Bax, Sir Arnold Edward Trevor (1883–1953), composer, was born 8 November 1883 in Streatham, London, the son of prosperous quaker parents. His father, Alfred Ridley Bax, was a barrister of the Middle Temple, who, possessed of private means, devoted the greatest part of his attention to antiquarian pursuits; he had married, relatively late, a vivacious young wife, Charlotte Ellen Lea. They had four children of whom Arnold was the eldest. His siblings were Aubrey, who died of meningitis at the age of ten, Clifford (1886–1962), who became a noted playwright, poet, and journalist, and Evelyn. Their schooling was not structured and Francis Colmer was engaged as a tutor; he left a short but revealing memoir of the two brothers.
Bax's privileged circumstances afforded him the opportunity to concentrate on his musical studies and on a creative life. The family moved to Ivy House, Hampstead, in 1896 and he began his musical studies at the local conservatory. He entered the Royal Academy of Music in September 1900 and studied composition for five years under Frederic Corder, author of an early study of the music of Liszt, and piano under Tobias Matthay. His evident facility earned him a number of commendations, including the Haynes prize (1902) and the Macfarren scholarship (1902). Bax's earliest compositions date from this period. The Variations for orchestra (1904) brought him the Charles Lucas medal and already show the characteristic rich romanticism that is a hallmark of his music.
Bax was eclectic by nature and at separate times his focus centred on Russia, Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia. He had an early and profound involvement with Ireland that imparted a Celtic note to much of his writing. He attributed his interest in Ireland to his reading of the poetry of William Butler Yeats (qv). Bax first encountered Yeats's work in 1902 when he read ‘The wanderings of Oisin’. As he said in his engaging early memoir, Farewell, my youth (1943): ‘the Celt within me stood revealed . . . his was the key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth’. In a BBC broadcast in May 1949 he stated: ‘Yeats's poetry means more to me than all the music of the centuries’. The first creative fruits of this discovery were the tone poems Cathleen ní Hoolihan (1905) and Into the twilight (1908), and the Irish battle hymn Roscatha (1910). The tales of Oisín (qv) lie at the heart of the early symphonic poem, In the faery hills (1909), which was a commission from Sir Henry Wood for the 1910 series of Promenade Concerts; it is a joyous evocation, from the very first tentative woodwind entry, of what Bax described as the revelries of the hidden people in the inmost depths and hollow hills of the west of Ireland.
Bax married Elsa Sobring, the daughter of a distinguished pianist, in 1911, and they set up house in Dublin. They had two children, Dermot (1912–76) and Maeve (1913–87), whose names also attest Bax's fascination with Ireland. The marriage effectively ended in 1918, when Bax left his wife to spend more time with the pianist Harriet Cohen in London. In 1926 he met Mary Gleaves, who became a faithful and constant companion for the remainder of his days.
Ever passionate, Bax quickly established himself as an acolyte in the small but luminous Irish cultural community in Dublin. He moved within the circle that contained Yeats and George Russell (qv), and he became especially friendly with the poet Padraic Colum (qv) and his wife, Molly (Mary) Colum (qv), and with Thomas MacDonagh (qv), a leader of the Easter rising in 1916. In characteristic fashion, Bax became an outspoken supporter of the nationalist cause and worked to learn the Irish language. His appreciable literary gifts were exercised under the pseudonyms ‘Dermod McDermott’ and ‘Dermot O'Byrne’; using the latter name, he produced a number of poems, including ‘A Dublin ballad’, which is his emotive response to the insurrection of 1916. This sensibility also gave rise to the tone poem In memoriam (1916), which is dedicated to the memory of Patrick Pearse (qv), to whom Bax had been introduced. This was the period of Bax's first mature flowering as a composer, and the production of his symphonic poems, including The garden of Fand (1916), November woods (1917), and the substantial Tintagel (1919), which remains his best-known orchestral piece. His vocal and choral works also reveal the Irish connection in settings of texts by Padraic Colum, James Joyce (qv), and J. M. Synge (qv).
Bax produced a considerable body of music over the succeeding decades. His seven symphonies, written between 1922 and 1939, mark both the high-point of his achievement and the gradual closing of his productive life, and show his skill as an orchestrator. He wrote two notable film scores: for the documentary Malta GC (1942) and David Lean's film Oliver Twist (1948). He received official recognition when he was knighted at the time of the coronation of George VI in 1937. He was appointed master of the king's music in 1942, succeeding Sir Henry Walford Davies who had in turn succeeded Sir Edward Elgar; one of his final duties in this role was to write the coronation march for Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and he was made a knight commander of the Royal Victorian Order in that year for his service to the monarch. This was a remarkable culmination to the career of an artist whose earliest fires had burned so individually and whose influences and career path lay outside the norm. Bax was also the recipient of honorary doctorates from Oxford (1934), Durham (1935), and the NUI (1947).
Bax was as unconventional as he was passionate. He never owned a home, and for long periods lived as a nomad, before eventually settling in the White Horse hotel in Storrington, Sussex. It is poignantly fitting that he died in Ireland; he was on a visit to his friend and fellow composer Aloys Fleischmann (qv) while acting as external examiner in Cork, and died there 3 October 1953. He was buried at St Finbarr's cemetery, Cork.