Back to Bax

Sir Arnold Edward Trevor Bax KCVO was an English composer, poet and author. After reading this post, I hope you’ll agree that this neglected composer needs to be seen more on our concert programs and heard more in our concert halls.

Here’s a summary of his sterling background:
Born: November 8, 1883 · London, England
Died: October 3, 1953 · Cork, Ireland
Compositions: Symphony No. 2 · Tintagel · Symphony No. 7 · Symphony No. 3 · Symphony N…
Education: Royal Academy of Music

Bax was born in the London suburb of Streatham to a prosperous family. He was encouraged by his parents to pursue a career in music, and his private income enabled him to follow his own path as a composer without regard for fashion or orthodoxy. Consequently, he came to be regarded in musical circles as an important but isolated figure.

In 1900 Bax moved on to the Royal Academy of Music, where he remained until 1905, studying composition with Frederick Corder and piano with Tobias Matthay. Corder was a devotee of the works of Wagner, whose music was Bax’s principal inspiration in his early years. He later observed, “For a dozen years of my youth I wallowed in Wagner’s music to the almost total exclusion – until I became aware of Richard Strauss – of any other”. Bax also discovered and privately studied the works of Debussy, whose music, like that of Strauss, was frowned on by the largely conservative faculty of the Academy.

While still a student at the Royal Academy of Music Bax became fascinated with Ireland and Celtic culture, which became a strong influence on his early development. In the years before the First World War he lived in Ireland and became a member of Dublin literary circles, writing fiction and verse under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne. Later, he developed an affinity with Nordic culture, which for a time superseded his Celtic influences in the years after the First World War.

Between 1910 and 1920 Bax wrote a large amount of music, including the symphonic poem Tintagel, his best-known work. Perhaps the best known of all his orchestral works Bax’s Tintagel is a vivid tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff of Tintagel in Cornwall. Here the legends of King Arthur and the scenic grandeur of the Atlantic Ocean fired Bax’s imagination into producing some of the most vivid sea music ever written.

Bax himself wrote that the music brought, “…thoughts of many passionate and tragic incidents in the tales of King Arthur and King Mark… and that the piece ends as it began, with a picture of the castle still proudly fronting the sea and wind of centuries”

During this period he formed a lifelong association with the pianist Harriet Cohen – at first an affair, then a friendship, and always a close professional relationship. In the 1920s he began the series of seven symphonies which form the heart of his orchestral output. In 1942 Bax was appointed Master of the King’s Music, but composed little in that capacity. In his last years he found his music regarded as old-fashioned, and after his death it was generally neglected. From the 1960s onwards, mainly through a growing number of commercial recordings, his music was gradually rediscovered, although little of it is heard with any frequency in the concert hall.

Afterword: As an alumnus myself of the Royal Academy of Music, London, my professor there, Frederick Jackson, urged me to get acquainted with ‘Arnold’s superb compositions’ whenever I got the chance. As a result of the orchestral works, I became attached to Tintagel heard here on YouTube and performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. The Celtic music is played by a Celtic ensemble. Enjoy!

References: Wikipedia; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewens

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