Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bax - Symphony No. 1

The cataclysm of World War One truly had a global effect while it was being fought and even more so after it was over. With tens of millions of dead and wounded, the destruction of major monarchies of Russia and Germany, and with the vengeful victors of the war burdening the losers with the punitive punishment of reparations, history has shown that the First World War was but a prelude to even more death and destruction twenty years later.

The aftermath of the war took the trend of Modernism and sped it up by giving it a hard shove, and in the process created a world that no longer seemed to have any direction for many. This was reflected in the arts, most notably with writers such as Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But all the arts were affected, with music composers reflecting the loss of direction and chaos in music that threw away some of the most time-honored practices of music in favor of dissonance and extreme emotion.  

Arnold Bax was an English composer and poet that lived through the war, but due to a heart condition he did not serve in it. He was fortunate in that he was born to an upper class family and most likely never had to scramble to earn a living. He was taught privately and showed great musical talent as well as an overall high intellect. He read widely, and took inspiration from literature and after he read some poems by Irish poet William Butler Yeats he became interested in Ireland. For over 30 years he spent part of the year in Ireland where he became friends with Irish writers, rebels and peasants. 

He was on the side of Irish Independence, perhaps a somewhat precarious position for a Englishman, and he was profoundly affected by the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin where over 400 people died and Irish revolutionaries were executed. World War one also caused an increase in violence in Ireland in 1918 when the British who were on the brink of entering the war, inflicted conscription on Ireland. 

Bax's  Symphony No. 1 was finished in 1922, and exactly how much the war and the events in Ireland influenced the work is not certain. Bax himself discounted any influence the war may have had, but with a composer that was as sensitive as Bax, it is hard to believe that both the war and the events in Ireland didn't influence the work.  The symphony is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato e feroce - Moderato expressivo - Tempo I - The first movement begins in the rather obscure key of E-flat minor with a soft chord in the woodwinds that increases in volume with a harp glissando added until a one-measure motive is played fortissimo by the horns, 1st violins and violas:
 This kernel of music is the basis of the first theme, which continues until a shift in mood occurs with the second theme. This theme is more lyrical and placid, in contrast to the beginning of the work. This theme continues the mood until the contra bassoon brings the development section that is full of dark rumblings as the theme stabs its way through the colorful orchestral texture with a rhythm that lies underneath the rest of the music that is heard repeatedly:
Other short themes are heard as the working out continues until the first theme begins the recapitulation. The second theme is then transformed as it is played softly by the flute over a light accompaniment from harp and strings. The theme continues until it slowly dies away and the bassoons and horns begin a coda in a scherzo-like section that leads to the dominating rhythm's return. It steps up in volume as it makes its way through the strings as chords are played in the brass, horns and woodwinds. A crescendo brings the same instruments to a whole note chord that play E-flat and B-flat, in what first appears to be a lead-in to an ending in E-flat major, but the defining note of G natural is missing as the rest of the orchestra plays the same two ambiguous notes until a cadential chord is played that fools the listener as it sounds like the work indeed will end in E-flat major. But the final chord of the movement is a devastating and powerful E-flat minor chord that thunders through the orchestra triple-forte.

II. Lento solenne - After the horror of the first movement, the next movement begins in a diaphanous veil of mystery with strings playing sul ponticello along with harps, held chords in the brass and the light riffing of a snare drum with snares off. The music moves steadily forward until a march-like section begins.  The horns and trumpets play a prominent part in this movement that brims with contrasts of power. Strings and woodwinds play a throbbing accompaniment to timpani and horns, the music reaches a climax. The music grows more gentle as it nears the end of the movement, when the mystery of the beginning returns and the music dies away.

III. Allegro maestoso - Allegro vivace ma non troppo -  Presto Tempo di marcia Trionfale - The loud beginning of the movement leads to an imaginative and brilliantly scored scherzo. This scherzo is brief. The first theme from the opening movement reappears in a different guise in a section that toys with until another section works the theme into a triumphant march. After along journey and much struggle, the symphony has finally reached the key of E-flat major and ends.

Bax's orchestral palette is broad and colorful as is evidenced in his seven symphonies and many tone poems. He took inspiration from many sources, including Russian, German and Irish folksong.  He was a prolific composer and wrote music in many genre excluding opera. He died in 1953 at the age of 69.

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