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ClassicsOnline Home » BAX: Symphonic Poems
Arnold Bax composed several symphonic poems during the second and third decades of the 20th century, when he was at the peak of his creative powers. The most popular and famous of these is Tintagel, a vivid, opulent depiction of ‘the castle crowned cliff of Tintagel, and more especially, of the long distances of the Atlantic, as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall’. November Woods is both a vivid depiction of a dank and stormy Buckinghamshire wood in late autumn as well as a reflection of the composer’s own troubled experiences of the period. Evocative of the wild landscapes in Norway and the West of Scotland, The Tale the Pine Trees Knew culminates in a magical evocation of Celtic mists.
By John J. Puccio
Arnold Bax (1883–1953)
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 O’Byrne 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 Dyagilev’s 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 ventures in a measure of freedom. His prolific career reached its creative height in the years up to 1930, the period in which the present tone-poems were written. He was later appointed Master of the King’s Music, a position illsuited to his talents and temperament, which nevertheless allowed the composition of a Coronation March in 1952. He died while staying in Ireland the following year.
Tintagel owed much to Bax’s relationship with the young pianist Harriet Cohen. In the late summer of 1917 they had spent a few weeks on holiday in Cornwall at Tintagel. The resulting tone-poem, dedicated to her, was to become the most popular of all Bax’s compositions. For a performance in Leeds in 1922 Bax provided a programme note, in which he declared his intention as ‘simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff of … Tintagel, and more especially of the long distances of the Atlantic, as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny, but not windless, summer day.’ He had in mind, too, the legendary associations of the ruined castle, the stories of King Arthur and King Mark, of Tristan and Isolde. The first theme in the brass seems to represent the castle, while the following string melody suggests the expanse of the ocean. In a more turbulent section the historical events associated with Tintagel are reflected, leading to a climax in the tumult of the sea, which subsides, leaving the castle ‘still proudly fronting the sun and wind of centuries’.
An earlier work, The Garden of Fand was completed in 1916, described by Bax as the last of his Irish works. In his introduction to the published score he explains that the garden of Fand is the sea. The picture at first is of a calm sea, over which a small ship sails into the sunset, to be tossed by a wave onto the shore of Fand’s miraculous island. There the voyagers are caught up in the endless revelry of the place. Fand sings her song of love, enchaining the hearts of her hearers for ever: there is dancing and feasting, and then the sea rises, to overwhelm the island, leaving the immortals to ride on the waves, laughing at the mortals drowned in the depths of the ocean. Twilight falls, the sea grows calm again and Fand’s garden is seen no more. The story of Fand is part of the saga of Cuchulain, the great hero of Irish legend.
The tone-poem The Happy Forest was finished in short score in May 1914. Bax orchestrated the work in 1921, dedicating it to the conductor and composer Eugene Goossens, who conducted the first performance in London in July 1923. Described in its title as Nature Poem, the work has a literary source in a prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon, a contribution to the quarterly Orpheus, edited by Clifford Bax. The Farjeons were neighbours and friends of the Baxes in Hampstead and Herbert Farjeon won a considerable reputation as a drama critic and as a writer of revue sketches. Here, however, he provided a pastoral scene that almost suggests the world evoked by Mallarmé and Debussy. The writer is lying in woodland, surrounded by wild flowers, observing a clearing where, at noon, two shepherds compete in their verse, one with another, in praise of their beloved, a scene recalling the classical eclogues or bucolics of Virgil or Theocritus. A third shepherd appears, awarding one of the contenders the victor’s garland and playing his pipe. A satyr, perhaps Pan himself, appears, dancing and leading the shepherds, joined by one figure after another, until the procession dances away into the distance. Herbert Farjeon’s prose-poem is quoted in full in the authoritative study of Bax by Lewis Foreman.
Bax completed The Tale the Pine Trees Knew towards the end of 1931 and the work is a reflection of the composer’s association with Scotland. In his own programme note on the work he writes that he had been ‘thinking of two landscapes dominated by the pine trees - Norway and the West of Scotland - thinking, too, of the Norse sagas and of the wild traditional legends of the Highland Celt’, but continues to disclaim any intention at direct programme or narrative. The main theme is given to the brass, after the scurrying strings have suggested something of the wind sighing through the trees. There is a slower central section before a build-up to the return of the principal theme, leading to the final tranquillity of a violin solo, as the Celtic mists gather once more.
The evocative November Woods was completed in 1917. Bax insisted that the work was not to be taken as a mere depiction of a wood in the Chilterns in late autumn, dank and stormy, but rather as a reflection of his own troubled experiences of the period, with the second theme suggesting a feeling of happier days in the past. The main theme forms the substance of the first part of the tone-poem, its varied textures leading to a second theme, after the curious rattle of dry sticks from the cellos, briefly marking the passage that, with its oboe melody, immediately precedes this Andante con moto. Here there is a melody for cor anglais, bassoon and viola, coloured by the sounds of the celesta and mounting to a climax of feeling. A solo violin is heard, followed by four violins and then by eight, in a variegated texture that continues to suggest the changing weather of a winter scene, as the wind blows, bringing the stillness of icy cold. There are broad elements of tripartite sonata-form in the structure of the work, with the return of the earlier material, in changed instrumentation, leading to a gentle conclusion, as the sound of the bass clarinet fades away to nothing.
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BAX: Symphonic Poems