Bax Symphony no. 4

performed by the Ulster Orchestra under Bryden Thomson

As mentioned in Monday’s revisit article, I was so taken with Bax’s first symphony that I felt we would benefit from one more of his symphonies, but which?

Well, of his seven, the fourth stands out for being the central work, for one. Julian Herbage also claims, and conductor Vernon Handley apparently agrees, that there are certain connections that tie the first three symphonies together, as well as the last three, leaving the fourth, in Herbage’s words, “an extrovert interlude between these largely introspective works”. That’s great, then, because the first symphony gave us quite a glimpse of the darkness and introspection of which Bax is capable. To shake things up a bit, we’ll tackle that middle symphony now.

The fourth was completed in 1930 and dedicated to Paul Corder, a composer and professor. Corder was a close friend of Bax and taught at the Royal Academy of Music, and Bax had also dedicated some other works to him. Liner notes for a Naxos recording cited on Wikipedia state that “It was inspired by Bax’s love of the sea and premiered in 1931 by British conductor Basil Cameron and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.” That seems like an odd symphony to give the premiere, but there are no details given about how that came to be. This work, like the first, and I think actually all of Bax’s symphonies, is in three movements, and plays for about 42 minutes in Thomson’s recording. It’s scored for a typically large orchestra, with six horns, the most in any Bax symphony, as well as an organ.

The scars and sentiments and introspections (on war or not, simply of struggle) are long gone in this symphony, like sailing away from all your troubles on a beautiful crystal sea and a big blue sky. The opening is crunchy and propulsive, but refreshing and bright. The depiction of the ocean here, perhaps inspired by the composer’s holidays in Cornwall (maybe?), is commanding and bold, at least at first nothing like Debussy’s depiction of the sea. When the second subject enters, though, with oboe solo and supple strings, undulating lines from bass clarinet, it’s as warm and rich as The Impressionist Composer himself. Bax clearly had a mighty talent for orchestral color and texture.

Similar to the first symphony, it’s these two basic contrasts that make up the content of the first movement, and with such good ‘ingredients’, and the way the composer treats them, there’s no way this first movement will be anything but gripping. Every turn taken, every shift, every new development, is just another brilliant glimpse at the landscape that’s been built in this 17-minute movement that feels much shorter. It’s cohesive, propulsive, and ends with a triumphant, celebratory gesture. No rough seas here.

The second movement is largely one of tranquility, but not without a few more impassioned moments. What broader, more wide open space could you want than being out at sea? There isn’t one, and this movement, at around 14 minutes, captures that beautiful expanse. This is your quiet morning, or beautiful sunset. There’s no harsh sun, no tumultuous waves to toss the ship to and fro, just lots of beauty.

The finale opens in a “blustery” manner, returning to the energy of the first movement, celebratory and exciting, with “an allegro scherzando section”, followed by yet another second subject led by oboe, a soft, almost sensual contrasting melody in this shortest and last movement. After all this truly wonderful music, not just pretty tunes, but deeply stirring music, we have the greatest moment of the entire piece, a triumphant, march-like section that ends the entire work on a sunny, glorious note, something that’s apparently quite rare in Bax’s output.

It’s truly a wonderful symphony, easy to approach and understand, but there are a few other things to discuss about it, I think. I really do love the word ‘pastoral’, and in an effort to avoid using it too much, there are other words, like ‘idyllic’ or ‘bucolic’, but the general idea it conveys is one of open spaces, nature, peace, warmth, happiness, all of that stuff. But it seems it’s so closely associated with pastures, green spaces, trees, even animals, rolling hills. What’s the corresponding word for the ocean?

Now, Bax didn’t use one, so who am I to attribute a subtitle or moniker to the work? I still think it’s suitable, but even as an adjective, a descriptor, what could you use? Words like ‘maritime’ or ‘nautical’ convey, at least to me, some kind of either military (okay, navy) connotation, of ships with purpose, be they navy or pirate or whatever. What’s the ‘ocean’ version of ‘pastoral’?

In any case, this symphony is a good little break from works that ponder on the implications of war, tragedy, some of the heavier things in life, things that were obviously on people’s minds in the first half of the twentieth century, England or elsewhere. So it’s certainly a bright spot, but it’s music that, at least in my experience with Bax’s music so far, displays the qualities that make his work so compelling, even if it is working in an entirely different atmosphere.

Good stuff, huh? It’s just amazing that we have at our fingertips, now more than ever, music like this that we can sit down literally any time and discover, enjoy and share. It’s incredible. It’s such a simple thing, isn’t it? Reading a book takes time, and you have to have the right light, or a device, and some people get motion sick; granted you need a device and speakers or headphones for music, but almost literally everyone these days has a mobile phone (or two) on their person. Go find some new music to enjoy. It’s so worth it.

And also stay tuned for yet more music this week. There’s one of the last big English composer names in the series that I think most people would recognize, so be on the lookout for that, one of the most famous of all English symphonies. I’m so glad this series is finally happening. Thanks for listening, and for reading. See you soon.

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