Arnold Bax: Symphony no 1.

This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.

Performed by someone

I listened to this probably four or five or six times. This one is in stark contrast to the other English symphony I have been listening to.

This is clearly a war symphony. It’s a piece written just after World War I, finished in 1922, and it has the atmosphere to prove it.

The multiple listens appear to have paid off, because in reviewing the small amount of information available about this piece on Wikipedia, I know exactly which sections or feelings to which it is referring. Interestingly (perplexingly?) this piece is also scored with a sarrusophone, and there were a few moments where I thought “what is that noise?” It sounds like a cross between a contrabassoon and a bass clarinet in timbre, maybe even a little bit (or a lot) saxophoney.

The first movement begins with an important theme that will show up in many more places, a main character of sorts. The horns play a happy theme (relatively speaking) that seems cheerful in contrast with the atmosphere set earlier. At about three minutes, a romantic (both in musical style and emotional mushy love feeling) lyrical section appears. There is palpable drama and tension in this movement, with percussion and some climactic sections, caused by the the back and forth of the two themes. A flute solo toward the end is also sweet and endearing, but the movement ends largely, with snare and timpani heavily beating out the end of the piece. It’s like the military opening for the drama that comes in the second movement.

While the first movement had its near-violently expressive passages suggestive of tragedy, the second movement is more thoroughly ominous, hopeless and and dark. That being said, there are peaceful movements, like where an oboe solo brings a small moment of relief. This is the center of the work, the rock bottom of struggle.

Movement three begins with familiar material from the first movement and it is a relief to be released from the tension and struggle of the previous two movements. It is triumphant and clear and confident. Small glimpses of material (or something similar) appear in the third movement, almost nostalgically, but within the context of the positive march bringing hope and victory, the small bits of what sounded like tragedy feel like 20/20 glimpses into hindsight. One moves forward, leaving the past behind.

Maybe that sounds far more dramatic than I wanted it to be. I didn’t love this symphony. Nothin was wrong with it, but I didn’t enjoy the multiple listenings as much as I was trying to assimilate and comprehend it.

It’s interesting the similarities that Bax has (at least on a perfunctory level) with the composer of our next post.

They both had their very brief 15 minutes of fame in their own lifetimes, and lived long enough to see it wane. They are both English, they were around the same time period, although one could say the 23 years between this composition and tomorrow’s (in 1899) were a very critical 23 years that brought much change: the turn of the century and the First World War left their marks, to say the least. It may be arbitrary to draw such conclusions from two unrelated symphonies, but I had no intentions of making any points about human existence with these, except that I did find some interesting parallels. They are both rarely performed, tomorrow’s much less so than today’s. Arnold Bax’s struggles in his home country and affinity for Ireland interested me (Wikipedia has a section referring to him as the Peter Pan or composers), and I am eager to hear more of his works.

I am not sure why I am interested in neglected composers.

This work, as with his six other symphonies, are all in three movements, but none of them, as far as I am aware, are performed with any kind of regularity, although arguably still more than tomorrow’s work.


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