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a feature by Mark Smith

In Search of Arnold Bax: the Genesis of a Magical Novel

I am a writer. I have no musical training, can play no instrument and, frankly, my singing is an embarrassment. For many, I suspect, such a self-evident lack of qualifications would make me unsuitable to write a novel based - albeit loosely - on the life of a composer. My only defence is that music is a universal language and, although I may not be able to speak it, I can and do listen. I am fascinated by a great deal of music, from Faure to Nyman, from REM to Bruckner, but there is only one composer who can rouse in me a full blown passion. When, prompted by a letter in the BBC Music Magazine, I first heard the music of Sir Arnold Bax it made an immediate connection but, unlike much other music, it inspired an increasing devotion with repeated listening. It was endlessly evocative, tender and dramatic, wonderfully romantic (in the best sense of the word). It was, in a word, magical.

From this came a natural curiosity about the life of the man who had created such wonders. And what a life it was! From the precocious brilliance of his carefree childhood, through fame, intrigue, emotional entanglements, war and revolution, to his regretful and sometimes bitter old age, it contained more drama, comedy, romance and tragedy than any Hollywood scriptwriter could ever dream up. And it was from this that an all consuming idea was born. Passion had become obsession.

I am indeed a writer. However, it would be more accurate to say that I am half a novelist. To date my wife, Julia, and I have had thirteen books published, under the pseudonym Jonathan Wylie, but it is in the fourteenth, Magister, that we pay homage to Arnold Bax. Whether we have succeeded in doing him justice is something for others to decide but our intentions were honourable and, while we have inevitably taken many liberties in the course of creating a work of fiction, we can only hope that our efforts will induce a few readers to listen to his music. Compared to the status it deserves it is still sadly neglected, both in broadcasting and concert schedules. After his death in 1953 Bax's music became deeply unfashionable and, although the advent of CD technology has improved the situation as far as recordings are concerned, this attitude still prevails in many quarters. (A glance at any Radio Times or BBC Music Magazine will confirm this. More often than not the musical lexicon jumps from Bartok to Beethoven.) Quite why this should be so is beyond me, but it's wholly unfair. Not even I would claim that everything Bax wrote is first rate. For instance, few would pretend that the Fourth Piano Sonata is anything other than a feeble effort from a man whose creative fires were dying. (It cannot stand comparison to the Second Sonata, but then that masterpiece has few equals!) However, the best of his prolific output is equal to anything this country has produced. Pieces like the Third Symphony, 'November Woods' and 'The Garden of Fand' deserve to be as popular and as ever present as any of the major works of Elgar or Vaughan-Williams. Last year's Prom's debut of the marvellous 'Spring Fire', eighty years after it was written was a rare and welcome treat, marking the end of a long drought. It is tragic to think that it was never played in Bax's lifetime. Hopefully, one year will see the return of one of the symphonies, but I'm not holding my breath. (Bax's music was again ignored in the 1997 Proms.)

If the symphonies and tone poems form the core of Bax's output, there is a great deal to explore in his chamber music (as the Nash Ensemble proved last year with a triumphant CD on Hyperion), his piano works (Bax himself was a brilliant, if private, pianist and a matchless sight reader) and his limited number of choral compositions. That such riches have lain in silence for so long is appalling. But enough preaching. Thanks mainly to the dedicated advocacy of Chandos Records, most of Bax's important music is now available on CD. Listen, and judge for yourself.

If my infatuation with the music, and then the man, was the catalyst for Magister, then it was Julia's intuitive feeling for the written narrative that shaped its progress. Our most recent novels have been set in the real world but with the addition of fantastic elements, and this one was no different. The chief premise was of a world in which magic existed as an art form, complete with its own rituals and conventions, its notation and performances. In our world, 'Bax' was an originator, a composer of magic - and he fitted in perfectly!

The story is told from the point of view of a present day student at the Royal College of Magic and, through his research, uncovers the remarkable tale of the earlier originator's life, taking in many of the important events, both personal and public, which lasted from 1883 to 1953. We did not set out to write a biography (Lewis Foreman has done this admirably). However, many of the incidents of Bax's life - his failed marriage, tumultuous affairs, his lifelong love of Ireland and all things Irish - found their way into our tale. In the course of our conversations about the book - this is always the first stage in the construction of our novels - it became obvious to Julia and me that we would have to visit several of the places that were so important to Bax.

Disregarding the effect on our bank balance, we followed in his footsteps and, having done so, could not imagine how we could have contemplated putting pen to paper without first completing our travels. In remote Glencolumcille in County Donegal we too fell in love with the timeless valley, flanked by mountains and the restless Atlantic. Bax spent much time there in his youth and it remained his spiritual home for the rest of his life. We met people who remembered seeing him, as they passed on their way to school, as he sat listening to the music of the peat coloured stream or the thunder of the great, grey waves as they crashed onto the rocks of Glen Head.

At the Morar Hotel on the west coast of Scotland we saw his corner room, its view across the sands now usurped by a new extension, and imagined him writing, wrapped in a heavy coat against the winter's chill. At the White Horse in Storrington, Sussex, we drank at the bar he patronized for the last years of his life, living in a room above while both Harriet Cohen, the pianist and the lover who famously inspired much of his music, and Mary Gleave, the last and most profound love of his life, were installed in houses nearby.

In Cork we visited the University, which no longer has a memorial room but which still has a wonderfully evocative collection of memorabilia in the Boole Library and the Music Department. We felt privileged to touch and study his chair, piano, manuscripts, pipes, and - most poignant of all - a wallet containing a dried sprig of heather. Where had he picked it? we wondered. In Cork too we placed flowers on his grave and then drove out to the Old Head of Kinsale. There we watched the sunset, as Bax had done on the last day of his life, gazing out over his own beloved 'Garden of Fand'. His music followed us everywhere but there and in Glencolumcille its echoes were strongest.

The trip was not wholly based on nostalgia; it was an illuminating and invigorating experience in its own right and sent us back to Magister with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. It is probably the hardest book we have ever had to write, such was our emotional and physical commitment, but for us it was worthwhile. If we have created even a minute fraction of the magic that Arnold Bax brought into the world then we can be satisfied. And if a single person becomes enraptured by his music because of our efforts, then that will be a bonus worth more than jewels.

© Mark Smith 1997
Magister was published by Orbit in December 1997

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