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8.557145 - BAX: Symphony No. 7 / Tintagel
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

Symphony No. 7 • Tintagel


Arnold Bax was the son of a barrister who had no inclination or financial need to practise at the bar and devoted much of his time instead to antiquarian pursuits and genealogical research. He had traced his Quaker forebears back to the landed gentry of sixteenth-century Surrey, but the surname itself is of Dutch origin, probably short for Bacszoon, ‘son of Bac’ (like English Jacks for Jackson). There was certainly no Irish blood in the family, and it was Arnold’s intuitive response to the narrative poem The Wanderings of Oisin by W.B. Yeats that introduced him, at the age of eighteen, to the distinctive atmosphere of the Celtic world. ‘Thereupon’, he remarked, ‘I instantly became a sort of honorary Irishman’. This revelation immediately prompted him to visit Ireland, where he immersed himself in its culture, history, legends and language. His burgeoning musical style, hitherto under the influence of Wagner, began to absorb elements from Irish folk-music, and his name became associated with the so-called ‘Celtic Twilight’, though Bax himself later dismissed the gloomy connotations of this phrase as ‘bunk’ dreamed up by English journalists from the title of an early work by Yeats. He pointed out that ‘Primitive Celtic colours are bright and jewelled’, an observation echoed by the Welsh composer William Mathias, who wrote that ‘Rite and magic, jewelled colours, the spirit of play, haunting wistfulness, lyrical warmth and ardour, and (above all) rhythmic vitality — these are all qualities associated with Celtic art and tradition’. They are also qualities to be found in abundance throughout Bax’s music.


Following a romantic escapade in Russia during 1910, Bax married on the rebound and set up house on the outskirts of Dublin, remaining there until the outbreak of the Great War brought him back to London, where he soon fell in love with the beautiful young piano student Harriet Cohen. In August 1917 the couple spent an idyllic six-week holiday at Tintagel, on the north coast of Cornwall, and this experience inspired Bax to compose a tone-poem that was to become the best known of all his orchestral works. Although he wrote it out immediately on his return to London (the draft score is inscribed ‘Oct 1917’), he delayed orchestrating it, and the final manuscript dates from January 1919. It bears the dedication ‘For Darling Tania with love from Arnold’, Tania being Harriet’s pet name; but when the work was later published, this had become the more demure ‘To Miss Harriet Cohen’. The first performance was given by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Dan Godfrey on 20th October 1921, and Bax wrote a note describing the piece:


This work is only in the broadest sense programme music. The composer’s intention is simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff of (now sadly degenerate) Tintagel, and more especially of the long distances of the Atlantic, as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny, but not windless, summer day. The literary and traditional associations of the scene also enter into the scheme. The music opens, after a few introductory bars, with a theme, given out by brass, which may be taken as representing the ruined castle, now so ancient and weather-worn as to seem an emanation of the rock upon which it is built. The subject is worked to a broad diatonic climax, and is followed by a long melody for strings, which may suggest the serene and almost limitless spaces of the ocean.


After a while a more restless mood begins to assert itself, as though the sea were rising, bringing with it a new sense of stress, thoughts of many passionate and tragic incidents in the tales of King Arthur and King Mark and others among the men and women of their time. A wailing chromatic figure is heard, and gradually dominates the music until finally it assumes a shape which recalls to mind one of the subjects of the first Act of [Wagner’s] ‘Tristan and Isolda’ (whose fate was, of course, intimately connected with Tintagel). Here occurs a motif which may be taken as representing the increasing tumult of the sea. Soon after there is a great climax, suddenly subsiding, followed by a passage which will perhaps convey the impression of immense waves slowly gathering force until they smash themselves upon the impregnable rocks.


The theme of the sea is heard again, and the piece ends as it began, with a picture of the castle still proudly fronting the sun and wind of centuries.



There is no unequivocal proof that King Arthur or any of the other shadowy figures mentioned in Bax’s note had any connection with Tintagel. (The name comes from the words din and tagell, meaning ‘fortress’ and ‘constriction’ in the Cornish language, and refers to the narrow ridge leading to the castle ruins from the nearby village of Trevena.) Nevertheless, standing on the cliff-top there, with the magnificent fury of the Atlantic rollers battering the rocks far below, one can readily appreciate how the legends and the scenic grandeur must have fired Bax’s imagination into producing some of the most vivid sea music ever written.


Nearly four years after completing Tintagel, the première of Bax’s First Symphony was greeted with the newspaper headline ‘Wonderful New Work Performed at Queen’s Hall’. Over the following twelve years he wrote five more symphonies, but after completing the sixth in 1934 his compulsion to write music began to wane. He went on, nevertheless, to produce several notable chamber and orchestral pieces, including a Violin Concerto, and it was soon after finishing this in March 1938 that he embarked on his seventh and final symphony. The work had been fully sketched by October, and the orchestration was finished at Morar, on the west coast of Scotland, in January 1939, the very month that saw the death of Bax’s beloved Yeats and exactly twenty years after the completion of Tintagel. He originally dedicated the symphony to the conductor Basil Cameron, but when it subsequently became an official commission for the New York World’s Fair he was required to change the dedication, which now became ‘To the People of America’. It was first played by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on 9th June 1939 under Sir Adrian Boult.


Like all of Bax’s symphonies, the seventh is in three movements, the first of which is largely characterised by surging energy and buoyant optimism, as can be heard in the opening paragraph. After a brief pause, the mood becomes more playful, but the music soon reverts to more serious matters. A new, animated woodwind theme characterised by repeated notes leads into a syncopated passage revealing Bax at his most exuberant. Contrast is provided by a rich, lyrical melody first heard on cellos and cor anglais, and the development section is by turns strenuous, wistful and mysterious, but always with an underlying sense of momentum. The recapitulation culminates in the lyrical melody soaring confidently towards a harsh climactic flourish (brass and timpani) before the movement returns to the shadows from which it emerged.


Bax once curiously described the slow movement of this symphony as an ‘intermezzo and trio’, though intermezzi are not normally as extended and eventful as this one; and in praising Boult’s first British performance he wrote that it ‘expressed all the heavy summer languor which I meant to convey’. The outer sections may be predominantly languorous, but there are also moments of violent upheaval, as if the dreamlike atmosphere has been invaded by some dark nightmare. The central ‘trio’ bears the marking In Legendary Mood and features a more purposeful melody beginning on low woodwind against a busy solo violin accompaniment. The climax of the movement is ruthlessly hammered out, but the mood soon reverts to the lazy, unruffled calm of the opening.


‘The third movement should start more deliberately’, wrote Bax to Boult after hearing a recording of the New York première, ‘—a real 18FORTY romantic wallow!’. The movement is headed Theme and Variations, and after a rousing prelude the theme is quietly and soberly stated by the cellos and double basses. The variations lead into one another and range in mood from violent to tender, from ebullient to skittish. Bax once said of the final variation (the Epilogue) that it was ‘as far as I can go’, and indeed, with the advent of war only eight months after he had finished it, he lapsed into a musical silence that was to last until his appointment as Master of the King’s Music in February 1942. Although he resumed composition, producing fanfares and marches for state occasions as well as music for the cinema, the stage and the concert hall, Bax never quite recovered the creative impulse that had driven him on during the inter-war years; and never again did he achieve the deeply moving serenity and poise to be found in the closing pages of his final symphony.


Graham Parlett

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