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.