Arnold Bax’s brief exile

in Rickmansworth

Last month’s ‘By the By’ column pointed out that Arnold Bax was one of several leading composers who dined at the Rickmansworth home of the music publisher Hubert Foss.

Bax was, however, familiar with Rickmansworth long before Foss and his wife moved there in 1929. Eleven years earlier, Bax had sought refuge in the Victoria Hotel – later known as Long Island Exchange – after leaving his wife and two children because of his affair with the pianist Harriet Cohen.

Bax, who had been living in Beaconsfield, initially booked into the Crown in Amersham, where he had earlier shared some passionate afternoons with Harriet, who was his muse as well as his lover (18 of his compositions are dedicated to her).

However, Bax soon moved on to Rickmansworth and checked into the Victoria, which was demolished about a year ago to make way for a new housing development. His letters to his brother and Harriet, who was dubbed the ‘beloved piano witch’ by no less a person than Albert Einstein, confirm that he stayed at the hotel for several weeks in the March and April of 1918.

It cannot be proved that Bax wrote any music while staying in Rickmansworth but the musicologist Lewis Foreman has speculated that a cello and piano piece entitled Folk-Tale, completed on April 3, may have been written in the Victoria, along with at least part of his String Quartet No. 1 in G, which was premiered in June 1918.

The latter suggestion is particularly intriguing as it is this quartet that the Magginis will be playing at their latest concert for Three Rivers Music Society in Rickmansworth Baptist Church on Friday, March 31.

While they are performing this work it will be hard not to think of Bax sitting in his lonely hotel room in the final year of the First World War.

Could he have guessed that his music, which for many years was under-appreciated, would still be played in the town almost a century later? Again, one can only speculate, but it seems unlikely.


London: A Musical Gazetteer, by Lewis and Susan Foreman, Yale University Press, paperback, £18.99
Music and Men: The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen, by Helen Fry, paperback, £12.99.

Contribution by - David Budge

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Why leading composers took the

train to Rickmansworth

Butler House is a handsome, late Victorian villa that sits at the junction of The Drive and Nightingale Road in Rickmansworth. Just over 10 years ago it was converted into three flats, its stables became a bijou house, and two detached properties suddenly sprouted at the bottom of its garden.

The development was not well-received locally. However, the protest might have been louder if it had been more widely known that Butler House was a meeting place for some of the country’s most distinguished musicians and composers in the 1930s.

In those pre-war years Nightingale Corner, as it was then called, was home to Hubert Foss, the pianist and composer who founded the Oxford University Press music department, and his wife, Dora, a professional singer.

As the authors of London: A Musical Gazetteer (2005) recount, Arnold Bax, Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams, Constant Lambert and Ernest John Moeran (sometimes described as ‘Britain’s greatest lost composer’) all came to dine with the Fosses. The then youthful William Walton was also a regular visitor.

“We loved Willie’s visits,” Dora Foss later said. “We spent hours listening to his playing of whatever the current composition was … and Hubert discussed, advised and encouraged him.

“We sat long over meals while Willie regaled us with current gossip and comments on friends and foes alike. How we laughed!”

One day Walton indicated that he was keen to get to know Arnold Bax better. “We invited them to dine with us quietly without any other guests,” Dora Foss recalled. “Arnold left by the last train and Willie stayed on with us for a day or two.”

There appears to be no photographic record of the composers’ meeting. The book, however, includes a touchingly happy photograph of the then 29-year-old Walton with other dinner guests in the back garden of Butler House in 1931, the year that saw the first performance of his still popular cantata, Belshazzar’s Feast.

London: A Musical Gazetteer, by Lewis and Susan Foreman, Yale University Press, paperback, £18.99

Contribution by - David Budge

to start

Musicians’ chapel

The ‘By the By’ article on Sir Henry Wood’s association with Chorleywood (September 1) may have caused some readers to wonder where the Father of the Proms lies buried.

In fact, his ashes were interred in 1945 in what is now known as the Musicians’ Chapel at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in Holborn.

Wood’s father sang in the St Sepulchre’s choir and young Henry was allowed to practise on the church’s organ from the age of 10. “The magnificent Renatus Harris organ … with its wonderful diapasons and ten stops on the pedals, filled me with wonder and admiration,” he later recalled.

Henry received lessons from Edwin Lott, the church organist. However, Lott reputedly had a habit of disappearing down the nave “to listen”, only to be found later in the nearby tavern.

Above Henry Wood’s tomb is the St Cecilia window, which depicts Wood as a boy organist and Proms conductor. Other windows commemorate the lives of two composers, John Ireland and Walter Carroll, and the great Australian singer, Nellie Melba.

St Sepulchre’s, which is recognised as the National Musicians’ Church, also contains a book of remembrance, containing the names of more than 2,000 professional musicians.

Younger visitors are, however, more likely to be drawn to the sinister “Executioners’ Bell” in a glass case at the southern end of the nave. It used to be rung on the eve of executions as the old Newgate prison stood directly opposite St Sepulchre’s.

Further information from the Friends of the Musicians’ Chapel

Contribution by - David Budge

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Sir Henry Wood

Although TRMS is, quite rightly, focusing on the immediate future, it can also be interesting to look back occasionally.

Exactly 100 years ago today (September 1), while the carnage on the Somme was continuing unabated, Three Rivers’ most illustrious musician, Sir Henry Wood, was providing some much-needed distraction for a Proms audience in the Queen’s Hall, London.

The programme that Wood conducted that evening in 1916 opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and included works by Bach, Mozart and Lalo, as well as the lesser-known Montague Phillips, who is now best remembered for his operetta, The Rebel Maid.

Henry Wood had bought Appletree Farm, on the edge of Chorleywood Common, the previous year. The Wood family also had a London residence, but his wife and daughters preferred to live in Chorleywood from Easter until at least the end of the Proms season. During the family’s early years in Chorleywood, Sir Henry also made Appletree Farm his summer home, returning nightly to Hertfordshire after conducting at the Proms.

Sir Henry lived on until 1944, dying at the age of 75. The Queen’s Hall in Langham Place ‘predeceased’ him by three years, being destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz.

Contribution by - David Budge

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