Arnold Bax

1883 1953

Arnold Bax



Arnold Bax’s music comes from a world of fantasy, folk tales, sagas and passion. He had an interesting life that brought him in direct contact with cultures other than the one he was brought up in and this had a strong effect on his musical composition. His legacy consists of a large body of work in most forms except for opera. He is particularly renowned for his tone poems such as Tintagel, The Garden of Fand and November Woods. Coming from an upper class English family, Bax had the financial means to pursue his interests, studying at the Royal Academy of Music, becoming a notable composer and poet, travelling to places that interested him and having many memorable encounters and expressing himself through his music and poetry.  Delving into the poetry of W.B. Yeats stirred up creativity in him. He developed an affinity with Ireland after visiting and he became well known as an author and playwright under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne. He was a contemporary of Berg, Bartók, Kodály, Stravinsky and Webern. In contrast to these composers, Bax’s style is romantic. He described himself as ‘a brazen Romantic’ and a ‘tireless hunter of dreams’, which aptly describes his spiritual energy. He pursued inspiration in a very individual way. The melting pot of Romantic and Celtic traits made him something of a dreamer and a visionary.

Bax made his first trip to Ireland at the age of nineteen with his brother Clifford. While Clifford, an artist, was more interested in the intellectual and artistic circles of Dublin, Arnold Bax made his way to the sparsely populated counties of Sligo, Donegal and Clare, where the mystical images of legends and history were turned into reality for him. He took time to learn the Irish language and to write in the ancient script. He enjoyed the strange old ways, the sympathetic atmosphere and the poetic, colourful speech of the people. He made friends with the peasant people in the villages and found a particular affinity with the village of Glencolumbkill in county Donegal, and made regular visits there over the next few years.

A certain duality existed in Bax’s life. He used the name Dermot O’Byrne while he was in Ireland, and had his writings published under this name. It was an identity that personified his love for all things Irish and seemed to be a way of concealing his real self – Arnold Bax the wealthy British composer.  He was at the same time a Master of the Queen’s Music and an honorary Irishman, two very conflicting statures, remembering that in these years, Ireland was not yet a republic and was still experiencing hardships in the vigorous campaign for independence from Britain, which did not happen until 1922.

This sense of duality or conflict in Bax that seems to give him the need for an alter-ego, can be seen in his musical style, according to his biographer Lewis Foreman:“It is expressed in key (vagueness of tonality and an aggressive assertion of a fundamental diatonicism); in rhythm (a loose web of sound which crystallises into a steady beat); in register (where high and low registers in instrument colour are juxtaposed) and in texture (where a deliberate cloudiness of sound is penetrated by the incisive thrusts of some powerful upsurge that illuminates the canvas like a shaft of light.)”

In his music, poetry and prose, Bax makes a strong mystical link with the sea. The sea held a strange fascination for him. It can be seen very clearly in his tone poemsTintagel and The Garden of Fand, as well as in his piano piece Winter Waters and in his Clarinet Sonata in D major. In Tintagel, named after the stunning location in Cornwall, England, (a place that also possesses Celtic folklore and its own strikingly beautiful identity) he gives us a very vigorous portrait of the Atlantic Ocean, juxtaposing slow- and fast-moving ostinatos in both complimentary and contrasting colours. Wagner, Debussy, Delius and Bax were all drawn to the sea for inspiration. In this tone poem, Bax quotes Wagner at one point, in a wailing chromatic figure towards the end, vaguely reminiscent ofTristan und Isolde. It is a tonal impression of the cliff-top castle, seen on a sunny but windy day. The horn parts are particularly important in the piece, in giving a sense of physical elation.

Bax’ style looks towards the past, yet it is unique and very personal. He is completely in awe of past composers, particularly Wagner and Liszt, the enchantment of folklore and poetry, but he is at the same time very much aware of the developments of the time. One must not be under the impression that Bax was naïve or uninformed about his German or Austrian contemporaries - in fact, he made strong statements against this modernism. Bax referred to modernist works such asSchoenberg’s Perrot Lunaire (1912) or Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) as ‘manifestations of neurosis in art’. He would never have taken on a modernist tendency because expressing emotions was fundamental to him. His music came from the soul and was loaded with powerful passion.

Arnold Bax was neither a founding father nor a successful entrepreneur, neither a piano solo sensation for a renowned professor. He was simply a composer, a romantic, an adventurer, and a deep thinker, for whom following ones heart was of the utmost importance. His highly personal style comes from the way in which he developed as a composer and as a human being, without letting himself be infiltrated by the trends of the day. On one hand, one cannot ignore the lack of radical innovation in his work but on the other hand, this very same composer lacking in innovation brings us strikingly beautiful music, of profound character and technical brilliance.

Above: Bax with his long-term love interest, the renowned pianist Harriet Cohen

Bax’s Clarinet Sonata in D major comes from the 20th century but falls into the category of late Romantic. In the Romanic era, clarinet had been increasingly popular with composers and was even favoured over oboe in the orchestral works ofBrahms, Berlioz and Wagner. The sonata was premiered by the clarinettist Frederick Thurston of theBBC Symphony Orchestra <>and the pianist Harriet Cohen, a renowned pianist in her day, to whom Bartók <> dedicated his Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms (1939) and with whom Bax had a long-lasting love affair.

Bax wrote many chamber pieces, such as Trio in One Movement op. 4 for violin, viola (or clarinet) and piano. Bax dedicated the piece to a friend of his from the Royal Academy of music, AJ Rowan-Hamilton, with whom he travelled to Dresden to attend performances ofWagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Strauss’ Elektra.

Bax was born into a comfortably well-off London family and his private income meant that he did not have to strive for recognition or fulfil commission after commission in order to survive. Bax was fortunate to have experienced all of his works performed in his lifetime, yet he was a shy man and chose not to be in the spotlight. Although he was a prodigiously gifted pianist, he did not wish to pursue a solo career and he did not actively promote his compositions either. What he did pursue whole-heartedly though, were his dreams.

Beginning in childhood, Bax was fascinated by Celtic and Scandinavian mythology and many of his early compositions are based on his imaginings of these tales. While studying at the Royal Academy of Music, works of his, such as A Connemara Revel and A Celtic Song Cycle, faced a positive reaction when they were performed at academy concerts. Even before he had ever set foot in Ireland, he was already composing on Ireland-related themes that would come to dominate his musical output.