Forgotten Composers, Part 4: Arnold Bax

Conventional wisdom tells us that we stop listening to a work when it no longer has anything to say.  Though Ludwig Spohr once rivaled Beethoven in popularity, his works are seldom—if ever—encountered today (though they should be).  The answer for this is simple on the surface: Beethoven aggressively reshaped the modern orchestra into a form the Romantics could play around with, but never entirely rival, whereas Spohr merely composed in the shadow of Mozart and Weber, without doing anything entirely new or striking.  So we go on playing the same few Beethoven symphonies in concert and never think about poor old Spohr, who composed a curious symphony (No.6) where each movement is in the style of a different musical era—Handel/Bach, Mozart/Haydn, a Beethoven scherzo, and a finale that mocks Italian opera conventions.  Worth a revival, eh?  In general, certain works stick with the public while others fall into oblivion.  Yet worth alone cannot account for this, since you could fill every concert hall in the world (and thousands of cds) with forgotten masterpieces.  Sometimes it’s as simple as a distinctive name, like the “Surprise Symphony” of Haydn (one of the few of his 104 symphonies that is regularly played), or some extra-musical hook that holds our attention like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and its Gothic-inspired, Goyaseque program.  In the 20th century, without marketing, you simply don’t have a product.  Yet I have to side with Stravinsky that music is music, and no matter how many Shakespearean heroes or heroines you describe in the music, it lives or dies by the music alone.  This is all preface to a great composer who is often omitted from musical histories entirely—especially here in the States.  He’s a composer who doesn’t sell himself well, doesn’t try to ingratiate himself with the audience—and yet, composes vibrant, melodic early 20th century Romantic music that anyone with a fondness for Tchaikovsky, Mahler, or Vaughan-Williams could enjoy. 


In literary terms, he is a composer who compares favorably to writers such as Tolkein and T.H. White, since his music evokes the lost worlds of Celtic antiquity.  Yet there’s also a deeper, more poetic strain of spiritualism that evokes Yeats (not surprising, given Bax’s love of all things Irish) and Tagore.  His music is mystical, voluptuous, serene, savage, and perfumed.  It sounds like a cross between Sibelius, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and late Rimsky-Korsakov (again, not surprising given his love for Russian music), yet remains firmly English in outlook, evoking Elgar at times, Vaughan-Williams, Holst and a little Walton (though maybe Walton borrowed from him?).  Indeed, if you ever despaired that Holst wrote nothing else that sounds remotely like The Planets, despair no longer: Bax wrote it all himself.  In fact, Bax’s brother, Clifford, was the very man who inspired Holst to write a work based on the planets/astrological symbols.  Bax could have easily written such a work himself, and in some ways did, yet suitably kept all his programs veiled behind a late-Romantic haze.  We can choose to interpret them however we like, though Bax doesn’t always make it easy for us, demanding time and attention to his shifting soundscape.  However, this time is amply repaid by what I consider to be some of the finest orchestral music before the triumph of Serialism, and along with Mahler, one of the last gasps of Romanticism in music. 


Bax is primarily an orchestral man in the same way as Mahler or Rachmaninov.  He did write some wonderful chamber music, but much of it sounds constrained, as if it’s yearning to be orchestrated—or has been transcribed for chamber forces.  The true Bax consists of his cycle of Seven Symphonies (like Sibelius), each one offering a unique solution to the question, “what makes a symphony—and how should it sound?”  I would start right at the beginning, with the volatile, passionate First Symphony (1922), written in part as a response to the Irish Revolution.  It opens angrily, with snarls in the brasses and a chaotic, dancing theme which is menacingly martial.  Holst’s Mars is just in the background and shows their shared influence (The Planets was premiered only a few years before in 1916).  The music rises above the tumult for a triumphant apotheosis before settling back down into an uncertain gloom.  This gloom opens the second movement, a glowering dirge that becomes overwhelmingly tragic.  The lament for a doomed struggle, perhaps.  The third movement opens up triumphantly, with an energetic six-note theme with colorful percussion and dancing rhythms.  The merriment becomes a bit too manic, suggesting a premature triumph much like Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony’s finale (yet not quite as grim).  As you listen, notice the incredible orchestration, which has few rivals among his peers (I can only think of Sibelius, Mahler, or Strauss).  Beautiful melodies abound, but no proper tunes emerge that audiences might have expected, and would have endeared the symphony to a generation weaned on Tchaikovsky or Grieg.  Yet for a 21st century listener, the symphony fits comfortably besides Stravinsky’s early works and late Mahler/Sibelius.  A perfect ‘sibling’ work would be Vaughan Williams’ angst-ridden Fourth Symphony written some time after this work (1935). 

After that, any of the symphonies are fair game, from the dissonant, epic Second Symphony (1926), which should be played in every concert hall the world over, the ethereal, charming Third Symphony (1929), boasting his most transcendent slow movement—which eerily reminds one of the Vaughan-Williams to come, the rhapsodic, sea-inspired Fourth Symphony (1931), the craggy, triumphant Fifth Symphony (1932), dedicated to Sibelius and riffing off that master’s Fifth Symphony, or the lighter, yet mysterious Seventh Symphony (1939).  Special mention must be made of his symphonic masterpiece, the haunting, expansive Sixth Symphony (1935), which is his most “Northern” symphony in the mood it captures—very similar to late Sibelius.  It opens with a pounding ostinato in the brasses before a chorus of winds rises above it, almost screaming a plaintive theme.  The symphony then roars to life, evoking a noisy, sea-battered coast (perhaps) or pages from some lost Icelandic epic.  The slow movement is, with the Third’s, among his most memorable and lovely—a wistful ballad.  But nothing prepares us for the breathtaking theme and variations on a theme from Sibelius’ Tapiola, which undergoes a true metamorphosis from cryptic to martial to terrifying to defiant and finally, to complete and utter acceptance.  That this symphony isn’t played as much as anything from Vaughan-Williams, Walton, or Sibelius,  for that matter, is astonishing and downright criminal.  Why?  Don’t we like good music?! 

Apart from his symphonies, Bax had a Straussian talent for the symphonic poem, writing a good number of them—all evoking the world of ‘Celtic twilight’ or Northern ballads.  His greatest masterpiece is his most-performed work, Tintagel (1917-1919) which evokes the Western coast and its Arthurian (and Wagnerian) passions.  It’s a truly original work that borrows from Wagner’s aesthetic without seeming a jot derivative.  Other important works are The Garden of Fand (1916), a gorgeous, meandering work of Celtic legend, November Woods (1917), his stormiest poem, forecasting the mood of the Second Symphony, The Happy Forest (1922), and The Tale the Pine Trees Knew (1931), both exciting evocations of the natural landscape, and the Northern Ballads Nos. 1 and 2 (1927, 1934), which try to take a page out of Sibelius’ book—notably Tapiola and The Tempest. 
Finally, if these works suit you, try his more uncompromising concertos, which never caught on among soloists, yet offer some of his most daring and colorful music.  The Violin Concerto (1938), written for Heifetz, tries to be more commercial and appealing, and in a large measure succeeds—especially in the ‘Mediterranean’ flavored finale (a bit like Walton’s Violin Concerto).  More stand-offish is the monumental Cello Concerto (1932), full of brooding elegaic lyricism, and the jaw-dropping Winter Legends (1930), a piano concerto in all but name, which is one of his wildest scores—somewhat between the Second and Sixth Symphonies. 

Obviously, Bax’s music will never be popular in the way Tchaikovsky or even Mahler’s symphonies are.  Yet his music is deeply satisfying as absolute music of the late Romantic era, or as highly evocative programmatic music that ‘speaks’ with the voice of a poet.  His mastery of the late Romantic orchestra alone should merit him a distinguished place in the halls of music, but the material itself is unmistakably his own, far outshining the symphonic output of William Walton, and even at times, of Vaughan-Williams himself.  Bax belies the stereotypical image of the British composer writing “cows staring over fences” music.  Though deeply rooted in the English—and Irish—soil, his music is universal in the best sense, stirring our blood and seeding our imagination.  There are now many fine versions of his symphonies, tone poems, and concertos on the market, so we can happily explore them to our heart’s content.  One day, I hope to sit down in a concert hall to the opening strains of the First Symphony—or dare I hope, the Sixth?  Sadly, as orchestras lose money season after season, and audiences grow ever more conservative, the chance for hearing Bax in this country made have faded.  Yet perhaps some enterprising young conductor will rediscover his music and make his or her mark in the (relatively) unexplored byways of early 20th century Romanticism.  


  1. This is a great profile of a wonderful composer. Have you considered doing one on another great composer of the same era -- the Frenchman Florent Schmitt (1870-1958)? A contemporary of Debussy and Ravel who learned from one another, Schmitt outlived both of them by decades and his composing career lasted more than 70 years.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad someone else out there knows and appreciates his music. Schmitt would be a great composer to cover, though sadly I only know a handful of his music--a brief piece for piano trio and his Salome music. I've listened to a great disc of his music recorded by Leif Segerstam, but I don't own it or know it enough to comment on. Where would you suggest I start my Schmitt education?


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