The music of Sir Arnold Bax this weekend – a performance from May 1967 by The BBC Northern Symphony conducted by Maurice Handford. It was part of a series dedicated to neglected British Composers of the 20th century, of which Bax was certainly one.
Sir Arnold Edward Trevor Bax KCVO (8 November 1883 – 3 October 1953) was an English composer, poet, and author. His prolific output includes songs, choral music, chamber pieces, and solo piano works, but he is best known for his orchestral music. In addition to a series of symphonic poems he wrote seven symphonies and was for a time widely regarded as the leading British symphonist.
Between 1910 and 1920 Bax wrote a large amount of music, including the symphonic poem Tintagel, his best-known work. During this period he formed a lifelong association with the pianist Harriet Cohen – at first an affair, then a friendship, and always a close professional relationship. In the 1920s he began the series of seven symphonies which form the heart of his orchestral output. In 1942 Bax was appointed Master of the King’s Music, but composed little in that capacity. In his last years he found his music regarded as old-fashioned, and after his death it was generally neglected. From the 1960s onwards, mainly through a growing number of commercial recordings, his music was gradually rediscovered, although little of it is heard with any frequency in the concert hall.
In his later years Bax’s music fell into neglect. Sir John Barbirolli wrote, “I think he felt keenly that his richly wrought and masterly scores were no longer ‘fashionable’ to-day, but nothing could deter him from the path of complete honesty and sincerity in his musical thought.” The neglect became more complete after the composer’s death. He had always sustained a Romantic outlook, distancing himself from musical modernism and especially Arnold Schoenberg’s serialism, of which Bax wrote in 1951:
“I believe that there is little probability that the twelve-note scale will ever produce anything more than morbid or entirely cerebral growths. It might deal successfully with neuroses of various kinds, but I cannot imagine it associated with any healthy and happy concept such as young love or the coming of spring.”
Neither Bax’s views nor his works were fashionable in the two decades after his death. The critic Michael Kennedy writes that the mid-1950s were a time of “immense change and transition in influential musical circles.” The music favored by the cultural establishment until then was regarded as having made Britain musically parochial and indifferent to the developments of the past half-century. In Kennedy’s words, “Rubbra, Bax and Ireland found themselves out in the cold”.
Foreman comments that in the years after Bax’s death his reputation was kept alive by a single work – Tintagel. Kennedy estimates that it took “twenty painful years” before the music of the British romantics including Bax made headway against the dominance of modernism. Foreman dates the revival of Bax’s music to Handley’s performances of the Fourth Symphony and other works with the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1960s, and the pioneering recordings by Lyrita Recorded Edition of five of the symphonies. Scholarly consideration of Bax’s life and music came with studies by Colin Scott-Sutherland (1973) and Foreman (1983). Bax’s centenary in 1983 was marked by twenty programs on BBC Radio 3, covering a wide range of the composer’s music. In 1985 the Sir Arnold Bax Trust was established to promote the composer’s work including the sponsoring of live performances and recording and publication of his music and writings. Since then a large number of Bax’s works, major and minor, have been recorded. The proliferation of Bax recordings has not been matched by a revival in his fortunes in the concert hall; the critic Stephen Moss observed in The Guardian in 2007, “Bax is considered the promotional kiss of death.” In 1999 the Oxford University Press published a complete catalogue of Bax’s works compiled and annotated by Graham Parlett; Lionel Pike, writing in Music & Letters, called it “a benchmark for any future researchers seeking to compile a catalogue of a composer’s works”.
In case you aren’t familiar, here is a BBC Radio production of his Fifth Symphony as broadcast in 1967. The recording is a little rough in spots – dodgy FM reception coupled with tape drop outs from age make things a little annoying in parts. But hopefully the music itself will be enough to warrant some further investigation.