Friday, 1 March 2013


By some way its composer's best-known work and by common consent also its composer's masterpiece, the tone poem Tintagel by Arnold Bax is one of music greatest seascapes. 

Tintagel is a castle in Cornwall (found in the village of Tintagel) associated with the legends that surround King Arthur, his Knights of the Round Table and Merlin. That's a world of Celtic mythology which the ultra-Romantic composer felt close to. 

Entering his world we find ourselves facing the sea - the strings shimmering on its surface, Cornish cliffs looming on brass, gulls calling on woodwinds. Bax weaves together a number of ostinati here. Then the brass swell, magnificently, as the castle hoves into view with a mighty theme - a musical 'moment' I treasure. This glorious crest of a musical wave is prolonged by a Wagnerian chord sequence and Arthurian fanfares. The great wave breaks and in the wake of its ebb comes a long string melody of much beauty, tinged with Celtic colour. 

The next few minutes take us into a different place. This section is akin to a development section but with, on the one hand, a rhapsodic slant and, on the other, a Debussy-inspired flavouring that draws on the French master's magical orchestral piece, La Mer. This section is the score's most turbulent passage.

The 'recapitulation' restores majesty and an Elgarian sweep (dare I say?) with the swelling brass figure returning and ostinati generating a good deal of wave energy. The big tune returns satisfyingly to provide the work's climax and other golden ideas are remembered before the work's coda gives us a beautiful, burnished sunset. 

Readers beyond British shores, what did you make of that?

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