Unsung Heroes Day 2019


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.

Arnold Bax

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

Establishment classes.

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

Ballad 1916.’

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

wild spring.”

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:

November Woods

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.




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

Clifford Bax.

“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.


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”.[5]

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 

 2.15 p.m.

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

                                                            Clive McCombie

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