Arnold Bax

Arnold Edward Trevor Bax, KCVO (8 November 1883 - 3 October 1953) was an English composer and poet. His musical style blended elements of Romanticism and Impressionism, always with a strong Celtic influence. His orchestral scores are noted for their complexity and colourful instrumentation. Bax's poetry and stories, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Dermot O'Byrne, reflect his profound affinity with Irish poet William Butler Yeats and are largely written in the tradition of the Irish Literary Revival.

Bax was born in Pendennis Road, Streatham, London, into a Victorian upper-middle-class family of Dutch descent. He grew up in Ivy Bank, a mansion on top of Haverstock Hill, Hampstead where he attended Heath Mount School. In Bax, A Composer and His Times (2007) Lewis Foreman suggests that, because of the family affluence, Bax never had to take a paid position and was free to pursue most of his interests. From an early age, Bax showed that he had a powerful intellect and great musical talent, especially at the keyboard. He often enjoyed playing the Wagner operas on piano. One of his first intimate meetings with art music was through Tristan und Isolde and its influence is seen in many of his later works, Tintagel for example. Bax was taught at home, but received his first formal musical education at age 16 from Cecil Sharp and others at the Hampstead Conservatory. He was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in 1900 where he remained until 1905. At the Academy, he was taught composition by Frederick Corder, the Piano by Tobias Matthay and the Clarinet by Egerton. In his composition classes, Corder emphasized the examples of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner and pointed to their liberal approach to classical form, which led Bax to develop a similar attitude. He had an exceptional ability to sight-read and play complex orchestral scores at the piano, which won him several medals at the Academy and he also won prizes for best musical composition, including the Battison-Haynes prize and the competitive Charles Lucas Medal.

Bax had a sensitive and searching soul and drew inspiration from a wide range of sources. He was a voracious reader of literature and in this way he happened upon William Butler Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1902. He proved highly receptive to the soft, melancholy moods of the Irish Literary Revival and found in Yeats a powerful muse, from which he derived a life-time of inspiration. He developed an infatuation with Ireland and began travelling extensively there. He visited the most isolated and secluded places, eventually discovering the little Donegal village Glencolumbkille, to which he returned annually for almost 30 years. Here, he drew inspiration from the landscape and the sea, and from the culture and life of the local Irish peasants, many of whom he regarded as close friends. His encounter with the poetry of Yeats and the landscapes of Ireland resulted in many new works, both musical and literary. The String Quartet in E (1903), which later was worked into the orchestral tone poem Cathaleen-Ni-Houlihan (1905), are fine examples of how he began to reflect Ireland in his music. Not only did he emerge as a surprisingly mature composer with these works, he also developed in them floating and undulating 'impressionistic' musical textures using orchestral techniques not yet heard not even from Claude Debussy. Many of the works he wrote in the period from 1903 to 1916 can be seen as musical counterparts to the Irish Literary Revival. The tone-poems Into The Twilight (1908), In The Faery Hills (1909) and Rosc-catha [Battle hymn] (1910) echo the themes of the Revival and especially the soft, dreamy mood of many poems and stories.

The Irish influence is only one of many found in Bax's music. An early affinity with Norway and the literature of Bjoernstjerne Bjoernson brought themes and moods from the Nordic countries into his music. From 1905 to 1911, Bax constantly alternated between using Nordic and Celtic themes in his compositions. He even attempted to teach himself some Norwegian and, in the song The Flute (1907) for voice and piano, he successfully set an original poem by Bjoernson to music. Later examples of Bax's Nordic affinity include Hardanger for two pianos (1927) and the orchestral tone-poem The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew (1931).

In 1910, a youthful fling with a Ukrainian girl, Natalia Skarginska, brought Bax to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Lubny, near Kiev, which led to a fascination for Russian and Slavonic themes. The relationship with Skarginska resulted in an emotional agony from which he never completely recovered. His conflicting feelings are perhaps reflected in the First Piano Sonata in F sharp (1910, revised 1917-20). The Russian and Ukrainian influence can also be heard in two works for solo piano from 1912, Nocturne May Night in the Ukraine and Gopak (Russian dance).

In 1915 appeared In a Vodka Shop also for solo piano. In 1919, Bax was one of four British composers to be commissioned to write orchestral music to serve as interludes at Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in London. For the commission, he incorporated the three above-mentioned piano works of Russian themes into Russian Suite for orchestra. In 1920, he wrote incidental music to J. M. Barrie's whimsical play The Truth About the Russian Dancers, his last work based on a clearly Russian theme. The Russian influence may be found in many of Bax's other scores and is especially predominant in his first three symphonies.

In January 1911, not long after he returned to Britain, Bax married Elsita Sobrino, a childhood friend. They settled in Bushy Park Road, Rathgar, Dublin. Here Bax's brother Clifford introduced them to the intellectual circle which met at the house of the poet, painter and mystic George William Russell. Bax had already had some of his poems and short stories published in Dublin and to the circle he was simply known by the pseudonym, Dermot O'Byrne (the name was possibly inspired by a renowned family of traditional musicians in Donegal).

As Dermot O'Byrne, he was specifically noted for Seafoam and Firelight, published in London by the Orpheus Press in 1909 and numerous short stories and poems published in different media in Dublin. It was at Russell's house where Bax one night met Irish Republican Patrick Pearse. According to Bax, they got on very well and, although they met only once, the execution of Pearse following the Easter Rebellion in 1916 prompted him to compose several laments, the most noted being In Memoriam Patric Pearse (1916), which contains the dedication 'I gCuimhne ar Phadraig Mac Piarais'.

The threat of war led to the dissolution of the Rathgar Circle as many members fled Ireland and Europe. Bax and his family returned to London; it was the loss of a blissful life. A heart condition prevented Bax from enlisting, and he spent the war years composing profusely. Although World War I unleashed previously unimagined horrors upon the world, it was the Easter Rebellion and the destruction of Dublin that especially disturbed Bax.

As his Ireland - a haven and a retreat - was lost to bitter conflict and war, he sought refuge in a liaison with the younger pianist Harriet Cohen. What had started out as a purely professional alliance - Cohen playing and championing Bax's piano music - developed into a passionate relationship. Yet their love could not be sanctioned by the contemporary social code, which brought to both parties considerable emotional suffering.

This difficult period in Bax's life led to the composition of several attractive tone-poems, including Summer Music (1916), Tintagel (1917) and November Woods (1914-1917). In Tintagel, Bax reached back to legends and dreams specifically that of the doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde. Tintagel is undoubtedly the best known of Bax's tone-poems and includes a colourful evocation of the sea. Bax's relationship with Cohen led some commentators to assume a Freudian link between Bax's alleged sexual passion and the sea-theme in Tintagel.

However, the opening of Harriet Cohen's private papers and the research into them by scholars, such as the Norwegian musicologist Thomas Elnaes, indicates that such a link is at best speculative. Bax's works from this time reflect deep psychological conflicts that point forward to the passionate yet deeply troubled First Symphony in E flat, completed in 1922. After the war, British music was in demand as never before in England; and Bax won considerable fame with his works, which were widely performed.

From 1928 onwards, Bax ceased to travel to Glencolumbkille and instead began his annual migration to Morar, west Scottish Highlands, to work. He would sketch his compositions in London and take them to the Station Hotel at Morar for the winter, in order to orchestrate them. At this time, he found a new love in Mary Gleaves; and she accompanied him to Scotland. In the Morar period, which lasted until the outbreak of World War II, Bax rediscovered his interest in Norway and the Nordic countries, and found a new musical hero in Sibelius. At Morar, he orchestrated Symphonies Nos. 3 to 7 and several of his finest orchestral works, including the three Northern Ballads. (No. 5 is actually dedicated to Sibelius and shares something of his stylistic austerity).

All seven of Bax's symphonies were composed within a relatively short span of time and are perhaps the most coherent cycle of symphonies by any composer. They reflect his many influences and are profound works of art with a deep psychological dimension tied to evocations of scenery. The symphonies earned Bax a reputation as the successor to Elgar, as Vaughan Williams, for instance, had only completed four symphonies by the time Bax had completed his seventh.

Bax received a knighthood in 1937 (Knight Bachelor), but he was not entirely prepared to enjoy this honour. He contended that there was a conflict between the knighthood and his profound affinity with Ireland, but accepted nonetheless. A feeling that his creative energies were drained started to manifest itself. Bax explained to his friends that he felt tired, restless and lonely. He contended that he had a hard time growing up. His increasing age depressed him, and he started to drink heavily. He also felt alienated by the new modernistic fashions in music, and realised, to his sorrow, that his style was falling out of critical favour.

In 1942, Bax was appointed Master of the King's Musick, a decision the British musical establishment was not altogether happy with. To many, Bax was an atypical English composer, some especially pointing to the 'Irishness' of his music.

Of his later works, only the film scores for Malta G.C. and Oliver Twist were really successful. They earned Bax a renewed (and deserved) public acclaim, but their popularity could not compensate for his being considered old-fashioned by many younger composers and critics. He retreated from the public scene and lived quietly at The White Horse Hotel in Storrington, Sussex.

In 1929, the Father Mathew Feis, a competitive music festival organized by the Capuchin Fathers, invited Bax to become adjudicator. It was Irish pianist Tilly Fleischmann who suggested him, knowing that he was familiar with Ireland and Irish conditions. This was also the first time Bax met Irish musicians in Ireland, other than folk musicians. In Cork, he was introduced to such outstanding musicians as the pianist Charles Lynch and singer Maura O'Connor, both of whom went on to give many performances of Bax's music.

Bax's first visit to Cork marked the beginning of a 24 year friendship with the Fleischmann family. As performances of Bax's music grew increasingly rare in Britain, Tilly Fleischmann demonstrated to Bax that his music had wide appeal in Ireland. Bax, however, did little to act on this, or to support further efforts; and his music was not heard nationwide in Ireland until Aloys Fleischmann began conducting his orchestral works with the Irish Radio Orchestra in Dublin just after the end of the war. In 1946, Bax became external examiner with both University College Cork and University College Dublin, and he also gave individual tuition to aspiring young Irish composers. He received an honorary doctorate degree from the National University of Ireland in 1947.

In 1953, Bax was further honoured by appointment as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO), an honour within the Queen's personal gift. He died during a visit to the Fleischmanns later that year, possibly from a complication of his heart condition. One of his last compositions was Coronation March for Queen Elizabeth II.

Not long before he died, Bax was asked by the editor of the The World of Music which were his own preferred works. He provided the following selection:

  • The Garden of Fand (1916)
  • Symphony No. 3 (1929)
  • Winter Legends (1930)
  • The Tale the Pine Trees Knew (1931)
  • Symphony No. 6 (1935)

On another occasion, he said, of his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, which had been commissioned by and dedicated to Gaspar Cassado, "The fact that nobody has ever taken up this work has been one of the major disappointments of my musical life".

He died at age 69 and was interred in St. Finbarr's Cemetery, Cork.


Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1917 Elegiac Trio 4.00 stars CD
Trio Nobis
1917-1919 Tintagel 4.00 stars CD
New Music II Comments:
Ulster Orchestra cond. Bryden Thomson
1931 Symphony No 4 4.00 stars CD
New Music II Comments:
Ulster Orchestra cond. Bryden Thomson