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8.555953 - BAX, A.: String Quartet No. 3 / Lyrical Interlude (Maggini Quartet, G. Jackson)
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
String Quartet No. 3 • Lyrical Interlude • Adagio ma non troppo

Quite how the Bax family came to be as well-off as they were is difficult to discover, for Bax’s father although a qualified barrister did not practise. Generally their good fortune has been ascribed to ownership of a plot of land in central London and an interest in the patent for Macintosh raincoats. In 1893 Alfred Ridley Bax purchased an imposing mansion, Ivybank, in Hampstead, for the then enormous sum of £10,075. It was 1896 before the family moved in, when it became the focus of the development of Arnold Bax and his brother Clifford, who was to become a celebrated writer and playwright, and Bax lived there until his marriage in 1911.

Bax’s early signs of musical talent were encouraged by his sympathetic and over-protective mother. She dominated life at Ivybank, which was to all intents and purposes a country house existence, Hampstead then still being semi-rural. Bax became a student at the Royal Academy of Music from 1900 to 1905 and then, having a private income (he never had to accept paid employment to survive) he was free to develop his musical career as the mood took him. Though living at home until 1911, he adopted a semi-Bohemian lifestyle, travelling widely, including the German city of Dresden and in 1910 going to Russia in pursuit of a Ukrainian girl he had met at a friend’s house in London.

It was on the then remote west coast of Ireland that Bax discovered his spiritual home. There, as he put it ‘lorded by the Atlantic’ and under the influence of the early poetry of W. B. Yeats, he discovered the village of Glencolumbcille in Donegal, a place to which he constantly returned, though after the Easter Rising in 1916 Bax’s Irish escapist dream was faced with all too stark reality.

Bax imbibed all things Irish. He wrote poetry, short stories and Synge-like plays, using the pseudonym of ‘Dermot O’Byrne’. In 1911 he was married and set up home in Dublin, and there until 1914 he moved in literary and nationalist circles; 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.

We have grown accustomed to think of Arnold Bax as a composer of romantic orchestral music, including tone-poems such as the popular Tintagel, written in 1917-19. Between the wars came seven symphonies, which gave him a substantial reputation at the time, but we need to remember that Bax wrote extensively in most forms except opera (and he started more than one of those). He produced a substantial output of chamber music for a wide variety of forces, including a piano quartet and quintet, three mature string quartets, a piano trio and one for flute, viola and harp, oboe and harp quintets and many works for larger ensemble including a nonet.

The last of Bax’s string quartets, his last extended chamber work, dates from the summer of 1936 when he was 52, and it is fascinating to place it beside works for the same medium written when he was a student. Bax produced two student string quartets, and a movement from the second of these is included here, while in a movement from another early chamber work, the String Quintet in G, we can hear his stepping stones to his mature style.

Bax’s two early string quartets were written while he was at the Royal Academy of Music, the first in 1902 and the second probably in the following year. The manuscript of the String Quartet in E is undated but the slow movement was orchestrated in 1905 as Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan. As the orchestral score is dated December 1903/July 1905, it seems reasonable to assume that the first date is that of the composition of the quartet. Bax writes a verse from W. B. Yeats’s early poem ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’ at the head of the movement:

Know that I would accounted be

True brother of that company

That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong

Ballad and story, rann and song.

He clearly wrote this from memory as it is slightly misquoted. This manuscript has occasional pencillings in the hand of Bax’s composition teacher, Frederick Corder, and it seems probable that it was discussed during his lessons. Another work by Bax with the title Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan, for two violins and piano, was performed in November 1904 but does not survive. It seems likely it was an interim version of this same movement.

By 1908 Bax had been out of the Academy for three years, and was becoming known for his songs, but very little of his music had then been played and he was almost unknown as a composer. He produced an extended and complex String Quintet in G, with two cellos, which was performed by the Wessely Quartet at London’s Aeolian Hall in July 1908. This is a work where Bax’s early Irish accent is much in evidence but contrasting with other styles of the period; Bax is fully abreast of the techniques not only of impressionism but also of Vienna at that time. In 1914 the manuscript was sent to Germany in the hope of a performance there, and on the outbreak of war Bax assumed it had been lost, but after the armistice, in 1919 it was returned to the composer who clearly felt he had moved on and did not put it forward again. Rather he re-scored the second, slow movement, for a quintet with two violas as the present Lyrical Interlude, and, dedicated to

R. Vaughan Williams, published it as a separate work in 1923.

By the mid-1930s the majority of Bax’s most celebrated works had been written, and at this time he produced a succession of chamber works for larger forces. First came the Octet for horn, piano and string sextet in 1934, and then in 1936 the Threnody and Scherzo for bassoon, harp and string sextet and the so-called Concerto for Seven Instruments, a septet for flute, oboe, harp and string quartet. Almost immediately he went on to write a third string quartet. His earlier numbered quartets dated from 1918 and 1925, and while the first of these was popular in the 1930s, the tougher second quartet had remained unknown.

Now over ten years on we come to his last quartet. Written for the Griller Quartet in the summer of 1936, the four movements of the Third String Quartet are dated respectively 5th July, 6th September, 21st August and 23rd September. Started and finished in London, the scherzo and trio were written at Cashla Bay, County Galway. The work was first performed on the BBC National Programme in May 1937, soon after the Coronation, when the Radio Times quoted Bax in its billing, writing that the first movement ‘was probably influenced by the coming of spring in beautiful Kenmare’. He went on:

. . . The third movement consists of two strongly opposed elements — a rather sinister and malicious scherzo, and a dreamy, remotely romantic trio. This contest is finally won by the scherzo, when it converts the subject of the trio to its own way of thinking. The texture of the finale is rougher and more robust than that of the rest of the work, though there is a softening of mood towards the abrupt and impetuous closing bars.’

In the trio of the third movement Bax makes a fleeting but unmistakeable reference to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4, possibly his acknowledgement of the Coronation mood in London that year before the abdication was announced.

In the mid 1930s Bax was in the habit of staying in Ireland with his friend the composer E. J. Moeran, at Kenmare, County Kerry. Bax and Moeran would stay at the Landsdowne Arms Hotel in Kenmare, where Moeran lived for part of the year (Bax would later similarly take up residence in a pub, in his case at Storrington in Sussex). Bax was there in May 1936, when he must have been thinking of the Third String Quartet. He wrote on 9th May that there were ‘more bluebells and primroses than ever’ and went on to describe how he ‘walked along by the sea last night and it did not seem earthly at all . . . It might have been the western fairyland of which the old Irish legends tell. It seems almost unnecessary for them to have invented such a place — Ireland being what it is.’ Bax originally intended the two middle movements to be in the reverse order to that in which they were published, but changed his mind before the first performance.

Lewis Foreman

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