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8.553608 - BAX: Symphony No. 3 / The Happy Forest
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 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, but eventually separating, thereby allowing Bax to pursue his own musical and amorous ventures in a measure of freedom.
In many ways it must seem that the 1920s brought Bax his period of greatest success. He was prolific in his creativity and his works were widely performed. With the end of his marriage he was able to continue his close association with the pianist Harriet Cohen, although this did not preclude other relationships. He wrote a quantity of piano music for Harriet Cohen, including a piano concerto for the left hand after the injury in 1948 that made use of her right hand for a time impossible. The 1930s brought public honours and at the end of the decade appointment as Master of the King’s Musick, although his gifts did not lend themselves easily to the composition of occasional celebratory works. as the position seemed to demand. The changes in musical style and taste left Bax to some extent alienated from the world in which he found himself. Composition continued. however. including a Coronation March in 1952 for the accession of the new monarch. He died, as he might have wished, in Ireland, while staying with his friend, the German-born Irish composer Aloys Fleischman in Cork, the place he loved best.
Bax started work in earnest on his Symphony No.3 during the winter of 1928-29. In a cold room at the Station Hotel in Morar, on the west coast of Scotland, he developed the sketches he had made at home in London into what was to prove at one time the most popular of his symphonies. He dedicated the work, described by the viola-player Bernard Shore as 'as thrilling to playas to listen to,' to Sir Henry Wood, a champion of his music, who conducted the first performance of the symphony in March 1930.
The work is scored for a large orchestra and includes in its percussion section side drum, bass drum and tenor drum, cymbals, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, gong and anvil. The first of the three movements, scored initially for wind instruments, offers a mysterious opening bassoon melody that slowly unwinds, its first three notes later to assume unifying importance. The lower strings introduce a new element, an accompaniment to solemn open chords from the brass, before the music grows faster and more urgent in tone, with the emergence of a new and insistent rhythmic theme, leading to a dynamic climax. The music subsides into a gentler mood, led by five solo violins into a second section of greater serenity, slowly developed before the interruption of the figure with which the movement had opened, emphatically stated, and now taking on a continuing role. The winding theme of the introduction is entrusted at first to muted violas, leading to the return of thematic and motivic elements of the earlier part of the movement, in their starkness or meditative tenderness, before a fierce conclusion. A horn solo starts the second movement, followed by the shimmering of the lower strings and the entry of a solo trumpet with an evocative melody in music of some poignancy. This reflects a less menacing landscape of greater pastoral tranquillity but has a growing feeling of nostalgia about it. The mood is shattered by the opening of the third movement, which soon leads to a vigorously rhythmic theme, the suggestion of an energetic scherzo, which proceeds to further thematic material before the return of the serene second subject of the first movement. This leads to the Epilogue, starting with an oboe and clarinet theme over the steady tread of a string and harp accompaniment. Here What has passed is recalled in tranquillity.
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 a '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's work, with the direction Vivacious and fantastic, opens with the sound of muted horns and harp, but soon gathers momentum. It can only be considered programmatic in the broadest sense, reflecting the general picture evoked by Farjeon's words, rather than the events recounted.
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
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