About this Recording
8.554507 - BAX: Harp Quintet / Elegiac Trio / Fantasy Sonata

Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Chamber Music

Arnold Bax was the elder son of a well-off non-conformist family from south London, whose early signs of musical talent were encouraged by a sympathetic and over-protective mother. (Similarly encouraged, Bax's brother Clifford became a well-known writer and playwright.) Bax was born in Streatham, and as he remarked "I cherish a fancy – or delusion – that Streatham in the 'eighties was still Surrey… hazily I do recall a certain mellowness and port-windiness about some of the older streets". Yet his most impressionable years, in his teens, were spent in Hampstead, where his family moved in 1896, his father buying an imposing mansion, Ivybank, set in three and a half acres. To all intents and purposes it was a country house existence, Hampstead still being semi-rural.

Bax was a student at the Royal Academy of Music from 1900 to 1905 and then, having a private income, he was free to develop his musical career as the whim took him. He was eager to throw off constraining parental influence, and adopted a semi-bohemian lifestyle, travelling widely, including to the German city of Dresden and Russia. His favourite destination was the west coast of Ireland, where, as he put it, 'lorded by the Atlantic' and under the influence of the early poetry of Yeats, he discovered the village of Glencolumcille in Donegal, a place to which, until the First World War, he constantly returned.

Bax imbibed all things Irish, wrote poetry, short stories and Synge-like plays, using the pseudonym of 'Dermot O'Byrne', and learned Irish Gaelic. When in Dublin he moved in literary and nationalist circles, and his friends included the poet and writer Padraic Colum, founder of the Irish Review, and Padraig Pearse, champion of the Irish language who was executed after the Easter Rising in 1916. It was the Easter Rising which was the divide in Bax's life; the shocking unexpected event that brought him face to face with a harsher reality. There is no doubt that the Elegiac Trio written immediately after Easter 1916 celebrated a world that was lost, but in a sense the later works with harp – the harp being, perhaps, a symbol of Ireland – had this function too.

The earliest work in the present programme is the Elegiac Trio, which Bax wrote for the same combination as Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and at about the same time. The first performance was at London's Aeolian Hall on 26th March 1917, when the performers were the celebrated flautist Albert Fransella, the composer Waldo Warner on viola, and the harpist Miriam Timothy. The Debussy sonata was actually written six months before Bax's score, but it is difficult to see how Bax could have been influenced by it, despite textural similarities, for the Debussy was first heard six months after Bax completed his score and was not given a public performance in London until six weeks before the first performance of Bax's trio, when the performers were the same artists.

For a memorial piece written so soon after the event, Bax does not indulge in histrionics; he does not stamp and rage; and while the music is imbued with Bax's stunned reaction to the news from Ireland, he gives us no clue to its non-musical imagery, not even a dedication. His first audiences presumably related it to the war in France, certainly Bax made no mention of Ireland. Yet, here Bax dreams of the distant past and presents a bardic song to 'Cathleen ní Hoolihan'.

Bax made his reputation as the composer of elaborate impressionistic orchestral scores, including seven highly individual symphonies, orchestral tone poems, concertos, choral music, but also much chamber music, piano music and songs. After the First World War Bax emerged as a major figure as these scores began to be heard in quick succession. Several were informed by Bax's ongoing reaction to events in Ireland (and, indeed, a poetry pamphlet, A Dublin Ballad and other poems, printed under Bax's pseudonym, had been banned by the censor in Ireland in 1918).

After the Elegiac Trio, Bax had written an In Memoriam, this time scoring it for cor anglais, harp and string quartet, and he followed it with the Harp Quintet which was written in 1919, probably at much the same time that he made his first visit to Ireland after the War. Again in a single movement, the sound of the harp is important in creating the music's character and impact. Here again the overall mood is sorrowful. However, the boldly, even dramatically, lyrical opening by the string quartet (the harp only accompanying and adding occasional touches of colour) sets the mood, but with the arrival of the sustained second subject the harp is now boldly accompanying. Bax seems to be telling au unwritten story, with spectral interludes and a dramatic faster episode with dissonant string accompaniment. Inevitably none of them last; the harpist muses again and again on some private grief. Towards the end Bax writes sonorously for the strings, the bold harp accompaniment suggesting some bardic recounting of legends of long ago. Eventually the music fades in a long-drawn twilight evocation. Here Bax's first harpist was Gwendolen Mason, a well-known British player of the period.

Eight years passed before Bax wrote the next work on the current programme. In the mid-1920s a new musical influence entered Bax's life, when another harpist, Maria Korchinska, became active on the London concert platform, encouraging him to write more virtuosically for the instrument. The first musical outcome of this was Bax's four movement Fantasy Sonata, which is dated April 1927 and was first performed at a concert of his chamber music at the Grotrian Hall on 10th June that year. Bax takes the harp and viola and treats them as the perfect romantic medium, writing for the two with great resource, always alert for an original instrumental timbre. Although the music plays continuously (with a brief break between the third and fourth movements) this is, unusually for Bax, in four movements. First comes an energetic Allegro molto, and the listener should particularly note the opening viola theme; other ideas develop from it and it signals the progress from movement to movement, and reappears at the end. Towards the end of the first movement a cadenza leads into the dancing Allegro moderato. If this is a scherzo it is a thistledown impression, soon leading into tender, light and poetical passages. The slow movement follows, an elegiac Lento espressivo, a rhapsodic and passionate song for the viola. In the final Allegro the main theme returns and the work ends brilliantly.

Soon afterwards Bax was commissioned to produce a sonata (at first called 'Sonatina') for flute and harp for Korchinska to play with her husband, Count Benckendorff – the son of the last Czarist ambassador to London – in April 1928, but it did not achieve a wider audience as it remained the property of the Benckendorffs and was not published. As a result the music was little known, and when Bax later re-scored the music as his Concerto for Seven Instruments – in fact a septet – no-one noticed that it was an arrangement. The music is in Bax's more customary three movements. Both themes of the first movement, an Allegro moderato, have a folk-like feel to them, the second appearing to borrow a phrase from the folk-tune 'Down by the Sally Gardens', but the overall effect is high-spirited and outgoing. The second movement, Cavatina, is marked Lento, and is in marked contrast, surely Bax thinking back to the events of a dozen years before. Here the chromatic flute line and wistful overall mood have a strongly elegiac tinge. Bax pulls himself together in the concluding Moderato giocoso, where we find one of those dancing movements which occur in many of his works, and which are surely derived from his own memories of Irish folk-dances with his friends in the west. The contrasted second subject tune is introduced by the harp, but before he can become too introspective again, the mood lightens and the work ends exuberantly.

Lewis Foreman

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