Thursday, April 17, 2008

Arnold Bax, Oboe Quintet: Program Notes

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,”[1] even as it calls up images of Milton’s “gorgeous East”[2]. 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,”[3] 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,”[4] 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”[5] over personal expression. Here the “chillier violence”[6] 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.

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, 2.3
[3] Foreman, Lewis. Bax: A Composer and His Times, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2007. p. 212.
[4] Burgess and Haynes, The Oboe, p. 240
[5] New Grove Encyclopedia of Music, "Bax", Works

For expanded analysis or citation info, please contact me by leaving a comment on this post, or emailing of [dot] polyhymnia [at] gmail [dot] com. Please credit Rachel Becker if using quotes/specific information from these notes.


Christopher Webber said...

What a curiously polemical account of Bax's robustly and conventionally structured Quintet! I'm glad to have read it, as your description of the thematic narrative is deeply considered and striking. However, your idea of making a socio-political tract out of Bax's very personal work, reducing it to some sort of East v. West, Feminine v. Masculine War, is forcing a square peg into a very round hole.

It would be ultimately more instructive, I think, to analyse the piece in terms of Bax's rhythmic, textural and (especially) harmonic colorations.

Nor I think is the main theme of the 1st movement at all "foreign to Bax's musical tendancies": its orientalisms are typically "Celtic" , and similar examples abound in Bax's work of the period as well as the Russians and - of course - the famous Cor Anglais theme in Act 3 of "Tristan" which is the Grand-daddy of this cast of melody.

Odd too to talk of "nationalism". Whose "nationalism"? Irish nationalism, presumably, as that beleagured nation was about to get it's first taste of independence from the foreign (British) yoke. I think you're confusing Bax's feeling for Ireland with a feeling for a British Empire which he didn't have at all. You do know I'm sure about his revolutionary poet-avatar "Dermot O'Byrne" who wrote the deeply subversive, profoundly anti-British "A Dublin Ballad"? This was the Bax who kept the tone poem "In Memoriam" deeply down the bottom of his musical drawer to avoid possible accusations of treason!

So who is meant to be "conquering" whom in the last movement? given its picture postcard use of Irish folk-like Jig themes (he never actually quotes a genuine folk-song here, despite the kinship with "The Sons of Usna".)

No, the sunny conclusion of the work dismisses all thoughts of introspection and conflict as obviously as you seek to stir them up!

racheloboes said...


I really appreciate your comment- I find it very interesting. I just wanted to let you know that the reason I haven't replied is not because I am ignoring you, but rather because my life recently has been quite busy and involved little computer time. I am intending to continue the conversation when I have a little more time, though.