Choral music was not an area Arnold Bax had explored much in his early years as a composer. But performances by the Oriana Madrigal Society -- led by its founder, choir conductor, and teacher Charles Kennedy Scott -- that he heard in the 1910s led him to compose the choral work Of a Rose I Sing a Song. Then, around 1920, at one of the "Serenade" concerts organized by his pianist friend Harriet Cohen, Bax heard the Tudor Singers perform the Mass for 5 voices by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. This made a powerful impression, and soon afterwards he composed what is now considered to be one of his greatest works, Mater ora filium for unaccompanied double choir. Bax dedicated the work to Scott, who led his Oriana Madrigal Society in its first performance, on November 13, 1922, as part of an all-Bax concert featuring many of the composer's musician friends.
Bax's setting of Mater ora filium (Mother pray thy son), which Scott dubbed the finest purely choral work that has appeared since Elizabethan times, is based on an old carol from a manuscript at Oxford's Balliol College. Bax's setting of the carol is quite polyphonic in texture, and provides a number of challenges for the singers (one such is the high C that some of the sopranos have to hold at one climax, fortissimo, for three bars). The Latin verse that begins the text is sung initially as a chorale and returns in increasingly elaborate guises as a refrain through the work. The setting of the first English verse is ornate, that of the second darker and more restrained. Each line of the third is punctuated by complex, polyphonic Alleluias in eight parts. The fourth and final verse is a prayer to the Virgin, with stately, flowing polyphony that flowers forth as the verse continues. A radiant Amen, in eight parts spread over three and a half octaves, concludes the work.