THE BACKGROUND TO IN MEMORIAM

by Graham Parlett

In 1911 Bax fulfilled his long-cherished dream of living in Ireland, and for nearly three years he and his wife rented a house on the outskirts of Dublin, where he became friends with many of the leading lights of the Irish literary revival. As is well known, he even contributed to it himself, writing plays, short stories, and poetry under the pseudonym ‘Dermot O’Byrne’, and distinguished figures such as George Russell (AE), Padraic and Molly Colum, James Stephens, and Ernest Boyd were regular guests at his home. Although much of their conversation centred around literature and philosophy, it is inevitable that politics also played a part in their discussions, and Molly Colum was always eager that Bax should be introduced to Patrick Henry Pearse (1879–1916), the Anglo-Irish barrister, writer, poet, educationalist, and fervent advocate of Irish nationalism: ‘You must meet him, Arnold! Sure you would get on together like sworn brothers, but the trouble is he’s a very difficult fish to land. He always refuses to go to any sort of party.’ Molly eventually succeeded in her mission, and a few weeks later Pearse arrived one evening at Bax’s house:

I began to talk to him of his native Connemara which I knew well, and he became quite animated when I spoke in lively detail of places on that ultimate seaboard that it is unlikely that anyone else in the room had ever heard of. Said Molly by my side, ‘My goodness, Mr. Pearse, would you ever have supposed that this fella’ was an Englishman?’ ‘Well, replied Pearse quietly, with the ghost of an ironic smile, ‘I’m half-English myself!’. . . As he was leaving that night he said to Molly, ‘I think your friend Arnold Bax may be one of us. I should like to see more of him’. I was anxious to meet him again too, but somehow it chanced that I never did. (Farewell, My Youth, pp. 105–6.)

Although this was the only occasion on which the two men ever met, they clearly made a profound impression on each other, and Pearse’s execution by the British on 3 May 1916 following the Easter Rising came as a terrible shock. Bax’s feelings are expressed in nine letters that he wrote to Harriet Cohen:

So poor Pearse was shot yesterday morning. It is a wonderful world, isn’t it? He was one of the most whole-hearted idealists that I ever met and I know that all he did was rooted in love—love for Ireland. ‘(4 May.)

I have nearly finished the Ballade [for violin and piano], and then I want to write something about Ireland and It mingled impossibly together[,] a dream piece untroubled by anything. It is time I did something like this.’ (17 July.)

(The word ‘It’, often written in inverted commas, is used elsewhere in their correspondence to mean love, love-making, or simply their affair.)

Some new music is developing in me. I suppose I am in rather good form just now and clear-headed. . . . The new piece will be a happy dream, something like the mood I told you I wanted to do—Love and the farthest Irish seas mingled together. It will be a little wistful I expect! but it is going to be beautiful all through with no jarring element.’ (20 July.)

My new composition is as usual “stuck”. They always are near the beginning, and at such times nearly everything in them seems worthless. However, I suppose it will come out in time—they generally do.’ (30 July.)

A lovely melody came to me the other day (Wednesday [2nd]) when I felt most unhappy. It was strange how it came—I think from the dream-world that we know—you and I.’ (4 August.)

My new piece is nearly all sketched out (in three days!). It is orchestral.’ (5 August.)

My orchestral piece is I believe rather a beautiful thing (I can speak quite honestly of my work to you, darling—thank heaven!) It is an Elegy in memory of Pearse, and has one quotation which would quite remove it from the sympathy of a British audience if it were recognized—which is in all probability unlikely. I want to play it to you very much.’ (7 August.)

I have finished the outline of my orchestral piece. It is very good I believe, and I did it in a week. I want to play it to you to-day.’ (10 August.)

Yesterday—having finished my work the day before—I abandoned myself to callow and immoral idleness and simply lazed and dreamed all day long.’ (12 August.)

Bax waited six months before orchestrating the score. In a letter to Cohen dated 14 February 1917, he wrote:

I am all alone for the whole of to-day and I expect I shall do lots of work. I am going to have a try at another bit of the novel—about last February and Myra [Hess]. I feel I could do that, perhaps. Also I am scoring the piece about Pearse. I did a huge amount of work yesterday.

(The unnamed ‘novel’ is referred to in nine letters to Harriet Cohen dating from 1914–17. It was to have been about ‘modern artistic life’.)

On 19 March, he was able to report:

I have just finished a piece of orchestration but somehow I don’t feel inclined to create. I feel a great longing to live rather than do just now. I suppose it is the crying of the Spring in the blood.’

The musical quotation that Bax mentions in his letter of 7 August 1916 comes from a song called ‘The Memory of the Dead’, better known by its first line: ‘Who fears to speak of “Ninety-Eight”’, later adapted by Brendan Behan as ‘Who fears to speak of Easter Week’. The original words, which refer to the Irish Rebellion of 1798, were written by Dr John Kells Ingram (1823–1907) when he was still a student at Trinity College, Dublin, and were first published anonymously in The Nation of 1 April 1843. They were later set to music by William Elliot Hudson (1796-1853). The theme, marked ‘fierce and strident’, first appears on trumpets and trombones in bars 111–14 (starting at 8:30 in the new Hallé recording). It is also alluded to in Bax’s poem ‘A Dublin Ballad–1916’:

Some boy-o whistled Ninety-eight
One Sunday night in College Green,
And such a broth of love and hate
Was stirred ere Monday morn was late
As Dublin town had never seen.

The historical significance of Bax’s In Memoriam lies in the fact that it was (as far as we know) the first piece of concert music written to commemorate the Easter Rising, having been started just three months after the event. The short (piano) score bears the title In Memoriam followed underneath by an inscription written in Irish Gaelic: I gcuiṁne ar bPádraig mac Piarais [In memory of Patrick Pearse], which is probably a dedication rather than a subtitle. This manuscript is now in University College, Dublin, having been presented in 1955 to the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Éamon de Valera, by Harriet Cohen. (A photograph showing the two of them holding the score appeared in the Irish Times of 18 October 1955.) For many decades it was believed that the composer had never orchestrated the work, and it was certainly never performed during his lifetime, its political undertones no doubt having inhibited Bax from bringing it to the attention of prospective British conductors, although in 1948 he had used its principal melody in his music for David Lean’s film Oliver Twist. But in November 1993, the holograph full-score manuscript of In Memoriam (now without the Irish dedication) came to light in a music publisher’s basement; it may formerly have lain unnoticed in the Goodwin and Tabb hire library. The manuscript is now privately owned and comprises thirty folios of twenty-two-staff paper bound in red cloth with the title and composer’s name in gold lettering up the spine. The absence of rehearsal letters or numbers confirms that the work was never played during Bax’s lifetime. The work was given its first performance by the BBC Philharmonic under Vernon Handley in BBC Studio 7, Manchester, on 17 June 1998 in front of a studio audience. Its second performance was given by the Portland Youth Philharmonic under Huw Edwards in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon, on 5 May 2002, and its third public outing (not ‘first’, as claimed in the programme note) was at a Promenade concert given by the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier on 24 July 2008. Its first performance in the Irish Republic came, appropriately, in 2016, when Duncan Ward conducted the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin on 19 February.

The Easter Rising and the death of Pearse prompted the composer to produce not only the orchestral piece but three other works. First came the unpublished song ‘A Leader’ (with words by AE), written ‘In memory of certain Irish patriots’ and finished on or just before 15 November 1916. In a letter to Harriet Cohen, Bax revealed that the principal melody was associated in his mind with Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–91), leader of the Irish Nationalist Party, known as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’. In another letter to her, a year and a day later (16 November 1917, shortly after having drafted Tintagel), Bax wrote:

I have been composing again to-day. I seem mighty musical just now somehow. I was reading one of Pearse’s little plays and it set me off on an Irish mood, and something came[,] another national piece. There is something very lovely and pure about Pearse’s literary work[,] unambitious as it is. I must lend you the book.’

This piece, for cor anglais, harp and string quartet, was originally entitled Irish Elegy, and it is likely that its final title—In Memoriam (1916)—was only applied when it came to be published in 1935. It is musically quite unrelated to the orchestral work. Finally came the slim volume of verse, A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems, which was published in 1918 by the Candle Press, Dublin and includes one entitled ‘In Memoriam My Friend Patrick H. Pearse (Ruler of Ireland for one week)’. Yeats later told Bax that he regarded ‘A Dublin Ballad’ as ‘a masterpiece and a real addition to the literature’, which ‘pleased me more than any praise my music has received!’ Not surprisingly, in view of their pro-republican, anti-British sentiments, the poems were promptly suppressed by the British censor in Ireland. Francis Colmer, Bax’s former tutor, told Colin Scott-Sutherland that the following passages were specifially censored under the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act:

p. 6 Fourth verse: ‘Fooling with trifles . . . practice in the yard!’.

p. 8 Subtitle: ‘(Ruler of Ireland for one week.) .

p. 9 Part of second verse: ‘For what last music . . . dull and hard?’.

p. 12 Part of first verse: ‘You’ll feel a breeze . . . suns that fell.’.

p. 19 Whole poem: ‘Martial Law in Dublin’.

p. 23 Part of last verse: ‘And we must drench in blood . . . Ireland built anew.

My own reaction to this latest Hallé recording of In Memoriam was very similar to Christopher Webber’s, and there is really nothing I can add to his comprehensive appraisal. Michael Kennedy may have made a serious error in his notes (as pointed out in the review), but he was quite correct in mentioning what he calls the ‘strange prelude to [Bax’s] future as Master of the King’s Music’—a subject that calls for further research into the complex personality of this most enigmatic of composers.

Comments are closed.