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ClassicsOnline Home » BAX: Symphony No. 6 / Into the Twilight
By Stephen Johnson
BBC Music Magazine
"...the Sixth Symphony: full of the kind of sumptuous orchestral fantasy that makes the best works so attractive, but with a sustained strength of purpose unlike any of the other symphonies. David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra balance those two crucial sides of this work better than in any other version I've heard... By keeping at least one hand on the reins, Lloyd-Jones makes a compelling case for Bax as a real symphonist V capable of dreaming without letting himself get fatally distracted."
Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 6 Into the Twilight Summer Music
A commemorative plaque graces the house in Streatham where Arnold Bax was born in 1883, but it is unlikely that he would now recognise this busy London suburb as being what was then a quiet parish in the county of Surrey. Although there was no long-standing musical tradition in the family, his paternal uncle, Ernest Belfort Bax, a well-known socialist philosopher, had studied music in his youth and had even published a rousing song entitled All for the Cause with words by his friend William Morris. According to his autobiography, Arnolds own first composition was a piano sonata written at the age of twelve while he was recovering from sunstroke (very fittingly my enemies might snarl, he quipped). Four years later he entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he soon gained a reputation as a phenomenal sight-reader at the piano but was overshadowed as a composer by several of his fellow students, though it is Baxs work that has proved the most enduring. The turning-point in his life came in 1902, when he discovered the Celtic world through the poetry of W. B. Yeats. He soon visited Ireland, where he enthusiastically explored its culture, history and landscape; he even learned to read Irish Gaelic with ease but shied away from using it in the presence of native speakers. His music, which for some years had been under the sway of Wagner, now assumed an Irish identity, and he began to write what he called figures of a definitely Celtic curve. Having no need to earn a living, he was able to spend months at a time in a small coastal village in Donegal imbibing the local atmosphere and pouring forth a stream of emotionally charged poetry and music.
It was here, in November 1907, that Bax completed a five-act play based on the story of the legendary Irish heroine Deirdre of the Sorrows. He had intended it as the libretto for an opera, and during the following months he made some sketches for the music before eventually abandoning the project. Reluctant to waste good ideas, however, he turned the operas prologue into an independent orchestral piece, which he called Into the Twilight after the poem of that title by Yeats. It was to be the first in a trilogy of symphonic pictures collectively entitled Éire, the other two being In the Faery Hills (1909) and Rosc-catha (1910), the latter also based on the Deirdre sketches. The manuscript of Into the Twilight is prefaced by Yeatss poem, and in a programme note for the works only performance during his lifetime (under Thomas Beecham in 1909) Bax wrote that it seeks to give a musical impression of the brooding quiet of the Western Mountains at the end of twilight, and to express something of the sense of timelessness and hypnotic dream which veils Ireland at such an hour. The opening theme was almost certainly intended to represent Deirdre herself in Baxs aborted opera, while the other main theme is borrowed from an earlier homage to Ireland, the orchestral poem Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan.
By the time Bax came to write Summer Music his reputation had grown considerably, due in part to a series of colourful tone-poems of which The Garden of Fand and Tintagel are the best known. The new work, which is scored for a small orchestra, was written in London during the spring of 1921 and revised for publication in 1932 with a dedication to Beecham. Bax originally called it Idyll but later decided that there were already too many pieces of English music with this title and opted instead for something more evocative. Ever laconic in describing his own music, Bax wrote in a programme note that The piece, a musical description of a hot windless June mid-day in some wooded place of Southern England, is lyrical throughout. During the greater part of it the strings are occupied in providing a murmurous accompaniment to the pastoral reveries of the various wind instruments, and not until near the end is there any great climax of sound. In a letter to the conductor Adrian Boult he confided: I am rather fond of this little bit of southern England under the sun and enjoyed revising the orchestration.
During the decade that separated the original version of Summer Music from its revision, Bax completed five of his seven symphonies and found himself acclaimed by a German critic as the head of the modern English school. The slow movement of the Sixth Symphony, and perhaps also the bulk of the first movement, had begun life as part of a Viola Sonata that Bax had started writing in 1933. He soon realised, however, that the material was more suited to orchestral treatment, and the symphony was completed in Morar, on the west coast of Scotland, on 10th February 1935. It was originally dedicated to the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, whom Bax had met in England, but his name is crossed through on the manuscript and replaced by that of Adrian Boult.
The first movement opens with a prelude in which a repeated figure in the bass provides the accompaniment to a march-like theme on horns and woodwind. The turbulent Allegro, which follows a series of grandiose chords, is based on the preceding material and eventually gives way to a slower section with a new theme played by three flutes in unison. The fast music resumes for a stormy development section, followed by a brief respite before the movement rushes on in a whirlwind to its emphatic ending, like the slamming of a door. The slow movement is founded on two contrasting ideas: an expressive melody first heard on strings, and then a soft trumpet theme with a Scotch snap, characteristic of Scottish folk-music. Development of this material culminates in two march-like sections, the first harsh and baleful, the second a calm, stately procession leading to the peaceful coda. The tripartite finale (Introduction, Scherzo and Trio, and Epilogue) is the only one among Baxs symphonies to open quietly. The solo clarinets sinuous melodic line, from which the movement grows, is repeated by the strings, now with accompanying harmonies, before the woodwind announce a new theme of a liturgical nature, very similar to the Sine Nomine melody in Vaughan Williamss later Fifth Symphony. At the end of the Introduction the pace gradually quickens, leading into the Scherzo, in which the opening material is now transformed into a kind of symphonic jig full of nervous energy. Contrast is provided by a slower section (the Trio), after which the Scherzo resumes its headlong course with an inflexibly rigid rhythm. A strikingly dramatic moment occurs with the horns braying furiously and the strings above them singing out a theme taken from Sibeliuss Tapiola, a work that had reduced Bax to tears when he first heard it. (The two composers admiration was mutual: in acknowledging the dedication of Baxs Fifth Symphony, Sibelius called him one of the great men of our time.) There is a tremendous climax, with the liturgical theme blared out triumphantly by the brass, and this leads to the peaceful Epilogue, in which the clarinets enigmatic opening music is transformed by the solo horn into something of exquisite beauty set against a backdrop of rippling harp and divided strings. The musical texture becomes gradually sparer and the movement fades slowly away, bringing to a close what some regard not only as Baxs symphonic masterpiece but as one of the finest symphonies from the twentieth century.
At fig. 13 in the second movement of the symphony the autograph and published score show 14 bars for tambourine. However, they are not given in the printed orchestral part, and as parts were, and still are, usually produced after the publication of the score, I believe that the omission represents a revision on Baxs part and have consequently not included them.
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BAX: Symphony No. 6 / Into the Twilight