Bax wrote his Quintet very quickly, between the completion and the first performance of his epic first Symphony, in the autumn of 1922. (The Quintet’s first movement is dated 1 November, all was completed by Christmas.) In a work ending with an Irish jig, Bax is again reflecting his engagement with Ireland. Moreover, Bax is surely no musical tourist here for the first two movements have the mood and atmosphere of the Irish songs that he had written earlier the same year, songs of more note for their heart-broken sorrow than their picturesque colour.
After an elegiac progression of chords, the oboe’s first entry, an improvisatory tempo molto moderato, has a plaintive cast, indeed surely the reminiscence of Peter Warlock’s despairing cor anglais in The Curlew is not far away from this music. The central section is vigorous, some commentators even finding it ‘rustic’, but Bax is certainly not evoking Irish folk music, as he is in the finale. The range of colour Bax extracts from his string quartet is amazing, at the outset having the first violin playing tremolando in octaves with that characteristic sound that comes from playing close to the bridge, the cello and viola playing pizzicato and the cello declaiming a bold repeated motif. Soon, while the oboe plays an upward-lying phrase unaccompanied, the strings quickly put on their mutes for the return of the opening, much transformed. The ending is magical as the strings play soft chords underpinned by threatening repeated Gs on the cello and a final distant flourish from the oboe.
The mutes are off for the slow movement which is the emotional heart of the work. It opens very quietly with a serenely beautiful folk-sounding tune sung out molto espressivo by the first violin, warmly accompanied by the strings. Eventually the oboe sounds a plaintive improvisation, reminding us how Bax once unexpectedly heard pipe-music in a London street and asked, in a brief verse, ‘What aged war wouldst thou awake in me, / Thou subtle world-old bitter Celtic voice?’. This plangent tone contrasts poignantly with the beauty of the opening and is underlined and elaborated by the strings and oboe now together. Eventually the opening tempo returns and with it the violin’s opening tune, now clouded by troubled shifting string textures, and the spectral effect of the first violinist’s sul ponticello tremolandi. Even the oboe’s serene closing phrase is shadowed by the soft tremolando strings, and an uneasy repose is not achieved until the final chord.
The finale is an Irish jig, written by a composer who had seen and taken part in the real thing, though as far as is known the authentic-sounding themes were composed by Bax himself. Yet all too soon clouds cover the sun and the spectres return. The dance continues and although the ending is thrown off brilliantly we are aware that this is no mere Irish picture postcard. In 1922 no one, certainly not Bax, could fail to be torn by the horrors, the terror and the infinite sadness overshadowing the picturesque scene.
A final enigma. Does Bax quote a real folk-song in the finale when what sounds like the opening of the slow movement of Brahms’s fourth Symphony makes a vigorous appearance? This idea also appears in Stanford’s Irish Symphony, and the debate as to its origin has never been satisfactorily explained. What is quite certain is that Bax did not take it from Brahms, a composer he never warmed to.
The Quintet was not played until May 1924, when Leon Goossens and the celebrated Kutcher Quartet gave it at London’s Hyde Park Hotel, in a concert promoted by Mrs Adela Maddison.
from notes by Lewis Foreman © 1995
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