A I’ve brought some of my compositions.
Mac Oh let’s see them. (Looks at Cantata.) Oh, yes, he’s got an idea of it. This’ll be all right. (Corder looks at songs and seems to approve.) (Mackenzie looks at one part.)
Mac Hullo he’s been at Schubert! (Hums the beginning of the scherzo of Symphony in C.)
(To A): Do you like Schubert?
A Not particularly. I wasn’t thinking of him when I wrote it.
Mac No, I know, that sort of thing does happen sometimes. (Sounds as if he’d done it himself.)(The cantata that Bax brought along may have been The Pied Piper of Hamelin, mentioned in the memoirs of his private tutor, Francis Colmer, but now lost.) Other useful pieces of information gleaned from letters include, on p.332, a confirmation of what has long been suspected, namely that both the first and second movements of Bax’s aborted Viola Sonata No.2 were incorporated into the Sixth Symphony. ‘I am starting the intricate task of turning the ill-fated Viola Sonata into a Symphony ― beginning with scoring the Slow movement’, wrote Bax to Cohen on 21 November 1934 . I wonder what lay behind the phrase ‘ill-fated’. It may have referred to the apparent difficulty that the composer had had with the third movement, of which only the opening page is extant, and that crossed through. Rachmaninov’s opinion of Bax as ‘the greatest living composer’ was related to him by the Irish pianist Charles Lynch and prompted him to remark, ‘I don’t know why he should think so, except perhaps because I may have said something in my third symphony [admired by Rachmaninov and Medtner] which he has always wanted to say himself. We are both melancholy creatures with little use for the ways of this world’. The newly revealed letters also show us some more of Bax’s likes and dislikes among his fellow composers. Bloch’s Piano Quintet No.1, which he has just played through, is ‘probably like his other things better at the second hearing than at the third’. He is clearly very jealous of Walton’s success: ‘Keep Willie in his place’, he wrote to Cohen, ‘He has had quite enough spoiling!’ (p.338). John Ireland had a similar opinion, and the remark attributed to Bax in Susana Walton’s book and elsewhere to the effect that Walton only had to break wind for it to be recorded by Walter Legge is far more likely to be something that Ireland would have said; Bax is known to have disapproved of vulgar language. He certainly felt that Belshazzar’s Feast was a work ‘written in utterly cold blood with an eye to effect and nothing else’. He found the first movement of Walton’s First Symphony ‘really splendid’, but ‘the scherzo has always merely bored me’. The coda ― not surprisingly, in view of the haunting, Baxian trumpet solo towards the end ― he also liked very much. Elsewhere he wonders whether, deep down, Walton may not after all be a shy and sensitive person. He loathed Malcolm Sargent: ‘There is no more dislikeable person on earth, to my mind!’, an opinion that seems to have been shared by many other musicians. After a performance of In the Faery Hills, Bax wrote the conductor, Nicolai Malko, a letter of thanks and was pleasantly surprised to receive a charming reply. ‘Can you imagine Malcolm behaving so courteously?’, he commented. It is interesting to read his thoughts on Mozart (p.347), whom he regarded as incapable of ‘untrammelled passion and exstasy [sic]’. I was amused to see Bax referring to Elgar as ‘Colonel Bogey’ and to his own Overture to a Picaresque Comedy as his ‘Douglas Fairbanks overture’. Interesting too to learn that Bax had such a low opinion of what he referred to as the ‘second rate’Overture to Adventure. I am still mystified, though, by Foreman’s unwarranted suggestion (on p.99) that Bax himself was the person mentioned in Farewell, My Youthwho ‘insisted on speaking Gaelic’ in a train corridor, refusing to let people pass who were unable to reply in the language and causing AE (George Russell) to lose his temper. This would have been utterly out of character for someone as shy as Bax, who, in any case, told Eamonn Andrews in an interview that he had never progressed very far in the matter of speaking Irish, though he could read it easily enough. The correspondence between Cohen and Bax reveals even more forcefully than ever before how manipulative and egocentric she could be and how Bax was constantly having to write reassuring her of his love. She was jealous of other women who found him attractive and seems to have been especially suspicious of his professional relationship with May Harrison , whose love for him was clearly unrequited. ‘What is this nonsense about May Harrison !’, Bax wrote. ‘To the best of my belief no-one is “after me” at the present time ― and in any case you must know that that type does not attract me in the very least ― at the lowest reckoning a third too large!’. While Cohen could be egotistical and demanding, in fairness it cannot be denied that Bax himself was often equally self-centred. It is also clear that he had more affairs than have hitherto been known about. On p.265 we find Cohen writing and chastising him for having had an affair behind her back with her friend Gwethen (surname unknown). On a single day he even wrote love letters to two different women (Harriet Cohen and Mary Gleaves). But Cohen herself also had many affairs. In Dido Davies’s biography of William Gerhardy (OUP, 1991), p.201, there is a quotation from a letter that she wrote to him complaining about having a black bruise (‘sinister on such a place’) after what sounded like quite a strenuous session with him the previous evening. To counter-balance this negative view of Harriet Cohen, I should point out that I have been told by people who knew her that she was a loyal friend and extremely generous to young, up-and-coming artists, often, for instance, agreeing to perform without a fee at their concerts. Rebecca West wrote: ‘I never knew her to betray a confidence, repeat a spiteful story, or fail to repay a kindness by a greater kindness’ (from Cohen’s posthumous autobiography A Bundle of Time, 1969, p.11). She was certainly a larger-than-life character, and it is easy to see how she could have had such a wide circle of friends and admirers. She may have hag-ridden Bax in later years and hindered performances of his works, but she was also the inspiration behind some of his finest. Mary Gleaves, his other great love, whom I met on several occasions in her later years, was her complete opposite: quiet, shy, shrewd, and non-musical. Where Bax’s letters to Harriet are often defensive or tactful, his letters to Mary are more open and clearly written in a much calmer frame of mind. The Catalogue of Bax’s works (pp.465-506) gives details of manuscript whereabouts, orchestrations, dates, and so forth, though some of the publication details are out of date, and several works that have been published during the last decade or more are still listed as ‘unpublished’. For the record, Fand Music now publishes In the Night,Legend and the Four Pieces for piano; Fatrock Ink publishes the Sonata for flute and harp and the Valse for harp; Corda Music publishes the Concert-Piece for viola and piano; Saga Music published Rosc-catha, though this had hardly any circulation and may be impossible to obtain now; and Thames Publishing publishes the song ‘Dermot Donn MacMorna’. The manuscripts of Summer Music (first version), the second and third movements of the Sixth Symphony, and the Legend-Sonata for cello and piano are not lost, as claimed: they are in the British Library, The Grainger Museum, and the Bodleian Library respectively. Some of the twenty-four plates reproduced in this new edition appeared in the earlier editions of the book, but others have seldom or never been reproduced before. The most intriguing of these is undoubtedly a studio portrait of Natalia (Natalie) Skarginska (‘Loubya’ in Farewell, My Youth), the Ukrainian girl Bax pursued to Russia in 1910 and to whom he dedicated his First Violin Sonata (pl.6). ‘Oh! Loubya was like a naiad for beauty’, he wrote, ‘a golden Roussalka with ice-blue eyes!’. From his description I had conjured up an image of her that now proves to have been totally wrong. The eyes, it is true, are striking, but the rest of her sharp, unsmiling features are not how I had imagined them at all, and Bax’s ‘golden’ clearly does not refer to the colour of her hair. She certainly looks to be a forceful, even haughty, character, though of course it is quite unfair to judge someone solely on the basis of a photograph. Nevertheless, the daughter of her companion, Olga Antonietti (‘Fiammetta’), would later describe Natalie in an unpublished memoir as ‘a very attractive, totally selfish, temperamental and go-getting little bitch [who] pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes except Dolly Corder’s, who hadn’t a good word for her’. Another intriguing (though technically poor) photograph is of Bax with Harriet Cohen and Zoltan Kodály (pl.15), taken in the late 1940s; the two composers met on several occasions and apparently got on well together. The photograph of Bax with Henry Wood (pl.17) is a rare portrait of the composer from this period (c.1930), showing him midway between the skinny youth he had once been and the tubby gent familiar from so many photographs taken in the 1940s and early 1950s. A sketch in oils by Richard Walker (pl.22) is also reproduced here for the first time (as far as I know) and shows Bax in 1952 sitting on the fender of the fireplace in the White Horse, Storrington. Walker ’s fascinating account of their meeting is described on pp.396-7. The dust jacket illustration is Paul Corder’s splendid colour photograph of Bax taken in about 1907, though it appears lighter and pinker here than the original print, which has more of a blue tinge. It is always easier to spot someone else’s mistakes than one’s own, and a few are inevitable in a book of this size and complexity. Two misprints occur in contributions from myself, so purely in self-defence I must point out that in the translation on p.331 ‘the devout choir’ is misprinted ― as it was in the first edition of the book ― as ‘the devout chair’ (a surreal concept); and in the discography ‘Sonata for flute and harp’ has been altered to ‘Sonata for harp and flute’, thus rendering the cross-reference from ‘Sonatina for flute and harp’ incorrect. As is by now well known, there is also a muddle with the footnotes in four of the chapters, where the numbers in the text do not match up with the numbers at the end. (A correction slip is obtainable from the publisher.) But these lapses in no way detract from Lewis Foreman’s splendid achievement not only in assembling such a huge amount of factual information but in arranging it into a logical and coherent whole. I learned a great deal about Bax from reading this book and strongly recommend it, especially at such a reasonable price. Copyright © 2007 Graham Parlett