Like Marmite, the music of Arnold Bax is an acquired taste. Some people love it, some hate it, and probably only those who have never tasted it remain neutral. When Bax first appeared on the musical scene in the early decades of the 20th century many regarded him as too difficult and modern to court popularity. By the time he died in 1953 many regarded him as an old-hat romantic reeking of Celtic twilight and maidens with daffodils. A shy and retiring man, with a rich but private love life, he did little or nothing to blow his own trumpet, and the fact that his large-scale orchestral compositions often require large forces and sometimes obscure instruments did not endear him to amateur orchestras. (Neither did the frequently heard comment that he never wrote one note where fifty would do.)
Nor did he need to work hard to promote himself. Of independent means, he spent much of his early life travelling, yet found time throughout his half-century of creativity to produce seven symphonies, numerous tone poems and concerti and a vast amount of piano and chamber music and song settings, besides and an almost equal bulk of poetry. And not only in English: he also wrote in Irish Gaelic, which he learnt as a young man partly in response to his love for the works and vision of W B Yeats and partly in response to the land itself. Indeed, by the time he died he was better known in Ireland as a man of letters than as a composer.
My own discovery of Bax followed shortly after my teen-age discovery of joined-up music, which began with an immediate response to Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The English folk idiom, as absorbed and retransmitted by RVW and Gustav Holst, struck a chord that has never left me. Bax did not himself adhere to that tradition, and my first encounter with him was almost accidental. His most famous orchestral work, Tintagel, was a companion piece to an LP of RVW’s The Wasps suite and Holst’s Ballet Music to The Perfect Fool. I must admit that at first I found Bax too ‘modern’ and ‘difficult’. Shortly after his death, however, the BBC broadcast all seven of his symphonies, live, in serial order, and I listened to them all, at first out of curiosity but soon out of a conviction that this was someone who spoke to my condition. I still have the diary describing my enthralled reaction to the Third, of which I was soon delighted to find a copy of Barbirolli's recording on six 12-inch 78's.
My brother Graham subsequently caught the same enthusiasm at about the same age, and pursued this interest to the extreme of producing a catalogue of Baxworks in 1972 - a remarkable feat, as the composer was then completely out of fashion and nothing was being recorded or performed. Graham's catalogue expanded over the years and eventually became part of a doctoral thesis for which he was awarded a PhD in 1994. It was eventually published by Oxford University Press (within a few weeks, by a happy coincidence, of their publishing my Oxford History of Board Games). The following pages present a chronological listing of all the completed works of Arnold Bax, edited by me from Graham's published catalogue (with his help, including some corrections, revisions, and additional material). The number following the title of each item refers to the relevant entry in the published catalogue, and in other contexts this is referred to as the GP number. Comments and opinions are my own (DP) unless otherwise stated or apparent from the context. If you have any comments or queries, please contact Graham via me.
Bax and Moeran. Anyone who likes Bax is equally likely to enjoy the music of the less well known but relatively underestimated E. J. Moeran. In 2007 we made a tour of Ireland visiting sites associated with both composers, notably Glencolmcille, Kenmare and Cork. I will be linking to resultant album of pictures as soon as I've converted them from Picasa to Google albums.
Graham Parlett has orchestrated many previously un- or incompletely orchestrated works by Arnold Bax and John Ireland. Most have been performed and recorded.
Updating the catalogue (by GP) During the two decades that have elapsed since the first edition of my catalogue was published, knowledge of Bax’s life and works has increased considerably with the discovery of a few youthful works (such as the Horn Sonata of 1901) and the accessibility of his prolific correspondence with Harriet Cohen, which has thrown much light on the dating of certain scores. The Slave Girl for piano, for instance, is now known to date from 1914, not 1919 as previously thought, and some major works, such as The Garden of Fand and Spring Fire, can now be more accurately placed in the chronology of his output. This means that most works in the second edition, on which I am currently working, will have different catalogue numbers from those in the first. It was never my intention that these numbers should be regarded as anything other than for cross-reference purposes within the book. I did not intend them to be used as ‘GP’ numbers—the equivalent of K. (Köchel), or H. (Holst) numbers — and I regret that they have subsequently been used in this way.
The first edition also contains errors that will be amended in the second. For example, it was stated that the Legend for viola and piano was ‘inspired’ by Herbert Read’s poem This X; but this was based on information that had been garbled. It was, in fact, hearing a performance of the music that prompted Read to write his poem, which was originally published under the title On hearing a legend played on the Viola and later as Legend (for Viola and Pianoforte: Bax). The performance that Read heard was doubtless one in 1932 in which the composer accompanied the violist Margaret Ludwig, with whom the poet later fell in love.
The accessibility of on-line newspaper archives, both British and foreign, and of old issues of the Radio Times has also brought to light innumerable performances of Bax’s works during his lifetime. By scouring these sources I have, for example, traced over one hundred performances of Moy Mell within the first thirty years of its existence (1916–46) and in countries as far afield as Canada, New Zealand and Palestine.
However, there are still many problems to be solved regarding some of his scores. Is the Violin Sonata in one movement that was played twice in 1907 really the same as the Violin Sonata in G minor of 1901? And there is still no further information on the mysterious, lost ballet The Frog-Skin of 1918, which occurs in early lists of his works but was never performed and is not mentioned in the Bax–Cohen correspondence. Further research is clearly needed. - Graham Parlett, June 2020
For a brief profile of the composer's life and works see Musical profile
For more about Bax, including further articles by Graham Parlett, see The Sir Arnold Bax Website