'An Ireland Built Anew': Bax's Tintagel and the Easter Rising

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Peter Atkinson

Colleges, School and Institutes


Hitherto, interpretative criticism of Arnold Bax’s tone poem Tintagel (1917–19) has been pictorial and biographical: the work has been interpreted both as a sea picture and as a record of the composer’s affair with the pianist Harriet Cohen in Cornwall in 1917. This article offers a new, ‘Irish’ reading of the work, suggesting that it can be considered an implicit response to the 1916 Easter Rising. In doing so, it aligns Tintagel with Bax’s contemporaneous pro-Republican poetry, and links its narrative to a revolutionary impulse to revive the ideals of an ancient heroic age in a post-1916 Ireland. Crucial to all these interpretations are Tintagel’s Wagnerian connections. The first part of the article considers how Wagnerism, along with the often closely associated 10 movement of Theosophy, had an impact both upon Bax and the artistic and nationalist figures with whom he associated in Ireland. Drawing on James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory, a formal analysis of Tintagel is presented, arguing that the work’s process of ‘teleological regeneration’ complements the theosophical idea of cyclical evolution and the characteristically Wagnerian narrative of ideal–corruption–redemption. The article concludes that Tintagel both reflects and acts out a broader aesthetic shift that took place in Bax’s musical output at the time, one that marks a farewell to a feminine conception of Ireland and looks forward to a heroic, masculine Ireland to be realized in the near future.


Original languageEnglish
JournalMusic and Letters
Issue number1
Early online dateFeb 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Feb 2016


  • Music, Musicology, Arnold Bax, Easter Rising, Wagnerism, Theosophy, Sonata Theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas