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Quintet for Oboe and Strings, Arnold Bax (1922)

1. Tempo Molto Moderato – Allegro moderato – Tempo Primo
2. Lento Expressivo
3. Allegro Giocoso – Piu Lento – Vivace

Arnold Bax, later to be appointed to the quintessentially English position of Master of the King’s Musik, was passionately involved with Ireland throughout his life, falling in love with the country on arrival, and adopting himself a pseudonym, Dermot O’Byrne. Moving with his wife temporarily to Dublin, and naming his children Dermot and Maeve, Bax demonstrated his lifelong obsession when he eventually died in the city of Cork, although he had actually retired to live in Sussex above a pub called The White Horse.

Bax wrote his Quintet for Oboe and Strings for Leon Goossens straight after composing his first Symphony in 1922, at the end of the Irish War of Independence and signing of the Irish Free State Treaty, a result that must have held significant interest for Bax with his many republican friends and his alter ego, Dermot.

Within the Quintet, interesting textural use of string tremolando and other techniques give the music a darker, sometimes sinister undertone, and a quotation in the last movement of the Irish folktune, ‘Lament of the Sons of Usna,’ whose words celebrate ‘revenge on tyranny’.

I fell for this elegiac Quintet at our mutual Alma Mater, The Royal Academy of Music, London, where my first run through exploded in bright colours in my head – reigniting my synaesthesia. The Quintet ran from somber red and black, faded to lilac, the warm burnished copper second movement burst into vivid red in the Finale, a rumbustious and joyful G major movement with hints of Maurice Ravel. I have continued to obsess over this work over twenty years, looking for opportunities to perform, and following Artaria’s vivid, freshly considered interpretation, I resolved to explore the work with the same players in our own time in the studio. This is the result.

4. Britten Phantasy Quartet Op.2 (1932)

Like Bax, Benjamin Britten was an accomplished pianist, and could have had a career playing the instrument, having performed piano concerti by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, studying the works of Ravel. Great pianist and accompanist Gerald Moore once described Britten as ‘the best accompanist in the world’!

On composing this Phantasy Quartet, Britten at 18 was already an experienced and serious composer with a strong interest in Schonberg and an extensive catalogue of orchestral, vocal and chamber works before he had been awarded a Scholarship to enter the Royal College of Music aged 16. Already studying composition with his mentor Frank Bridge, Britten was disappointed to be allocated to staff member, Reginald Owen Morris for composition lessons. Morris was also the teacher of Gerald Finzi and Sir Michael Tippett and brother in law of Vaughan Williams. Instead Britten studied with John Ireland, but found him to be less than an ideal role model, teaching at home in chaos and often drunk, and continued his studies with Bridge who became a longtime mentor. (Ireland’s Piano Concerto was successful at the Proms during this time with Britten’s RCM piano teacher, Australian Arthur Benjamin as soloist.)

The Phantasy Quartet was written for a competition, the Cobbett Prize for a single movement chamber work. Previous winners included both of Britten’s teachers, Bridge and Ireland. Britten’s music, considered very modern in style at the College, had won the year before but this Oboe Quartet was not awarded. However it did receive a BBC broadcast by Leon Goossens, who Britten noted in his diary, played ‘his part splendidly’ and was the first of his works to be performed abroad, at a Festival in Florence. Although the dedication of the Phantasy was eventually to the charismatic and influencial professional Leon Goossens, whose sweetness and variety of tone colours and vibrato was leading to a profusion of new English solo repertoire, the first oboist to actually play the Phantasy was RCM student Natalie Caine with fellow student colleagues. Their attempts at some of his more fiendish ensemble and technical challenges were noted somewhat sarcastically in Britten’s diary, but their performances earned him a £50 grant from the inter-college Mendelsohn Committee for composition. The arc of its structure begins and ends with a distant march which, after the eloquent and dramatic central sections, dissolves into the distance like a weary army after a battle. My metaphor, but the image may well be relevant, given the date, 1932, in between The Wars. This powerful and serious work makes demands on players and audiences alike and the impression remains long after its final notes have disappeared.

5. Gerald Finzi, Interlude for Oboe and Strings op.21 (1936)

Originating in a 1930 commission from FRPS photographer and instrument maker Herbert Lambert for a ‘suite’ for oboist Sylvia Spencer, the Interlude for Oboe and Strings was first performed at the Wigmore Hall in 1936 by Leon Goossens, who asked for its dedication. Finzi’s great friend Howard Ferguson had reacted to receiving the score in on of their many letters: “What a delightful surprise package that brought along the score of the Interlude…I am again struck by its loveliness and by the ease and beauty of the writing…certainly you seem to have the knack of writing for string quartet, (never mind for the oboe). I wish I had…”

Finzi privately and apologetically described the climaxes of the work as containing ‘some decent music and a certain amount of rant’ to which Ferguson quickly reacted that in fact his ‘rant’ might contain some of the best music. Originally turned down for performance by the MacNaughten Quartet, accepted by another and eventually offered to Leon Goossens, it is original, flowing and nostalgic in scope and now forms a significant part of the oboe chamber repertoire. Finzi was pleasantly surprised also at the Wigmore concert by the offer from a representative from Boosey and Hawkes to publish the music. Reserving the opus no. 22 for the potential Quintet that this might become, he decided to publish it as an Interlude and later rescored it for oboe and string orchestra.

Howard Ferguson was later asked to arrange this piece for oboe and piano in 1981 and it was three years later that I was first introduced to this version of the Interlude. The music is original and idiosyncratic: there are magnificent climaxes, hints of Jewish schmaltz (both Finzi’s parents were of Jewish descent), extended melodies that ebb and flow like water and a wonderful sense of atmosphere and sadness throughout. Finzi’s personal history of devastating loss- his father when Gerald was eight, his composition teacher and three brothers on the Western Front – is significant, as is the intervention of the Second World War in his career, his diagnosis with the then terminal Hodgkin’s Disease and tragically his eventual early death at the age of 55 from encephalitis, the night after the first broadcast performance of his Cello Concerto.

6-11. Vaughan Williams: Six Studies in English Folk Song (1926)
arranged by Robert Stanton for cor anglais and string quartet

The most senior figure of our English composers represented here, and known to them all, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a significant influence throughout the musical establishment. RVW was quintessentially English, related to both the Darwin and Wedgewood families, and hailing from classic bucolic countryside in Shropshire. Teaching composition at the Royal College of Music, and through his own prolific output of work, he helped to redefine national style and identity, both with his interest in recording the country’s authentic folk songs and as the music editor of The English Hymnal, to which he added a number of tunes. His search for nationalism was partly in response the famously withering description of England as ‘Das Land Ohne Musik’ by Oscar Schmitz, 1904. Vaughan Williams’ dedication in recording folk songs around the country, and early discovery of the song ‘Bushes and Briars’ which he collected from a farm labourer in Norfolk in 1903, capturing his enthusiasm for a genre which would define a true English style, was shared by others, such as Gerald Finzi, and became much of his life’s work.

Throughout this collection of six simple studies, composed for cello with piano- distinguished cellist May Mukle gave the first performance at La Scala Theatre in London- Vaughan Williams described that that folk songs should be ‘treated with love’. The harmonic language is simple and defined, with modulation or chromaticism limited. He later transcribed them for many other instruments including clarinet and tuba, to enable further dissemination. The current arrangement for English horn (cor anglais) and string quartet is by Robert Stanton.

The set begins with ‘Lovely on the Water’, collected by Vaughan Williams near Norwich, which deals with the tearful farewell to a young sailor off to sea and his wife pleading to disguise herself and join him.

‘Spurn Point’, collected in 1891 from a Whitby fisherman by another enthusiast, describes a particular coastal feature in Yorkshire, a 3 mile sandbar or ‘spit’ and a ship run aground, whose Captain refused help and afterwards, was wrecked with the loss of all hands.

‘Van Diemen’s Land’, is a song concerning poaching and transportation to Australia collected both by Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger. The detailed lyrics deal with the hardships of the voyage and the homesickness of being taken from family. It is also known as ‘Henry the Poacher’ and has been linked back to actual events in Warwickshire in 1829. The use of the modal minor suggests solemnity and lack of hope.

‘She borrowed Some of her Mother’s Gold’ – telling the story of Polly who eloped with the ‘Outlandish Knight’, but returned home wiser, this setting is sweeping and cinematic, demonstrating fabulously effective scoring of the strings, like the strokes of an impressionist master.

‘The Lady and the Dragoon’ features a touching story of romance amongst class differences, with two different contrasting sections like two voices telling the same story, almost with a sepia vignette treatment, one of the most beautiful of the set.

‘As I walked Over London Bridge’ or ‘Geordie’ is given a lively, spirited setting which is somewhat at odds with the subject matter, of a wife pleading (unsuccessfully) for her beloved husband to be spared the gallows. A light ending eschews any pomp, finishing like the tossing of a delicate token at a wedding.

For this program, the chance to finish with Cor Anglais and string quartet added a different voice, an opportunity to explore the toneful expression of the cor anglais and producing some even more beautiful string textures.

“The composer must not shut himself up and think about art; he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community … if the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls …” – Ralph Vaughan Williams, Nationalism and other essays. 1934