range of Bax’s achievement, but, as the review states, all have a Celtic feel to them. It is surely rare enough to have a recital devoted to the music of just one (living) composer in any age. A subsequent post will examine a follow up article about Bax and his symphonies, also published in The Scotsman.

‘Musical art does not stand still, and if public opinion lags somewhat behind, it also advances, although, no doubt, at a slower rate. It is not so many years since there were many to be found of a conservative turn of mind, who denounced the playing of Debussy’ music as an insult to the public. Today, Debussy is accepted as a matter of course.
Between the advent of a composer of ‘advanced’ ideas or methods, and his more or less general acceptance by the public, however, there is much spade-work to be done, and it is for such useful work that an organisation of the type of the Contemporary Music Society exists.
This Society, which has been formed within the last few months, made its first public appearance last night, in the University Music class-room, with a programme devoted to the music of Mr Arnold Bax.
The composer of ‘The Garden of Fand’ [1] is scarcely to be regarded as a musician still waiting for that recognition which is his due. Except for the ‘Garden of Fand’ music, which was given at an orchestral concert a few years ago [2], Mr Bax 's compositions are as yet little known in Edinburgh, and last night's concert, in which Mr Bax himself took part, afforded a welcome opportunity of hearing some of the work of one of the most remarkable composers of today.

The programme began with the third Sonata for violin and piano, [3] played by Mr Edward Dennis replacing Miss Bessie Spence at short notice, and Mr Erik Chisholm [4]. Miss Mona Benson gave attractive renderings of a group of three songs, ‘Cradle Song’, ‘Rann of Exile’, and ‘Rann of Wandering,’ [5] with Mr Chisholm at the piano; Miss Margaret Ludwig and Mr Bax played the ‘Legend’ for viola and piano [6], and Miss Ruth Waddell and Mr Bax played the Sonata for violoncello and piano [7]. In view of the unfamiliarity of all the music, attention turned principally to its general characteristics. Throughout, there is a strong suggestion of Celtic folksong. Mr Bax has pronounced Irish sympathies, and there was little of last night's thematic material which had not much of the character of Irish folk-music. It would perhaps be not altogether fanciful, too, to trace a resemblance between Celtic design and the elaborate ornamentation of Mr Bax's music. The Sonata for violin and piano was well played, but with rather a hard tone from both violin and piano, and suffered proportionately in its effect. It contains some beautiful writing, however, particularly in the first movement. The ‘Legend’ proved a charming work. Miss Ludwig has been very successful in seizing the rather elusive beauty of the tone of the viola, which, if well played, has a very poetic quality; while Mr Bax proved an admirable pianist. The Sonata for violoncello and piano also contained much that was attractive. It was an unusual and very interesting concert.’
The Scotsman - Friday 16 December 1932

[1] The symphonic poem The Garden of Fand was composed in 1916. It received its first performance in Chicago on 29 October 1920, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock. The British premiere was at the Kingsway Hall, London on 11 December 1920 with Adrian Boult conducting the British Symphony Orchestra.
[2] The Edinburgh performance of Bax’s The Garden of Fand was on the 20th December 1926 at the Usher Hall. The Scottish Orchestra was conducted by Václav Talich.
[3] The Sonata No.3 for violin and piano was composed in 1927. It was first performed by its dedicatee the Hungarian Emil Telmányi (1892-1988), violin and Arnold Bax, piano, at the Arts Theatre Club on 4 February 1929.
[4] Erik Chisholm was born in the Cathcart suburb of Glasgow on 4 January 1904. Apparently, he was a kind of ‘wunderkind’ who was composing music before he could read and was also writing poems and ‘novels’ whilst still in junior school. He studied with Herbert Walton, the erstwhile organist at Glasgow Cathedral and Lev Pouishnoff and then at the Scottish Academy of Music between 1918 and 1920. After this, he toured the United States and Canada before returning to Edinburgh and studying under the great Sir Donald Tovey. He received his Doctorate of Music from Edinburgh in 1934. During this time, he was also the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society which gave under his direction several first British performances, including Mozart’s Idomeneo, Berlioz’s The Trojans (still remembered by the older generation when I was a young man in the early 1970s in Glasgow), Dvořák's Jakobin and William Beattie Moonies’ Weird of Colbar. Chisholm did seem to have a penchant for setting up groups and societies – but these were all means to an end for his enthusiasm for new music. He founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1929; this was followed by the Barony Opera Society in 1936. During the Second World War, he was the conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was a director of ENSA in South East Asia. After the war Chisholm was appointed as Director of the South African College of Music at Cape Town. Once again, he was instrumental in promoting both new music and opera and set up the University Opera Company and the University Opera School. Erik Chisholm died in Cape Town on 8 June 1965, aged only 60 years.
[5] Three Irish Songs, 1922: ‘Cradle Song’, ‘Rann of Exile’ and ‘Rann of Wandering’ to texts by Irish poet Padraic Colum (1881-1972). The word ‘Rann’ means ‘quatrain’, ‘stanza’ or ‘verse’. The earliest traced performance was given by Eleanor Charter (soprano) and Arnold Bax (piano) at the Liberty Buildings, School Lane, Kingston upon Thames on 5 November 1926.
[6] The Legend for viola and piano was dedicated to the American musical patron and socialite Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was completed during July 1929. The Legend was first performed at the Aeolian Hall, London on 7 December 1929 by Lionel Tertis (viola) and Arnold Bax (piano).
[7] Arnold Bax’s Sonata for cello and piano was completed on 7 November 1923. It was dedicated to the cellist Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965), who along with pianist Harriet Cohen, gave the first performance at London’s Wigmore Hall on 26 February 1924. 
With thanks to Graham Parlett, for information derived from his magisterial A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax, Oxford University Press, 1999.

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