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ClassicsOnline Home » BAX: Symphony No. 4 / Nympholept
By Ian Lace
By James Jolly
By John Puccio
Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Overture to a Picaresque Comedy Nympholept Symphony No. 4 in E flat major
The son of cultured and well-to-do English parents, Arnold Bax was born in Streatham but spent much of his childhood in Hampstead, where the family later settled, taught at home by a private tutor and strongly influenced by the cultured and comfortable environment in which he found himself. His early interest in music persuaded his father, a barrister, to allow him to enter the Royal Academy of Music in London at the age of seventeen. There he became a piano pupil of Tobias Matthay, while studying composition under the Wagnerian Frederick Corder.
In 1902 Bax came across the poem The Wanderings of Usheen (Oisin), by the Irish poet W.B.Yeats, and discovered in himself a strong Celtic identity, although racially descended from a family long established in East Anglia. He and his brother, the writer Clifford Bax, made their first visit to Ireland and were captivated. Here they established themselves for a time, associating with leading figures in Irish cultural life, while Bax himself won a reputation as a poet and writer, assuming, for this literary purpose, the name Dermot OByrne and studying Irish legend and the old Irish language. A visit to Russia with a Ukrainian girl that he had met in London and her Italian friend introduced a further influence to his cultural formation. While his pursuit of the Ukrainian girl came to nothing, he was able to absorb something of the spirit of Russian music, secular and sacred, and was dazzled by the glories of the Imperial Ballet, as he was to be by Dyagilevs Ballets russes on his return to London. His return also brought marriage to the daughter of the then distinguished Spanish pianist Carlos Sobrino and the present of a house from his father. Bax, however, could not settle in London. Before long the couple had rented a house in Ireland, and then returned to England, living in various places, but eventually separating, thereby allowing Bax to pursue his own musical and amorous adventures in a measure of freedom.
In many ways it must seem that the 1920s brought Bax his period of greatest success. He was prolific in his creativity and his works were widely performed. With the end of his marriage, he was able to continue his close association with the pianist Harriet Cohen, although this did not preclude other relationships. He wrote a quantity of piano music for Harriet Cohen, including a piano concerto for the left hand after the injury in 1948 that made use of her right hand for a time impossible. The 1930s brought public honours and at the end of the decade appointment as Master of the Kings Musick, although his gifts did not lend themselves easily to the composition of occasional celebratory works, as the position seemed to demand. The changes in musical style and taste left Bax to some extent alienated from the world in which he found himself. Composition continued, however, including a Coronation March in 1952 for the accession of the new monarch. He died, as he might have wished, in Ireland, while staying with his friend, the German-born Irish composer Aloys Fleischman in Cork, the place he loved best.
Bax wrote his Overture to a Picaresque Comedy in 1930 while staying with the young Mary Gleaves, whom he had first met in 1926 and on whom he relied increasingly over the years, although their relationship remained apparently unknown to Harriet Cohen until after the death of Baxs estranged wife in 1947. Following his custom at the time, he travelled with her to the west coast of Scotland to Morar in the autumn of 1930 and it was there that he wrote the new Overture and worked on his Fourth Symphony. He dedicated the former work to Sir Hamilton Harty, who gave the first performance, with the Hallé Orchestra, in Manchester in November 1931, introducing it to London audiences the following February. Described by Harriet Cohen as a pastiche and written, seemingly, in response to a challenge to write a work in the style of Richard Strauss, the Overture is scored for a large orchestra, splendidly deployed in the depiction of some English Eulenspiegel and his adventures. The ingredients include a comic-heroic theme for bass clarinet, bassoon and tuba, a Sancho Panza answering the lively opening with the strings. There are touches of the romantic and the rumbustious, before a section predominantly for strings, marked Molto moderato and interrupted briefly by a snatch of a Baron Ochs waltz that is to return as the eventful history nears its conclusion.
Nympholept had its origin in the summer of 1912 as a poem for piano, dedicated to Tobias Matthay. On the autograph of the work Bax wrote: The tale telleth how one walking at Summer-dawn in haunted woods was beguiled by the nymphs, and, meshed in their shining and perilous dances was rapt away for ever into the sunlight life of the wild-wood. Bax orchestrated the work in 1915, dedicating it to Constant Lambert and adding the superscription: Enter these enchanted woods / You who dare, a quotation that he explains as taken from Merediths The Woods of Westermain, adding that the title is taken from Swinburne (see Lewis Foreman: Bax, A Composer and His Times, 1983, an authoritative study of the composer). The Greek word, of which the title is an English version, means caught by nymphs and hence frenzied or enraptured. Paganism of this kind is reflected in Mallarmé and Debussys Prélude à laprès-midi dun faune or in Ravels contemporary evocation of the ancient world. The mood is that of the later Spring Fire and of The Happy Forest. Nympholept had its first concert performance in 1961, like Spring Fire remaining unplayed in Baxs lifetime. Scored for a large orchestra, handled with the greatest skill, the evocative music mounts to a climax of rhapsodic intensity, before subsiding into the gently lyrical mood of the opening.
Bax dedicated his Fourth Symphony to Paul Corder, son and pupil of Frederick Corder and a member of the Bax circle. The work was completed at Morar in February 1931 and was first performed a year later in San Francisco by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Basil Cameron. The composer claimed the sea as his inspiration, at high tide in the sunshine, explaining the symphony as an evocation of nature. Scored for triple woodwind, six horns, three trumpets and trombones, tenor and bass tuba, percussion, harp, celesta, organ and strings, the symphony starts with a strongly marked theme, underpinned by a bottom E flat from the double basses, bassoons and double bassoon and organ 16-foot pedal. The sea surges forward and back again in rapider figuration, leading to a third characteristic element with a Scottish flavour, material that is developed before the appearance of an oboe melody, accompanied by clarinets, followed by a flute melody, accompanied by woodwind and four solo cellos, the second subject group. The development of these ideas includes a lilting Allegretto semplice before the original mood is re-established. The slow movement, as Lewis Foreman has pointed out, contains motivic references and reminiscences of the 1918 piano Romance, written for Harriet Cohen, but now presumably associated with Mary Gleaves. The long-drawn out melody of the E major slow movement is introduced by the woodwind, bringing a further evocation of the sea, still and then mounting in power, with moments that seem again to suggest Scotland and the west coast. The final Allegro bursts into the final serenity of the slow movement, its stirring Stravinskyan opening giving way to a march and the sound of distant trumpets. There is a moving relaxation of tension in a passage for woodwind and solo violin, the oboe melody taken up then by the cellos and by the first violins. An Allegro scherzando leads to a flute solo gently reminding us of Scotland before a final triumphal march that brings the preceding ideas together in conclusion.
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BAX: Symphony No. 4 / Nympholept