Our Video of the Week features one of the great works of the viola repertoire – the Sonata for Viola & Piano by English composer Arnold Bax, which you’ll see performed by Heifetz 2020 student Jack Kessler in Miami and pianist Miki Aoki in New York in another stunning virtual collaboration presented through Rubato: The Heifetz Virtual Concert Hall.
Bax, born in 1883 in the London suburb of Streatham, attended London’s renowned Royal Academy of Music. Among the ranks of the Academy’s prestigious faculty was Lionel Tertis, arguably the most famous and accomplished violist of the early 20th-the century.
Tertis was known for encouraging young musicians to compose for the viola in an effort to expand the repertoire for the instrument, and he was evidently pretty persuasive: The list of those who wrote pieces for him reads like a Who’s Who of 20th-century English composers, including Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and William Walton. Bax joined these illustrious ranks in 1922 with this sonata, which he not only dedicated to Tertis, but also played the piano accompaniment at the piece’s premiere at London’s Aeolian Hall in November of that same year.
Being from a wealthy family afforded Bax the luxury of traveling the world, and nowhere made a greater impression than neighboring Ireland, which fired both his musical and poetic imaginations. He was enchanted by the giants of the Irish literary tradition, and even adopted the pseudonym ‘Dermot O’Byrne’ to pen his own verse. Of his Concert Piece For Viola and Piano in 1904, he notes ‘It will be observed that a Celtic element predominates, free use being made of the flattened seventh, the falling intervals of the pentatonic scale and other features peculiar to Irish folk music’.
While this 1922 sonata does not bear quite the same overt Irish influences, as Jack Kessler notes in his introduction, the movement’s pastoral and serene quality conjures the green hills of Ireland nonetheless.
Enjoy the first movement of Bax’s verdent viola sonata, and stay tuned for more news and upcoming Rubato programs during the 2020-21 season!