Arnold Bax: The Premiere of ‘A Northern Ballad’ in Glasgow, 14 November 1931
by John France
This essay will examine the premiere performance of Arnold Bax’s rarely heard A Northern Ballad (later Northern Ballad No.1). This is not an analytical study of the work: however, I have included the text of the composer’s programme note, as well as several contextual comments and a few descriptive details.
Since first hearing Arnold Bax’s A Northern Ballad in the early 1970’s, I have felt that it is underappreciated. The conventional critique of this tone poem places the ‘plot’ or the ‘action’ in the Highlands of Scotland. Nevertheless, as Lewis Foreman has pointed out (Lyrita Sleeve Notes, SRCS 62) ‘the programmatic origins of the work are not admitted in the score.’ The only clue is provided in Bax’s short note included in the premiere’s programme booklet and subsequently reprinted in the Royal Philharmonic Society Programme (3 December 1931). It was latterly printed in Parlett (1999):
This short work dates from about four years ago. It recounts no particular tale; there is little definite local colour, nor is any use made of traditional airs. It is simply meant as a general impression of the fiery romantic life of the Highlands of Scotland before the opening up of the country subsequent to the [Jacobite Rising of 17]45, a musical counterpart of the mood permeating the dark and stormy legends of the clans and such books as the late Neil Munro’s The Lost Pibroch .
Although the musical structure is intentionally terse and concise, there should be no difficulty in following the development of the piece, as the divisions of the sections are clearly marked.
The work is dedicated to Basil Cameron.
A Northern Ballad opens with ‘a rousing call to arms’ (Foreman, Liner Notes Lyrita SRCS.231) with horns to the fore. The music then develops into a bleak and gloomy march. This is succeeded by a rhythmical ‘vivace’ passage and a sweeping string melody. A sense of uneasy calm is eventually restored before a characteristic Scottish tune on solo oboe is played ‘Poco lento lamentuoso.’ This highlights the Scotch snap (short note followed by a long note). A solo violin provides some contrapuntal interest. Eventually, the march tune re-emerges, sometimes bright and often menacing. Towards the conclusion, the ‘Scottish’ tune is quietly reprised before the Ballad comes to an end with a powerful ‘Sforzando bang.’
Graham Parlett (1999) records that the short score was completed during November 1927. The undated full score would appear to have been finished in 1931. A Northern Ballad has never been published, although the performing material is available for hire. It is interesting that Colin Scott-Sutherland (1973, p.149) insists that A Northern Ballad was not premiered until April 1961.
This tone poem may have been inspired by a preliminary visit to Morar in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Certainly, Bax began to travel there regularly from the winter of 1928 until the start of the Second World War, when it became ‘off limits’. He was stirred by the landscape, history, and legends of the Highlands. It was also a refuge from private and professional intrusions. Morar was remote enough to keep away all but the most intrepid visitors, but convenient enough to take a train to Glasgow and then south by sleeper to London.
Other important compositions completed in 1927 included the rarely heard Overture, Elegy and Rondo for orchestra, the Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp, the Sonata No.3 for violin and piano and the short two-piano work Hardanger with its nods towards Edvard Grieg.
Four days before the concert, the Aberdeen Press and Journal (10 November 1931, p.4) reported that Arnold Bax had been awarded the Gold Medal of the Philharmonic Society of London for outstanding musicianship. This was a considerable distinction for Bax, as it is bestowed rarely. The previous year (1930) had seen the honour go to Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst and the following year (1932) Sergei Rachmaninov.
Furthermore, it was stated that Bax will be in Glasgow on Saturday (14 November) ‘to hear the first public performance of his new work, A Northern Ballad.’ This was to be played by the Scottish Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron. The only clue about the piece was that it was ‘based on events of the ’45.’ Not altogether true.
The concert programme was announced in the Glasgow Herald (14 November 1931, p.13). It was to begin at 7.30 pm in the St. Andrew’s Hall, Granville Street in the Charing Cross district of the City . The event was held under the auspices of the Glasgow Choral and Orchestral Union. The concert was to commence with Alexander Borodin’s Overture: Prince Igor. This was followed by the premiere performance of Bax’s Ballad. The major event that evening was Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 in F op.68 ‘Pastoral’. To conclude the evening, the audience were to hear three short works: The ‘Prelude’ from Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin, the ‘Serenade’ from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik K.525, and finally an orchestral arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 in D minor.
For citizens of Glasgow who were less musically minded, on that day, Celtic had lost to Partick Thistle, 1-2 (are rare event now) and the other Old Firm team, Rangers had drawn 2-2 with Clyde Football Club. The press were reporting the discovery of two illicit stills capable of making whisky in a house in Duke Street. And finally, Glasgow was experiencing a prolonged period of atrocious weather.
By the date of this performance, Basil Cameron, along with Issay Dobrowen, had been appointed as joint directors of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In 1932 Cameron would transfer to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, before returning to the United Kingdom to assist Sir Henry Wood with the Promenade Concerts. Cameron had performed Bax’s music in the past, so it is no surprise that the score of A Northern Ballad was dedicated to him.
Two days later, The Scotsman (16 November 1931, p.11) reported on the event. Firstly, it mentioned the ‘considerable improvement in the attendance at the second popular concert sponsored by the Glasgow Choral and Orchestral Union…’ The critic, possibly James Stewart Deas, considered that ‘a very attractive programme was submitted…’ He commented that A Northern Ballad ‘[depicted] the romantic period of the ’45 in the Highlands of Scotland’ and that ‘interest was lent to the occasion by the presence of the composer, who appeared on the platform and congratulated the conductor and orchestra at the close of the performance, which was enthusiastically received.’ But note Bax himself implies that it is descriptive events around the time of the ’45 rebellion. It is arguable whether there was much romance about the ’45 itself, which was effectively a ‘civil war’.
There was a bonus. The orchestra’s manager, Mr. Joseph Barnes, ‘announced that the committee [of the Glasgow Choral and Orchestral Union] had decided that, as a compliment to the composer, his tone poem ‘Tintagel’…would be repeated this evening, being substituted for the concluding item, a Liszt Rhapsody.’ It had been heard at a concert on 10 November at the same venue. The Scotsman noted that this ‘second hearing of this tone poem aroused great interest, and Mr Bax again acknowledged the cordial response of his composition.’ As we shall see, this substitution was not universally popular.
The Glasgow Herald (16 November 1931) carried no less than three references to the Bax premiere. First (p.12) was a simple statement that ‘Saturday’s audience at the concert of the Scottish Orchestra had the pleasure of seeing Mr Arnold Bax as well as hearing his music.’ It is suggested that as this was his first ‘public’ visit to Glasgow, it was ‘unfortunate that the weather was so unkind; but the warmth of his reception no doubt made some amends.’ The journalist points out that ‘Bax will return to Glasgow in January  to appear in connection with the Glasgow Active Society as pianist in a programme of his own music, including sonatas for violin, viola, or cello with piano. He will also accompany some of his songs and play a group of his piano pieces.’ In fact, it was noted that ‘he spent some time on Saturday rehearsing for this recital.’ This performance certainly deserves investigation.
The major review of the concert was also printed in the Glasgow Herald (16 November 1931, p.14). It was penned by ‘Our Music Critic’ who was (probably) Percy Gordon. He begins by remarking that ‘we are too far from London to have as many opportunities as we would like of experiencing the kind of pleasurable excitement’ of having the premiere of a work by a distinguished composer, who was also present in the audience. It was fitting that ‘the occasion was appropriately marked by a larger audience than had gathered for the opening concert [of the season] a week previously.’ He bemoaned the unprecedentedly bad weather that had hampered the concert season so far. Turning to the new Ballad by Bax he reminds the reader that it ‘was written about four years ago…’ Gordon notes that no use is made of traditional [Scottish] airs, with the nearest ‘geographical reference being in the suggestions of the pentatonic [black notes on the piano] scale that emanates from some of the more powerfully expressive main themes.’ Clearly this provides ‘a certain amount of local colour, but the emotional colouring as a whole brings us nearer to Bax than to the Highlands.’ The critic reminds the reader that A Northern Ballad was the second of ‘Mr Bax’s excursions of the imagination into the picturesque past’ presented to the Glaswegian concertgoer in the past week. In his opinion, Bax ‘seems to have stored his mind with richer associations at Tintagel than in the Highlands.’ Yet all was not negative. If A Northern Ballad did not ‘fulfil all the expectations as a ‘musical counterpart of the mood permeating the dark and stormy legends of the clans’ it gave a good deal of Bax, and we have always in Glasgow appreciated Bax the tone poet.’ The Ballad had ‘a fine unity of conception through all the subtle changes of mood – even when the music becomes quieter it remains restless – and the scoring is that of a master hand.’ After noting that ‘with Bax in the audience, it was a graceful and merited compliment to replace the last item of the programme…by Tintagel.’ A second performance, then, ‘was very welcome and first impressions of its beauty and fine imaginative qualities gained at the Tuesday concert were fully confirmed on Saturday.’
The only report about the actual stylistic content of A Northern Ballad was included in a short comment in the Belfast Telegraph (21 November 1931, p.7). The writer, ‘Rathcol’ does not seem to have heard the work but noted that it ‘is said to have a definitely Gaelic mood, while not actually employing Scottish folk tunes.’ And additionally, he must have ‘heard’ that the piece is ‘a general impression of the fiery, romantic life of the Highlands prior [my italics] to the Jacobite rising of 1745’.
As noted above, not everyone was happy that Bax’s Tintagel was performed instead of the publicised work by Franz Liszt. On the same day as the reviews of the concert, the Glasgow Herald (p.11) published an irate letter from an unsigned correspondent who had clearly rushed home after the event and grabbed pen and paper:
The Orchestral Concerts; Glasgow, November 14
Sir, I was present at the concert given by the Scottish Orchestra in St Andrew’s Hall tonight. Have the committee no idea of the law of contract!
When a programme of music is advertised in that morning’s Glasgow Herald one expects to get just that programme.’
The presence of Mr Bax seems a poor reason for gratuitously cutting out Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody [No.2] from the advertised programme and giving instead a second piece by Mr Bax himself.
Irrespective of the question of whether Mr Bax be a greater composer than Liszt, when one goes to hear Liszt, one surely should not have Bax played instead. I heard the remark that the audience was poor. Should the same trick be played often as was played tonight, I venture to say that the audience will become still more scanty. I am, etc. Right is Right.
Despite being much more of a Bax fan than a Liszt one, I can see where he is coming from (just about). Each to their own.
Arnold Bax’s A Northern Ballad received its London premiere at the Queen’s Hall on 3 December 1931, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron.
Foreman, Lewis, Bax: A Composer and his Times (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1983, 1987, 2007)
Parlett, Graham, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999)
Renton, Ronald W, The Major Fiction of Neil Munro A Revaluation, being a thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Philosophy in the Department of Scottish Literature in the University of Glasgow, 1997.
Scott-Sutherland, Colin, Arnold Bax (London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973)
Files of The Glasgow Herald, The Scotsman, Aberdeen Press and Journal, Belfast Telegraph etc.
At present, only two commercial recordings of Arnold Bax’s A Northern Ballad [No.1] have been made. The earliest was issued as far back as 1972 when Lyrita released a ground-breaking survey of Bax’s tone poems. Thirty-six years were to pass before Chandos released Vernon Handley’s account of work as part of their then ongoing cycle of Bax’s orchestral music.
1. Sir Adrian Boult/London Philharmonic Orchestra, Northern Ballad No. 1, Mediterranean, The Garden of Fand, Tintagel and November Woods Lyrita SRCD.231 (1992) Original LP release: LYRITA SRCS.62 (1972)
2. Vernon Handley/BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Northern Ballad No. 1, The Happy Forest, Into the Twilight, Northern Ballads Nos. 2 and 3, Nympholept and Red Autumn Chandos CHAN 10446 (2008)
With thanks to Graham Parlett and John Purser for help in preparing this essay.
John France August 2020
1. Neil Munro’s The Lost Pibroch was an innovative collection of short stories which, although written in English, created a literary language that authentically imitated the syntax of Scottish Gaelic. This was a revolt against the ‘sentimental Kailyard and Celtic writings’ of the period. The twelve stories in this collection include an allegory, two fantasies, an exploration of an alternative lifestyle, a humorous story and seven ‘rather bitter, sad pieces,’ (Renton, 1997) some of which are pure tragedy. It is not difficult to see how this collection would have appealed to Arnold Bax.
2. The St Andrew’s Halls were built by a public company between 1873 and 1877. Financial reasons caused the company to sell the venue to the Glasgow Corporation. On 26 October 1962, the Halls were gutted by fire, with only the massive classical façade in Granville Street surviving. It was subsequently incorporated into the Mitchell Library and contains the Mitchell Theatre and the Moir Hall.
3. The Active Society, full title, Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. It was formed by Scottish composer Erik Chisholm and fellow composers Francis George Scott and Pat Shannon. It ‘brought internationally renowned composers such as Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith and Kaikhosru Sorabji to Glasgow to conduct and perform their own works, including many UK and world premieres.’ (Jane Ronson, Archives Hub, 2016)
JOHN FRANCE became interested in classical music after performing as a ‘pirate’ in a Grammar School production of The Pirates of Penzance in 1971. After hearing Down Ampney at church he discovered the world of Ralph Vaughan Williams and the then largely ‘undiscovered’ country of British Music. Usually, he has been most sympathetic towards lesser-known composers. He regularly contributes reviews and articles to MusicWeb International and a variety of musical journals and magazines and has written programme notes for many concerts. He has lectured on Gustav Holst, John Ireland, and William Lloyd Webber. Recently, he has had articles published in several musical journals on Joan Trimble, Humphrey Searle, Frederick Delius, Ivor Gurney, Alan Rawsthorne and Lennox Berkeley. Recent interests include exploring the work of the Second Viennese School and Émigré Composers to the UK.
Currently he maintains a British Music Blog – The Land of Lost Content [http://landofllostcontent.blogspot.com]