Bax composed the Quintet for Oboe and Strings in the closing months of 1922, on the heels of his First Symphony. At the time, a piece for such forces was unusual; surely, Bax was inspired to write the Oboe Quintet by the playing of the famous oboist, Louis Goossens, to whom the composer dedicated the piece. This was quite an honor for the young Goossens. (Bax would later compose the Nonet with Goossens in mind.)
Progress on the Oboe Quintet moved quickly; the piece was composed between November 1 and December 25, 1922. The quintet is in three movements in the fast-slow-fast pattern typical of a concerto. This aspect, plus the occasional orchestral texture of the string writing, may have prompted Sir John Barbirolli to program the Oboe Quintet at one time as a Concerto for Oboe and Strings. Although the melodies in the quintet are original, they sound like Irish folk tunes. This was surely a deliberate, if not unconscious, act on the part of the composer, whose emotional attachment to Ireland was the central emotional component of his life. Also, the flavor of the Irish Songs Bax had composed earlier in 1922 was still influencing his melodic thinking. Texturally transparent, the piece is lyrical throughout.
Beginning in G minor, the first movement, Tempo molto moderato, opens with a few introductory chords that give way to a plaintive theme in the oboe, which then swirls aloft into modal figures. The central section becomes more lively and verges on the "folkish," but Bax saves the blatantly folk song style for the finale. Throughout, Bax extracts a great variety of color from the strings, requiring them to play sul ponticello and pizzicato at various times. Near the end of the central section, the oboe has an unaccompanied, rising line that introduces the return of the opening material, now transformed and played on muted strings. Pulsing G naturals on the cello under quiet strings and a final flourish on the oboe close the movement in G major.
We sense an atmosphere of lament in the second movement, Lento espressivo. Beginning in E flat major, the quiet first theme sounds in the first violin before a transition wanders to the striking key of B major for the secondary theme. New melodies follow one upon another until the oboe sounds a tearful, improvisatory line that creates a stark contrast to the opening material. Afterward, the opening tempo and material return.
Marked Allegro giocoso, the finale is based on a lively jig rhythm and begins in a blithe G major. Here, the principal theme is especially folk song-like, while the secondary theme, performed on the oboe and first violin, is in a more serious E minor.