Remembering Pearse in Music: Arnold Bax’s In Memoriam
Dr Aidan Thomson looks at the life of Sir Arnold Pax and examines how a meeting with Padraig Pearse led to Pax becoming known as a “Celtic Composer.”
It’s the stuff of Daily Mail nightmares. ‘Royal composer wrote memorial piece for Irish rebel Pearse.’ But it happens to be true. Sir Arnold Bax, who from 1941 was the Master of the King’s Music – music’s equivalent of the Poet Laureate – not only composed a memorial for Pádraig Pearse, but wrote a collection of pro-republican poetry that was censored. How, and why, did this happen?
In 1902, Arnold Bax, a nineteen-year-old music student from an affluent London family, read W.B. Yeats’s poem The Wanderings of Oisin and, as he put it in his memoirs, ‘the Celt within me stood revealed.’ This was pure invention on Bax’s part – there was nothing Celtic about his ancestry at all. Invention or not, he soon began to make regular trips to Ireland’s remotest regions. The ‘Celt within’ needed to find his spiritual home.
Bax generally stayed in Glencolmcille, Co. Donegal where he learned Irish and began to write poetry and short stories with ‘Celtic’ themes under the Irish pseudonym of ‘Dermot O’Byrne.’ Above all, he began to write music that was inspired by Ireland’s mythology and seascapes – orchestral pieces like Into The Twilight and In The Faery Hills. These pieces weren’t performed in Ireland, but they were in London and Bax soon became regarded as a ‘Celtic’ composer.
Bax moved to Dublin in 1911 and became part of a literary circle based at the home of the poet George Russell. Within this group, Padraic and Mary Colum became Bax’s closest friends, but he also knew James Stephens, the O’Rahilly, Thomas MacDonagh and Constance Markievicz. These were among the most radical figures in Irish nationalism: MacDonagh and Markievicz would both receive death sentences for their part in the Easter Rising.
One evening at the Colums’ house, Bax was introduced to Pádraig Pearse. Mary Colum had long been keen for the two men to meet, but Pearse was, as she put it, ‘a very difficult fish to land.’ Bax takes up the tale:
Pearse sat down by the fire with his face in his hands and stared into the blaze as though absorbed in a private dream. His expression was gentle and even almost womanish, but his eyes were lit with the unwavering flame of the fanatic.
I began to talk to him of his native Connemara which I knew well, and he became quite animated when I spoke in lively detail of places on that ultimate seaboard that it is unlikely that anyone else in the room had ever heard of. Said Molly [Colum] by my side, “My goodness, Mr Pearse, would you ever have supposed that this fella was an Englishman?” “Well,” replied Pearse quietly, with the ghost of an ironic smile, “I’m half-English myself!”
Presently, Molly whispered, “Pearse wants to die for Ireland, you know. It has been the ideal of his whole life.”
As he was leaving that night he said to Molly, “I think your friend Arnold Bax may be one of us. I should like to see more of him.” I was anxious to meet him again too, but somehow it chanced that I never did. I could not forget the impression that strange death-aspiring dreamer made upon me, and when on Easter Tuesday 1916 I read of that wild, scatter-brained, but burningly idealist adventure in Dublin the day before, I murmured to myself, “I know that Pearse is in this!”’
What did Pearse mean by Bax being ‘one of us’? Perhaps he saw him as a potential revolutionary. More probably, he recognized in Bax someone who knew Ireland so intimately that he felt a need to proclaim an Irish identity, even an assumed one. Bax moved back to England in 1914 and when he first read about the Rising he was stunned. On the day after Pearse was shot, Bax wrote to the pianist, Harriet Cohen:
He was one of the most whole-hearted idealists that I ever met and I know that all he did was rooted in love – love for Ireland.
Pearse had stirred his ‘heart’s depths like the little characteristic movements of a beloved one: I shall never forget those who move me in this way, whatever the world’s verdict on them.’
And he didn’t. During the summer of 1916, Bax composed the first of several works that commemorated Pearse and the Rising: In Memoriam for orchestra, subtitled ‘I gcuimhne ar bPádraig mac Piarais’ (‘In memory of Pádraig Pearse’).
Others followed such as a song entitled A Leader (In memory of certain Irish patriots); In Memoriam (1916) for cor anglais, harp and string quartet; and, in 1920, a Phantasy for viola and orchestra that concludes by quoting Amhrán na bhFiann.
It was one thing to write these works, quite another to get them performed. In Memoriam (1916) was premiered in London just after the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence, but with the less politically charged title of An Irish Elegy. If the music critics who attended the premiere of the Phantasy in 1921 recognized Amhrán na bhFiann, they certainly didn’t mention it in their reviews.
At least these pieces were performed. The orchestral In Memoriam wasn’t played in the composer’s lifetime. After Bax’s death, the piano score of the work was donated to the library of University College Dublin. But the full orchestral score was lost, rendering the piece unplayable.
Then, in the 1990s, the full score was discovered in a publisher’s basement. The work was premiered and recorded in England in 1998 by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley. During the recording, the concert pianist Margaret Fingerhut heard the sweeping melody that lies at the heart of the piece. Unaware that Bax had said that everything Pearse had done was rooted in love for Ireland, she said ‘It sounds like a love-song’.
She was right. The melody is deeply heartfelt and almost cinematic – Bax actually used it in his soundtrack for David Lean’s 1948 film, Oliver Twist. But the piece also contains moments of violence and tenderness. In a passage that conjures up an image of the street-fighting during the Rising, Bax quotes the rebel song Who Fears To Speak of ’98. The piece ends intimately, as if Pearse has been assumed into Tír na nÓg, the mythical land of everlasting youth.
Bax’s also refers to Who Fears To Speak’ in his poem A Dublin Ballad, one of a collection published in 1918 (A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems) that was suppressed by the British censor. The poems are often graphic in their depictions of British brutality, more so than much other Rising poetry. Bax was thrilled when Yeats, uncharacteristically effusively, described A Dublin Ballad as a ‘masterpiece.’
But perhaps more revealing is another poem in the collection In Memoriam My Friend Patrick H. Pearse (Ruler of Ireland For One Week). Here, Bax adds Pearse to the pantheon of heroes who had died for Ireland. The final stanza captures perfectly Pearse’s idea of the need for blood sacrifice if Ireland was to become independent:
Up from the tragic flame
You lit new buds of climbing fire shall start,
And flowering with the enchantment of your name
Strike wildly on a myriad drowsy eyes,
And blaze your dream to unborn centuries
Bax met Pearse only once. But in that one meeting he grasped the essential character of the man.
Ireland remained a stimulus for Bax well into the 1920s, as he set poems by Colum, Stephens and others. Although his later music, particularly his seven symphonies, owed more to Nordic influences, he continued to visit Ireland regularly until his death in Cork in 1953 when visiting his friend, the composer Aloys Fleischmann.
In an interview a few years before he died, Bax said he ‘came very near to feeling myself to be a naturalised Eireanagh.’ So it was fitting that on 19 February 2016, In Memoriam finally received its Irish premiere by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Duncan Ward. The only contemporary orchestral commemoration of Pearse had finally come home to Dublin. We can be sure that the naturalised Eireanagh would have approved.