Magazine article The Spectator

An English Composer in Ireland

Magazine article The Spectator

An English Composer in Ireland

Article excerpt

In the basement of the Boole Library at University College Cork, I find myself face-to-face with a death mask. Slightly collapsed checks give it a look of the elderly Churchill. It is actually Sir Arnold Bax, the Romantic composer from Streatham, in south London, who briefly became one of the more unusual advocates for the end of British rule in Ireland.

Alongside the mask, dust lies thick on the autograph scores of tone poems and chamber works, and personal effects including a pair of glasses and a cigar case from the Savoy Hotel. Across town at the university's music department, his grand piano is propped sideways against a wall. Few of the keys produce any sound. It is a forlorn sight. Bax dedicated much of his life to Ireland; 50 years after his death in 1953 the country has just about forgotten him.

Bax was an 18-year-old composition student at the Royal Academy of Music in London when in 1902 he picked up a copy of W. B. Yeats's poem 'The Wanderings of Oisin'. Reading it, he was mentally transported to a land of legend and myth, peopled by red-haired colleens and handsome heroes. 'In a moment,' he said, 'the Celt within me stood revealed.'

When he made his first visit a few months later, the real Ireland fulfilled all his expectations - as he later wrote, 'Even Dublin itself seemed peopled by gods and heroic shapes from the past.' Supported by indulgent parents (much of the family fortune had come from manufacturing mackintoshes), he was able to live the life of an Edwardian gentleman traveller. Taking the mailboat to Kingstown or Rosslare, he would explore the country by train and open-topped motorcar, carrying with him a small library and a supply of blank manuscript paper.

Inns and hotels in remote villages in Donegal and Kerry provided a home. Often staying for months at a time, he spent his days walking, talking with locals, and composing. Celtic themes inspired many of his great tone poems, works like In the Faery Hills and The Garden of Fand. He also started to write poetry and prose, under a newly adopted Irish pseudonym, Dermot O'Byrne.

His early writing as O'Byrne is richly romantic and of its time: highly coloured sketches of Sligo and Mayo filled with characters speaking stage Irish to each other, and variations on the legends of Deirdre and Cuchullin. Several collections were published in Dublin and London, but they now seem very dated. It took a crisis - the Easter Rising of 1916 - for Bax to find his true literary voice.

Five years earlier, he had decided to settle full-time in Ireland, and rented a house in Rathgar in Dublin. Now suburbia, then it was in the country, with clear views out to the Wicklow mountains. His neighbours included George Russell (also known as 'AE'), the poet, painter and economist, who toured the country espousing new agricultural methods to poor farmers. Every Sunday, AE hosted a salon where the leading writers of the day would gather. Bax was accepted as an equal, few knowing or caring about his other life as a composer.

Many of those whom he met were to become directly involved in the campaign for independence - the aristocratic activist Countess Constance Markievicz, the poet and critic Thomas MacDonagh, and the educationalist and English monumental sculptor's son, Fadraig Pearse. Bax was particularly thrilled to meet Fearse; they discussed their love of Connemara. Pearse told a fellow guest when he left, 'I think your friend Arnold Bax may be one of us. I should like to see more of him.' Bax proudly noted the comment.

They never met again, and when, on that fateful Easter weekend, the fighting raged in Dublin, Bax was safely out of the country, on holiday by Lake Windermere. …

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