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Violin Sonata No.2 in D Minor

Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

Violin Sonata No.2 in D Minor (1915)

Arnold Bax lived in that Golden Age of British music which extended from Elgar to Britten. His work, perhaps more than that of his contemporaries, mirrors an immense range of private sympathies and is highly autobiographical. Progressing from a suburban, middle-class and never-wanting background, he eventually became a knighted musical laureate. Prolific and prodigiously gifted, he composed compulsively, writing a vast amount of music. In his later years and in those immediately following his death, his music was neglected and subject to dictates of fickle fashions current at the time, as disastrous in England as anywhere else. Happily, the wheel turned before the end of the century, and now there are signs that the music of Arnold Bax may be heard once again by an appreciative public. Once, it never lacked enthusiastic friends, but he promoted it himself only as an exceptionally fine pianist in his own chamber music. No pianist – even dedicatees and those closest to him – ever played those piano parts better than Bax himself. And one work in which his participation was unforgettable was this Second Sonata for violin and piano.

From its 'Slow and Gloomy' start in D minor to its utterly peaceful conclusion in D major, 'Lento (‘Very quiet and serene’)', the Sonata presents a linked sequence of contrasting moods, leaving no doubt of the emotional turmoil in its composer’s heart. The initial Fantasy paints the scene vividly in its 'Rough and Fierce' Allegro section, where the melodic outline of the initial bars – A, F, G sharp – presents a recurrent motto-theme. The outline is that of one by Rimsky-Korsakov and equally memorable. As there is no copyright in such pregnant musical motifs, it may be futile to suggest that Bax consciously remembered the stern Sultan of Scheherazade. On the other hand, a later quotation, longer than this short motif, shows that Bax must have been aware of Debussy, not only as the composer of La Mer but, precisely, of the first of the three settings of Tristan L’Hermite making up Le Promenoir des deux Amants, a haunting opening phrase which Bax also used in November Woods, a similarly retrospective work.

At which point, it would be best to read a note about this Second Sonata for violin and piano, probably written by Bax himself, for it appeared at the time of its first performance, by Bessie Rawlins and the composer, at Wigmore Hall on 22 April 1922:

'This Sonata was written in 1915 but for various reasons has hitherto been withheld by the composer. Recently it has been considerably revised. The work is in four distinct movements, though the whole is played without a break. The end of each of the three divisions of the Sonata is designed to create an impression of pause and expectancy, so that the plan of the various movements should be clear to the listener. The work is in cyclic form and the principal motive which dominates the whole Sonata is used also in the same composer’s orchestral piece November Woods.

Introduction – Fantasy

'The Grey Dancer in the Twilight'

Interlude – Lento expressivo (sic)

Allegro feroce – Epilogue

(The second movement, which might also be called 'The Dance of Death', was influenced in a particular degree by the events in 1915)

The Kaiser’s War affected many sensitive creators – poets, musicians, writers. Bax was all three. In those war years, he was drawn to Ireland, where his circle of friends expanded, where he now lies buried. His personal relationships were as involved as the times he lived in, and this Second Sonata reflects the thoughts of the human being at the time he wrote it rather than the later uneasy laureate.

© Felix Aprahamian

A personal note from Tasmin Little:

Arnold Bax¹s second sonata was composed in 1915 at a time of immense personal sadness and difficulty in his life. Not only was it written during the Great War, but Bax's personal life was in turmoil - his marriage was disintegrating, and he was living in a succession of hotels. Indeed the piece was so autobiographical in nature, that Bax withheld the manuscript until 1922.

The opening theme, which becomes something of an "idée fixe" for the sonata, is based on the theme of his tone poem November Woods and Bax returns continuously to this idea, changing it in mood from fiery to more reflective. The whole sonata is played without a break, but is divided into four movements. The opening introduction, where the idee fixe theme is first heard, is entitled 'Slow and Gloomy', and it sets the somewhat oppressive mood. The main section gets underway with a fast and rising semiquaver theme which Bax returns to at various points in the work, as his second "motif".Although the first movement is generally dark and fiery, there are moments of light, such as the beautiful section in G major begun by the piano and then taken up by the violin. After a return of the fast semiquaver section, the music dies away and leads directly in to the second movement, a whimsical waltz, entitled "The Grey Dancer in the Twilight". This title is possibly a reference to Harriet Cohen, with whom Bax was consorting in the woods at the time! After a brief passionate outburst towards the end of this section, there is a linking passage to the second movement - here the music is hauntingly beautiful with rolling semiquavers in the piano while the violin plays a slow and expressive version of the Idee Fixe. The music dies down once again in the piano and, almost imperceptibly, the third movement begins. This is the longest and most expansive section of the sonata, and it is the first time that we have felt a real sense of peace and tranquility. Finally the fourth movement brings back the idée fixe theme, altering the rhythm to the highly irregular time signature 11/8. Also in this movement we hear the haunting linking passage once again and then finally Bax brings the work to a passionate climax with the rising semiquaver motif - he even writes 'desperately' in the violin part, when the violin plays the idée fixe in the highest tessitura of the violin! In time, the mood calms down and the piece ends with tranquil resignation in a beautiful final section.

It was a wonderful experience to record these great works for violin and piano - Martin Roscoe and I have performed them in concert on many occasions, and have always been delighted by the enthusiastic response of the audience. Although the Bax sonata in particular is not part of the standard violin repertoire, there is so much depth and variety to both of these pieces that they will amply reward repeated listening.

Tasmin Little

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