Monday 24 September 2018

Arnold Bax and Ireland: a Celtic love affair

English composer and author Sir Arnold Bax (1883 - 1953, centre), Master of the King's Music, enjoys a lunchtime drink at the White Horse Hotel in Storrington, Sussex, with Taffy (left), a local man, and Stanley Fitch (right), the proprietor of the hotel,
English composer and author Sir Arnold Bax (1883 - 1953, centre), Master of the King's Music, enjoys a lunchtime drink at the White Horse Hotel in Storrington, Sussex, with Taffy (left), a local man, and Stanley Fitch (right), the proprietor of the hotel,

George Hamilton

'The Celt within me stood revealed." The words are not those of a wistful emigrant, but of an Englishman whose line stretched back not across the Irish Sea but eastwards, to the Netherlands. It was the poetry of William Butler Yeats that put him in touch with his inner Irishman.

Arnold Bax was born in London in 1883, and brought up in Hampstead, one of its more prosperous northern suburbs. Family circumstances meant he never had to earn a living so he was free to pursue his love of the arts in general and music in particular.

He was a prodigious talent at the piano and played clarinet as well, pursuing his studies at the Royal Academy where he was a regular prizewinner.

Discovering Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisín began a love affair with Ireland that would last a lifetime. Championed by Edward Elgar, Bax was commissioned to write a piece for the 1910 season of the Promenade Concerts in London. An orchestral tone poem, In The Faëry Hills, was the result.

Unquestionably Celtic in flavour, with an impressionistic overlay, it was based on the Oisín legend. Its beautiful melodies were subsequently incorporated alongside Into The Twilight and the battle hymn Rosc Catha into an trilogy which Bax entitled Éire.

A romantic liaison with a Ukrainian woman took him to Russia for a year, but it was to Ireland that he was really drawn.

He had discovered Glencolmcille in Donegal and for well on 30 years, he would retreat there in search in inspiration.

When he did eventually get married in his late 20s - not to the Ukrainian but to a woman he'd known since childhood - Bax moved to Dublin and set up home in Rathgar.

Here he developed the other side of his artistic temperament, writing extensively - plays, short stories, and poetry - under the pseudonym Dermot O'Byrne.

He was a regular at literary soirées in the city, and at one of these he made the acquaintance of Pádraig Pearse. Though they met only once, the encounter had a profound effect on Bax.

When war broke out in Europe, Bax and his wife moved back to London, where a professional relationship with a pianist, Harriet Cohen, soon developed into a full-blown affair.

But he didn't lose touch with Ireland. He was stunned to learn of the Easter Rising and deeply shocked at the news of Pearse's execution.

Bax composed a number of laments in his honour, and an orchestral piece, In Memoriam. The website arnoldbax.com describes this, as far as it known, as "the first piece of concert music written to commemorate the Easter Rising".

The political significance of the work meant it was never heard in Bax's lifetime. Appropriately, though, as the website notes, it received its Irish premiere in 2016, when Duncan Ward conducted a performance of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

For one who felt such strong sympathies for Ireland and the Irish, Arnold Bax was an unusual choice in 1942 as Britain's Master of the King's Music.

By now he'd become friendly with the family of the Cork composer Aloys Fleischmann, and so began another intense relationship with an Irish place.

He died on a visit to Cork in 1953 and is buried in St Finbarr's Cemetery on the Glasheen Road.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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