Spring Symphonies: 21/60 Bax: Symphony No 6

Arnold Bax (1883 - 1953) was a Streatham boy, a true Sarf Londoner. His Sixth symphony is about as far away from Streatham as one might get but Bax had travelled far and wide by the time he wrote it.  I chose it as the pinnacle of Bax’s symphonic art and piece which represents his creativity at it’s best and his adherence to structure at it’s least bad.

Bax was, I suspect, a man of heady enthusiasms - women (not just the one he married) were a pre-occupation, a reassurance and they were often muses too.  He got caught up in the romance of Ireland and Irish culture and history after reading Yeat’s poems.  Thereafter he fell for the country - many influences in Irish culture were reflected in his music and he got to know the land and it’s people very well: including travelling to a small village in Donegal every year for 30 years to find peace and seclusion.  Later he did much the same in Morar on the West Coast of Scotland, famous for it’s white sands: though in the winter months when he stayed at in an unheated room in the Station Hotel there, orchestrating his symphonies in his overcoat, it was hardly beach weather.  

The Sixth Symphony was completed in 1935 and first performed in November of that year.  It was contemporaneous with Vaughan-Williams savage Fourth Symphony, Berg’s tragic Violin Concerto, Prokofiev’s dazzling Romeo and Juliet ballet and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.  It shows none of the stylistic pre-occupations of the time, no jazz, no neo-classicism, no bitonality or atonality.  It is almost of a different time - I suspect Bax would have liked that disconnection.  It’s rarely played in the concert hall now but there are some good recordings of it and the rest of the symphonies (and much else by Bax too) thanks to the advocacy of conductors willing to recapture the spirit of place especially Vernon Handley (who cited the Sixth as his favourite symphony).

The Sixth is a highlight of a not very varied cycle of seven symphonies - the early one’s reflect a Russian influence and the later ones some breathtaking moments which catch the idea of landscape or place.  I remember the point were I found the key to Bax, driving high in the Peak District at sunset, the heather was fairly glowing purple in the evening light.  A symphony reached one of those moody slow movements and eyes and ears seemed at one.  Its a trick that not everyone will get - the wild places have a pull on some of us.  But the music stays resolutely Baxian and could be by no-one else - that’s something to be commended.

The symphony has three movements and the first is fast “with fire” and the second slow with lots of expression.  The third and final movement is more complex and the longest that Bax wrote - it opens with a slow introduction and finishes with a slow epilogue and has a Scherzo and Trio in between.

The opening Moderato is something of an orchestral juggernaut which has some folksy twists to it in melody and timbre, but it soon it quickens to some grand gestures which usher in something faster and more obviously propulsive.  Bax is not shy of using percussion - including what to me is a totally incongruous anvil in Symphony No 3 - and his symphonies have that element of glistening colour at the right times, but as always its the slower music in this movement where Bax gets across more mood and atmosphere.  The theme becomes more genial, but seldom jolly then, toward the end, a drum beat adds urgency and strings swirl into a martial outburst which seems diabolical.  The mood of coda is reflective and nostalgic at first - but the martial music and swirling strings complete the movement with a bump.

There's a stillness in the opening of the slow movement is one of those marvellous “spirit of place” moments Bax produces like no other composer. Though it has hints of Delius and some exotic harmonies deep inside, it moves with a grace only Bax could realise. Some of the later woodwind writing might be from Ravel or Debussy.  The trumpet leads a new theme and oboe follows - it’s homely stuff, or may at the pub as the sun rises on an all-nighter. Any attempt to agitate the mood is short-lived, epic qualities emerge almost pre-figuring a Korngold film score but are brief.  The music chills to a four square rhythm march highlighted with a tambourine. The ending is gentle, beautiful and sincere.

Quite what we are to make of the opening of the last movement is debatable.  A single clarinet sings a lovely if beguiling song, a siren song perhaps.  Handley described it as the most beautiful in music.  The full orchestra then reinforces the mood with great intensity.  This is certainly somewhere beyond English music, a magical land perhaps, the yearned for solitude.  But the mood is broken: a jaunty tune ushers a scherzo of Russian manner but colours from the delicious Baxian paint box.  There’s something very appealing about the orchestration here and the tautness of the structure, Bax allegedly respond to Boult’s rebuke about his lack of it.  

The Trio is very simple but glides so easily across the orchestral departments.  There is something here which I think prefigures later orchestral masters like Messiaen and Takemitsu who wanted the score to be like a garden: scents and sights are fleeting as we walk through.  The forms are still a tad too longer to make it completely successful but those colours fade so beautifully as we move onto the next in the Trio.  The music returns to the Scherzo’s zest but with a bigger vision and dramatic intent.  The smiling themes (mainly derived from the clarinet tune) broaden and move beyond those portraits of place to a wide optimism and sunny outlook. As ever Bax wastes no time on transitions, we are quickly in a a gentler place, more personal.  A horn starts the reprise of the main tune again and the backdrop becomes more mysterious, star-lit perhaps. It is an eloquent a piece of symphonic writing as you’ll hear: spare, exotic and unique.

I’m still left wondering what Bax was saying in his symphonies: I sense a love of place, of texture and of transition - a lust for life perhaps.  I sense a deep sense of ease too and maybe that’s his greatest gift to us all.

Here’s Vernon Handley at his best n the last movement (though the other movements are on YouTube too).  This is from his complete set of Bax symphonies - another glorious gem in this conductor’s treasured legacy.


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