Arnold Bax’s Concerto, later the Phantasy, for viola and orchestra, was written for, and dedicated to, the violist Lionel Tertis. It was premiered by him during a Philharmonic Society concert on 17 November 1921. The Phantasy was played several times in the ensuing years but was then largely forgotten until its revival in 1989 by Vernon Handley and Rivka Golani. This essay will examine the context, provide a non-technical description of the music, and examine the reaction to the premiere performance. It will conclude with an assessment of modern responses to the Phantasy seen through Bax’s biographers. The paper concludes with a bibliography and discography.
Arnold Bax (1883-1953) had met Lionel Tertis at the Royal Academy of Music whilst studying piano and composition. This immediately resulted in the attractive Concert Piece for viola and piano (1904) penned when the student was aged twenty-one.
In his autobiography, Tertis (1974, p.33ff passim) mentions three composers who out of “pure generosity” wrote music for the viola: Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, and Arnold Bax. These men made significant contributions to the viola repertoire at a time when publishers regarded this as a “distinctly bad commercial proposition.” Some of these were “beautiful and [were] a powerful influence in the advancement of the viola.” As for Bax, Tertis considered that he was “extremely prolific in chamber music and composed a number of works of that category for me.” Turning to their relationship, Tertis recalled that “[Bax] was very shy and reticent, and although an extremely good pianist, he rarely played in public.” He was “reputed to have been an excellent cricketer, both batsman and bowler.” On a social note, he recalls that when Bax was living in Storrington in Sussex, he “could not be got at by anyone when he was composing – but at opening time he could usually be found in the bar parlour with a tankard of ale, smoking his pipe, in animated conversation with the village farm workers.”
Two years after the above-mentioned Concert Piece, Bax completed a Trio in one movement, op.4 for piano, violin, and viola (or clarinet), under the auspices of Tertis. He later referred to this as “that early derivative and formless farrago” and wished “that the devil would fly away with the whole remaining stock of the damned thing and give himself ptomaine poisoning by eating it!” (Parlett, 1999, p.63). This Trio was dedicated to the composer A.J. Rowan-Hamilton.
After the Armistice in 1918, Bax and Tertis re-established contact. The Phantasy score carries only the date ‘1920’. It was composed whilst Bax was living at 155 Fellows Road, Swiss Cottage, London. In late 1921, Bax began his Sonata for viola and piano, and duly dedicated it to Tertis. He considered that one of the best pieces Bax wrote for him. It was premiered at the Wigmore Hall on 17 November 1922 by the dedicatee and with Bax playing the piano part.
Other “Tertis Connections” include the Elegiac Trio for flute, viola, and harp (1916), the Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp (1927) and the Legend for viola and piano (1929). Sketches exist for a second Viola Sonata drafted during 1933-34. Graham Parlett (1999, p.210f) notes that the final page of the second movement of this work surfaced as the ending of the slow movement of the Symphony No.6 (1935).
Parlett’s chronological catalogue reveals Bax’s industry in 1920. There were some eighteen pieces penned, completed, or premiered during that year. Major works comprised the ballet The Truth about the Russian Dancers written for Tamara Karsavina, the third revision of the Violin Sonata No.1 originally dating from 1910, as well as the definitive version of the Piano Sonata No.2. Of equal interest were some piano solos that have retained their popularity, including A Hill Tune, Mediterranean, and the Country Tune.
The work was billed as ‘Concerto, in D minor’ for viola and orchestra at the premiere performance. The manuscript was originally inscribed as Concerto for viola and orchestra; however, ‘Concerto’ was scored out by an unknown hand on both the cover and the title page and replaced by ‘Phantasy.’ Parlett explains that in the programme notes for the second performance on 13 November 1922, “Eric Blom still refers to it by its earliest title, though elsewhere in the programme booklet it is called ‘Phantasy’, suggesting that the name was changed shortly before the booklet went to press.” (Parlett, 1999, p.150)
A Paradigm for Listening
Overall, the Phantasy is a “passionately lyrical and romantic score.” (Chandos Liner Note, CHAN 10829, 2014). It must be recalled that for Bax, Ireland was a place of enchantment with its people depicted as Heroes. It distressed him to see the destruction of this dream. The country had been embroiled in what was known as the War of Independence (1919-21). After atrocities on both the British and the Irish sides, a truce was agreed and finally the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed off on 6 December 1921. This led to the partition of the country and the creation of the Irish Free State. What Arnold Bax did not foresee at the time of the composition of his Phantasy was the acrimonious Civil War, which began on 28 June 1922 and lasted until 24 May 1923. It left a bitter legacy.
Arnold Bax provided the basic model for appreciating the Phantasy:
“This Concerto follows established classical tradition in that it consists of three distinct movements, though these are linked together without a break in the flow of the music. The orchestra employed is a comparatively small one, the only member of the heavier brass instruments admitted being one trumpet, occasionally used for solo purposes. (Parlett, 1999, p.151)
The movements are: Poco lento – Allegro moderato molto ritmico,  Lento semplice and  Allegro vivace.”
The Phantasy is characterised by warm melodies and sensuous harmonies as well as its subtle orchestration and grateful instrumental writing. Key things to look out for are the Nationalist fingerprints of Irish music. This includes the “rhythms and inflections” of Irish folksong. These are common attributes of Bax’s oeuvre. Despite this, he rarely included a genuine, as opposed to a confected, folk tune. In the Phantasy he has quoted two Irish folksongs. The slow movement presents a loose reference to A chailín donn deas na gcíocha bána’ (The Pretty Brown-Haired Girl of the White Breasts). This occurs some nine bars before letter “L” in the score. In his programme note for the premiere performance, Bax translates the title modestly as “The Pretty Brown-haired Girl,” describing it as “a little-known folksong.” The other quotation occurs in the final movement. Graham Parlett (1999, p.151) explains that at the letter “X” in the score, Bax has quoted a phrase from the opening measures of the Sinn Féin marching song Amhrán na bhFiann” (A Soldier’s Song). This had been composed by Patrick Heeney (1881-1911) to words by Peadar Kearney (1883-1942). It was originally published in the journal Irish Freedom (Saoirse na hÉireann, No. 23, September 1912). In 1926, it became the national anthem of Eire. Parlett notes that this was some five years after the Phantasy had been first performed. In the liner notes for the Chandos recording (CHAN 10829), Lewis Foreman explains that it was “a political aside that was not noticed by its first audiences.” To be sure, it is not mentioned in the programme notes provided by Bax for the premiere performance or for Eric Blom’s note in the programme booklet for a Concert of Recent Works by Arnold Bax, given at the Queen’s Hall on 13 November 1922.
The Royal Philharmonic concert at the Queen’s Hall, on Thursday, 17 November 1921 was by any standards a varied programme. Opening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cortège des Noces from the popular three act opera, Le Coq D’or (The Golden Cockerel) (f.p. 1909). This was immediately followed by Arnold Bax’s ‘Concerto’ for viola and orchestra. The soloist was, as noted above, Lionel Tertis. Josef Holbrooke’s tone poem Ulalume (1909) came next. This was based on a narrative poem by Edgar Allan Poe. It was immediately followed by Frederick Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912). After the interval, a single work was performed: Johannes Brahms Symphony No.3 in F major, op.90 (1883). Albert Coates conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
A large section of The Times review (18 November 1921, p.8) considers the Bax premiere. The journalist (possibly H.C. Colles) noted that “the concerto is in a tripartite single movement, it is of clear structure, and it is refined music, full of melodies which appeal to educated tastes.” So far, so good. In a backhanded compliment, he suggests that “the middle section rises above this, and into it considerably the most work seems to have been put. The counterpoint is solid stuff and ‘comes off.’” Unfortunately, this means that the critic did “not care so much for either [the] exordium or peroration…” It gets worse:
“Mr. Bax at his best has a kind of wistful poetry which is his very own, and at other moments he is no worse than others who fill music paper while they think what to say. He had a pretty folksong to give us, and he did not hammer it too much, but let it float in and out of the conversation on Mr. Tertis’s beautiful instrument.”
The Brahms was not received too well either: it “filled one with despair and delight.” The problem here was that Albert Coates had his own ideas about texture and balance that are at variance with the composer’s.
The Times reporter did admit that he only heard part of the concert – the first two works and the final two movements of the Brahms Symphony. Cynically, he suggests that the Rimsky-Korsakov “served the purpose of ushering people to their seats for the Concerto.”
In the 21st century it would be unlikely that the Daily Express (18 November 1921, p. 8.) would devote around 120 words to a premiere performance of a British composer. A century ago, it was different. The unnamed critic began by acknowledging that “Mr. Arnold Bax is discovering himself and that quickly. He has emerged from the imitative stage and is rapidly acquiring an individual habit of thought and expression.” This may seem unfair to Bax’s reputation: several important and successful pieces had appeared during and just after the end of the First World War. These include the tone poems The Garden of Fand, November Woods, and the most popular, Tintagel.
The Express commentator continued:
“[Bax’s] latest work…is cast in so unfamiliar a mould…conforming more or less to the practices of tradition is in itself a novelty – and is couched in so personal an idiom that, beyond saying that the music is constructed on unexpectedly definite melodic lines of the wistful and hearty order, one prefers to wait until a second hearing before venturing on details. Mr. Tertis is, of course, the last word in viola players, and, with Mr. Albert Coates conducting, Mr. Bax was handsomely served.”
Under the heading “Charming New Concerto by Mr. Bax,” the Daily Mail’s (18 November 1921, p.5) assessment demands to be reproduced in full. R.C. (Richard Capell) considers:
English music was given us by the Philharmonic Society at Queen’s Hall…last night, by Arnold Bax, Holbrooke and Delius, and the novelty was Bax’s Concerto in D minor for viola. Had anyone there ever heard a viola concerto before? The music was Bax’s, but a good deal of the responsibility must be Mr. Lionel Tertis’s. Mr. Tertis believes in the viola, just as some perfectly nice folks have an eccentric taste for begonias, Scandinavian novels, or holidays in caravans. The shy instrument does its best to overcome a natural diffidence and play up to his belief in it. (Notably it rewards Mr. Tertis’s bow and fingers with a beautiful, unique tone from the A string). But it is no good pretending; it does not shine in the drawing-room of the concerto. It would be happier at a task in the back of the house with cook’s apron or gardening gloves.
Despite the witty tone of this assessment, it is unfortunate that Capell pedals the old myth that the viola is the Cinderella of the orchestral string section. It was through the passion of Lionel Tertis that the status of the instrument was raised considerably. Yet, even today, the viola is rarely heard in the concert hall performing a concerto.
Doyen of the musical establishment at that time, Edwin Evans in the Pall Mall Gazette (18 November 1921, p.9) stated:
“The viola is commonly regarded as a grave companion to the violin, fond of its lower register, and of solemn thoughts. But Lionel Tertis, the finest player of this instrument known to the musical world today, has always claimed attention for its upper notes, and Arnold Bax, whose concerto Tertis introduced last night, evidently does not regard it as necessarily a solemn instrument. Not that he lures it into unworthy frivolity. He makes of it a blithesome, intimate, and even confidential friend. The music is tinged with the warmer hues of Irish folksong and dance, though not to the extent of employing authentic folk tunes [sic]. The work is concise, none too long, hauntingly beautiful in its melodic outline, and it was played in masterly fashion by Mr. Tertis, with Mr. Albert Coates conducting. The only doubt arose at some points where the viola tone did not seem to come through the orchestra, but that may have been a matter of the listener’s position in the hall, for Tertis’s tone in solo passages was big enough to fill the building…There was great enthusiasm alike for Coates, Tertis and Bax.”
On the same day, The Scotsman (18 November 1921, p.7) reported that the Phantasy is:
“unquestionably Mr Bax’s greatest achievement, for he has not only composed a great work for a neglected instrument, but he has succeeded in a sphere where other composers have failed. The tone of the alto instrument is not powerful, but in his D Minor Concerto the orchestra is used with such skill that the tone of the solo instrument is never submerged.”
A contemporary edition of Musical Opinion noted that “…the work follows the classical tradition in consisting of three distinct movements, though these are linked together without a break in the flow of the music.” The critic felt that “The viola, like the cello, does not make an ideal instrument for concerto purposes: Mr Bax’s fondness for ornament and arabesque have led him to write passages not altogether suited to the genius of the instrument.” Contrariwise, he felt that “The concerto…contains some very pleasing music, and the solo part was finely played by Mr Lionel Tertis.” (Cited without date, White, 2006, p.61).
The most significant discussion of the Phantasy was an essay titled “Bax’s Viola Concerto” included in the Bax Society Bulletin (June 1968, p.25). Graham Parlett begins by recognising that Bax early on recognised the “supreme technical mastery of Lionel Tertis, the salvation of the viola as a solo instrument.” After noting the six works that Bax wrote for the instrument he suggested that the Fantasy with piano and the Concert Piece were “not of any intrinsic value.” In his opinion the best of Bax’s works for viola was the Sonata with piano completed on 9 January 1922. Parlett states that “here form and content are admirably fashioned into a unified whole and the work must rank as amongst his greatest creations.” Turning to the Phantasy, he gives a descriptive analysis of its progress. Importantly, it “contains some of Bax’s most memorable melodic writing, often with phrases that are unmistakably Irish in origin.”
Colin Scott-Sutherland (1973, p.80) gives little commentary on the Phantasy. He does explain that Bax “assimilated” many musical influences “with a mind receptive beyond the average.” This included Irish and English folksong. However, his attitude towards this resource was different to that of Vaughan Williams or Gustav Holst: “Only once did he consciously use a folk tune and he was not sufficiently a purist to leave it alone even then.” Scott-Sutherland noted the use of the A chailín donn deas na gcíocha bána in the Phantasy and provided musical examples of the original tune and Bax’s elaboration. Here it is subject to ever more decoration and ornamentation resulting in a melody that “is expressive almost always of heightened emotion and excess passion and is born of a reluctance to complete the cadence or progression without dwelling on its beauties.” Scott-Sutherland does not mention Bax’s allusion/quotation of the Sinn Féin song, Amhrán na bhFiann.
In his biography of Bax, Lewis Foreman (2007, p.192) simply explains that the Phantasy was a result of Bax “re-establishing contact” with Tertis after the war. He states that it “is divided into three movements which play continuously and are interrelated thematically. The orchestration is light, eschewing the lower brass, and the invention is among the most memorable Bax ever penned.” He notes the “passing appearance in the bass” of the Sinn Féin Marching Song. Finally, Foreman considers that the “concerto, with its modal tonality, has an unmistakably Celtic flavour. It was to be Bax’s only completely joyous ‘Irish’ work.”
The final word about this remarkable Phantasy for viola must go to Bax enthusiast, Edwin Evans. He perspicaciously sensed that “If it had been produced abroad, and played by somebody with an unpronounceable name, we should have been smothered with articles about the viola, its master, and the composer. We are so constituted that after this performance it may be put back on the shelf for many months, and that will be our loss.” (Cited in liner notes Dutton Epoch CDLX 7295).
How right he was. Despite a few subsequent performances in Europe, the United States, and the United Kingdom, it never really caught on. Bax enthusiasts are lucky that there have been four recordings made of this Phantasy over the past 34 years.
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)
Scott-Sutherland, Colin, Arnold Bax (London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973)
Tertis, Lionel, My Viola and I, (London, Paul Elek, 1974)
White, John, Lionel Tertis, The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2006)
The files of the Bax Society Bulletin Daily Mail, the Daily Express, Musical Opinion, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Scotsman, The Times.
Additional information and contemporary reviews supplied by the late Graham Parlett with thanks.
- Vernon Handley/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Rivka Golani (viola), Phantasy for viola and orchestra, Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85 (arr. for viola) and 3 Characteristic, Pieces, op.10 Conifer CDCF 171 (original LP release on CFC 171) (1989)
- Stephen Bell/BBC Concert Orchestra, Roger Chase (viola), Phantasy for viola and orchestra, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Suite for Viola and small orchestra, Theodore Holland: Ellingham Marches for viola and orchestra and Richard Harvey: Reflections for viola and small orchestra. Dutton Epoch CDLX 7295 (2012)
- Andrew Davies/BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Philip Dukes (viola), Phantasy for viola and orchestra, Four Orchestral Pieces and Overture, Elegy and Rondo. Chandos CHAN 10829 (2014)
- János Kovács/Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV, Hong-Mei Xiao (viola), Phantasy for viola and orchestra, William Walton: Viola Concerto and Ralph Vaughan Williams: Suite for Viola and small orchestra, Delos DE3486 (2017)