Sir Henry Wood, a mainstay of British musical life and a longtime champion of Bax's music, died in 1944. Bax was subsequently asked to contribute a new composition for a concert dedicated to Wood's memory. The writing of it apparently gave him some difficulty, but on New Year's Day 1949 he completed the Concertante, which was given its premiere at the Sir Henry Wood Memorial Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall on March 2, 1949. Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the BBC Symphony, with section leaders from the orchestra -- Helen Gaskell (English horn), Ralph Clark (clarinet) and Aubrey Thonger (horn) -- as soloists.
The Concertante was one of Bax's last works and inhabits the intimate world of many of his post-Symphony No. 7 compositions. He takes an unusual approach to the work's form: each of the three lead instruments gets a movement to itself as soloist (the English horn is featured in the first movement, the clarinet in the second, and the horn in the third), accompanied by a small chamber orchestra. Then the trio is brought together for the finale, in which a fuller orchestral complement is employed.
The first movement, Elegy, is mellow in a recognizably British pastoral mode. Attractive contributions are also made by solo trumpet and violin (the latter apparently quoting, toward the end of the movement, the song She Is Far from the Land from Moore's collection of Irish Melodies). While Bax seems not to have had any programmatic intent in the Concertante as a whole, he once described the first movement as a "Lament for Tragic Lovers 1803," referring to the love of Irish patriot Robert Emmet for Sarah Curran. The middle of the movement is somewhat turbulent, with a snare drum pattern adding to the tension. But the music relaxes again and ends rather sadly.
A mood of jollity suddenly breaks out in the syncopated second movement. Marked Scherzo, the movement begins with the playful clarinet soloist accompanied by pizzicato "oom-pahs." The music turns more melancholy in a contrasting Allegretto semplice section, but the bouncy opening music returns. The third movement, Lento, with horn soloist, inhabits much the same pastoral world as the first. Then an eruption of fanfare-like figures opens the finale. After a longish orchestral introduction, the clarinet, with harp backing, introduces a gentle rocking theme that the other soloists take up. Momentum builds as variants of the fanfare theme are tossed around, leading to a forceful coda.