Quintet – Arnold Bax (1922)
Arnold Bax (8 Nov 1883 – 3 Oct 1953) is best known for his tone poems, which take their subject matter from Celtic myth and scenery. However, his compositions in many genres reflect Bax’s obsession with Ireland and Britain. The Quintet, dedicated to the British oboist Leon Goossens, is no exception to this, featuring folk-like melodies which invoke England, Scotland, and Ireland.
While Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata gives a rather intimate portrayal of personal grief, the overarching narrative of Bax’s Quintet is more nationalistic. The main theme of the first movement is a long, sinuous melody introduced by unaccompanied oboe. Heavy with accidentals and augmented seconds, the exoticised theme seems foreign to Bax’s musical tendencies, but it in fact references a side of the pastoral frequently investigated in Bax’s works, that of Pan and fairies, “dangerous, unpredictable, sensual, and libidinous creatures,” even as it calls up images of Milton’s “gorgeous East”. While this theme forms the majority of the movement, the movement ends with a sunny G major molto tranquillo coda, foreshadowing the banishment of all exoticism through the cheery folk-tunes of the third movement.
The second movement of the quintet serves as an intermediary between the orientalism of the first movement and the nationalism of the third; the strings open with a lush pastoral melody before the oboe interjects with an ad lib “melancholy” solo featuring augmented seconds and sinuous lines. The very slow tempo, low tessitura, soft dynamics and uneven meter invoke a sense of quiet and pervasive sorrow. Despite an increase in ornamentation, intensity, and chromatic tones in the middle of the movement, which create the sense of a B section, the movement is deeply unified. As in the first movement, the return of the A section is followed by a molto tranquillo tonal coda.
Bax contrasts the feminized, exoticized melody dominating movement one with the final movement’s masculine British folk songs. The themes of movement three are three rollicking folk-song-based melodies. The first is a newly-composed jig which uses Scotch snaps and uneven phrase lengths, against a duple counter-melody, to slightly unbalance the listener. The second theme, similar in feel to the first, again sets compound meter against duple accompaniment. However, it lacks the first theme’s snaps and irregular phrases, and has the feel of a rather square march instead of a lively jig. The final theme, slower and more restrained, is a variant on the folk song “The Lament of the Sons of Usna,” and is perhaps more famous from its appearance in Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. The B section of the piece consists of an extended, cantabile version of the third theme for the cello under oboe embellishments recalling the orientalism of the first movement. At the return of A, references to Bax’s earlier exoticism are replaced by aggressive repetitions of the first and third themes. The piece ends with a vivace statement of the first theme by the oboe which leads to a strong, full G major chord.
In one sense, Bax plays the stereotypical roles of the oboe, the “pastoral, melancholia, and orientalism,” to the hilt in his Quintet, but the piece also provides a clear example of Bax’s tendency to emphasize the “musical evocation of nature” over personal expression. Here the “chillier violence” of his pastoral landscapes has unsettling overtones. Movement one, in which the opening modal/minor melody is subverted in the major tonality of the final two measures, and movement three, in which the B section references the first movement’s exoticism before falling back into folk songs, serve as small-scale pictures of the piece as a whole, which moves from the melody of movement one to those of movement three. Written in the years following the First World War, perhaps as a statement of nationalistic support, Bax creates a narrative in which feminized music designed to evoke Eastern cultures is conquered by masculine music which represents the West, and specifically the history of Britain.
 Milton, Paradise Lost, 2.3
 Foreman, Lewis. Bax: A Composer and His Times, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2007. p. 212.
 Burgess and Haynes, The Oboe, p. 240
 New Grove Encyclopedia of Music, "Bax", Works
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