The Visionary Music of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax

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Sir Arnold Trevor Bax in His Fifties

The name of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax (1883 – 1953) hardly qualifies as a household reference even among people with serious musical interests.  Yet Bax claimed a significant following in his day and in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, after a long period of diminished currency, his large tranche of compositions finds near-complete representation in the catalogue of recordings.  What would have seemed impossible in 1970, that three complete recorded traversals of Bax’s seven numbered symphonies would one day compete with or complement one another and that these would vie with two partial traversals and numerous one-off items, is today a fact.  Indeed, a recording now exists of Bax’s early, unnumbered and discarded symphony, written as a graduation exercise when he attended the Royal Academy of Music as a piano and composition student.  The twin phenomena of Bax’s virtual disappearance from musical consciousness in Europe and North America and of his subsequent reappearance are themselves of interest, since they offer a glimpse into the relation of art and ideology in the Late Modern Period.  In this way, Bax remains anomalous.  Other English composers – although it might be more accurate to call Bax a British composer – suffered abasements of their reputations in the aftermath of World War Two, not least Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but none suffered from such a full eclipse as Bax.  It was the usual pattern of modern arrogance. The postwar musical establishment in Britain, while embracing the supposedly inevitable trend of abolishing beauty in art, simultaneously directed sustained contumely against the musical tradition and its practitioners.  Elgar became the icon, quite unfairly, of a now-despised Edwardian imperialism.  Snarky critics referred to the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams as “cow-pat music.”  Despite this, Elgar’s music and Vaughan Williams’ continued to be performed and recorded.  They always had advocates.  With his death, Bax vanished.

I. In The Brandy of the Damned (1963), Colin Wilson, in assessing English music, wrote of Bax that, “When one turns from Vaughan Williams to Sir Arnold Bax one confronts another of those problems whose answer may be obvious to future ages, but that seems unanswerable today: Why one should be held in high regard and be so well represented on record, while the other is ignored.” Wilson characterized as “the composer of seven symphonies that are in many ways as remarkable as those of Sibelius” and “of a large number of fine piano works.” Wilson recognized Bax as an exponent of Romanticism although not of the blatant Romanticism of, say, Tchaikovsky; rather Bax’s aesthetic appealed to Wilson as “delicate, subtle, [and] intelligent.”  In seeking an answer to his own question, Wilson observed that “although [Bax’s music] is romantic music, it has none of the easily remembered melodies of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky”; and “this means that Bax does not make an immediate appeal to the kind of unsophisticated listener who knows each composer by his best-known melody.”  Wilson argues that the subtlety of Bax’s scores might explain why they go unheard in the concert hall, but not why they are (or were at the time) so thinly available in recorded performance.  In the early 1960s, Wilson was one of the few writers of musical sensibility even to take heed of Bax.  He deserves credit for that despite his characterizations being a bit off the mark.  Everyone can hum the tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, but who can hum the opening subject of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, as striking as it is?  Bax does have a relation to Sibelius, not least in being more concerned with musical, especially symphonic, processes than with melody, as such.  Nevertheless, pace Wilson, Bax wrote numerous memorable melodies.

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When Something that is Needless to Say is Said

“I greatly fear that the universities, unless they teach the Holy Scriptures diligently and impress them on the young student, are wide gates to Hell,” Martin Luther (1).

I can recall two or three occasions when a university committee on which I was sitting felt a need to align itself with the “Core Values” of the institution, and how on each of these occasions committee members were reduced to consulting their smart phones. You know how St. Paul praised the Greeks for being so very religious as to worship an “unknown god” (Acts 17: 23). This university is so very ethical as to uphold unknown values. Continue reading

The Degenerate Bottom Revisited

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“Forever Marilyn” (2011) by John Seward (born 1930) in Palm Springs

Kristor’s recent essay, “The Arms Race to the Degenerate Bottom,” reminded its readers of the downward or subscendent trend of aesthetics under the by now longstanding regime of liberal modernity.  Recently also JM Smith made reference in one of his Orthosphere entries to Billy Wilder’s film The Seven-Year Itch (1955), starring among others Marilyn Monroe. Miss Monroe is my topic. In a state of heightened awareness after reading Kristor and JM (if “heightened” were the word, which it is likely not), I was quick to notice that the cultural mudslide in whose beginnings Miss Monroe participated — in various ways — is still prone to feature her prominently, as though honoring its own inception (if “inception” were the word, which it is likely not).

John Seward Johnson II, a.k.a. John Seward (born 1930), is a sculptor apparently well-known to the art-world, but hitherto unknown to me. Johnson created his twenty-six-foot tall bronze statue of Monroe in 2011, basing it on the skirt-lifting scene from Wilder’s film, where Monroe stands over a grate in the sidewalk. The statue, which resembles Seward’s other work, all of which looks like it was intended for audioanimatronic display at one of the Disney parks, originally stood in Palm Springs, but has recently gone on tour to Stamford, Connecticut, where it is spending the summer.

The sculpture’s painted garishness no doubt accords itself with the prim sleaziness of Palm Springs, which I would describe as Las Vegas without the casinos but with at least as many cocktail waitresses, pole-dancers, and call-girls. When one thinks of primly sleazy places, however, one hardly thinks of Stamford.

The photograph below shows “Forever Marilyn” from a frontal perspective. —

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“Forever Marilyn” in Stamford (Angle 1)

The photograph that I have placed below the “continue reading” toggle again shows “Forever Marilyn” frontally but from a different and revealing angle. —

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A revision to the Gödel essay

A benefit of publication can be informed criticism which in this case has entailed a revision. I had confused Gödelian propositions with axioms. The revision makes extensive use of Roger Penrose – a major mathematical physicist and philosopher, and to a lesser extent, Stanley Jaki, also a physicist and philosopher – so there is a certain amount of a legitimate appeal to authority. If it is a subject that seems particularly interesting, perhaps you wanted to know why Gödel’s Theorem is regarded as such a landmark, I hope the reader might read this version too. My apologies for leading anyone astray. I can only hope that this revision is evidence of intellectual integrity and not just boneheadedness on my part.

https://orthosphere.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/godels-theorem/

A Sudden, Inexorable and Appalling Fit of Unlust

I have just been reading an account of the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, a celebrated food critic who had, I must admit, never before penetrated the fastness of my consciousness. It appears that Bourdain made a name for himself by going to exotic places and pestering the locals with questions about their food. In announcing his death, his corporate employer said,

“His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller.”

Bourdain was 61, a year older than I, and so part of my generation. Indeed, he was to all outward appearance one of its blessed elect, for he embodied many of the virtues my generation esteems as cardinal. I see that Smithsonian once called him “the original rock star” of the culinary world, and believe they intended a compliment. Continue reading

The Arms Race to the Degenerate Bottom

The race to the degenerate bottom is not steady. On the contrary, it always accelerates; for, it is an arms race.

You can see this with any medium that depends for its survival on the attention of many minds: advertising, entertainment, journalism. All outlets of such media compete with each other for attention. The one that is the most extraordinary wins the competition. So the competition is to discover which outlet is the most abnormal, thus attractive of notice. Whatever was the most abnormal during the last round must be surpassed in the current round in order to gain notice: the most abnormal recent instance resets the bound of normality.

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Apologia pro vita sua

A concerned reader has written to say that my last post left him with the worrying impression that I might be a boomer cuck who is incapable of repaying the conjugal debt, and, what is worse, a pompous peddler of “frog quotes.”  As Émile Zola might have written,

J’accuse!

Needless to say, this sort of searching critique forces a man to undertake an unsparing examination of his conscience, his birth certificate, his voting record, and his children, all the while keeping an open mind to the possibility that he is guilty as charged. Continue reading

Unprotected, Undismayed

“Let a fellow sing o’ the little things he cares about,    
If a fellow fights for the little things he cares about
With the weight of a single blow!”
Rudyard Kipling, “The Native Born” (1894)

Last night an old friend expressed a wish that is, I daresay, familiar to many who have staggered into the oasis of the Orthosphere, parched by the desert and panting for refreshment.  He said that he wished there was someone on his side.  My friend is, like me, a white, Christian, cishet male, without fortune, connections, or compromising tapes of powerful individuals.  In other words, he is a man marked by the stigma of that dwindling class of Americans who are not, today, a protected species.  Anyone is at perfect liberty to mock him and “the little things he cares about,” and if their mockery is sufficiently witty, they may well find themselves employed by the New York Times. Continue reading

A Word About My Late Silence

Several loyal orthosphereans have written me privily in recent days, to inquire politely after my health and well-being. This, due to my recent absence from this and every other online forum.

I write now therefore to assure any others who have been likewise worried that everything is fine with me personally, except in one enormously important respect: my wife and I have been for the last few months entirely, and indeed more than entirely, engaged in moving houses (and buying, and selling, too). Moving is irksome and distracting even for a college kid with nothing more than a backpack of clothes and a shelf or two of books. We however have been engaged in a move more massive by several orders of magnitude: downsizing after a career of raising kids in a large house with (we now realize) really ridiculously grand amounts of storage.

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