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8.570094 - BAX: Violin Sonatas, Vol. 2 (No. 2, Sonata in F Major)
Arnold Bax (1883–1953)
From the perspective of a hundred years on, we might now regard Arnold Bax and his brother Clifford as enviably privileged, albeit immensely talented - Arnold became a composer, his brother a playwright and author. Their parents' Hampstead mansion, Ivy Bank, provided a wonderful stage for their adolescence and young manhood where, supported by their adoring mother, a constant succession of brilliant contemporaries visited to play music, laze in the extensive gardens and dream impossible dreams of 'more than life can give' (as Clifford put it). Arnold's father had envisaged Cambridge, but Arnold would have none of it and studied at London's Royal Academy of Music during 1900-1905. Once this was completed both brothers, given freedom by their private incomes, never felt any pressure formally to earn a living by seeking paid work. Both were free to travel, develop their art and indulge in a succession of love affairs, which in Arnold's case are reflected in his music.
Despite such prodigal blessings, however, Arnold Bax only slowly evolved his mature style, and so his wider reputation and the music by which we remember him did not really begin to appear until a couple of years before the First World War. It was Clifford who introduced his older brother to the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the country, legends and people of the west of Ireland. He soon discovered the remote Donegal coastal village of Glencolumcille, and the wild landscape and stormy sea-dominated climate of the west can be fairly described as the catalyst in the development of his mature style.
Arnold wrote at least five violin sonatas, but only published three of them. Here we hear his autobiographical Second Sonata of 1915, reflecting wartime concerns in the context of the earliest, a one movement Allegro appassionato in G minor written in 1901 while he was a student, and the last, in two movements, which we have only recently got to know in this form as he withheld it as a sonata and recast it as the Nonet of 1931. All are characterized by his girlfriends and a succession of women players. The early G minor, written for his Academy girlfriend Gladys Lees, was later played by another RAM contemporary Ivy Angove. The First Sonata, first written in 1910, was revised over a long period but was actually inspired by his passion for a Ukrainian girl whom he met in the autumn of 1909. On the manuscript Bax calls her 'M'selle Natalia Skarginski' (more properly Natalie Skarginska). It was first played by a very young (and gorgeous) Winifred Smith. It is possible the Second Sonata may have been inspired by the playing of May Harrison, but it was actually played by Bessie Rawlins. The Third Sonata, in 1927, was played by Emil Telmanyi and later May Harrison.
In 1915 Bax wrote new second and third movements for his First Sonata (Naxos 8.557540). The original slow movement's waltz-like middle-section tune in popular style is surely the precursor of 'The Grey Dancer in the Twilight' which we hear here in the Second Sonata, written in 1915.
If the first sonata takes its starting-point from girlfriends and Bax's emotional entanglements, the second has a much more serious gestation, the First World War. It was written in the summer of 1915 and dated 13 August. Like the First Sonata it long went unperformed, until in 1920 Bax revised it, making cuts and generally tightening it up. It was brought out after the success of the performance of the First Sonata with Bessie Rawlins, and five months later she again appeared with Bax at the Wigmore Hall in the première of this Second Sonata. It was published in 1923.
At the time of its first performance a handbill appeared promoting the concert carrying a programme note, unsigned, but clearly by the composer. In it Bax wrote: 'This Sonata was written in 1915, but for various reasons has hitherto been withheld by the composer. Recently it has been considerably revised. The work is in four distinct movements, though the whole is played without a break. The end of each of the first three divisions of the sonata is designed to create an impression of pause and expectancy, so that the plan of the various movements should be clear to the listener. The work is in cyclic form, and the principal motive which dominates the whole sonata is used also in the same composer's orchestral piece, November Woods. (The second movement, which might also be called "The Dance of Death", was influenced in a particular degree by the events of 1915).' Later when it was broadcast Bax asked for it to be described as 'Sonata in four linked movements'.
In the second movement the violin is muted throughout, and the appearance of the Dies irae also clearly underlines its subject matter. The closing section of the last movement was called 'Epilogue' at the first performance. Though the term does not appear in the published score the quiet closing coda clearly carries a similar significance to the epilogues he later designated at the end of his symphonies.
During the First World War, in addition to the Second Violin Sonata and two new movements for his First Sonata, Bax wrote two substantial one movement pieces, the Legend of 1915 and the Ballad of 1916, the first reflecting the first few months of war, the latter probably the unexpected tragedy of the Easter Rising in Dublin in March 1916. As if to underline its association with the events in Ireland, the music seems to have been suppressed for over a decade and it only became known to a wider public when it was revised and published in 1929. Bax was clearly long in two minds about releasing it, because it was first advertised in 1922 but it failed to appear. It is unclear whether it was played by Winifred Small, its dedicatee, with Harriet Cohen, in the concert in which they first performed the Legend at London's Æolian Hall on 28 June 1916.
The turbulent opening of the Ballad sets the mood. Bax himself referred to the piece as 'a wild stormy thing'. There are two moods – the passionate turbulent music of the opening and the romantic reflective music of the interlude-like sections.
The Legend for violin and piano was completed in February 1915, and, elegiac in character, but increasingly concentrated in expression, was Bax's first musical acknowledgement of what he referred to as 'the horror of that time'. Yet, apart from the final climax with its pounding piano chords, there is no battle music, drama or overt horror in this grieving score, Bax preferring to sing his song of mourning in terms of an archetypal past and a sustained singing line. Towards the end we are in the world of the Second Sonata. It is interesting to remember in his poem The Guest House, Bax, who never joined up, writes vividly of being 'house-mate with old bony Death'.
Bax's last work for violin and piano (other than his Violin Concerto of 1938, only published in a version for violin and piano) was his two-movement Sonata in F completed in September 1928, which he suppressed in his lifetime as he soon scored it as the Nonet, dated January 1930. This was produced to fulfil a commission from the Bradford Triennial Festival, where it was first performed on 30 September 1930. It was not performed as a sonata until the celebrations for the centenary of Bax's birth in 1983.
The sonata is in two movements, and is notable for its sunny serenade-like character. The first movement Molto moderato – Allegro features two principal ideas, the first of which generates most of the argument, the second appearing as a romantic interlude. In the second movement, Allegro, the gently singing second subject dominates with just a brief stormy episode based on the opening idea before a reminiscence of the opening theme of the whole sonata leads to tranquil closing music in a magical half-lit dusk.
Lewis Foreman © 2007
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