The Visionary Music of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax

Bax 03 Later in Life Portrait-Photo

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.

Continue reading

Jack Vance’s Wyst: Alastor 1716 (A Socialist Dystopia)

Wyst

Current Spatterlight Edition of Wyst

Towards the end of a long life, the American genre writer – and merchant seaman, jazz-man, and master of many trades – Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) produced an amusing autobiography entitled This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009); the book also carried a parenthetical and apologetic subtitle, Or, More Properly, This is I.  In the subtitle Vance takes a jocund swipe at grammatical pedantry, and therefore at pedantry and Puritanism generally speaking, but he also affirms his passion for order, of which grammar is the linguistic species, without which (order, that is) freedom and justice, both of which he held as dear as anything, would be impossible.  There are a number of scholarly anthologies devoted to Vance’s authorship and at least one book-length single-author study of his fiction, Jack Rawlins’ Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (1986).  It is a pity, however, that no intellectual biography of Vance exists.  This is Me gives the essential details of its writer’s curriculum vitae, but it is largely bereft of information concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation.  So is Rawlins’ study although it remains otherwise useful.  If only, like Henry Miller, Vance had written his version of The Books in my Life!  Concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation, however, one might plausibly infer and arguably surmise a few probabilities.  A writer is liable to be a reader, a prolific writer a prolific reader.  A merchant seaman, as Vance remarks in his autobiography, finds himself with a good deal of time on his hands.  Vance, who had briefly studied English at the University of California Berkeley, spent long stretches at sea during the Second World War, with a good deal of time on his hands.  Two plausible guesses in respect of books that would have impressed themselves profoundly on Vance as he passed his time in their company are The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.

The Count of Monte Cristo would have supplied Vance with a plotline, that of righteous and carefully schemed vengeance against arrogant and powerful offenders, which he used in his own brilliant way many times.  Two books of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, Trullion (1973) and Marune (1975), are vengeance stories, as are all five volumes of The Demon Princes (1964 – 1981).  As it did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and science fiction writer James Blish, among innumerable others, The Decline of the West would have deepened Vance’s sense of meaning and large-scale patterning in history; and it would have stimulated his interest in the comparison of cultures.  In Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures, as he called them, each Great Culture has a distinct physiognomy (Spengler’s term) that imprints and flavors its institutional manifestations and pervades the mental outlook of its every individual.  A major element of Vance’s fiction is to establish through detailed description the distinct physiognomy – or as he calls it in a coinage of his own, the esmeric – of each of his fictional worlds and their societies.  The Decline would also have honed Vance’s sensitivity to the crisis of European civilization, just as it had for Fitzgerald and Miller.  Once again, the breakdown of social structures and the descent of civilization into renewed barbarism interest Vance almost obsessively.  Vance’s authorship contains many other signs of Spengler’s background presence, not least in its tendency to insert extended philosophical discussions, sometimes as footnotes, into the unfolding story.  In Vance’s later work, commencing with The Demon Princes, references occur to a certain “Baron Bodissey,” who seems to have been the Spengler of the settled cosmos, or the “Gaean Reach,” in the long-colonized solar systems of which, and among immensely old societies, Vance’s stories tend to occur.  Spengler saw his Great Cultures as living entities.  Vance’s Ecce and Old Earth (1991) quotes Bodissey’s study of “The Morphology of Settled Places,” in which he argues that “towns behave in many respects like living organisms,” a decidedly Spenglerian proposition.

Continue reading

To Make All Things New

You can’t make all things new until you get rid of all the old things. To make all things new is to remake them from the get go, and from the bottom up, totally, without a jot of remainder. New wine, new wineskins.

So, you’ve got to get rid of all the old wineskins.

This is what is meant by, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

This or that reform here and there is not good enough. You can’t expect to make progress against Moloch, the devourer of children, by means of marginal moves, tactical moves, polite moves. No. You must attack him directly, and totally, as Scipio Aemilianus did. Destroy him utterly, and salt the fields where his worshippers farmed, and pollute their wells.

Delete him from the Earth. Then, and only then, might Rome and her ways prevail again for a time.

Then only might there some day arise a mightily sagacious Bishop and Saint in Hippo, that suburb of Moloch’s Carthage.

The Scandalous Fascination of Latter Day Public Life in the West

Back in April of 2015 I whinged on about the stupefying boredom of latter day public life in the West. Thanks to the extraordinary depredations of the Obama years, things seemed then inexorably locked in. The Overton Window was doomed to move ever leftward, ever more rapidly. There was not even going to be a Hegelian Mambo anymore, but just a long smooth depressing slide into oblivion, as if a morphine drip were gradually dialed upward, and the body politic fell more and more deeply comatose.

Then, in June of that year – just two months later – Donald Trump declared his candidacy, and then a year later Britain voted to leave the EU.

Continue reading

The Sexual Left Devours Itself

The Great Sex Harassment Witch Hunt of 2017 is mostly hitting liberals. It is leaving conservatives largely unscathed (at least so far). Why should this be?

Continue reading

Jodeln ist Cool (I Get a Kick out of Yodeling)

Ja, Jodeln ist cool und Melanie Oesch von Oesch die Dritten ist die coolste. Jodeln ist ja wirklich cool. Cooler, sage Ich, als Hip-Hop oder weibliche-männliche Stimme “Coffee House” Musik. Oesch die Dritten ist drei Generationen einer einzigen Familie von traditionellen Schweizer Instrumentalisten und Sängern.

More below —

Continue reading

I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 2

Fugue Image 02

Abstract Image of the Fugal Phenomenon

In the first part of this essay, we traced the origin of the musical form known as fugue to the period of the religious wars in Europe, advancing the anthropological explanation of fugue as being representative in a purely abstract way of the patterns of social breakdown characteristic of the time and place.  Fugue in its classical form, as perfected by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1759), has prototypes in the Late-Renaissance caccia and ricercar, but it comes into prominence, as a musical form of forms, only in the decades of the sectarian conflicts that followed in the wake of the Reformation.  Fugue, we recall, is a musical procedure in which successive voices imitate an initial voice, the theme assuming the role of an object of contention among the voices, subjected by them to development through breaking it down into its constituent motifs, and at last resolving the strife by its resumptive unison restatement, typically as a chorale.  The great exemplar is the second half of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, the whole of which was made famous, in Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement, by its inclusion in Walt Disney’s animated feature Fantasia, just before World War II.  Incidentally, in a work such as Bach’s “D-Minor,” there is no real reason to separate the initial toccata or prelude – or whatever it might be called – from the fugue proper.  The introductory matter serves to expose the basic material out of which the fugue (as it were) will compose itself.

Previously we traced the itinerary of fugue from the Seventeenth to the Late Nineteenth Century, ending with Franz Liszt’s homage to Bach, his Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H. (1855; revised 1870).  Liszt’s score, in versions for piano or organ, would seem to be something of a non plus ultra in the development of the fugal art, but this is not, in fact, so.  We also speculated on the anthropological meaning of fugue, suggesting that it corresponded to a ritual pattern of crisis, pursuit, and salvation; and we remarked that fugue had its beginnings in the era of the religious wars in Northern Europe, when indeed many people found themselves overwhelmed by crisis, fleeing under pursuit, and seeking although not always finding asylum or refuge.  Fugue has a rich history in the period from Liszt’s death (1886) through the middle of the Twentieth Century, another historical period marked by the breakdown of societies and war.  In this second part of our two-part essay, we will explore fugue’s new lease on life from the Victorian Era to 1950.

Continue reading

The Glamour of Evil

Paraphrasing Greg Cochran:

 … a [model] that generates entertainingly wrong results will inevitably produce many interesting and publishable results.

Hah! And what do the media insatiably want? Interesting and publishable results! Clickbait! Something scary! Something that can be blamed upon some scapegoat! Something we can act to eliminate, simply by ostracizing the scapegoat!

A model of some sort generates a scary result of some sort: “Arctic May Be Ice Free By 2014,” or “Local Witch May Be Responsible For Cow Death,” or, “Jews / Blacks / Christians / Whites / Men / Immigrants / Liberals / Progressive Social Justice Warriors / Environmentalists / Feminists / Muslims May Be At Fault For All That Is Wrong With Your Life (Not You),”  or something of the sort. Then, it’s off to the races, with lots of breathless news about the ongoing crisis.

Continue reading

I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 1

Bach Art of the Fugue

J. S. Bach: Art of the Fugue (Illuminated Score)

The most famous fugue – we shall come to a definition of the term in good time – is Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugue from his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, intended for the organ.  Supposing Bach (1685 – 1750) to have written the score and not someone else, as a number of modern scholars have claimed, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor dates probably from the last decade of the composer’s life, when his longstanding interest in fugal procedure intensified, yielding latterly the immense and daunting Art of the Fugue, its final quadruple fugue remaining unfinished at the master’s death.  Uniquely among the innumerable representatives of its genre, Bach’s “D Minor” succeeded in penetrating popular awareness.  It did so in connection with the Walt Disney film Fantasia (1940), for the opening sequence of which the überromantic conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, adapted his arrangement of Bach’s organ-score for an immense modern symphonic ensemble.  Stokowski’s version dates back to the late 1920s.  He had been performing it in his concerts as a “curtain raiser,” which it undeniably is, for a decade when Disney lured him to the immortalizing Fantasia “gig.”  The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor stands out in Fantasia, coming right at the beginning, for being the only sequence in the film whose visual accompaniment avoids the naively picturesque in favor of purely coloristic and geometrical effects.  It is the only sequence that is not Kitsch. The “D Minor” turns up in another Disney film fifteen years later.  Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus plays it for Professor Arronax in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1954).  In one of the 1950s Hammer Studios vampire ventures, Count Dracula lets on his affection for the same piece in an impromptu keyboard recital for his guests. Continue reading