Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) Mater Ora Filium

Arnold Bax did not compose a great deal of music for unaccompanied chorus, yet the few works he did write are invariably well produced and effective for both singers and audiences alike. A brief study of Graham Parlett’s essential Catalogue reveals six works that could be classified as being for unaccompanied chorus.

The earliest of these is the present ‘Mater Ora Filium’ (Mother pray for thy Son) from 1921. The following year saw the desolate ‘This Worldes Joie’ written to a 14th century text. The short ‘carol’ entitled ‘The Boar’s Head’ was composed in 1923 for, and dedicated to, the Blackpool Festival Committee.  Out of interest, this event was won by the Warrington Male Choral Union –still going strong under a different name. The same year saw the straightforward working of ‘I sing of a maiden.’
Nearly twenty years elapsed until the 1942 settings of Five Greek Folksongs – which Bax himself regarded as being based on ‘...very quaint and rather barbaric tunes…’
Virtually the last composed work by Arnold Bax was the part-song What is it like to be young and fair?’  This was a setting of words by the composer’s brother Clifford. It was performed as part of the Garland for the Queen as an event at the Coronation Celebrations during 1953.

Bax contributed little music for use in the church: there is a Magnificat, and a Nunc Dimitis. The present work could be given happily at a Christmastide recital or a choral concert in one of our great cathedrals. This is not to suggest that Bax was anti-Christian, yet he certainly did not relate to the ritual and ceremonial of the Roman or Anglican Churches. In fact, he had had a non-conformist childhood.  It is better to suggest that Bax’s piety was found in other directions than conventional religion.  It could be that his spiritual temperament was more in tune with the Celtic Twilight as exemplified by W.B. Yeats.

Colin Scott-Sutherland quotes a personal reminiscence by Charles Kennedy Scott – ‘His [Bax’s] unaccompanied motet for double choir, ‘Mater Ora Filium’ came later when I had the satisfaction of performing it with the Oriana [Choir] at Messrs Murdoch’s concert of recent works of Arnold [Bax] at [the] Queens Hall in November 1922. I have no doubt that this and Arnold’s other motets can be associated with what Arnold heard the Oriana do at the Balfour concerts ten years earlier…’

Yet despite Kennedy Scott claiming his choir to be the stimulation for ‘Mater Ora Filium’, the immediate inspiration for this work was found at a performance by the Tudor Singers of the William Byrd’s Five Part Mass. Bax heard this work at one of Harriet Cohen’s soirees at Wyndham Place. This great liturgical setting made a huge impression on Bax; he thought it more significant than the music of J.S. Bach himself. Bax was attracted by this ‘spiritual, ornate and emotionally austere’ music.

It could be argued agued that ‘Mater Ora Filium’ is imbued with the spirit of the Elizabethan age, yet it would be unfair to suggest any kind of pastiche or archaism.  The work is a fine example of Bax’s contrapuntal technique – although use of this ‘technical’ word is in danger of giving the impression that this work has an academic nature. ‘Mater Ora Filium’ is scored for unaccompanied double chorus with a short solo for tenor. Even a superficial hearing reveals extremely difficult part writing that makes strong demands on the singers. There is timelessness about this setting that seems to make influences and musical allusions unnecessary. It is a truly lovely anthem of devotion to Our Lady and her Son.
Interestingly, a similarity of theme has been identified between the ‘Alleluias’ of ‘Mater Ora Filium’ and the tone poems Nympholet and November Woods.
It was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 13th November 1922 by the Oriana Choir conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott.

There are several recordings of this motet available. Graham Parlett (Arnold Bax Website, Discography, February 2017) has listed a baker’s dozen of recordings. I recommend The Carice Singers conducted by George Parris on NAXOS 8.573695.  

With thanks to the English Music Festival, where this programme note was first published. I have made a few minor editorial changes. 

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