Measure by Measure

An Englishman in Donegal

Just how Irish was Arnold Bax?

By Sudip Bose | August 31, 2017


Nearly two months have passed since we returned from our summer holiday in the northwest of Ireland, in County Donegal, and I am feeling the almost daily urge to go back, to gaze again at the sea, the moody expanse of sky, the stretches of rocky, wooded interior dotted with the ruins of some church stained gray from rain and age. Even today, this land seems wonderfully remote, yet it was all the more so in Arnold Bax’s day. Bax (1883–1953) was an English composer once mentioned in the same breath with Ralph Vaughn Williams and William Walton, then dismissed and neglected for years, before enjoying a revival in the last decades of the 20th century. The artistic heir to Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, Bax was a self-described “brazen romantic” whose body of work—seven symphonies, numerous tone poems, piano music, and string sonatas—stood in unrepentant defiance of every modernist movement. As a teenage music student in London, Bax became enchanted with Yeats, particularly the epic-length poem “The Wanderings of Oisin,” and he subsequently journeyed westward to drink at the fount of Celtic culture.

Ireland proved to be every bit as magical as he’d expected. As he later remembered in his autobiography, Farewell, My Youth, “Dublin itself seemed peopled by gods and heroic shapes from the dim past.” Following his marriage to the pianist Elsita Luisa Sobrino in 1911, he established a second residence in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar, where he befriended the poet AE (George Russell) and other prominent Irish writers. He immersed himself in local folklore and history, learned the Irish language, and began writing poetry and fiction under the pen name Dermot O’Byrne, all the while composing music that no longer sounded like Wagner or Richard Strauss but that, in Bax’s words, incorporated “figures and melodies of a definitely Celtic curve.”

The city nourished his artistic yearnings, yet in the countryside he discovered his true home. “I spent most of my time in the west,” he recalled, “always seeking out the most remote corners I could find on the map, lost corners of mountains, shores unvisited by any tourist and by few even of the Irish themselves.” This meant Galway, but mainly Donegal. For three decades, he returned to the village of Glencolmcille, in the western part of the county, not far from the vertiginous cliffs of the Slieve League. He stayed at a pub that still exists (Roarty’s), endearing himself to the locals by participating in the potato harvest and digging for turf. He explored other parts of the county, experiencing an epiphany just outside the town of Dunfanaghy, where, on a wooded headland in the company of AE, he thought he beheld the airborne fairy host, flickering in the growing dusk. He recorded such experiences in his tone poems—for example, the three that make up his Éire trilogy of 1909: the atmospheric Into the Twilight, with its sweeping romantic gestures and Dvořák-like folk idiom; the playful and joyous In the Faëry Hills; and Roscatha, dedicated “to the mountainy men of Glencolmcille,” in which the Celtic flavor is most discernible.

If Bax were alive today, what would we make of him—this wealthy Englishman who happily sloughed off his English exterior, “as a snake its skin in the spring,” every time he arrived upon Irish shores? The contemporary composer Séamas da Barra has described Bax’s time in Ireland as “a privileged existence. A private income meant he never had to take a paid position, and he was always able to do more or less as he pleased. … The simple life he lived with the Donegal country people for a few weeks twice a year he lived entirely by choice, not by necessity.” Yet the Irish did appear to accept him. “This glen faces out west to the Atlantic, and there is a small bay with a lovely strand where I bathe every day,” Bax wrote to Mary Gleaves, one of the many women in his life with whom he had an affair. “You would love the gentle innocent people. I think it is a great privilege that they regard me as one of themselves.”

Bax might have been that rare thing—a genuine English exponent of the Celtic Twilight—and indeed, he was greatly affected by and sympathetic to the Easter Rising of April 1916, during which armed Irish republicans tried to depose the British once and for all. (It’s true that he didn’t experience the Easter Rising in person, but then, neither did Yeats.) Still, Bax might today be unfairly denounced as some fraudulent cultural appropriator—a wealthy colonial imbibing a foreign culture and attempting to make it his own. I would say he had good company in this regard—Debussy, Dvořák, Édouard Lalo, and many others among the greats could be accused of similar “crimes.”

Whatever the degree of Bax’s Irishness, whatever the legitimacy of his alter ego—and no matter that his obsessions would later turn to Scotland and to the Nordic lands—the Irish landscape, especially what the composer’s biographer Lewis Foreman calls “the savagery of the Atlantic,” lives and breathes in his music. When Bax first saw the Atlantic from the summit of the Slieve League, the experience shook him to the core: The “sea is hidden by the landward bulk of the mountain itself,” he recalled, “so that when it bursts into view at a height of almost two thousand feet, the sudden sight of the Atlantic horizon tilted halfway up the sky is completely overwhelming.” Bax wanted to die in Donegal, with the “last vision in this life” being “the still brooding dove-grey mystery of the Atlantic at twilight.” I can sense the presence of the sea in so much that the composer wrote, but the most vivid depiction for me occurs in the brief tone poem On the Sea Shore, composed in 1908 as part of an opera that he never completed and later arranged for orchestra by Graham Parlett. Here is all the majesty of the northwest Irish coast: scenes both light and dark, glimpses not only heavenward but also of the roiling depths beneath the water’s surface, so full of foreboding. This is the Donegal that I saw not long ago, the Donegal I cannot get out of my own mind—a wild and rugged land, poetic, isolated, sublime.

Listen to Vernon Handley conduct the Ulster Orchestra in Bax’s On the Sea Shore:

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