Vernon Handley: Sir Arnold Bax Spring Fire, London Symphony

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Sir Arnold Bax, Spring Fire (1913)
Arnold Bax
 Arnold Bax
Vernon Handley
Vernon Handley
Conducted by Vernon Handley
with the London Symphony Orchestra.

I. In The Forest Before Dawn - 00:00
II. Daybreak and Sunrise - 3:27
III. Full Day - 7:07
IV. Woodland Love - Romance - 14:31
V. Maenads - 22:51

At the climax of his early maturity Bax's development was stimulated by a then fashionable paganism under the all-pervading influence of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and his compose
rs. In this mood Bax became particularly keen on certain poems by Swinburne, writing the tone-poem Nympholept to evoke a 'perilous pagan enchantment haunting the midsummer forest'. The evocative first chorus in Swinburne's poem Atalanta in Calydon, then only recently set chorally by Bantock, stimulated Bax's imagination and he conceived Spring Fire, which was written during 1913.

Bax regarded Spring Fire 'as a kind of freely-worked symphony'. The surviving manuscript score numbers the movements I to V, though in the fair copy score destroyed in 1964 Bax had run the first two together and numbered them I to IV. The first section is headed 'In the Forest before Dawn'. In this section, Bax wished 'to suggest the uncertain and pensive hour immediately before daybreak in the woodlands. It has been raining. The branches drip softly, and a damp delicate fragrance rises from the earth.' The second section, 'Daybreak and Sunrise', follows without a break. Bax continued: 'The rippling and dripping sounds cease suddenly, and there is a strange hush. Then -- very remotely -- wind instruments begin to sound short, capricious figures, as though the beautiful and quaint denizens of antique woods were awakening from their winter sleep, and were still calling to one another through the brakes and long distances of rainy leaves. 'The light spreads rapidly, and soon the whole forest is astir. The nymphs stretch their languid arms in the copses, and fauns and satyrs, and bizarre half-human shapes, skip with mad antics down the deep glades. The sun rises on a glittering and dazzling earth.'

The crescendo that ends the first two parts leads straight into the Allegro vivace of the third, 'Full Day'. For the first time a specific quotation from Swinburne heads the score: Come with bows bent and emptying of quivers, Maiden Most Perfect, lady of light, With a noise of wind and many rivers, With a clamour of waters, and with might.

Part Four, 'Woodland Love', now follows and is called Romance by the composer. The music is marked Molto moderato (half the time of the preceding). For winter rains and ruins are over. And all the season of snows and sins, The days dividing lover and lover, The light that loses, the night that wins. And time remembered is grief forgotten, And frosts are slain and flowers begotten And in green underwood and cover Blossom by blossom the Spring begins.

When Bax was young, this was one of his favorite moods: the music opens with a melody marked Romantic and Glowing, then the marking drowsily appears and it thus continues with solos for clarinet and oboe before harps and piano fill out the texture. The movement ends with a characteristic Baxian sound: woodwind, and then trumpets and horns, weave a gentle fabric of orchestral colour over low string chords and rippling harp arpeggios, and the music 'finally almost dies away in some strange harmony as though the forest-lovers had become drugged with their own ecstatic dream'.

Bax calls the fifth movement 'Maenads'. The overs are rudely awakened, their self-absorption 'suddenly dissipated by the approach of a turbulent rout of satyrs and maenads'. And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night, Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid Follows with laughing and fills with delight The maenad and the bassarid. 'The dryads, maenads, and bassarids fly dancing and screaming through the woods, pursued relentlessly by Bacchus and Pan and their hordes of goat-footed and ivy-crowned revellers. Gradually elements from earlier parts of the composition become mingled into the thematic weft of this musical daphnephoria. It is as though the whole of nature participated in the careless and restless riot of youth and sunlight.'