Mind Your Bax…

I’m very aware that my putting the boot into Arnold Bax yesterday — on account of that stupid remark of his which provided an ill-minded critic with a brick to throw at Schoenberg — might have had a result that I’d actually be very unhappy to have produced. You’ll remember the stupid remark I mean: that one about ‘morbid growths emanating from the brains … of a few decadent Central European Jews‘.

What bothers me is the thought that my highlighting that line (and saying what I thought of him for writing it) might have had the effect of putting some people off Bax before they’ve even heard any of his music — of making some readers decide that he is a composer they’re now entitled to despise, or at the very least, to ignore. After all, that’s precisely the sort of thing that happens in a busy world where no-one has time to explore everything — and where everyone is happy to hate someone for their crime of hating someone else.

Bax and his lover, the pianist Harriet Cohen, c. 1920

Bax and his lover, the pianist Harriet Cohen, c. 1920

Now, I could simply have dropped the subject altogether, and hoped that people would forget all about it; but since angry words about composers tend to leave persistent marks, I think I ought to use the next few postings to try and present a better picture of Arnold Bax (1883-1953) — who is, surely, one of Britain’s greatest composers, however few modern Britons have had the chance to hear about him in a nation whose musical Philistinism knows no bounds.

The first thing I want to say is that Clinton Gray-Fiske — the critic who quoted that line from Bax’s autobiography Farewell, My Youth (published in 1943, when Bax was 60) — was only really able to use Bax’s statement as a brick because he’d removed it from its context. I went and dug out the latest edition of the text — the one magnificently annotated and expanded and illustrated by Lewis Foreman as Farewell, My Youth and other writings by Arnold Bax (1992) — and found the following:


from Arnold Bax, Farewell, My Youth (1943)

Now, I don’t think I’m ‘bending over backwards’ to whitewash Bax when I say that restoration of the context does angle the point in a somewhat different direction: he isn’t engaged in a diatribe against extra-tonal music and those who write it — he only brings up ‘atonalism’ at all in order to draw attention to the possible fallibility of his own (and his contemporaries’) negative reaction. To be sure, the gratuitous invocation of ‘Central European Jews‘ as a categorisation with moral or otherwise explanatory significance still stinks to heaven (and, personally, I think his use of the word ‘prophet’ malodorous also); but I myself cannot shake the thought that a man born in 1883 into the world’s leading imperial power was almost certainly going to be one whose view of ethnic inheritance was polluted by essentialist daydreams. (One wonders if Bax would have written the paragraph in quite the same way had he penned it two or three years later — after seeing those cinema newsreels that showed the emaciated corpses of ‘Central European Jews’ being bulldozed into a pit.)

Anyway, time to move from what Bax couldn’t do or understand to what he very definitely could. Since I know for a fact that these postings are read by at least a few people who’ve never heard of Bax (let alone Havergal Brian!), I want to present a video of his best-known work — the totally lovable orchestral work Tintagel (1917-19), with its evocations of a heaving and crashing Cornish sea; its quotation from Tristan und Isolde; and its unforgettable ‘big tune’. To introduce the work, I’ve found a four-minute clip in which Mark Elder talks about it (if you can stand the orotundity).

If that piques your interest, you can move on to a performance with visible performers:

And if you liked that — or even if you didn’t — you might want to see a TV treasure all the way from 1954 (which means Bax can’t have been dead for more than a year) in which Stokowski not only plays the last few minutes of the work (with overlaid film of Tintagel), but introduces it as well!

I have to say: a terrific composer!


MOcoverforblogIf you enjoyed this posting, remember that I am a regular contributor and columnist for the UK magazine Musical Opinion. The magazine’s website can be found here; to see its Twitter feed, click here; to see its Facebook page, click here. To subscribe to Musical Opinion, click here.

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