About this Recording
8.572597 - BAX, A.: Winter Legends / Morning Song / Saga Fragment (Wass, Bournemouth Symphony, Judd)
English 

Arnold Bax (1883–1953)
Winter Legends • Morning Song • Saga Fragment

 

Arnold Bax was one of the major creative forces in British composition between the two world wars. He was prolific in most genres (apart from opera), but the backbone of his achievement is a cycle of seven symphonies spanning the years 1922 to 1939, and a series of colourful tone poems such as The Garden of Fand (1913–16) and Tintagel (1917–19) (which was given its première in 1921 by the then Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, the precursor of the orchestra on this recording.) After his death it was largely the latter work which kept his name alive in the concert hall, although from the 1970s onwards much of his music became available through recordings. Bax’s music is overtly late-Romantic in character, a blend of lush chromaticism, broad melodies and brilliant orchestral sonorities, a skill that he learnt, in particular, from the late nineteenth-century Russian nationalists, as well as Richard Strauss and Debussy. The major formative influence on him, however, was not musical; rather it was through a country, Ireland, and the poetry of W.B. Yeats, that he found himself. Throughout his life Ireland was his second home, its landscape, folklore and literature his prime inspiration. He was knighted in 1937 and in 1942 appointed Master of the King’s Musick. Bax also possessed considerable literary talents; as a young man he published poetry under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne, and he wrote a fascinating autobiography Farewell, My Youth (1943).

All three works on this CD were composed for the pianist Harriet Cohen (1895–1967) to perform. She occupied a major place in Bax’s life, both as lover and muse, and amongst numerous works conceived with her in mind, there were two major compositions for piano and orchestra on a symphonic scale, the Symphonic Variations (1918) (Naxos 8.570774) and Winter Legends (1929–30). From 1927 onwards, Bax spent many winters in Morar in Scotland where he could compose in peace and quiet. It was here that Winter Legends was composed in the autumn of 1929, although the orchestration was not completed until April the following year. In September Bax had written to Cohen saying that he wanted ‘to write a northern nature piece full of sea and pine forests and dark legends’. This reflects a shift in Bax’s inspiration at this time from the Celtic west to the north, and it also reflects his admiration for Sibelius, who was to have been the dedicatee, although the inscription was later changed to Cohen with the Fifth Symphony being dedicated to the Finnish master.

The première took place in London on 10 February 1932, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boult; it was quickly followed by the United States première, once again Cohen was the soloist, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky. Bax viewed neither Winter Legends, nor the Symphonic Variations as conventional piano concertos; he described the former as a sinfonia concertante, commenting to Boult that the use of the piano was more akin to an important orchestral instrument, and that the work was in its own way a symphony, emphasized by its overall form which is the same as his symphonies—three movements with an epilogue. Throughout the piano writing is not used as a means of technical display, though it is nevertheless taxing. Bax himself felt that Winter Legends was one of his finest achievements on a par with his symphonies.

In his programme note for the première Bax commented that although the piece did not have any communicable programme, the music had a programmatic quality: ‘The listener may associate what he hears with any heroic tale or tales of the North—of the far North, be it said. Some of these happenings may have taken place within the Arctic circle’. The poet in him followed this with:

‘Legends that were told or sung
In many a smoky fireside nook
Of Iceland, in the ancient day
By wandering Saga-man or Scald’.

Whether Bax did have a specific narration in mind (as some critics supposed) he never revealed, but undoubtedly the music explores a gamut of human emotions and experiences; joy, tragedy, love, heroism, conflict, are all enshrined here. The first movement in particular might be seen to be following a hidden narrative considering its unusual, rhapsodic structure; it was described by Bax as ‘not in sonata form, rather it may be described as an assembling and fusion of various elements for the forging of a great climax.’

The work commences with three striking musical images: a rhythmic tattoo on the side-drum, like a call to attention; what Bax described as ‘a kind of whirlwind on the piano’, and an impassioned descending phrase for the orchestra. Two further important ideas follow, the first grand and monumental introduced by piano alone, the other brim full of syncopated swinging energy introduced by the first violins and E flat clarinet and taken up immediately by the piano. From these key ideas not only is the movement, but also the whole work forged, such is the thematic intertwining. Bax further elaborated that the movement was constructed through a ‘series of episodes which always return to the rhythm of the opening tattoo.’ Among these is a duet for cor anglais and piano which develops into a dreamy reverie for the soloist prefaced by a romantic horn solo. Later an ebullient dance breaks out, rather Russian in character, and the movement concludes with the falling phrase ringing out in a climactic triumphant peroration.

As in Bax’s symphonies, it is the slow movement which is the emotional and musical heart of the work. All its material is derived from the first movement and it is cast in a binary A-B-A form. It begins in winter bleakness with solo bassoon and strings evoking cold and darkness. A simple, wistful idea for the piano characterized by a jerky rhythm, gradually becomes a dialogue between the soloist and orchestra, as if a conversation around the winter fireside hearth. The side-drum rhythm of the first movement is transformed into a hushed chant, until the music sparks and crackles into massive percussive dissonances, and a sombre baleful, percussive idea emerges on the piano. Subsequently, it takes on a gentler cast, lapsing into a dream episode akin to the first movement. Gradually the music builds to a long climax, before the opening ideas return.

The finale opens mysteriously with a tuba solo derived from the ‘whirlwind’ piano figuration of the first movement over rippling piano arpeggios. Alternating with the rhythmic tattoo (‘now invested in all its primitive starkness’), it leads to two further ‘primitive’ ideas introduced by the piano, the first the principal march-like theme of the movement, bold and assertive, the second clear-cut and crisp in a faster tempo. These two themes dominate, contrasted by quieter episodes derived from a calm lyrical piano figure with triplets marked ‘idyllic’ and including a magical passage for violas and cantabile oboe, bassoon and horn solos intertwined with the piano. As the climax of the movement is reached the horns blaze out exultantly. The Epilogue, the summation and resolution of what has gone before, begins with piano alone musing on the ‘idyllic’ theme; this is quintessential Bax, the music, of ‘a brazen romantic’ as he once described himself. Once more the monumental theme of the first movement recurs but now in a serene guise. The ending, Bax wrote ‘may possibly suggest the return of the sun and warm air from the south after the long northern winter’ as the work concludes in a ‘burst of light’.

Two aspects of Bax’s life in the 1940s relate to the background of Morning Song, subtitled Maytime in Sussex composed in 1947. In 1940 as a weekend break from war-torn London, Bax stayed at The White Horse Inn, Storrington in Sussex. He enjoyed it so much that he made an arrangement with the landlord to rent a room there indefinitely; it was to become his main residence for the rest of his life. Two years later he was appointed Master of the King’s Musick and Morning Song was one of the official works he composed in this capacity, a celebratory piece for piano and small orchestra to mark the 21st birthday of the then Princess Elizabeth in 1947 which was also dedicated to her. Harriet Cohen recorded the work in February that year and it was issued to coincide with the birthday. The first public performance followed in August when Cohen performed it with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent at one of Robert Mayer’s children’s concerts which the Princess attended. It is a sunny, genial work, with a classical elegance and transparency both in its themes and scoring, as it evokes the gentle landscape of Sussex in spring.

In 1933 Cohen wanted a short new work to play during her forthcoming American tour. Bax responded to her request by orchestrating his one movement Piano Quartet of 1922 for small orchestral forces (piano solo, trumpet, percussion and strings), under the title Saga Fragment. It was dedicated to Cohen, who gave the first performance on 21 October 1933, with Constant Lambert conducting. Cohen described it in her autobiography A Bundle of Time as ‘a savage little work much admired by Bartók’, which is indeed appropriate given the overall character of this brittle, dark piece with its martial overtones. Even Bax himself described it as ‘a rather a tough pill’, although it has its moments of repose as in the luxurious, rich harmonies of the Andante con moto section featuring a solo violin, and also a wistful dance-like theme for the violas, although later this recurs in a distinctly more sinister character.


Andrew Burn


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