A Preface: Meeting Mr. Bax I’m an instructional assistant in the Reading and Writing Center at Folsom Lake College, not far from Sacramento, California. Thus I work as a tutor of English, though my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are both in music (trumpet performance, from Sacramento State University and the San Francisco Conservatory). In the Sacramento region, we’re lucky to have a public radio station that plays classical music, most often of the Mozart-Haydn-Beethoven variety, but with occasional ventures into the experimental or the simply different, the nonstandard repertoire. Once in a while, Capitol Public Radio will program Bax’s Tintagel, Overture to a Picaresque Comedy, or Morning Song: Maytime in Sussex, but little to nothing else of his. I can say I have enjoyed Tintagel whenever it has aired, but it is human nature to make sweeping assumptions about forgotten figures like Sir Arnold Bax: namely, that Tintagel was simply the very best of what might be an underwhelming though large body of other music. One attitude I do naturally try to veer away from, though, is that of contempt prior to investigation, so I have long wondered why our symphonic life, at least in the concert hall, is such a lazy one, consisting of “classics” and warhorses so over-performed that it makes most concerts a dusty “museum” or “mausoleum” experience. By great good fortune, the Folsom Lake College library picked up a copy of Lewis Foreman’s great Bax biography. There was simply no ignoring the darkly impressive cover, with its Romantically glowering young composer as depicted in Paul Corder’s experimental color photo. Once I started on the first two or three chapters, there was no putting the book down. The assurance that here indeed was an estimable composer in almost every genre was authoritative, and I felt as Vernon Handley has said in an interview on Bax’s symphonies: I was enslaved straightaway. Gradually, working through what I could find on YouTube, then picking up this or that CD by Vernon Handley, Bryden Thomson, or David Lloyd-Jones, I’ve become even more captivated. It seems to me that by ignoring Bax, we as a musical culture are suffering a true loss, as well as committing an historic injustice, as we do in ignoring the works of Karol Szymanowski, Ferruccio Busoni, Carl Nielsen, and many other composers. I think as does the late Maestro Handley, that perhaps Bax’s supreme musical virtue is his ability to evoke moods, in music, actually mixtures of moods that can elude capture in language: how often, for example, Bax can generate a strong sensation of élan commingled with brooding darkness. In Tintagel, a sorrowing motif in the low strings (separation from Harriet Cohen, we might speculate?) regenerates in triumphal splendor toward the end, among the brasses; that sort of metamorphosis by sheer orchestration is again something Handley speaks of in interview. Also, as I’ve gotten to know Bax’s poetry, another of his highly developed skills, I have developed a feeling, or it has developed me: a recurring elation upon finding a master spirit whose outlook on life and creativity are not only worth pondering, but even following to a degree (paganism, yes; infidelity, perhaps no). And Bax has become someone rare among such long-vanished “mentors,” a living figure (at least as I conceive him) in my own poetry. For what they are worth, I offer here a sampling of the small efforts in verse he has inspired. —Tom Goff, Folsom, California, 10/5/2015 Editor: The Author would like to acknowledge the poetry blog Medusa's Kitchen where some of these poems have been posted previously. Away from the Garden of Fand I’m listening to Arnold Bax’s The Garden of Fand while hydroplaning through a monster storm en route to work. Symphonic poem in form, the music: a still, soft ocean-surface; a band of innocent Irish sea-farers, an island. Here, that calm sea deposits our sailors; warm their greeting by Fand, the goddess. Carefree swarms of revelers hoodwink our boys, as if by wand: all golden fire aboard this island vessel and dancing in the company of nymphs, and fiddlers’ tunes and hoisting much of drinks, and all take turns at pounding a musical pestle. Now we’re seduced: Fand sings us her melting song. Pure honey, it turns sheer tide, then drowns our throng. So quickly, musically can all things veer far: how tidal the summoning pull and tug of work, so too the sheets of suctioning rain that pluck into liquid heaven each car after each last car, and I’m afraid I’ll be lost as any sailor summoned with buttery lips into Fand’s churn, cream, butter whipped up from my skin brine-inurned, my bones ripe to be plunged in the wake of a whaler. Take me away from this workers’ paradise. With your own touch, free me from that driftwood delusion. You know a wilder, softer glade of grace where birdsong flows, timepieces run slow with sand, no island of tidal upheavals and contortions where water blows back like fire in a lover’s face. Take us to safety at last from my lady Fand, bring us to that sun-rinsed ledge, our secret pouch above river, where griefs fall away at the wand-tact of the healer, the great forgiver. Bax’s Third Symphony, 1st Movement From the opening notes of piping bassoon a man determined to show he’s deeply studied The Rite of Spring, yet drunk from a much less muddied spring, the clear mainspring of all tendril noon’s upsprout into muted, then clangorous trumpet tune, string song crossed by tympani, dissonance-studded till eruption upsurges rose-thorned, rosebudded. Tears well up in tunes the violas underpin (Renée Jeanne Falconetti, eyes of Saint Joan). Quick six-eight march sunk into a brooding world, the wordless, snarling stopped French horn, bass trombone stunned till unstuck when motion warms, unfurled out of and into Irish, moodily alone long ruminations, shiveringly rippled across a mind’s blue waters greenly stippled. At last a quick tempo, the drumbeat dancebeat, pounding hellbent to stun; frantic rude bird plainsong, need-greed-fed, voltaic in winter sun. Listening to Arnold Bax’s Fifth Symphony How often does this man design bold symphonies from piecework patches, swatches he tilts to flash beneath sharp orchestral lights their glint, their dash of eclipse or solar plume? His tweezers seize bright threads, dark motives—he by hands & knees makes the tapestry with two backs: all knots he’ll lash in one loveliness, bristling, polytonal, plush. He likes making like Mondrian. Baxist boogie-woogies! Strange pagans keep deep enigmas. Russian, Irish, British, whose muse’s milk shaped this one strong? A poet: does he not embed speech in the stitch? What “intonation units” contour our listening? He lives on what island, weaving, unraveling song? Forever the wave-patterns, liquids & sibilants glistening… Early Symphonies Having annoyed us early with its warmth, premature summer masquerades as spring, or rather, back to winter it feigns to bring us who aren’t fooled: behind those clouds the balm and calm of preternatural vibrant green, ripe solar plumes, no humans harmed in making arthritis-quieting sun come early, taking its ease behind this decoy bay-fog screen. Yet eerie disquiet lurks behind fake murk, and, behind that, false notes: mirth too soon unurned. From Bax’s First, movement two, haven’t I learned? That elegy for the Irish dead, which torques, twists discord almost to savagery, tears me apart: those clouds, if they could, would cry out their heart. Some years, long repressed, a season wants early escape: still it hides in robes of dense cloud its rock-black cape. Harriet (1) Within your grip, the straining spans of hand, barely the octaves; yet your ivories, live fingers, blending inside the brittle keys, whisk passion into the simplest allemande. Nor do you not know, smooth-skin, what allure—lent by flawless breasts, legs, shoulders—will quickly do to bother back the botherer of you. Yes—twice the ecstasy, double the torment. He too is double, all espionage in love; you beat back at him as if, straight from Yeats, you’ve loosed in Byzantine swarms the golden bees from their waxen sally gates, bees drunk on great gouts of royal jelly as Blacks and Tans set loose on their shenanigans. In his best interest, have you not contrived that masterworks, his, keep sunk in your solo trove? Apostling him to the Nordic god Sibelius, now loving your merry monarch, now slyly rebellious… Harriet (2) And yet he’s never freed himself from her. Things about him you know and yet stay on; the live little dalliances who cling and fawn, chancing to him as do windfalls off the spur and sprig of the sexy tree—they just occur. Or logburst sparks, or sparkles that flare when drawn, salt with foam, to your hem, the sea-devil’s spawn: such petty grains claw the petticoats of the slow comber. The wavebreak comes with its icy cymbal crash. Surf-climax, after the vast orchestral thrash, subsides and ebbs as do discords, and you learn long after what ices your ankles ceases to burn. “…Ultimately the three motto notes become established as an ostinato, over which the second subject and other elements of the movement pass in dark review…” —Arnold Bax, program notes to his Third Symphony Dark Review I can’t quite see; the eyes must still adjust, so vision leans on hearing—my heart beats, that drum of blood and hunger drums and eats from inside that same heart. The darkness, dust: those motes of flare, fine-grained, alone are seen, where all my life is all the shape I know in hells where Dantesque shame’s the ostinato that dissolves the motto suffering in the sheen. Life shimmers past in dark review; such things as love, truth, beauty deformed, gone bitter, shrunk. I’ve warped them from right shape most dismally. The small cloud guilt turns thunderhead, it clings with each last static hook to each sapling tree’s invert voltaic stem and crackling trunk. Each tree must cease to put out rings and grow quick as its optic bark can shock, sear, scar below. Spring Fire (experimental symphony by Bax, 1913) Spring-man young-man all “extasy” with Swinburne and Shelley, ardent as must be singers of ardent riches lit up inside the soul, as argent or dark mines catch quick underground fire, begin burn, then char deep mineral seams—unquenchable. Young Bax’s poetic passion then leans Irish. This delver feeds Cornish tin, copper to fire’s rich rich green, spring grass. Rain drips soft emeralds. Transformation, a mine-fire fever symphony: belowground-smoldering cello, viola, bassoon, then blazing trumpets, horns, and (sweet monsoon!) violin bursts, coupling rapture, burn-for-burn sympathy… Come, bassarids. Tambourines, rattle out Rupert Brooke. Ah consummation—to hell with the shepherd’s crook! I have always thought that art may be a disease of the soul, like the pearl in the oyster. —Arnold Bax In the Oyster Can love be love, can art stay art, which rubs, chafes, scrapes so hard and sharp at your soft innards that you must seal it, as we enamel our tubs in some exquisite coat that shines, glows, glimmers? Then, what if the grit-event, buffed lustrous, polished to rainbow brilliantine, must still be deemed fit matter for rejection, must be abolished, expelled, thrown out of the only shell you’ve dreamed, slept, eaten, tooled around in, your life-carapace? I hate to think what you’ve made lovely a dismal germ you must counter with antibodies: brand, hunt down, lay siege to, kick out. That sounds abysmal: dark under-depths, frights I wish you’d reprimand, rebuke back below, so quiet you might not hear a trace. And why? Don’t lose it, but keep it: turn that grit-bit furl (now curl, fold inward, shine shyly)—your most perverse personal pearl. Why Arnold Bax? Count on it—I seem to love the loser’s cause, the battle to push back against neglect. A great composer’s here, dark intellect and technical splendor forging his own laws, in Eros as in Art, a blithe young pagan who pens ecstatic symphonic poems, who’ll darken his song as wars and losses make him hearken: the tuning fork beats rue for the bright day gone. And yet the drumtap, still the rapture-captor filling symphonies both vast and terse, chromatically worked, Shelleyan colored glass, but permanent in structure. And his verse! Winging from England, pouncing as does a raptor on Irish legends, Celtic conscience and past. Before fashion applauds Pessoa’s heteronyms, he’s Dermot O’Byrne, he’s Shiela MacCarthy: all Other, and yet still Music, the hymn inside the hims. Friend Ralph (Vaughan Williams) Only English composers know the curse of working in talent-crowded, resource-poor Great Britain. Only one shot at rehearsing your latest symphonic masterpiece—the door to you and it, if orchestras can’t grasp. In spite of everything, they push, they’re played, Arnold and Ralph—and influence each other, this, the source and secret of their long handclasp: Agnostic Ralph’s folksong- and hymn-awareness filtered through Arnold’s grassily pagan filter, Bax enriching VW’s orchestral sparseness, threading an oboe cadenza through the braid. Oh friends though they are, what subtle rivalry together speeds them across barlines—brisk polyphony! Conductor “Tod” Handley: VW knows placing his tunes, his elements in each tone poem, juxtaposing; Bax is the one who shapes his melodious runes, transforms from the get-go: “It is called, I believe, composing.” Mr. Heseltine A.k.a. Peter Warlock: a deep archetype composes his facial lines—a blonder “blond Satan” than Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Yet let us wipe from mind the sere thin smile, the goatee latent with pranks and tricks. Regard the self-taught student, absorbing Alchemy and Magick, Musick tightening the tuning peg far beyond prudent, yet song flows along the old cleanrunning true creek bed, in the master current, point-counterpoint. Philip, fitful in confidence, praised by Bax as original, clear. Phil shrouds the Duchess of Malfi in as many voice-rainbows as funeral black reflects. He’ll gas himself dead: despair—in the face of defects? Yet much is owed: Philip shows Bax a Raleigh poem, “Walsinghame,” which Arnold compacts into painful, beautiful splendor. We anoint their friendship among the age’s treasures, yet what of the drunken evenings, Arnold weakening slowly to Scotch? Now Bax’s flickering will (stop boozing with Phil) meets Bax the meliorist. Somehow, somewhen, Bax too succumbs. Forget not this, though: Warlock the loved idealist, a generous friend and colleague—we can be grateful. Reserve other feelings for what we assume was fateful. From Another Art for the poets of Tough Old Broads: Viola Weinberg Spencer, Ann Menebroker, Victoria Dalkey, and Kathryn Hohlwein Thunderstorm All through the storm the heedless blackbird trills; While thunder rocks and tears the coppery sky And lightning splinters fleck the curtained hills Persists his melody. So when your body pitches in the trough Of bitter tides of longing may you know Some solace of the careless lilt of love I sang you long ago. —Arnold Bax (1883-1953) I. Arnold Bax, neglected musical master caught amid extramarital mistressy bigamy, could summon up twin arts, entwined creativities plucked from the Bishopy (write it!) kind of disaster. English composer, English poet too, he indites—when wrenched almost in halves by love or the suctioning dread of disappearing soon; he jots, when nearly drained of his marvelous trove of chromatic tempest, Magellanic surge of orchestral song—this wistful little thing: Bax hears a small blackbird whose heart’s-brimful flings tinwhistle-faraway flutings all through a storm, past sharp electric talons, spurred by an urge that, till he finds his listener, takes no form. Who is the Baxian blackbird? Who’s the she-listener? For Arnold, she could be “Tania,” Harriet Cohen the concert pianist. Tania isn’t alone, though. Could he mean Mary Gleaves? Is even he sure? Bax may not get to decide. Blackbird and longing: are they not one? Symbolic, the fluted tune piercing the absent lovewoman on the dune of wet and salt that lashes and lifts and strongwings the desirer, the rider of that discordant roll. Yet for how many eons have the throats of birds, the women, the wantings, mingled and sunk in the din? Ah, promise-breaker, sing to the girl in your soul, your silent stray gamine core, all feminine. Tempt her to come back, this time with honest words. Number Seven: Arnold Bax, 1939 for Richard Ryberg Adams Farewell to the vast symphonic hoard, to all the played, the unplayed, soon to be consigned to my trunk at the White Horse…to outlast my fall? Will it now be poetry, music cast out of mind? Farewell beforehand, small-fingered Harriet of the sweet soft flawlessly white shape and ivory trill, us long since caught in the net of sun-pierced tide along Cornish coast and cape. Farewell soon, my hearty whimsical happy Mary; farewell to Ukraine; and Scotland; English friends; to my lost-behind-mists green Celtic veldts of faery, and to long-prized Willie Yeats, who this instant ends, the ink still beading the note-heads on this fresh score of farewell to a life of vision in love and lore.