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8.557769 - BAX: Piano Works, Vol. 3
Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Piano Works • 3
Arnold Bax wrote nearly thirty short piano pieces during and immediately after the First World War. These were largely written for his friends and contemporaries, mainly female, at the Royal Academy of Music, not least the pianist Harriet Cohen, thirteen years his junior, with whom he was involved in a passionate affair. When he emerged as the leading British composer of the day in the early 1920s, the availability of these pieces as sheet music meant that his new admirers had music that they could attempt at home, though Bax never wrote down to his audience and none of the pieces were easy.
It was through the keyboard that Arnold Bax came to music, and when he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in the autumn of 1900, the surviving manuscripts of his earliest compositions suggest he was soon a capable pianist. His technique grew quickly, and in the headlong, complex piano parts he wrote for the songs he produced during this time we can document a rapidly growing capability, perhaps keenest to play Wagner operas at the keyboard, but abreast of the latest developments, and he soon developed a penchant for the piano music of Scriabin and Debussy.
Bax’s early music arose from improvisation at the piano, and from playing the latest orchestral scores at the keyboard, and he became celebrated for his ability to read orchestral full scores at sight. He heard a great deal of new music and it was his habit, too, to play duets with his friends, notably the pianist Arthur Alexander, with whom he played through Glazunov’s symphonies in this way. Although not a regular concert pianist, Bax was occasionally called on to play modern music when more established figures cried off. As a consequence of this we find him, in February 1909, accompanying Debussy songs in the composer’s presence, and in January 1914 he did the same for Schoenberg’s songs when the booked pianist withdrew at the last minute. From the late 1920s onwards he played in public increasingly rarely, although he did make two recordings – of Delius’s First Violin Sonata and his own Viola Sonata, in May and June 1929. Bax was a natural pianist, a composer who thought at the keyboard, and the fire in his romantic pianism is evident in both of those performances.
While the four large-scale piano sonatas are the backbone of Bax’s piano music (Naxos 8.557439 and 8.557592), there is also a varied repertoire of shorter pieces. These include highly characteristic atmospheric miniatures (some not quite so miniature), many of them technically in the shadow of Debussy or Scriabin, also alternative versions of scores most familiar to us as orchestral works, as well as short late piano pieces unpublished in his lifetime.
We also need to remember that Bax was obsessed with the landscape, music and literature of Ireland, and in his twenties was able to spend much time there, absorbing the atmosphere, and, under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne, publishing poetry, short stories and plays. Bax thus encountered Irish nationalist politics, though his friendship with the leading names has something of unreality about it, and the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 came as a personal blow reflected in various scores of the time. Bax’s shorter pieces were not all sunlit idylls, and in such darker scores as the piano pieces Winter Waters and What the Minstrel Told Us it seems probable that there may be untold programmatic elements from this time.
Bax’s well-known liaison with the pianist Harriet Cohen started late in 1914 and many of his short piano pieces were dedicated to her. Indeed this resulted in rivalry between Harriet (‘Tania’ to her circle) and Myra Hess in the playing of Bax’s piano music. Yet Harriet Cohen had small hands and this later caused her to avoid the heavier demands of concertos by, say, Brahms and Rachmaninov. Curiously, in Bax’s writing, particularly in his works for piano and orchestra, he is seemingly oblivious of her problems, not limiting his expression by his pianist’s difficulties.
It must have been apparent to Bax that restricting his champions at the piano to just Harriet Cohen and occasionally Myra Hess was not a good idea, and yet Harriet insisted on being the first to play all his piano music, resulting in others tending to avoid it, perhaps the reason it did not become more widely established in the concert repertoire in its day.
The earliest pieces in our programme, dating from 1912, are the Two Russian Tone-Pictures given the evocative titles Nocturne: May Night in the Ukraine and Gopak. The Nocturne was dedicated to ‘Olga and Natasha’. In the spring and summer of 1910 Bax went to Russia and the Ukraine in pursuit of a Ukrainian girl, Natalia Skarginska, whom he had met in Hampstead, the two of them accompanied by a mutual friend, Olga Antonietti. In his autobiography Bax tells the story and gives them the pseudonyms ‘Loubya Korolenko’ and ‘Fiammetta’. May Night in the Ukraine is a graphic musical image derived from Nikolay Gogol’s celebrated evocation in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, towards the end complete with trilling nightingales. Gopak is subtitled National Dance and when it was first played by Myra Hess at the Bechstein Hall in April 1913 it was actually called ‘Barbarian Dance’, which perhaps hints at the composer’s intention. Nevertheless it was ‘affectionately dedicated’ to his piano teacher Tobias Matthay. These pieces were played by Myra Hess (the Nocturne was first played in November 1912) and it was she who launched Bax’s reputation as a composer of evocative piano miniatures.
For the next two or three years, Bax wrote various piano works, most of which were later orchestrated or withheld. Early in 1915, however, he was stimulated into writing a succession of such pieces for the eighteenyear- old Harriet Cohen. The dedications of the four pieces written in 1915 speak volumes. The Princess’s Rose Garden, The Maiden with the Daffodil and A Mountain Mood (the first two written in January 1915) are inscribed to ‘Tania’, she being both the princess and the maiden with the daffodil (when Bax encountered her at a party in January that year).
Bax gave Harriet Cohen The Maiden with the Daffodil with a verse dedication: ‘This for the maiden with the daffodil/Whose fingers’ intricate enchantments fill/Our ears with far strayed echoes of Romance.’ Bax marks the music as ‘fresh and innocent’ and one has to say that few more escapist pieces can have been written during the First World War. Not dissimilar, the nocturne The Princess’s Rose-Garden is marked ‘Drowsily rhythmical and moderately slow’, in 9/8, its gentle pulse making us unsure whether Bax intends a lullaby or is merely intoxicated by the scented atmosphere. Doubtless Harriet Cohen played them in private in Bax’s Academy circle, but in fact it was again Myra Hess who appeared with The Maiden with the Daffodil at the Aeolian Hall on 24th March 1915 and The Princess’s Rose Garden at the Grafton Galleries on 29th April 1915. They immediately found a publisher.
Bax’s marriage was soon to end, but the miniature Sleepy-Head, dated 24th May 1915, is dedicated to his wife, Elsita. Sleepy-Head is surely a musical vignette of Bax’s sleeping children, Dermot and Maeve, then three and two respectively. A Mountain Mood: melody and variations, dated 2nd Sept 1915, was again dedicated to Harriet Cohen, Bax adding ‘who plays it perfectly’.
The remaining pieces included here appeared after the First World war, largely written in 1919 or 1920. Many of them evoke happy and exotic scenes, but What the Minstrel Told Us, dating from 1919 and dedicated again to Harriet Cohen, confronts more serious issues. This is another of those memorial scores that Bax wrote in the wake of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 in which he had lost many of his pre-war Irish friends. That he subtitles this piece with the word ‘ballad’ and effectively writes variations on a manufactured Irish tune, suggests that he is here musing on the tragedy of Ireland. The bardic outer sections frame a middle section in two distinct moods, first a typical passage of restless dreaming soon superseded by relentless and aggressive writing, Bax almost shaking a fist at heaven, before we return to the opening in a mood of resignation and regret, the final statement of the tune now with the suggestion of quiet keening. Published in 1920 it was played by Harriet Cohen in her Wigmore Hall début concert on 15th June 1920.
Lullaby, subtitled Berceuse, (27th April 1920) is dedicated to the ballerina Tamara Karsavina, though unlike the other piece Bax wrote for her, Slave Dance, we do not know of an occasion when she danced to it. It again featured in Harriet Cohen’s Wigmore concert in June 1920. A Hill Tune also dates from 1920 and was published the same year. Here another hidden Irish influence is perceptible in the shape of the main tune which Bax quotes from the first movement of his early String Quintet in G of 1908. It is difficult to ascribe first performance dates to some of these short pieces.
Mediterranean, written in 1920, is a classic musical picture postcard, probably evoking a holiday which Bax and musical friends, including his brother Clifford and the composers Gustav Holst and Balfour Gardiner, took in Majorca in 1913. It was first performed by Harriet Cohen at the Steinway Hall in May 1921, and orchestrated the following year when it was dedicated to Holst.
Probably it was much later that Bax wrote the short Pæan (1928), dedicated to one of Bax’s most longstanding champions, the pianist Frank Merrick. This insistent passacaglia was later orchestrated as a noisy occasional piece for a Royal Command Performance in May 1938. Frank Merrick played it in Manchester on 25th June 1929, the earliest performance traced, though when it was first recorded the pianist was Harriet Cohen.
Lewis Foreman © 2005
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