UNSUNG HEROES DAY
Sunday October 13th 2019
On Sunday October 13th 2019 the AESS put on another of its popular Unsung Heroes events.
The venue was the wonderful, newly opened Vaughan William’s Hall at James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) in Dulwich, SE London. The featured composers were Arnold Bax, E.J. Moeran and Robin Milford. Holst was a close friend of the Bax brothers, Arnold and Clifford, and Vaughan Williams was an influence on Moeran and a supporter of the music of Milford.
The day started at 11am with a master class given by our Vice-Chairman, Stephen Varcoe to five very good teenagers, pupils of Jags and local teachers. Sophie Bucknor, Hannah Purnell, Chloe Stiens, George Webb and Olivia Burman. Stephen talked very sensitively to them about the composers of their songs the poems and context, and helped them to think carefully about what the words meant, including old fashioned or poetic words, and gave advice on sharing all this with the audience. Questions at the end included “ where do I look in a concert and exam situation”
Here is a picture of the beautiful new Vaughan Williams Hall. “Waiting for the Master Class to start” …
After lunch there were very informativetalks about all three composers given by Barbara Alden, Patricia Williams and our special guest speaker, David Pennant, from the Robin Milford Trust. A copy of all that was said is below.
At 3 pm the concert got underway and we heard many songs by Bax, Moeran and Milford that hadn’t been sung for years! The concert was a delight and proved that these indeed were unsung heroes. The singers taking part were Sue Anderson, Patricia Williams, Iain Sneddon, Sarah Leonard, Brian Parsons, Joss Cooper and Clive McCombie. The accompanists were, Patricia Williams, Diana Bickley, Michael Pilkington and David Pollard. The AESS is very grateful to all the performers for their hard work and committed singing, which made the day such a success.
The AESS is extremely grateful to Patricia Williams, not only for being our Membership Secretary, but also for organizing this event, researching the songs, getting together the performers and making up a programme that had such variety. We are also grateful to Barbara Alden for her research into the Bax family. Lastly we thank JAGS very much for letting us use their impressive new hall and catering facilities. Below is a photo of all the members that took part.
When we hear of the lives of composers it is often of their struggles to earn a crust or
achieve recognition, of lives spent in poverty or penury. Not so our three composers
today, each of whom were blessed with private means to support their musical careers.
So – who was Arnold Bax? Some might recognise a Master of the King’s Music from
1942 and others would light on him as a symphonist and the composer of the tone
poems ‘Tintagel ‘ and ‘The Garden of Fand’. He is also credited with popularising the
saying that ‘In life one should try everything once, except incest and Folk Dancing’.
Perhaps studying with the famous folk song collector Cecil Sharp had put him off!
But let’s start at the beginning.
Arnold was born in Streatham, the first of four children of Alfred Ridley Bax, an elderly
and rather remote father and his young wife Charlotte Ellen, whom Arnold described as
eager, pretty and impulsive, ‘something of a benevolent despot.’
Arnold could read the Times by the age of three and had no recollection of how or
when he learned to read music.
Before he was eleven, he was sent to a day school in Balham where he promptly shot
to the top of the class so that the Headmaster had to decree that no boy could win
more than a certain number of prizes.
The family were clearly wealthy and keen to move in more cultured circles. His brother,
the writer and poet Clifford Bax tells the next part of their story.
“In 1896 our family moved to a long, rambling house named Ivybank, at the very top of
Haverstock Hill in Hampstead. The garden was so big that my father sold part of the
land only to watch with dismay the rapid erection of a great red block of flats. However
the garden still contained a small cricket ground, three tennis courts and an apple
orchard. We had already been shown the elements of cricket, and now we ardently
played single wicket games – in the garden during summer and in a twenty-one yard
attic at the top of the house in winter.”
Arnold was such a keen cricketer that when he was twelve, he got sunstroke through
playing and it was during his convalescence that he penned his first composition,
nothing less than a piano sonata. His father formed a private choral society and Arnold
accompanied rehearsals often sight-reading the scores from his perch on three bound
volumes of Punch, to reach the keyboard.
His obvious musical talents led to Arnold attending the Hampstead Conservatoire
(whose principal was Cecil Sharp) and later the Royal Academy of Music where he
studied with Matthay and Corder. He stayed there for five years and averred that he
had never been happier.
Bax was multi-talented and could easily have had a career as a writer or poet had not
music called him harder. With his private means he was able to pursue his composing
and for inspiration to trave
Arnold Bax and Ireland
Bax’s other persona was, surprisingly, as a would-be Irish Nationalist poet, which gave
this otherwise very English composer an extraordinary double life away from the British
He first visited Ireland as a 19 year old and, in his words, this ‘stirred the Celt within’
and he felt he’d found his spiritual home.
Shortly after his marriage to Elsa in 1911, the couple lived near Dublin for nearly three
years and, for the rest of his life he returned to Ireland regularly. Each time, he said, he
‘sloughed off the Englishman as a snake its skin in the spring.’
He learnt Irish, discovered Celtic mythology and began writing poetry and short stories
under the pseudonym, first as Dermod McDermott, then settling for Dermot O’Byrne.
His first published poetry was the 1910 collection ‘Seafoam and Firelight’.
He mixed in Irish literary circles and few there knew he was also a composer. Who
could have guessed then that he would later be appointed Master of the King’s Music?
Soon he became involved in the political struggles for Irish independence, and although
he was in England at the time of the Easter Rising, the event and its aftermath had a
dramatic effect on both him and his writing, resulting in his poetry collection, ‘A Dublin
O’Byrne – alias Bax – said the work was written “with painful intensity of emotion
just after the rebellion” – and it was suppressed by the British censor and never
published officially, although it circulated widely in private.
He once commented, “Willy Yeats told me in a Dublin drawing room that ‘A Dublin
Ballad 1916’ was a masterpiece. And that has pleased me more than any praise my
music has received.”
As his title poem is rather long, here is just the opening and final verse.
A Dublin Ballad: 1916 by Dermot O’Byrne (alias Arnold Bax)
O write it up above your hearth
And troll it out to sun and moon,
To all true Irishmen on earth
Arrest and death come late or soon.
And when the devil made us wise
Each in his own peculiar hell,
With desert hearts and drunken eyes
We’re free to sentimentalize
By corners where the martyrs fell.
‘Dermot O’Byrne’ was just one of several secret aspects to Bax’s life; another was his
40 year love affair with the pianist Harriet Cohen, who he described as “this daughter of
Their relationship provided a vast correspondence of love letters, with over 3000 of
them now held at the British Library.
Bax of course was already married and living in Beaconsfield, but he would cycle from
there over to Amersham for secret liasons with Harriet at the Crown Inn.
One such encounter, on a very rainy day, began with them running downhill from
Amersham station hand in hand, then sheltering from the downpour in nearby woods.
This experience provided the inspiration for his composition ‘November Woods’
together with an accompanying poem:
Like frightened children, silent, hand in hand,
Down the wet hill we stepped towards the flare;
Storm, a mad painter’s brush, swept sky and land
With burning signs of beauty and despair;
And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake,
And in our hearts tears stung, and the old ache
Was more than any God would have us bear.
Then in the drowsy town the inn of dreams
Shut out awhile October’s sky of dread;
Drugged in the wood-reek, under the black beams,
Nestled against my arm her little head
And her child’s-mouth like some half-opened flower
Made April still for one sad sleepy hour;
And we said naught; for no word could be said.
A clock chimed, and the enchanted veils were stripped,
And we went out to take the London train
And storm and moonlight fell on us and whipped
The warm false comfort out of us again.
We knew under the chill wind-shaken glare
Between our clinging breasts Love huddled there
With gaze awry and breath caught up for pain.
OTHER MEMBERS OF THE BAX FAMILY
Clifford Bax, Arnold’s younger brother, was a prolific English author and playwright. He
first studied art at the Slade and the Heatherly Art School, but gave up painting to work
on writing. Like Yeats, Clifford grew interested in mysticism and the esoteric world of
Theosophy, and his circle of friends included Arthur Ransome, Gustav Holst and the
occultist Aleister Crowley, with whom he regularly played chess.
Crowley was thought by some to be a Satanist and “the wickedest man in the world”.
Clifford edited a theosophical magazine, Orpheus, and also introduced Holst to
astrology. The idea for the composer’s Planets Suite was suggested to him by Clifford.
He also wrote the words the hymn “Turn back O man, forswear thy foolish ways” during
World War 1, at the request of Holst, who wanted a text for the motet he composed on
the tune Old 124th (the melody taken from the Geneva Psalter 1551).
Clifford was also a journalist and critic, and even had a night-time job working in
Whitehall as a news censor for the Press Bureau, whilst during the day, working on his
original writings. He also edited poetry collections.
Here is just a ‘small’ extract from an exceedingly long Introduction to Vintage Verse
(1945), an anthology of poetry in English, compiled with a substantial commentary, by
“We have to admit on the evidence of publishers that poetry is not a popular
excitement. I wish that large crowds would surge against the barriers when it is
known that the Poet Laureate is due to arrive at King’s Cross, or Manchester, or
Glasgow, as I have seen them surge in hope of cheering a prizefighter; but the
world is not so fashioned, and we do well to make up our minds that poetry is an
aristocratic delight or, in a famous phrase, caviar to the general.
By aristocratic I mean, of course, that only the best minds put poetry among their
‘front-rank’ pleasures, though very little experience will assure us that these best
minds may be found in any except the darkest stratum of society.
There was that ’bus-conductor’ in 1900 whose favourite reading was Dryden’s
and the poets themselves come up from almost every social condition:
Shelley and Byron, aristocrats; Bums, a ploughman; Keats, the son of a liverystable
It is not difficult to see why poetry should appeal only to the few. It has no newsvalue.
To appreciate it a man must relish the power or the grace or the grandeur of
words; poetry is kept alive only by a judicious minority in each generation, a small
but inextinguishable aristocracy.
It is an art revered and loved by most Actors, Actresses, Composers, Painters,
Priests and Statesmen; but, so far as can be known, it has never delighted a
Politician, a Newspaper Proprietor, a Surgeon or a Financier.
After all, a love of poetry is of no help whatever to those who mean to get on in life,
and many a sound man must have sympathised with Mr. Justice Eve when he
pilloried himself in perpetuity by asking, ‘What is the use of music?’
But the winds of the world are continually veering, and there may come a day,
however distant, when the arts will again go proudly.”
However, although Clifford’s prose could be somewhat convoluted, he could on
occasion be more concise. Some of his short poems are beautifully crafted, as in this
Youth by Cifford Bax
Within a primrose wood I lay content
Upon a certain blythe blue day of spring
And ever near my lover came and went
And gathering violets ever did she sing.
So fair she was I laughed for love, and cried
“Still can I see how yesterday you stood
Your whole fair frame rejoicing in its pride
And lovelier than the whole spring lovely wood.”
And then she paused, and coming where I sat
Smiled and with one dear hand upon my head
“O Love, my love, May you remember that
When I am no more beautiful” she cried.
Another Bax family member who wrote poetry, was Arnold and Clifford’s cousin
Freda, who was Arnold’s closest female ‘confidante’ – make of that what you will! –
and she’d lived with the family in Hampstead at Ivy Bank at one time. Arnold wrote her
many letters from Ireland. Here is one of Freda’s poems.
I have heard a Music by Freda Bax
I have heard a music,
strange and wild and tender,
Through the mystic splendour of the twilight stealing
Like the spell entrancing of a magic potion,
Slowly it enwound me, twirling, twining, dancing,
In a mazy motion whirling all around me
Through the deep’ning twilight
Aery voices calling
And dim shadows falling
Clustered all around me.
That wild music burning,
With an infinite yearning,
All the heart of me
And I wandered lonely,
Lonely, ah so lonely
Down the pathway weeping
While the world lay sleeping
Dreaming at my feet.
Dermot O’Byrne Poems from Seafoam and Firelight
Sometimes among these stony silent places,
When long gleams tremble through the quietude
Upon the sea-stained rags and wind-worn faces
Of this poor folk, through some ancestral mood
I feel the shades of ancient splendours brood.
Then have I heard the wind with slender fingers
Harping strange things among the tossing reeds,
A lordlier music than the old blind singers
Made of Cuchulainn and his mighty deeds,
And heroes this faint time no longer heeds.
A wilder glory floods the creeping water
Than fell from torque or gorgelet of old kings
And all the beauty of the harper’s daughter
Glows in the grey eyes of some girl that sings —
Yet Deirdre has been dust two thousand Springs.
And when the gentle shepherd Night comes bringing
The golden stars to wander in the sky,
I hear the heart of mother Dana singing
Among the tumbled rocks, and the far cry
Of hidden wondrous folk that never die.
BY A FAERY LOUGH
The dark whin-bushes bend with faery dew,
And in the reeds the old grey heron flies
And quarrels with the wind that laughing blew
Her brittle world to shreds. Far unknown cries
And shrill horn-music piercing the thin rain
Shed a vague tumult over heart and brain.
There is a brooding terror on this place,
And yet some loveliness is hidden here
That draws my heart more than your pale proud
Bent low above the peats. This cloudy fear
Is a blown veil half-covering the eyes
Of some dread beauty that sleeps but never dies.
I must go hence if ever I’d be freed
From old earth-magic and the perilous word
In murmur of May-winds through rush and reed,
In cool lake-lips, and scream of crazy bird,
And from strange lights that hovering on the wind
Shrivel Love’s heart and burn his eyelids blind
In 1943 Arnold’s musical pen fell silent under the pressures of war, but he turned to
writing and produced an autobiography entitled “Farewell, my Youth.” It was so
popular that it was reprinted twice in the first year of publication.
In it he wrote about many of his musical peers and one of these was E.J. Moeran, a
man who, when they first met in 1919, was already making a mark in the musical
E.J. Moeran, known as ‘Jack’ was the son of an Anglo-Irish clergyman. He was born
in Middlesex but because of his father’s profession spent much of his youth in
Norfolk, at the parishes of Bacton and Salhouse. After prep. school in Cromer he
went to Uppingham School and from there to the Royal College of Music to study
with C.V. Stanford..
Moeran’s studies were soon interrupted by the outbreak of war and in 1914 he
enlisted as a motor cycle dispatch rider in the Norfolk regiment. It was on his leaves
in Norfolk that he began to collect folk songs. He later became a leading light of the
FOLK Song Society. In 1917 Jack was badly injured and it was during his
recuperation that he met Bax, who described him as “as charming and good looking
a young officer as one could wish to meet.”
Seeing out the war with the Royal Irish Constabulary in County Roscommon,
Moeran rediscovered his Irish roots. When he was discharged from the army, he
returned briefly to the RCM and later studied privately with John Ireland, a diligent
and supportive teacher.
Moeran had an allowance from his mother that gave him free rein for his musical
endeavours and he was able to promote a series of concerts a the Wigmore Hall.
These included Bax’s Piano Quintet , featuringthe pianist Harriet Cohen, who also
gave first performances of some of Moeran’s work.
However there was a spell of Moeran’s life when things did not go so smoothly . He
had met the composer Philip Heseltine, otherwise known as. Peter Warlock in the
early 1920’s . Warlock greatly admired Moeran’s work and wrote; “There is no British
composer from whom we may more confidently expect work of sound and enduring
quality than from Jack Moeran; there is certainly no one of his years who has as yet
achieved so much”.
From 1925 Jack shared a cottage in Eynsford with Warlock and the artist Hal
Collins. Warlock was given to heavy drinking and sadly Jack joined him, and the
household became notorious for its wild, bibulous parties. Warlock seemed
unaffected by his vice but Moeran perhaps because of his war wound succumbed to
alcoholism. Under the influence of Warlock’s stronger personality his compositions
dried up. It was only after Warlock’s suicide that Moeran returned to his parents’
home in Norfolk and gradually began to rebuild his career producing much of his
best work in the 1930s.
Moeran spent much of his later life in the village of Kenmare, County Kerry and the
folk of that village adored him. One resident said: “if ever there was a move to elect
a mayor of this town, Jack Moeran would be everybody’s first choice.”
There are many similarities between Bax and Moeran. Both drew inspiration from
Folk song. In Moeran’s case he collected many tunes in East Anglia but like Bax
was later drawn to Ireland and Irish folk music. In musical style both had a gift for
melodic invention and the romantic use of chromaticism, They shared many of the
same friendships and influences – not least Vaughan Williams and Holst, both of
whom, incidentally, were music teachers at this very school.
Moeran and Bax had both made Ireland their adopted motherland and so it seems
fitting that both died and were laid to rest there.
Robin Milford, 1903- 1959
Consider three sisters, granddaughters of Sir John Stainer, being home schooled by a governess named Kirsty Newsom, who “scraped” a viola, in around 1920. They all joined Robin Milford’s chamber orchestra in the Ashtead / Epsom area. Robin married Kirsty, and two of the sisters married Robin’s sporty brother David and Kirsty’s fishing brother Alec, ably acting out the opening line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Why is the word orchestra associated with the word pit? Love nest might be more appropriate. Crazy world!
Talking of pits, Robin had severe emotional challenges. He remained sure he was condemned to go to hell: efforts by his cousin Anne Ridler to reassure him got nowhere. He suffered greatly from headaches and depression.
His father Humphrey was printer to the Oxford University Press, and started a music department. Robin’s music was published, but there was always the question as to whether this was really warranted or due to paternal influence. Earning a living as a composer was out of the question, and the few part time teaching jobs did not sparkle.
There was some success: most of his pieces were performed once, and some twice. Vaughan Williams thought highly of him. Things seemed promising for a while.
Joining the army at the outbreak of World War two was a disaster. He lasted just a week before he had a breakdown, requiring weeks in hospital. He later spent time in Barrow psychiatric hospital, and found the ECG therapy of only limited help. Then one terrible day, little Barnaby aged five, an only son, went on his bike, dressed in a red coat for visibility, to fetch some music for his father, and was killed by a van.
Kirsty was dreadfully upset. To begin with, Robin appeared to get over it, saying that at least Barnaby would now be spared from having to live in this grim world, but a year later he started making suicide attempts which ended with him taking a bottle of tablets in the closing days of 1959.
Robin wrote diatonic music in an age when the musical world was pursuing the avant-garde. The critics slated his work mercilessly, but despite this, and to my intense admiration, Robin never gave up. He has left us around a hundred and eighty works, and who cares now what the critics thought then? Indeed, whatever happened to the avant garde?
Robin is a model of persistence in the face of extreme difficulties. He never gave up. His story has encouraged me to compose again. I gave up in my twenties, because nobody showed the slightest interest in what I wrote, but when I discovered Robin’s story, I resumed, aged sixty. The world still does not care about my efforts, but that won’t put me off. Bury me shrouded in furiously scribbled manuscript! (This is also environmentally friendly – it aids decomposing).
Find out more about Robin, how we rescued his music from the deepest vaults of the Bodleian Library in Oxford and got it performed and recorded by professional musicians and orchestras, at www.robinmilfordtrust.org.uk.
Thank you. David Pennant
Sunday October 13th.
The Vaughan Williams Auditorium
James Allen’s Girls’ School
About the Composers
The Bax Family. Introduced by Barbara Alden and Pat Williams
E.J. Moeran A thumbnail sketch – Pat Williams
Robin Milford Introduced by David Pennant
AESS is very grateful to David Pennant, Stephen Varcoe and The Robin Milford Trust for their part in today’s event.
Songs and poems by Arnold Bax
The White Peace Sarah Leonard Pat Williams
A Christmas Carol ” “
In Carna Barbara Alden Poem
Three Irish Songs
Cradle Song Pat Williams Michael Pilkington
By a Faery Lough Barbara Alden Poem
Rann of Exile Sue Anderson Pat Williams
To Eire Barbara Alden Poem
Rann of Wandering Iain Sneddon Diana Bickley
The Shieling Song Laura Clark Diana Bickley
To Eire Sue Anderson Pat Williams
In the Morning Brian Parsons David Pollard
Far in a Western Brookland ” “
When I was One-and Twenty ” “
Songs by Robin Milford
Port after Stormy Seas Quartet
This Endris Night. Laura Clark Diana Bickley
Love on My Heart ” “
The Holy Tide Joss Cooper Andrew Mildinhall
The Colour ” “
Epitaph ” “
So Sweet Love Seemed Pat Williams Michael Pilkington
What Pleasures Iain Sneddon Diana Bickley
The Moor Clive McCombie Pat Williams
Old Age ” “
If it’s Ever Spring Again ” “
Songs by E. J. Moeran
Lonely Waters Joss Cooper & Andrew Mildinhall
Evening Sarah Leonard Pat Williams
The Poplars ” “
Oh Fair Enough are Sky & Plain Iain Sneddon Diana Bickley
Far in a western Brookland Clive McCombie Pat Williams
When June is Come Sue Anderson Pat Williams
When Daisies Pied ” “
Diaphenia Brian Parsons David Pollard
Good Wine Quartet