Although Arnold Bax’s main reputation resides in his instrumental music, notably in the cycle of large-scale symphonies he wrote between 1921 and 1939, his a cappella works have a fecundity which places them at the very summit of unaccompanied English choral music of the twentieth century. His fascination with the colour and symbolism of medieval religious poetry began with his masterpiece, Mater ora filium
, a set of choral variations, composed in 1921, which set a structural precedent for the two works that followed, This worldes joie
(1922) and I sing of a maiden that is makeless
(c1923) for both explore elaborate processes of strophic variation. The simpler I sing of a maiden that is makeless
, a partsong in five parts which Bax dedicated to John Blackwood McEwen, makes abundant allusion to sixteenth-century polyphonic techniques of imitation, cambiata and English cadence, but this impression of the ‘old’ is subtly mixed with Bax’s kaleidoscopic vocabulary of chromatic harmony, apparent from the opening of the second verse. Moreover, Bax’s process of variation allows the original melody to dissolve in the more developmental third verse (‘He came all so still To his mother’s bower’), a course of action which subsequently throws into relief the glowing reprise of the theme in the final bars.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2017