The E-BNR aims to build a comprehensive & unique cross-artform guide to
the British neo-Romantic tradition,
from 1880 to the present day.
While the British Romantics of 1789-1824 have spawned a vast industry of
publishers, conferences & tourism, the later neo-Romantic traditions
remain largely neglected. The E-BNR is aimed at bringing this hidden
tradition to light.
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WHAT IS NEO-ROMANTICISM ?
Neo-Romantic artists have drawn their inspiration
from artists of the age of Romanticism or earlier.
Characteristic themes in their work include a
mystical approach to the British landscape...
ENTRY: Bax, Arnold
Sir Arnold Edward Trevor Bax, K.C.V.O.
(b. November 8, 1883 — d. October 3, 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 for their complexity
and colorful instrumentation.
Bax’s poetry and stories, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Dermoth O’Byrne,
reflect his profound affinity with Irish poet William Butler Yeats,
and are largely written in the tradition of the Celtic Revival.
Bax was born in Pendennis Road, Streatham, London. Bax was taught at home, but received
his first formal musical education at age sixteen from Cecil Sharp and others at the
Hampstead Conservatory. Bax was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in 1900
where he remained until 1905.
Bax had a sensitive and searching soul and drew inspiration from a wide range of
sources. He was a voracious reader of literature, and in this way he happened
upon William Butler Yeats's early romantic poetry in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems
in 1902. Bax found in Yeats a powerful muse, from which he derived a
life-time of inspiration. He developed an infatuation with Ireland, and began travelling
extensively there. Bax visited the most isolated and secluded places, eventually discovering
the little Donegal village Glencolumbkille, to which he returned annually for almost
30 years. Here, Bax drew inspiration from the landscape and the sea, and from the culture
and life of the local Irish peasants – many of whom Bax regarded as close friends.
Bax’s encounter with the poetry of Yeats and the landscapes of Ireland, resulted in
many new works both musical and literary. The String Quartet in E (1903),
which later was worked into the orchestral tone-poem Cathaleen-Ni-Houlihan (1905)
are fine examples of how Bax began to reflect Ireland in his music.
Not only did Bax emerge as a surprisingly mature composer with these works,
he also developed in them floating and undulating ‘impressionistic’
musical textures, using orchestral techniques not yet heard – not even from
Claude Debussy. The tone-poems Into The Twilight (1908), In The Faery Hills (1909),
and Rosc-catha [Battle hymn] (1910) echo the themes of the Revival and
especially the soft, dreamy mood of many Celtic poems and stories.
The Irish influence is only one of many found in Bax's music. An early affinity
with Norway and the literature of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson brought themes and moods
from the Norse countries into his music. From 1905 to 1911 Bax constantly
alternated between using Nordic and Celtic themes in his compositions.
In 1910, a youthful infatuation with a Ukrainian girl, Natalia Skarginska, brought
Bax to St Petersburg, Moscow and Lubny near Kiev, which led to a fascination for Russian
and Slavonic themes. In 1919 Bax was one of four British composers to be commissioned
to write orchestral music, which was to serve as interludes at
Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in London this ballet
Not long after Bax returned to Britain, Bax married Elsita Sobrino – a childhood friend –
in January 1911. They settled in Bushy Park Road, Rathgar, Dublin. Here, Bax’s brother
Clifford introduced them to the intellectual circle which met at the house of the poet,
painter and mystic George William Russell. Bax had already had some of his poems
and short stories published in Dublin, and to the circle he was simply known by
his pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne (the name was possibly inspired by a renowned family of
traditional musicians in Donegal). As Dermot O’Byrne, Bax was specifically noted for
Seafoam and Firelight, published in London by the Orpheus Press in 1909 and numerous
short stories and poems published in different publications in Dublin.
The threat of war lead to the dissolution of the Rathgar Circle, as many members fled
Ireland and Europe. Bax and his family returned to London - it was the loss of a
blissful life. Bax avoided conscription because of a heart-condition, and spent
the war years composing profusely. As Bax's Ireland – a haven and a retreat – was lost
to bitter internal conflict and world war, he sought refuge in a liaison with the
younger pianist Harriet Cohen. What had started out as a purely professional
relationship – Cohen playing and championing Bax's piano music – developed
into a passionate one. This difficult period in Bax’s
life led to the composition of several romantic tone-poems, including
Summer Music (1916), Tintagel (1917) and November Woods (1914-1917).
In Tintagel, Bax reached back to legends and dreams and specifically that of the
doomed lovers of Tristan and Isolde. Tintagel is undoubtedly the most well-known of
Bax’s tone-poems, and especially for its colorful evocation of the sea.
After the war British music was in demand as never before in England, and Bax
won considerable fame with his works, which were widely performed.
From 1928 onwards Bax ceased to travel to Glencolumbkille and instead
began his annual migration to Morar, west Scottish Highlands, to work.
Bax would sketch his compositions in London, and take them to the
Station Hotel at Morar for the winter to orchestrate them. At
this time, Bax found a new love in Mary Gleaves, and she accompanied him
to Scotland. In the Morar period, which lasts until the outbreak of the Seond World War,
Bax rediscovered his interest for Norway and the Nordic countries, and found
a new inspiration in the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
Bax orchestrated symphonies 3 to 7 at Morar but also several of his
finest orchestral works including the three Northern Ballads.
Bax’s seven symphonies were composed within a relatively short span
of time, and are perhaps the most coherent cycle of symphonies by
any composer. The symphonies are distinguished by their
three-movement structure, as opposed to the 'usual' classical four.
They reflect Bax’s many influences, and are profound works of art,
with a deep psychological dimension tied up to romantic evocations of landscape.
The symphonies earned Bax a reputation as the successor of Sir Edward Elgar,
as Ralph Vaughan Williams, for instance, only had completed four symphonies
by the time Bax completed his seventh.
Bax received a knighthood in 1937, but was depressed and drinking too
heavily. Bax felt alienated by the new developments in Modernist composition,
and realized and lamented that the Romantic style was falling deeply out of fashion.
One of Bax's last major works was the film score for David Lean's
feature-film Oliver Twist, and has been called "one of the finest scores ever
written for a film"
Bax retreated from the public scene and lived quietly at The White Horse Hotel in Storrington, Sussex.
He died in 1953.
After his death, Bax's music fell into decline; his Romantic outlook had distanced himself
from musical Modernism and especially Arnold Schoenberg's Serialism.
Bax was increasingly caricatured and derided as a 'musical pastoralist' together with
Vaughan-Williams and others, and his music went underperformed. As late as
the mid-1960s, there were only two recordings of his symphonies, one long deleted and
the other on an obscure label.
But from 1966 onwards, a revival of his music was begun, and by the centenary of his birth in 1983
much of his music was available in modern recordings. The Naxos label have released a
complete cycle of Bax’s symphonies and tone poems.
Foreman, Lewis. Bax, A composer and his times (1988)