• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 30: Tintagel

You know by now that I’m a big fan of English composers. From Thomas Tallis (Renaissance) to Anna Clyne (Contemporary), their musical language, while literally and figuratively foreign to many, speaks to me as a conductor. As always, I am particularly interested in those composers whose music has fallen by the wayside. We’ve covered at least one such Englishman already (check out Music That Doesn't Suck, No. 20: Frederick Delius).

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were rife with gifted English composers: Sullivan, Parry, Smyth, Elgar, Walton, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Coleridge-Taylor; Butterworth, Bridge, and Britten (an English version of the “Three Bs,” I suppose). Those are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head—there are MANY more! Now, for those of you who actively listen to/attend classical music performances… How many of those names have you seen on concert programs? Besides Holst’s Planets and the Elgar Cello Concerto, I’d guess the others are…well, foreign to you :)

Arnold Bax belongs in that group; and his music is, arguably, even more underrepresented on today’s concert programs than the rest of his fellow countrymen. Bax composed in a number of genres, but is largely remembered (relatively speaking, anyway) for his symphonies and symphonic poems. Of the latter, Tintagel was his most popular.

Tintagel Castle is located on the peninsula of Tintagel Island, which is part of Cornwall. (It is also the birthplace of the legendary King Arthur!) Bax’s symphonic poem was inspired by his 1917 visit to the area. While not explicitly program music (meaning: the structure of the piece isn’t guided by, nor does it seek to present any specific narrative), it does aim to recreate the general impression felt by Bax upon his visit. In this way, it is similar to Felix Mendelssohn’s popular Hebrides Overture and the Third, “Scottish” Symphony.

Here’s the analysis from Wikipedia, much of which is quoting Bax himself…

“The music opens, after a few introductory bars, with a theme given out on the brass which may be taken as representing the ruined castle. This subject is worked to a broad diatonic climax, and is followed by a long melody for strings which may suggest the serene and almost limitless spaces of ocean. After a while a more restless mood begins to assert itself as though the sea were rising.”

At this point, Bax writes, he sought to convey a sense of stress and to conjure up the dramatic legends of King Arthur and King Mark. “A wailing chromatic figure is heard and gradually dominates the music,” at which point Bax quotes a theme from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (a work set in and off the coast of Cornwall). There follows what Bax called “a great climax suddenly subsiding,” which is followed by a passage intended to convey the impression of “immense waves slowly gathering force until they smash themselves upon the impregnable rocks.” The theme of the sea is repeated, and the work ends with the return of the opening image of "the castle still proudly fronting the sun and wind of centuries.”

This 1967 performance features an English musical "dream team" in the London Symphony and the conductor Sir John Barbirolli. Enjoy!

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