Monday, 28 December 2015

The composer’s perspective.

Like the composer’s toolbox these blogs are about the mechanics of music.  Instead of considering the methods that are commonly used by all composers (at some time) these blogs look at the combination of elements that have fashioned the composer’s outlook along with the working method.
Arnold Bax is a name familiar to those who love English music or music from the British Isles, today his music has supporters, particularly Vernon Handley, but his music is not as widely appreciated as R.V. Williams, Holst or Delius.  This is a sad state of affairs as the music is versatile and well crafted, and should be highly regarded by those who are interested in the craft of composition.
There are elements in Bax’s music that invited criticism, and such comments can be hard to shift once made.  For this reason I am going to refer to the negative comments after looking at one movement of one work, the first movement of the first symphony, that way a more honest appraisal can be made of the music.  This is not to say that Bax was without public support, his piano music was appreciated widely, particularly in the period after the end of WWI.
The opening movement of the first symphony is an intensely powerful statement built from very simple ideas which can be (almost) endlessly manipulated.

It is worth mentioning that Bax’s teacher of composition, Frederick Corder, was interested in the music of Wagner and Liszt, the latter composer having much in common with Bax’s approach to continual variation which is evident throughout the movement.
Part of the music of this symphony was originally composed as a piano sonata in E flat, an early work which is well crafted and far more than competent.  This recording is not available on YT but can be found on Spotify.

To listen to both one after another makes one want to praise the quality of the piano writing and then celebrate the brilliance of orchestration.  There is an emphasis on rhythmic design which is articulated with force at times in the orchestrated version.  The design as for the melodic material is relatively simple variation.
Follow the example below with the music playing and one can perceive a large part of the symphonic logic.  

The rhythmic emphasis doesn’t always demonstrate a strident character, though this dominates, as with all of Bax's music the movement takes on several different characteristics as cab be seen in the following table which outlines the main sections.

Allegro moderato e feroce 10 bars (strident character)
Poco largamente (“flowing” violin melody)
Bar 68 molto espressivo
Bar 102 Molto tranquillo to moderato 105
Bar 140 Feroce
Bar 179 Vivace
Bar 184 Molto meno mosso
Bar 237 Molto Largamente
Bar 244 Allegretto
Bar 272 Lento
Bar 276 Allegro con moto
Bar 288 to close Allegro moderato.

The changes reflect one of the most powerful interests in Bax’s music; contrast.  The flowing melody is the antithesis of the powerful opening.  Like the rhythm it undergoes several alterations as the movement progresses, and it can be argued that the melody isn’t heard in its complete form until the penultimate section of the movement.  When this melody appears in its final form it can be seen that it is structured from a succession of very simple figures with the units based within the interval of a third. (See below).

The pitch material of the symphony arises from a small number of ingredients the G flat, G, E flat opening which has the potential to play a part as a G minor figure though the key signature is of E flat minor, with the sonata marked as being in E flat (but not E flat minor), ambiguity always has a place in a symphonic movement.  The motto figure is gradually expanded, first by filling out the minor third: E flat, D, D flat, C, and this is treated both as ostinato and subject to sequence. By the time the “flowing” melody is heard the expansion to a full scale has already taken place, but as stated the melody is constructed from a succession of cells based on the interval of a third.  There is a distinct similarity between Mahler and Bax in the way the themes undergo metamorphosis, (the parallel with Liszt already noted) through extensions, developing segments etc. and this composing trait remains with Bax throughout the symphonies.  While the connection with Liszt and Mahler is backward looking one can draw a more contemporary parallel with Sibelius, and this is only the first of Bax’s symphonies.  I shall include a note from Nurtan here which throws light on the different attitudes to modernism at this time:
Bax came of age at a time RV Williams and Elgar were at the height of their popularity and very talented young British composers were producing works that challenged the tradition in more obvious ways than in this composer’s output. As Bax's first symphony (1922) was being introduced, many exciting innovations were starting to appear in the concert music stage and the era of innovation through serial 12 tone composition, introduction of folk music and jazz elements far beyond Mahler, development of national styles as in Sibelius. Polytonal and poly-rhythmic music are  the hall mark of the 1913-1922 era. Many of these innovations are very stark departures from the symphonic world that encompassed brilliant works of many composers of classic, romantic and even impressionistic eras. More importantly, these innovations were obvious to the untrained ear. Bax's innovations are subtle and they are not immediately obvious. With this handicap a symphonic work has to be unreasonably outstanding to survive over the years.  These are perhaps the most compelling reasons for his works to be labelled as backward looking and their current scarcity of performance.  In this respect Bax's music has a fate similar to Nikolai Miaskowski (or Myaskovsky or …) whose 27 symphonies are hardly ever heard.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Earlier mention was made of the criticisms applied to Bax’s music, these include over scoring, that he is brazen romantic, and that his music meanders and is vague.  I hope that the examples given here put to rest the latter criticisms.  The aspect of scoring is interesting, there is a wonderful balance between all sections of the orchestra in this symphony, in later symphonies there are remarkable orchestral effects achieved with economy.  The Epilogue of the third symphony is such an example.  What does come to mind, particularly with the rapid changes through which the music evolves, is that the music could easily have been written for the cinema.  This is partly due to the wide range of emotions covered; again the feature of contrast plays its part.  It is also due to the fact that Bax can create a huge emotive statement in a short period of time, the last movement of the 6th symphony is such an example.  One could draw similarities with the music of Malcolm Arnold, though his experience within the orchestra as a player as well as conductor puts the brakes on the criticism of over scoring.  With the advantage of hindsight there are many similarities between these two symphonists not least in the range of emotional states which in Arnold’s music dwells at times on the uncomfortably dark side.

This symphony may be seen as a transition from the dominance of Germany on symphonic thought, and this is partly due to Frederick Corder.  Had Bax have been taught by Stanford the result on his compositional thought could have been intense, almost certainly producing a more traditional composer.  As it is the succeeding six symphonies developed the canon of British symphonic thought and outlined one particular pathway for composers to follow through to the present day.