A Neglected Corner of English Music | Pushing the Wave

A Neglected Corner of English Music

Opinion, 26 November 2023
by L.A. Davenport
The Rolling Hills of Ireland
The rolling hills of Ireland, where Arnold Bax often took inspiration.
Over the past few months I have talked quite a bit about classical music, most recently about my belief that Rachmaninov is not taken seriously enough as a composer and can somehow be dismissed, along with Camille Saint-Saëns, as not being of the first rank.

The notion of there being a first and second rank of composers is of course considered by many to be utterly archaic and irrelevant in today’s time of relativism, although that is itself is an idea that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes is "both one of the most popular and most reviled philosophical doctrines of our time.”

The idea of ranking objects, music, books, art and even people is, when looked at dispassionately, ludicrous on one level and pernicious on another. It was the cause of and the excuse for so much discrimination, racial or otherwise, for many centuries and led to a plethora of nonsense ideas, including the frankly risible pseudoscience of phrenology.

And yet of course it is possible to say that some people are excellent at an art form, and others less so, and artists are often the first to see it in themselves and in others.

Richard Strauss, one of the most significant composers of the late 19th and 20th century, was surprisingly modest in his self-assessment, saying: “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.”

The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin was once asked by the equally great Finnish symphonist Jean Sibelius who he thought was the greatest composer of the 20th century.

Menuhin naturally hesitated, being unsure whether to answer honestly and potentially cause offence, until Sibelius rescued him from his predicament by proclaiming that it was Béla Bartók.

I have noticed that the question of who might be the best at anything preoccupies children the most: they want to know who is the fastest, the strongest, the tallest, the smallest; in fact the extreme on any scale. And it takes us a good long while to grow out of such meaningless comparisons, if we ever do.

When I was much younger, that is to say towards the end of the last century, friends and I would discuss classical music quite in-depth, and it wouldn’t take long before the idea of who was the ‘best’ composer came up (much as Godwin's law states that the longer an online discussion, regardless of topic, goes on, the more the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches 1).

This group of friends had leanings, at least in terms of classical music, towards the teutonic, so the answer was always Johann Sebastian Bach or Richard Wagner, depending on the form of music being discussed (how juvenile that all seems now when I look back at it).

Sometimes, however, we discussed British classical music, in which case the conclusion as to who was the best composer was invariably Benjamin Britten. Occasionally Ralph Vaughan Williams got a look in, but that was about it, unless one wanted to go much further back and play the trump card of Henry Purcell.

Later, I became aware of the narrowness of our experience, as I discovered composer after composer from the British Isles who produced wonderful music in a wide variety of forms, but for one reason or another had not been taken as seriously as those from other European countries or the USA.

One such is Arnold Bax, who was born in in Streatham 1883, and died in the town of my birth, Cork, seventy years ago, in 1953.

To my mind, he is vastly underrated, partly because he had no interest in following the shifting tastes of the listening public (owing to his good fortune of never having to earn money), partly because he himself was a rather confusing individual, having decided to pretend to be Irish in a way that reminds me a little of Jack Worthing’s bunburying in Oscar Wilde’s in The Importance of Being Earnest.

As Séamas de Barra notes in an essay about Bax: “Ireland was a country whose sympathetic atmosphere seems to have allowed him an emotional expansiveness he found more difficult to sustain consistently elsewhere. It was an enchanted place to which he could flee whenever his life in England seemed too oppressively ordinary.”

He notes: “It can be difficult at this remove to imagine just how exotic life in the west of Ireland in 1902 must have seemed to a young man of Bax’s background. It was an existence unimaginably remote from the well-to-do suburban milieu of his upbringing. It was a harsh, primitive life with few of the comforts Bax would have been accustomed to.”

The result was that Ireland “provided a strange and colourful pageant in which he could play his chosen part, leaving both his English self and his responsibilities behind when he crossed the Irish Sea. He played this part with fervour, and he undoubtedly believed in it. His sincerity is not in question. But it was the sincerity of passionate make-believe.”

But as a composer, Bax is always highly listenable and very often magnificent, especially in his symphonies and extensive tone poems, concertos and other orchestral music.

Recently I relistened to Bryden Thomson’s recording of November Woods, among other works, and it struck me how much it sounded like modern film music, but on a much grander and more sweeping scale.

Bax often followed a form of narrative in his music, but not one tied down by events and characters. Rather he let his mind wander free, sometimes with Irish folk music as a founding structure, and the results are fascinating and utterly engaging.

If you would like to know where to start getting to know Bax, I often reach for Symphonies No.3 and No.6, alongside Tintagel, The Happy Forest, Into the Twilight, The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew and Winter Legends, as well as aforementioned November Woods.

I can’t help feeling that he, much like those other underrated English composers Granville Bantock and William Alwyn, is ripe for a new, wider audience. I hope they all find it.
More Life as a Dog by LA Davenport
This week has been a busy one, both for me and for this site.

On Monday, I published a new recipe, Colin and Courgette (zucchini) Tomato Pasta. I devised it earlier this year as a fresh, light meal for late spring/early summer. When the weather turns for the better next year, I’ll look forward to making it again.

An article was also published on the Goodwoof website about My Life as a Dog, the memoir of my adventures with my black and tan dachshund.

This was very exciting to write, and a real pleasure to go back in time and talk about why I wanted to create a book about Kevin in the first place.

Check it out, and let me know what you think.

Finally, the most exciting news of the week has to be the cover reveal for my follow-up to My Life as a Dog: More Life as a Dog.

These ongoing adventures of our time together were so much fun to write. It is wonderful to think of them taking on a new life and reaching a new audience in the very near future, just in time for Christmas!
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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A Neglected Corner of English Music | Pushing the Wave