FF Parlett's Catalogue of music by Bax (1905-1909)
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BAXWORKS : 1905-1909

The music of Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
by David & Graham Parlett


Symphony in F - first performance

Extracts from Lewis Foreman's review of the Symphony in F orchestrated by Martin Yates (from Musical Opinion Quarterly, Jan-Mar 2014, pp11-15

It was completed in Dresden, Germany, in April 1907, which makes it one of his earliest major orchestral scores. Bax tended to sketch his orchestral works on two staves, and only orchestrate them when a performance was offered. Having sketched his Symphony in F in piano score, no performance was found and it remained in Bax's catalogue of works during his lifetime without being orchestrated. Later, for a time the manuscript was split up, the first two movements being given to the late Colin Scott-Sutherland by Harriet Cohen, before being restored by him to University College Cork and reunited with the other two. In his book on Bax, Scott-Sutherland suggested they were frag-ments of two symphonies, in F minor and F major. However Bax himself listed it as a symphony in 'F minor and major'...

Yates's authentic feel for the orchestral style and sound of a range of twentieth century romantic British composer quite remarkable. He has now turned his orchestral imagination to Bax, and has realised the Symphony in F in score. Listening to the first edit of Royal Scottish National Orchestra's recording one can report that Yates has managed to catch the elusive idiomatic sound of Bax's orchestra in a way I never expected to hear, with reference both Bax's early orchestral works and the F Symphony of 1922. What has been revealed is a very large-scale orchestral symphony in which Bax more often than not succeeds in articulating his mature style. In four movements - Allegro molto vivace; Andante con moto; Intermezzo Tempo di Valsero; Finale (Molto vivace) - except for his unperformed ballet Tamara the symphony is the longest work he ever wrote. At this time Bax was clearly blessed with a constant stream of inspiration, but he was far from finally evolving a mature style and in the work he produced at Dresden and soon after we find him following first one line a then another. But in the Symphony in F he is remarkably successful, the symphony convincingly expressing the world of a 23 year-old composer at that time It is interesting to speculate quite what would a young British composer take as his model for a symphony the year before Elgar's First? What Bax came up with is indeed striking, if not entirely predicting his future symphonic journey.

Bax's first movement is launched Allegro molto vivace with a motif which when I first heard it I could have sworn came from Bax's ballet Tamara (renamed King Kojata) but after extensive study of the piano score I have failed to find it. Safe to say it could well be danced.

The glorious second movement, Andante con moto, is a striking creation in which Bax finds his voice. It could well be viable as a separate work, and it is on a similar scale to many later tone‑poems [...]

The third movement, Intermezzo, is really a Straussian parody. Bax gives no hint of a programme, nor of any programmatic origin that the work as a whole might have had, but he does preface the third movement with a note which implies a passing theme. Bax writes: 'The motif of this Intermezzo was suggested by, and to some extent based upon, the central idea of 'Der Tor and der Tod' ['The Fool and Death'] by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. [...] In choosing waltz-time for his vision of the dissolution of civilisation Bax anticipates Ravel's La Valse by more than a dozen years.

The Finale is Bax's longest movement, an extended fantasia in nine substantial episodes. Overall the mood is optimistic and at the end it is crowned by an unbridled throwaway coda.

In true cyclic style Bax returns to the opening theme of the first movement at the end as the brass reintroduce it in augmentation. Its character has changed from the questing dancing ballet of the opening of the first movement as it is developed in the coda to the grand peroration of the close.

This is a symphony on the largest scale, and it differs from Bax's later symphonies in that it is self-evidently the product of a more innocent romantic age. Nevertheless it is fascinating to hear invention that is a harbinger of what is to come, and it soon becomes rewarding in its own right. I can report that after sitting through the recording sessions and repeatedly playing the first edit it grows and grows in one's affection. I commend it to all Baxians and to lovers of romantic music of its period as a cherishable and delightful score. Bax's vision is here realised for all to hear in Martin Yates's very persuasive orchestral realisation.