Arnold Bax

(8 November 1883, London - 3 October 1953, Cork, County Cork, Ireland)


Sir Arnold Edward Trevor Bax was a British composer and poet. His work is most often associated with the neoromantic trend in music, his style blends elements of romanticism and impressionism, often with influences from Irish literature and landscape. Born into a Victorian upper-middle-class family of Dutch descent, according to Bax, A Composer and His Times (2007), Lewis Foreman suggests that because of the family affluence, Bax never had to take a paid position, and so, was free to pursue most of his interests.

From an early age, Bax proved to have a remarkable intellect and great musical talent, especially at the keyboard. One of his earliest influences that had a long lasting impact was Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Up to the age of 16, Bax was home schooled, after which he received his formal musical education from Cecil Sharp and others at the Hampstead Conservatoire. In 1900 he entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he remained until 1905. Here he studied composition under Frederick Corder, piano under Tobias Matthay, and clarinet under Egerton. He had an exceptional ability to sight-read and play complex orchestral scores at the piano, which won him several medals at the Academy and he also won prizes for best musical composition, including the Battison-Haynes prize and the competitive Charles Lucas Medal.

He was also a voracious reader of literature, one poet that deeply influenced him over the course of his lifetime was William Butler Yeats, founder of the Irish National Theater. Bax proved highly receptive of the soft, melancholy moods of the Irish Literary Revival and soon fell in love with Ireland, to which he started traveling extensively. One of the earliest examples of Irish influences was his String Quartet in E (1903) which was later worked into the orchestral tone poem Cathaleen-Ni-Houlihan (1905). These were also his first mature works which quickly established his reputation as a composer. Many of the works he wrote in the period from 1903 to 1916 can be seen as musical counterparts to the Irish Literary Revival. The tone-poems Into The Twilight (1908), In The Faery Hills (1909) and Rosc-catha (1910; Battle hymn) echo the themes of the Revival and especially the soft, dreamy mood of many poems and stories.

He spent the year 1910 in Russia where he was able to absorb something of the spirit of Russian music, secular and sacred, and was dazzled by the glories of the Imperial Ballet, as he was to be by Dyagilev's Ballets russes on his return to London. The Russian and Ukrainian influence can also be heard in two works for solo piano from 1912, Nocturne–May Night in the Ukraine and Gopak (Russian dance). During the following years, under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne he published short stories and poems in Ireland, where he spent much time.

In 1916 and 1917 he wrote three symphonic poems, The Garden of Fand, Tintagel, and November Woods, which established his reputation. His ballet, The Truth About the Russian Dancers, on a scenario by the playwright J.M. Barrie, was produced by Serge Diaghilev in 1920.On a visit to Scandinavia in 1932, Bax met Sibelius and the two composers became friends; while Sibelius' influence is not obvious in Bax's symphonic style, he is clearly indebted to the Finnish master in Winter Legends and The tale the pine trees knew.Between 1921 and 1939 he wrote seven symphonies dedicated to the musicians he admired, among them John Ireland and Jean Sibelius. All 7 of Bax's symphonies were composed within a relatively short span of time (1922-1939) and are all in 3 movements. He also wrote numerous piano and chamber works, including a sonata for viola and harp (1928) and a nonet for winds, strings, and harp (1931).

In 1929 Arnold Bax was invited to Ireland to become an adjudicator at Feis Maitiú Corcaigh, a prestigious music festival organized by the Capuchin Fathers. It was Irish pianist Tilly Fleischmann who suggested him, knowing that he was familiar with Ireland and Irish conditions. This was also the first time Bax met Irish musicians in Ireland, other than folk musicians. In Cork, he was introduced to such outstanding musicians as the pianist Charles Lynch and singer Maura O'Connor, both of whom went on to give many performances of Bax’s music.

In 1937 Bax was knighted, and in 1942 was appointed Master of the King's Musick, a decision the British musical establishment was not altogether happy with. To many, Bax was an atypical English composer, some especially pointing to the 'Irishness' of his music. Of his later works, only the film scores for Malta G.C. and Oliver Twist were really successful. They earned Bax a renewed public acclaim, but their popularity could not compensate for his being considered old-fashioned by many younger composers and critics. In 1953, Bax was further honoured by appointment as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO), an honor within the Queen's personal gift.

His last work, written to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953, is a set of madrigals called What is it like to be young and fair. He died while on holiday in Cork, Ireland. His orchestral scores are noted for their complexity and colorful instrumentation.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Arnold Bax.