A self-proclaimed ‘brazen romantic’, Arnold Bax was born on 8 November 1883 into a prosperous London family and attended the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied piano under Tobias Matthay and composition under Frederick Corder. While still a teenager Bax fell under the spell of Yeats and all things Irish: he taught himself Gaelic and, under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne, wrote a sizeable quantity of poems, plays and short stories, some of them genuinely accomplished. Following his marriage to Elsita Sobrino in 1911 he moved to the Dublin suburb of Rathgar, but domestic life did not suit him and in 1916 he embarked upon an affair with (and subsequently left his wife and two children for) the 19-year-old pianist Harriet Cohen, who went on to inspire some of his most enduring music. Theirs was a turbulent and complex relationship. In 1926 Bax met another, more stable companion, Mary Gleaves – though, amazingly, Harriet knew nothing of her existence for 20 years.
Bax’s reputation was at its zenith between the wars. All seven of his symphonies date from this period (and enjoyed prestigious premieres under such podium greats as Koussevitzky, Wood, Beecham, Harty and Boult), as do his large-scale Symphonic Variations and Winter Legends (both for piano and orchestra), concertos for cello and violin, a Phantasy for viola and orchestra, four piano sonatas and two string quartets (in addition to many other orchestral, chamber and instrumental offerings), as well as the glorious motet for unaccompanied double choir, Mater ora filium. However, Bax’s formidable creative energy began to wane as he approached his mid-fifties, and in the 1940s he remarked to a friend that he had retired ‘like a grocer’. He received a knighthood in 1937, completed his entertaining autobiography Farewell, My Youth in 1940, and, two years later, and was appointed Master of the King’s Musick. In 1948 he produced a colourful score for David Lean’s classic big screen adaptation of Oliver Twist. He died on a visit to Cork on 3 October 1953.
Ironically, the pungent individuality of Bax’s musical personality derives in no small measure from its fruitful absorption of numerous influences (among them Celtic and Nordic folklore, Wagner, the Russian nationalists, Debussy, Ravel, Elgar, Holst and Sibelius). Nature also plays a key role, the nomadic composer preferring to work in the coastal solitude of Glencolumcille, County Donegal, or Morar in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Bax’s vast output is, hardly surprisingly, uneven, but his best compositions display a melodic fecundity, intrepid emotional range, formal strength, seductive beauty and infinitely subtle harmonic scope that exert a powerful pull.
Profile © Andrew Achenbach