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Sir Arnold Bax

2 Ratings: 3.5
An English composer and poet.

Sir 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 … see full wiki

1 review about Sir Arnold Bax

Arnold Bax, Glencolumbcille and me.

  • May 14, 2009
  • by

A Discovery : a Prologue


Have you ever considered the potential consequences of the smallest action that you undertake in your life?  I recall the TV series ‘Lonesome Dove' where the hero Gus decides to ride up to the top of a hill ‘just for the fun of it' which ultimately leads to his death. But smaller, less lethal consequences can occur and affect our lives in a great way from just one simple and spontaneous action. I will ask the reader to imagine me, best part of forty years ago now, an 18 year old lad still at school, sitting bored in his bedroom on a grim and rainy Saturday morning and so he switched on the radio and listened to some strange and compelling music. By switching on that radio at that precise hour on that station changed my life…it gave me the music of Bax and the village of Glencolumbcille,


I drive there several times a year now and the arrival never fails to enchant me. Even today the snaking road curls and turns between Killybegs and Glencolumbcille in South West Donegal, a mere 17 miles that takes an average of a bumpy and twisty 40 minutes. Passing the village of Carrick with its glorious golden sunlit harbour the road rises quickly and the sunlight is gone as it crosses a misty black deserted landscape with glacial lakes and clamps of oily dug peat covered in plastic bags, damp under the mist and rain. Sheep litter the roadside and the black menacing shape of Slieve League blots out the sun now dipping over the west. This forbidding landscape lifts up and up as we see the Glen Head lift itself majestically over the horizon and then we are suddenly where we have been travelling for so long to get to, looking down on a beautiful green valley bathed in sunlight with the little white houses dotted along its length. The sun breaks out above the distant ocean with white breakers crashing over the brown rocks and the blue sky begins to become pearlescent as the day moves into the gloaming. The valley has been a holy place for millennia and as I focus on the little church shining in the evening sun I can join in that exultation that has been felt by many pilgrims who Christian and pre-Christian have worshipped here.


Arnold Bax used to visit this place in the early years of the 20th century. It is said he first visited Ireland in 1904 as a result of reading Yeats' ‘Wanderings of Oisin' and he went there ‘in great intellectual excitement' to see this country for himself. Sometime after 1904 Bax took it upon himself to visit all the corners of Ireland and by 1910 had discovered ‘the Glen' as it is still lovingly called by the locals. Bax would take the railway to the Killybegs railhead and then the generally overcrowded and wet horse powered mailcar to the Glen. Bax chose this place to spend his time in Ireland and even set some of his literary works as his nom de plume ‘Dermot O'Byrne' there. It should be noted that Byrne is a local name to the village and one can only assume that Bax was attempting to become one with the ‘mountainy men' of Donegal in the adoption of this pseudonym.


 How did it all begin for me? How did I end up here?  As I started earlier, I was idly listening to the radio in 1971 and on Radio Three they were playing a strange and amazing work, the like I had never heard before. At this stage I had prided myself on knowing the major composers and was usually reasonable watching Joseph Cooper's ‘Face the Music' which featured questions that I was usually able to answer on orchestral music at least. I was no Robin Ray with opus numbers to hand but I was sufficiently knowledgeable that I knew the finger prints of the most played composers. I had got to the stage when I was able to date and categorize a work that I had never heard before. On top of this were the individual composer's trademarks. This might be a Mozart tune that nobody else could have made up or a Beethoven passionate climax, it might be the blazing Tchaikovskian brass or the low Sibelius woodwind or even the Brucknerian string choir underpinned by those growling Wagner Tubas.  


As the piece proceeded I applied my knowledge of these categories and attempted to identify the composer. At one point I detected a Richard Strauss flamboyance in the use of the instruments. This, whoever it was, knew how to set the orchestra dynamic from the sotto voce tones to the largest sforzandi fff climax. The scoring was brilliant as were highlights on percussion. The work was definitely post Wagnerian in texture and harmony and full of late romantic conflict and tension. This Sturm und Drang fell away in the beautiful slow movement as a lovely celtic tune is ushered in with half lights and seascapes but ultimately we were led back from this temporary peace to great uneasiness and disaster. This was a mood I had never experienced before in music and was in thrall as the apocalyptic final movement gave way to an epilogue that seemed to just switch off in the middle of a phrase.


It was as if after all the human drama had been acted out and destroyed nothing was left, even the incomplete discontinued melodic form. I had given up any attempt to identify the composer by the end of the slow movement and now waited for the announcement at the end of the work.


As it all came to an end, I gasped at the work's impact and aftermath and listened breathlessly and intently at the speakers to the radio, almost frightened that it would spontaneously shut off or crackle at the wrong time and deny me the knowledge of who had written the work and what it was. The announcer coldly read in that traditional received pronunciation BBC tone, ‘That was Arnold Bax's Second Symphony with the London Philharmonic conducted by Myer Fredman' just released this week on Lyrita'. I immediately put my jacket on and took the train to Bromley and bought the LP in the HMV shop. An hour later the LP was on my turntable but I limited myself in repeatedly playing it so that it would not lose its impact on me.


From then on, I made it my business to track down any recording of Bax's work and discovered that he had suffered a great neglect of the type the British reserve for their home grown talent. Despite being a master of the orchestra and the piano, he was out of tune with the 1960s zeitgeist that still prevailed. His confession of being a ‘brazen romantic' implied that even in his own time this entailed some unpopularity.


Thankfully as the years rolled into the 1980s there was a great resurgence in his music, largely due to the work of the late Vernon Handley and as the Bax discography grew, bit by bit,  I was able to collect all of his work on CD over the best part of 20 years. I always read the LP and CD notes and did my own research to find out what made the man tick.


In 2001 I decided to visit the place that Bax described so well in the pages of his 1939 autobiography ‘Farewell my Youth' as well as on the CD notes.  It was a revelation. The place had changed relatively little since his day in terms of size as it has been protected by the terrible quality of the roads which made it seem so remote. The weather was fantastic the whole two weeks and one golden afternoon I sat alone by the seashore playing ‘the Garden of Fand' through in my head as the Atlantic gently rolled over the golden sands. There is a true magic about this wonderful work which to my mind is the best thing Bax ever wrote. It was the gift of the Glen to Bax and it was his gift to us as he depicts the ever changing light and sounds of the Atlantic for those who would never be fortunate enough to see it for themselves. It is also a great remembrance for those fortunate souls who had.


After two weeks we were to come home. Looking out over the dying day setting in golden glory on the shining Atlantic I wept bitterly like Bax did before me when he realised for the first time the ephemeral nature of life after a wonderful day at Arundel Park near Worthing. I vowed that I would be back and by September, four months later, I had bought a house in the village. Since then I have returned again and again to this place that Bax had led me to. I have become friends with many of the people in the village and feel homesick when I am away. I am determined to live out my retirement here, to die here and for my remains to rest on this holy earth when I have lived out my time.



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May 14, 2009
Wow, Keith, this is an exceptionally touching and beautiful review.  It's amazing how the influence of one person can have such an impact on your life, even moreso if you've never met the person before and are only influenced through his or her life works and stories. 

I feel the same way about Chopin, but instead of traveling where he had once traveled, I learned as many of his songs as I could :)
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