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Sir Arnold Bax 1883 - 1953

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Essentially A Non-establishment Figure

Sir Arnold Bax 1883-1953 [click for larger image]

Arnold Bax was born in Pendennis Road, Streatham, London, to prosperous upper-middle-class parents. Family wealth spared him the necessity of having to earn a living and he was free to pursue a life in music. He was educated at the Royal Academy of Music where his composition teacher was Frederic Corder. He was a highly skilled pianist, though he very rarely played in public, and was famous for playing modern full scores from sight at the piano.

In his youth he travelled in Russia and absorbed musical influences from the composers of that country, but later developed a deep love for Ireland, where he spent part of each year for a while, and contributed poems to Irish magazines under the pseudonym 'Dermot O'Byrne'. He also loved the remote west of Scotland and spent several winters composing at Morar, near Mallaig.

His mature compositions begin around 1910 with his first piano sonata, and soon after he turned to the orchestra with a series of tone-poems such as The Garden of Fand and Tintagel. With a colourful but discreet love life, during the First World War he developed a passionate relationship with the pianist Harriet Cohen, and echoes of this can be detected in his music at the time (the climax of 'Tintagel' may be compared with that in Scriabin's 'Poem of Ecstasy').

After the war Bax turned from piano music to symphonies, and in a seventeen-year period from 1922 to 1939 produced seven, earning him a reputation as Elgar's successor. Vaughan Williams, for instance, completed only two symphonies in this period, and when Walton was writing his first symphony he aimed to 'knock Bax off the map'. Bax's symphonies are unusual in that they are all in three movements rather than the traditional four. The passionate First Symphony was developed from ideas contained in the 'heaven-storming' First Piano Sonata; this and the Third Symphony are generally agreed to be Bax's finest.

Bax was knighted in 1937 and became Master of the King's Music in 1942, when he began writing film music. But already his creativity was in decline and he became increasingly pessimistic and lived quietly at Storrington in Sussex. He died at Cork in 1953. His last work was a Coronation March for Queen Elizabeth II, and he holds the distinction of being the most recent holder of the titles of both Master of the King's Music and Master of the Queen's Music.

After his death Bax's music was neglected. As late as the mid-sixties there were only two recordings of his symphonies, one long deleted and the other on an obscure label. But from 1966 onwards a revival of his music was begun by a series of recordings on Richard Itter's Lyrita label, and by the centenary of his birth in 1983 much of his music was available in modern recordings. Even today, however, his music is not frequently performed in concerts.

In an age of modernism, Bax described himself as a 'brazen romantic', though his music does carry influences of Stravinsky. He is also notable for his rich and skillful orchestration. His appearances as a performer were few and far between. There are records of him partnering May Harrison and Lionel Tertis in sonatas by Delius and himself, and he made a rare concert appearance at the memorial concert for Peter Warlock in 1930. There is a fine Life of him by Lewis Foreman (Scolar Press) and an idiosyncratic autobiography 'Farewell My Youth' which stops at 1914, where an unwritten second part would have started.

Arnold Bax 1883 - 1953

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