About this Recording
8.554093 - BAX: Symphony No. 2 / November Woods
English 

Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor and C major; November Woods

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 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 hononrs 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 eventually completed his Symphony No. 2 in E minor and C major in 1926, after intermittent work for the previous two years. It was dedicated to Sergey Koussevitzky who, after protracted negotiations with Bax, conducted the first two performances in Boston with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 13th and 14th December 1929. Eugene Gooseens conducted the first London performance with the Queen's Hall Orchestra on 20th May 1930. The symphony is scored for piccolo doubling flute, two other flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, three clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, double bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two tenor trombones, bass trombone and tenor and bass tuba. A varied percussion section includes timpani, bass drum, tambourine, cymbals, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, piano and two harps. Use is made of the organ and the orchestra is completed by the usual strings.

In a perceptive analysis of the symphony, Lewis Foreman has drawn attention to the four ideas heard in the Molto moderato introductory section to the first movement, motifs that recur, particularly in the first and third movements. The first of these appears, dark-hued, over a bass drum roll, near the beginning of the work. The eighth bar brings a second sombre element, introduced by the cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon. A short but significant motif is heard from the lower strings and tubas, immediately followed by a slightly longer motif from three flutes and muted trumpets. Tension mounts as the music moves forward to the Allegro moderato, with its emphatic opening before the related first subject, announced by the clarinets. The music presses forward as the material is developed. A second subject eventually appears, introduced Poco largamente, followed by flute and solo cello, marked Moderato semplice. The material undergoes further development, with the motifs from the opening emerging from time to time in remarkable orchestral colours, suggesting at times the palette of Richard Strauss in its sonorities. The recapitulation brings back the urgency of the first subject, the slower and more lyrical second subject and interwoven reminiscences of the basic motifs that give the work its unity. Flutes and harp open the second movement, against which the rising third motif of the introduction to the first movement is heard from cellos and double basses. A lyrical melody is announced by the violins and a transition leads to a second theme in the strings. A dynamic climax is followed by a third element, underpinned by an organ pedal C. A solo violin prefigures the return of the first theme and the hushed closing section of the movement, in a positive B major. There is a short introduction to the last movement. Here the threatening third motif is heard, as in the first theme of the subsequent Allegro feroce. There follows a sinister march-like passage, spurred on by a Mahlerian use of the trumpet, and then a more subdued element, lightly scored, with a melody for bassoons and cellos against an insistent violin rhythm. There is a direct quotation of part of the introduction to the first movement, soon to be followed by the final section of the movement, similar in length to the initial introduction and bringing the symphony to a whispered ending, always in the varied instrumental colours that have marked the whole work.

The evocative November Woods was completed in 1917 and first performed in Manchester by the Hallé Orchestra under Hamilton Harty on 18th November 1920. It is scored for a similar orchestra, but with a brass section that is without bass trombone and a second tuba and with a percussion section of timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel and celesta. Bax makes use again of the motto theme from his Violin Sonata No. 2 of 1915 and of a motif from his 1916 piano-piece, Dream in Exile, presumably a recollection of Ireland. According to the composer 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.

Keith Anderson


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