Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bax - Symphony No. 6

Arnold Bax (1883 - 1953) was an English composer and poet who had a restless intellect that caused him to read voraciously. He developed a strong affinity for Ireland through the works of W.B Yeats the Irish poet and playwright. Bax visited Ireland for extended stays and the countryside and ocean side inspired him to write music that reflected his love for the country and the people. But Ireland was not his only influence.  Norwegian and Russian music also influenced his compositions.

His orchestral music is complex and colorful with more than a hint of impressionism in it. He composed 7 symphonies, many tone poems, and other pieces for orchestra as well as chamber, choral, and solo piano music. He was a fine pianist, but very rarely was on the concert platform.

His Symphony No.6 was written in 1935 and premiered later that same year. It was Bax's favorite symphony. Formally it is in three movements, but there are two sections in the opening movement and three in the final movement. The symphonic music of Bax shows his skill with the orchestra and use of materials as well as good, original material to begin with.

I. Moderato - Allegro con fuoco -  The symphony begins in C-sharp minor with the bass trombone playing an ostinato figure:
The woodwinds play dissonant chords over the bass trombone. This dissonant introduction continues and expands until the strings play a declaiming motive that is punctuated with percussion and brass until it segues directly to the first theme of the movement, which is based on material heard in the introduction. The music comes to a brief pause before the first theme continues. A section of transition leads to a second lyrical theme first heard in the flutes. The first theme returns and is developed. Tension increases until a full-blooded rendition of the first theme in the brass blares out from the orchestra. The music grows softer and the second theme returns. The tempo picks up speed as material from the first theme gathers momentum and ends the movement in a resounding thump.

II. Lento molto espressivo - The themes of this movement are related to the material already heard in the first movement. An interesting variant appears over a steady beating accompaniment a little over halfway through the movement. The movement winds down to a gently quiet ending.

III.  The last movement is in three sections:
a) Introduction (Lento moderato) -  A solo clarinet plays material that will be heard later in the movement. The strings enter with a variant of the clarinet theme that builds in intensity. Other woodwinds enter and play another motive until transitional material segues into the scherzo section.
b) Scherzo & Trio (Allegro vivace - Andante semplice) -  The opening theme of the scherzo is a variant of the clarinet theme heard in the introduction. Other snippets of music resemble motives heard in previous movements. The trio moves gently through the orchestra, primarily in the strings. The scherzo returns with a vengeance and slowly builds to an impressive climax. The music slowly winds down and segues to the last section.
c) Epilogue (Lento) - A solo horn plays the clarinet theme over a delicate accompaniment of divided and muted solo strings, as well as the harp. The music slowly throbs with previous motives in colorful but subdued instrumentation. The music turns mysterious as it gradually dies away until it comes to rest in the key of C major.

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