Revisit: Bax Symphony no. 1

performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Bryden Thomson

It’s odd, you know. A few things, really. For one, that this piece, somehow, was the 23rd piece I chose to write about back when I started writing this blog, when I was still on Tumblr, of all places, and when it was still almost entirely for my own personal notes. How does a relative newbie to classical music, someone who, at the time, couldn’t have identified any Beethoven symphonies except for the first movement of the fifth and finale of the ninth, pick out this piece from this composer over everything else? How did I come across Bax’s name?

And secondly, it’s interesting that I remember listening to it over and over and over again, and not really having much of any real understanding of it overall, or what it sounded like or really anything about it, except “war” something or other. Needless to say, that article was beyond lacking. So it’s funny that when I decided to return to it, having almost zero recollection of it, there was an instant impression, I won’t say an understanding, necessarily, but certainly so in relation to my swing at it years ago.

Those first few dozen articles were my attempt to find something ‘not mainstream,’ since, y’know, everyone listens to all the really famous people. So those first few dozen articles included works like a handful of Myaskovsky symphonies, Rautavaara, Borodin, Milhaud, Tubin, Cyril Scott, Kalevi Aho… but without any grasp of the context or  tradition behind those works, so here we are revisiting another of those early pieces.

Sir Arnold Edward Trevor Bax was born on 8 November 1883, in Streatham, Surrey, a suburb of London, “to a prosperous Victorian family,” says Wikipedia. The composer’s father, Alfred Bax, had some kind of esteemed background in law, but also had “a private income” and did not practise. The young Bax was apparently musically gifted, starting from a young age. He says in Farewell My Youth“I cannot remember the long-lost day when I was unable to play the piano – inaccurately.”

In the last decade of the 19th century, he found himself at the Hampstead Conservatoire, run by Cecil Sharp, “whose passion for English folk-song and folk-dance excited no response in his pupil,” according to Julian Herbage. Wikipedia continues to point out that this was a time when folk music and traditional song was very much en vogue in England, esteemed by such composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Hubert Parry, works of whom we discussed recently, as well as C. V. Stanford. Bax, though, was not very keen on this fad, and another quote from his book expresses his distaste thusly:

You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk-dancing.

So I suppose we won’t find any of either in his music. At the (exact) turn of the century, in 1900, Bax began studying at the Royal Academy of Music. He was there for five years, and studied composition under Frederick Corder, who apparently introduced him to, or at least heightened his interest in, the works of Wagner. This seems to have been a turning point, or a revelation, or milestone, for Bax, for it led to his interest in Debussy and Strauss, who were apparently looked upon with not so much favor by the faculty at the RCM. Apparently he was a fine pianist, but had little interest in a solo career. That “prosperous” upbringing gave him the freedom to pursue whatever ideas and interests he had, something of which many people may have been envious, but Wikipedia says, citing an obituary of the composer in The Times, that “Bax’s independence and disinclination to heed his teachers ultimately damaged his art, because he did not develop the discipline to express his imagination to the greatest effect.”

After departing RCM, he spent some time in Dresden, where he heard Strauss’s Salome, and something of Mahler, which he said was “eccentric, long-winded, muddle-headed, and yet always interesting.” Despite the clear different direction he took from many of his contemporaries, it ultimately was not the music of Wagner and Strauss that he took as greatest inspiration, except maybe in some of his earliest orchestral works.

Bax’s wealth also allowed him to travel to the Russian empire, and this too proved to have an influence on him, finding himself enthralled with both Russian ballet and a few of the women, to one of whom was dedicated first violin sonata. Later on, after returning to England, he married a pianist and they lived in London for a time before relocating to Dublin, where he had a somewhat successful writing career under the name Dermot O’Byrne. At the beginning of World War I, he returned to England, but was unable to serve in the military due to “a heart complaint,” so he was able to write large amounts of music while his fellow composers were mostly overseas. It was during this time that he was able to mature as a composer, writing some of the more famous of his compositions, and only after the war did he begin writing symphonies.

The first, in three movements, dates from 1922, and is in three movements, lasting around 37 minutes in Thomson’s recording. It’s dedicated to John Ireland. Some people associate an autobiographical nature to the work, but at the very least, one can hear the potential War influence, especially in the opening figure, one that becomes a significant motif throughout the work. It’s hard, angular, menacing, and by extension very memorable, like a stamp or impression. This almost becomes a character, reappearing throughout the narrative of this symphony, even after the second subject of the first movement appears. It’s a soft, irresistibly melodic, tender melody, creating intense contrast with the opening figure, and providing enormous momentum for the first movement.

The second movement, slightly shorter than the first, begins with a magical, eerie, tension, an ominous stillness, brass in the distance. Wikipedia says that the second movement is “in many ways a nostalgic elegy,” but it’s not peaceful or serene, at least not in full. It is quite dark, perhaps the kind of stillness before a storm, or after a battle, on a quiet, devastated landscape. However you hear it, there are still gripping, convincing moments of triumph. Listening to even this first symphony, one gets the impression that Bax’s handling of the orchestra, the colors and textures he evokes, are some of the highest order, and his content piercing and powerful. There’s not a moment of relaxing of tension in the work, at least not so far. It’s a searing white-hot ball of energy, an unstoppable force, but full of feeling, expression of the human experience, something that literally leaves you (okay, me) needing to catch your breath. Wow.

And then we find ourselves in the finale, very obviously the most optimistic of the three movements of this symphony, but no intensity is lost in having written celebratory rather than menacing content. We still hear Bax’s amazing color of the orchestra, the fullness and texture of the sound, but now finally in a brighter atmosphere.

Also, do you hear that opening figure, the first subject from the first movement? It’s here, but not in an exact quote. It’s referred to, but as a memory, as what we’ve got now, how we see it, is different, having been changed, transformed, and even if that’s the only  thematic element, the only reference point in this symphony, it’s still a successful one.

There’s not a single moment in this symphony where I’m left wondering where we’re going, or what’s happening and why. That’s not to say it’s predictable, but there’s no loss of forward motion, no slack in the line of this outstanding symphony. There aren’t any awkward or extraneous passages, no tangents or digressions. It’s a hefty, compact, dense symphony, a three-movement work that packs quite a punch and is a hell of a first symphony.

And there’s more where that came from. This work is a revisit, one of those that I somehow decided I’d take on before I understood anything about music, but after giving it another try and being really truly blown away, I figured we need to give a listen to at least another of his symphonies. It was rather difficult picking from his remaining six which one I’d feature, but I think I chose a good one. If you’ve not had a chance to listen to the others, I strongly suggest doing so. At the very least, you can stay tuned for tomorrow’s article. Thanks for listening, and reading, and see you soon.

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