Last Modified March 15, 2001
While perhaps best known as Bax’s first biographer, Colin Scott-Sutherland has been writing on composers and other music-related subjects for nearly 40 years. His study, “Arnold Bax”, was published by J.M. Dent and Sons Limited in 1973. It is a pioneering work that is much sought-after in second-hand book shops. He has recently edited a collection of poems and early love letters by Arnold Bax that is available through Fand Music Press.
Richard Adams: How did you first become acquainted with Bax’s Music?
Colin Scott-Sutherland: Many years ago a young girl pupil of Tony Baldwin in Dundee played me ‘In a Vodka Shop’ – which so excited me that I wrote at once to Augener for the music, and all the other pieces they published ‘Sleepyhead’, ‘Apple Blossom Time’, ‘The Princess’s Rose Carden’ – alas, all too difficult for my modest abilities on the keyboard! It was probably while I was in the Army (certainly between 1948 and 1950) that I first heard the 4th Symphony at the Albert Hall under Goosens – tho’ my memory of the occasion (but not of the music) is vague. The Pelican ‘British Music of our Time’ (edited Bacharach) , Bernard Shore’s ‘Sixteen Symphonies’ and of course Robin Hull’s 1932 handbook on the first four Symphonies, were also a tremendous stimulus.
RA: Has your opinion of Bax increased or decreased over the years?
CSS: Increased, as I got to know more of the music – although I had felt from the beginning that here was great music. At that point (late 1940’s) the only recorded music that I could find was the Third Symphony (Halle and Barbirolli), ‘The Garden of Fand’ (HMV Beecham) and ‘Tintagel’ (HMV Goosens) – all on ’78’s. A long time after I was fortunate enough to find, in a 2nd hand shop, a set of the English Music Society ’78’s with ‘Mater Ora Filium’, the Nonet and the superb Viola Sonata. Even later I acquired the old National Gramaphonic Society ’78’s of the Two Piano Sonata, with Ethel Bartlett and: Rae Robertson. These chamber works were another side of this fascinating composer!
RA: What material will you be presenting in your forthcoming compilation of Bax’s writings?
CSS: The book, entitled ‘Ideala’, devoted to Bax’s early poetry mostly under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne, will include all his completed verses as far as I have been able to ascertain – including ‘A Dublin Ballad’ and those poems banned by the censor in 1918 – a few early love letters, photographs and other illustrations, the piano piece ‘The Princess’s Rose Garden’ (essentially an exotic love poem) and a memoir of the Bax brothers and family by the boys’ tutor, Francis Colmer.
RA: Can we expect your new publication to alter our understanding or appreciation of Bax’s writings?
CSS: As apart from those selected poems published in 1979 from Thames, and edited by Lewis Foreman little enough is even yet known of Bax’s literary output. His short stories (a collection of which is long overdue) are long out of print. This collection of his poems, almost all written between 1904 and 1915/16 when he was in his ‘twenties, will illustrate Bax’s ideas and creative motivation in those early years when his creative expression was in course of forming.
RA: How significant was Bax’s poetry to his music, and vice versa?
CSS: Difficult to say. In my book I wrote ‘The strongest influences in his life were those physically encountered and sensually perceived, and he confided the magic of such experiences first to his notebooks and then by a process more subtle, to the pages of the music’. Bax’s creative expression in words and in music, while obviously related, were more closely involved in the early years. Many of the poems were written for girlfriends, or to express his love for Ireland and things Irish. His musical identity was still being formed – and while the emotions of early love and the passion for Ireland motivated all his creative expression, the poems tended to be more personal, under the spell of a variety of young females to whom he was attracted. He set very few of his own verses to music and most of the later writing was in prose.
RA: How does his poetry compare with that of his contemporaries?
CSS: He was not a poet in the sense that his poetic expression could be compared with contemporaries such as de la Mare, Edward Thomas, Masefield or suchlike. Those poets who influenced him most were Swinburne and Yeats – but their influence, superficially literary, went much deeper. Bax once made the astonishing pronouncement that the poetry of Yeats meant more to him than ‘all the music of the centuries’. Bax’s early poetry was written under personal pressures – encouraged by his brother Clifford, then under the spell of Swinburne, Shelley and Keats – as a release valve for those great passions of youth and adolescence. In his short autobiography he wrote ‘in my ‘teens I decided that twenty-two was the golden number in the count of a man’s years. I longed to be twenty-two and to remain at that age forever….’ He was nonetheless a craftsman and, however indulgent the sentiments, the pieces are written carefully, with a sound knowledge of formal construction (even at this early age). It is perhaps interesting to look at those poets whom he chose to set – which might be indicative of his predilections in poetry – Ruckert, Hartleben, Dehmel (undoubtedly influenced by Clifford,) – and then Fiona MacLeod, Padraic Colum, Joseph Campbell and James Stephens.
RA: What distinguishes Bax’s poetry?
CSS: A quite blatant romanticism, sensuality and an acute awareness of the moods of physical Nature. The many allusions bear out Patrick Hadley’s comment to me that he was ‘curiously well read in unexpected ways’. He had a fine command of language.
RA: Why did you think Bax found it necessary to adopt the pseudonym ‘Dermot O’Byrne’?
CSS: The matter of his poetry (and indeed of his prose) was immediate – the substance of his music is timeless. In Ireland for many years he was known, even to Yeats and AE (George Russell), only as a writer – and as a musician only to the Fleischmann’s in Cork and to Dr Larchet of the Abbey Theatre. In my writing of Bax I have tried to express this duality in his nature.
RA: Why has it taken so long for Bax’s music to be accepted?
CSS: It would be easy to say because of his demands in orchestration, the complexity of his scores, the instrumentation of the chamber works – and few accompanists are bold enough to tackle Bax’s songs! Also perhaps because, being of independent means, he occupied no ‘position’ – as teacher, organist, professor or administrator, and was therefore to some extent out with the usual professional circles. Obviously before the days of CD’s, which have illuminated so many hitherto obscure corners of the repertoire, preparing a big orchestral work especially one that asked for unusual forces, for at best one or two performances, militated against over-exposure! One critic discussing Bax’s music in general wrote, ‘needs repeated hearings for recognition, and needs recognition for repeated hearings’. But I think that few musicians really understood Bax’s work – as note the critics’ puzzled reactions to the first performance of the Symphonic Variations.
RA: What were the prevailing attitudes regarding Bax during the late 1960’s when you were writing your book?
CSS: I think the attitude to Bax was essentially one of scepticism – possibly a little professional jealousy? But the music was not really understood, too readily consigned to the ‘Celtic Twilight’ many baffled by the apparent complexity of the music. Perhaps this is summed up by Vaughan Williams:
‘Though no ascetic, he seemed not to belong to this world but always to be gazing through the magic casements, or wandering in the shy woods and Wychwood bowers waiting for the spark from heaven to fall. But for Bax unlike the Scholar Gypsy, the spark fell continually and abundantly, perhaps even too abundantly: the very fertility of his harmonic and melodic invention sometimes prevented us from seeing the wood for the trees’. (Music & Letters Jan 54)
Many years later, Frank Merrick told me that RVW had generously added what he (Frank) thought the loveliest tribute from one composer to another – that Bax ‘probably has more poetry in him than anyone else alive’, (to which another, who must remain nameless, added unkindly ‘and probably less idea of what to do with it’.) Some of those to whom I spoke then used phrases like ‘inveterately prolix’, uncontrolled proliferation of ideas’ ‘a lack of personal identity’ – all of which today in light of the exposure to the music in varied interpretations, must surely seem incomprehensible! A letter to me from that fine critic Scott Goddard ends:
Of [Bax’s] music I had, and still have, mixed feelings… the short things,
yes, the symphonies …. I wonder, but still want to hear his last again and again’
‘A note of envy perhaps from Bliss ‘[Bax] was endowed at birth with such a bountiful gift for music as is rare and enviable. As a young student he never, it seemed, had to struggle hard either to master a technique or to mature a style….’ (Music & Letters Jan 1954.)
RA: Have those attitudes changed? If so, in what way?
CSS: In some ways, merely a matter of availability. It is now possible to hear all the Symphonies, and almost all the orchestral works on CD – so the general listening public (including of course those whose expertise is needed to produce the music) have a chance to make their own assessment. It must speak volumes that there are now several versions of the Symphonies and of many of the orchestral works – and despite the ease with which CD’s can be produced, record companies do not produce music that is not in demand! I think what is to me the most important result of all that is that the Seven Symphonies may now be heard as a unity, which I believe they are. A trail was blazed by Mr. Itter of Lyrita – and there is no doubt that the persistent advocacy of Lewis Foreman and Graham Parlett – and those enlightened conductors such as Sir Henry Wood, Christopher Whelen, Bryden Thomson, Vernon Handley and now David Lloyd-Jones in the enterprising Naxos series – have widened this field, allowing many different perspectives on the music.
RA: The emergence of your book seems to have signalled a Bax revival. What else contributed to the revival in your opinion?
CSS: I wouldn’t claim that my book did more than help in making people aware of the richness of Bax’s music. It was certainly the first serious study of Bax’s work, but Dents remaindered it quite quickly.
RA: Very few of Bax’s works had been recorded at the time you wrote your book. How were you able to familiarize yourself with so many of his works?
CSS: I simply had to study at the piano those enormous manuscript scores like ‘Winter Legends’ which Chappells (thanks to the help of Daniel Inman there) allowed me to borrow. I had already re-written Chappell’s descriptive brochure on the music of Bax, which was lost in their disastrous fire. The scores (all in MS) I had simply to pick over at the piano (not entirely with one finger!) – and although it must sound rather conceited, I did not feel it necessary, once I was finally able to hear the music recorded, to rewrite my analyses or descriptions of these wonderful scores as these appear in my book.
RA: How was your book received when it was first released?
CSS: With mixed reviews. Scepticism was still prevalent, compounded I suppose by the fact that I was quite unknown, and many had already fixed ideas about Bax, with which mine perhaps didn’t agree? The book was however well received in many quarters – for a study of Bax was long overdue. His music had unceremoniously been bundled into a ‘Celtic Twilight’ pigeonhole, and that was of course quite unfashionable.
RA: What sort of response have you received from readers over the years?
CSS: Very warm. It has always seemed to me strange that the quickest and warmest responses came from people who were not professional musicians, but music lovers. I suppose the book had something of a success – published at £ 3.10/- and now fetching a reasonable price in second hand catalogues! I must confess to being very gratified when a noted authority on music (for me, the doyen of writers on music) wanted me to autograph his copy!! The book did produce letters from several elderly ladies whose memories of Bax had been rather romantically reawakened! More of this in the forthcoming volume.
RA: I Understand the book is much shorter than your original manuscript. Why is this? What did you have to cut?
CSS: After I submitted the manuscript, with the encouragement of Dr Percy Young, Dents stipulated a maximum of 80,000 words. The typescript had to be reduced without damaging my argument (the shape of the book was meant to be essentially symphonic) so I could do nothing except delete most of the quotations from Bax’s own writings which I had included.
RA: Are there areas where you take exception with other Bax pundits?
CSS: Yes – on form in the Symphonies. I find it difficult to argue since I am not a professional musician but my ear tells me that Bax’s ideas of form were much stronger than he is given credit for. I was delighted to read recently in Dennis Andrews’ book ‘Cuchulan among the guns’ Christopher Whelen’s words (which he said in the 1950’s):
‘Bax is a great musical architect. Nobody has pointed out the organic scheme behind each symphony. Critics talk of ‘a profusion of ideas’ failing to notice that each bar each phrase stems from a ‘first idea’ as the American poet Wallace Stevens has called it. Once the scores have been cleaned up, on occasion re-marked and then studied it will be seen that there are no such things as episodes or rhapsodizing. Everything is logical and surprisingly precise…… Byzantine mosaics.’
RA: You had a close relationship with Harriet Cohen. How did you first become acquainted with her?
CSS: My association with her was friendly, though not really particularly close. Early in 1960 when I had begun to contemplate writing about Bax, I sent her a questionnaire, largely on biographical points. Her response was to invite me to a weekend party at her mews flat in London. This was one of her ‘serenades’ which gathered together all sorts of interesting people, not only from the arts – where I met people like Jerrold Moore, Jo Berger, Jeanne de Cassilis and others! This was a Saturday in May. On the Sunday morning I left to visit John Ireland at Rock Mill, on whose music I had already written a short survey which he was generous enough to approve and to which Jocelyn Brooke had agreed to write an introduction. On the Monday, talking all the while, Harriet took me to visit some of Bax’s haunts in London the rose garden in Regents Park, the pub in George Street (also frequented by Constant Lambert) and we sat in ‘The Princess’s Rose Garden’ (in the mews!) In that short weekend, despite many interruptions (among them Barbara Tucker Brown, when the talk was all on American politics!) I managed to hear, on very scratchy old private discs, something of the 5th and 6th Symphonies. Without a score it was difficult to get more than a very general impression, but I remember that the music of the 5th particularly kept running through my head. We went to the Albany to visit Clifford where we spent several hours – the talk mostly of poetry and of cricket when he showed me those cricket records of the Old Broughtonians, with memories of Edward Thomas and so many others!
RA: Harriet Cohen has been much criticized of late for preventing performances of the music he wrote for her.
CSS: Yes, she was possessive – certainly with those works for piano and orchestra – Symphonic Variations, and Winter Legends- written for her. They were never published. (The two piano version of the first was issued in 1963 – and there existed a very good and clear two-piano version of the second in a copyist’s hand: so there would seem no reason why others should not have played these works, whatever Harriet thought, as did Joyce Hatto, John McCabe and Patrick Piggott (and latterly of course Margaret Fingerhut) at a later stage.) Much of the piano music was written for her – and she certainly blocked first performances by others – even the 4th Sonata, dedicated to Charles Lynch was not premiered by him. ‘Legends’ for piano solo, written for John Simons in 1935/6 was only given to him in 1963!
RA: Did you ever have the opportunity to hear her play?
CSS: No When I knew her she had suffered eye problems (detached retina) and was forbidden to play. She seemed philosophical about it (to me at least) saying that she aspired thereafter to become a female Gilbert Harding! I have tapes of her playing ‘Winter Legends’, but the record I treasure most is her HMV (LP) disc of ‘Morning Song’ quite ravishing.
RA: Did she assist you in writing your book?
CSS: Only encouragement. In fact apart from biographical details (which as one would expect were kept factual and revealed little of the domestic issues of which I later became aware!) Harriet interfered not at all with my conclusions about the music. All the material she saw at that point was a rough draft of the shape of the book, and those articles I wrote for Music Review ( on the Symphonies, and on unpublished works) and the article on Bax at Morar in ‘Scotland’s Magazine’. She was keen that I kept personalities out of it, and as so many of the protagonists were still alive, and since I was writing about the music, that seemed reasonable! She died in 1967 and therefore did not live to see the book completed in 1973.
RA: Did you confide in you about her feelings regarding Bax’s relationship with Mary Gleaves?
CSS: No. She made no attempt to regale me with stories of personalities – nor did she attempt any kind of character assassination! She did speak bitterly about Bax’s neglect by some British conductors. Mary Gleaves was never mentioned, nor indeed was she by others to whom I spoke strangely enough. I was of course well aware that there were domestic issues involved – but I chose at the time to concentrate on the music. However this gap – and the involved relationships of Bax’s later life – has been very adequately filled by Lewis Foreman in his in-depth study of the subject.
RA: Do you know if she had any favorites among Bax’s works?
CSS: I really don’t know. She was very fond of both Symphonic Variations and of Winter Legends. She chose ‘Nereid’ as subject for a performance analysis in her little book ‘Music’s Handmaid’. (Faber 1936).
RA: Bax is portrayed in Ken’s Russell’s film as a lecherous skirt-chaser with a preference for very young women. Do you know if there is any truth to this?
CSS: If you recall Bax’s own words in ‘Farewell My Youth’ that puts this into perspective! Bax delighted in youthful femininity – essentially the romantic longing and the knowledge that beauty is impermanent. There was of course a sensual side to this. But ‘lecherous skirt-chaser’ is an indefensible suggestion. Ken Russell’s film was a sensational distortion. As I wrote to the press ‘this tasteless farrago tells us much about Ken Russell and absolutely nothing about Bax. It is regrettable that none of the protagonists so unfeelingly portrayed is able to fight back’.
RA: It was suggested in the film that Bax’s pursuit of youthful women was his way of compensation for his failing creative powers?
CSS: Lost creative powers? Nonsense – the Concertante for three solo instruments, the LH Concerto, and ‘Morning Song’ – few composers have achieved that kind of serenity at the end of their creative life! He chose to retire, as he said ‘like a grocer’, and there can be little doubt that the climate in the 1950’s was not conducive to ‘brazen’ romanticism.
RA: Do you know if Bax listened to gramophone records? If so, what works did he prefer to listen to?
CSS: I don’t know – but as much of his time was spent in the wilds of Ireland, or on the remote coast of western Scotland – and ‘the Egyptian labour’ of scoring, it is unlikely that he had leisure to listen to records. The only music he took with him to Storrington was the score of ‘Meistersinger’.
RA: It is interesting to note that conductors in the United Kingdom who have held important posts have not taken up Bax. Why do you think this is?
CSS: I know that Bax did not court the establishment, although he expressed acute disappointment at the neglect of the Symphonies – he withheld the Violin Concerto for a while. In a letter to me one very well known conductor wrote ‘I am afraid I have not got a great deal of information about the Sixth Symphony….. in fact I know very little about the content of any of his work, except what can be read in Robin Hull’s brochure’ (1962) and expressing the view that he thought Bax was ‘overwriting himself pretty badly in the early thirties..’
RA: How much contact have you had over the years with such dedicated Baxians as Vernon Handley, Norman Del Mar, Stanford Robinson, Maurice Handford, etc? What can you tell us about these conductor’s attitudes toward Bax?
CSS: I have had no contact with any except Stanford Robinson who invited me to Glasgow to the rehearsal and recording of the Symphonic Variations with Patrick Piggott. As I said earlier I am not a professional musician and, although I admire the sterling work done by all these conductors, I am scarcely qualified to make judgments, other than subjective ones! It is just good that now so many conductors are prepared to tackle these complex scores. I know that the occasion in Glasgow when Patrick recorded the Symphonic Variations, Stanford Robinson, Patrick and I went down Byres Road for lunch, singing the themes with great enjoyment!
RA: I’ve noticed that Bax performances prior to the 1970’s were much faster and more urgent than those we usually hear from today’s conductors. Why do you think that is? What effect has it had on the music itself?
CSS: I think this is down to fashion – not always, if ever, a satisfactory arbiter. I think that this applies to a great many musical works (yet recently I disposed of an old LP Delius ‘Sea Drift’ – it was so slow!) I’m not a conductor, but a conductor’s task with Bax is a hard one. I think if you take a Bax score too slowly the form begins to blur – and if you take it too fast many gorgeous sounds get missed. As I said earlier, the varied performances have given us different slants on the music which is valuable enough-
RA: Do you recall any specific Bax concerts that made an impression on you?
CSS: In the absence of ‘live’ concerts (other than in the London area) while I was getting to know Bax, and living in a small Scottish seaside village, I can only claim recorded performances – other than that 4th Symphony in London. How wonderful it would have been to have been able to attend the Balfour Gardiner concerts in 1912 and 1913!
RA: What are your favorite works by Bax and why are they your favorites?
CSS: I’d have to say all seven Symphonies! But I suspect that whatever work of his I am listening to at the time would be my favourite. The Viola Sonata is certainly one of the works I love listening to.
RA: Are there any works you don’t particularly care for?
CSS: I don’t think that the Faure Variations are very interesting – certainly not in the piano solo version. They sound better in the String Orchestra form.
RA: Which of Bax’s works do you think have been more underrated?
CSS: Largely the chamber works – but that is rapidly being remedied. When we consider the long neglect of the orchestral ‘In Memoriam’ the neglect over the years has been shameful.
RA: Which works by Bax do you believe most deserve to be revived?
CSS: Since almost all his work is now available on CD there seems little likelihood of unknown works being discovered. I know there exists in short score a Concertino for piano and strings, but whether it is ‘performable’ I don’t know. We are now too satisfied with recordings – but it would be good to have many more ‘live’ performances, and not only in the metropolis!
RA: Have you been following the new Naxos Bax Symphony Cycle conducted by David Lloyd-Jones? What is your opinion of it?
CSS: Yes, I’ve purchased each disc as it appeared. I would like to await the complete cycle in order to judge the conductor’s appreciation of the symphonic arc over all. I’m just astonished that we now have several different versions of all these fine works.
RA: Finally, where do you think Bax stands in relation to his peers?
CSS: In my opinion a greater composer than any of them – nearer to Sibelius, Nielsen. I can’t help feeling that in many ways Bax belongs to the 19th century and not to the 20th?
Copyright © Colin Scott-Sutherland and Richard Adams