Sir Arnold Bax has been described as a neo-Romantic with impressionistic tendencies. Often, he seems to have more in common with the Frenchmen Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel than with some of his British contemporaries such as Ralph Vaughan Williams or Gustav Holst. A skilled composer of chamber music, he wrote the customary trios, quartets, quintets, etc., but, very often, for unusual combinations of instruments. The Octet for Horn, Piano, and String Sextet is a perfect example with its unique approach to instrumentation.
The Octet was commissioned by the prominent American Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and Bax included a birthday dedication to her. He wrote it for the noted horn player Aubrey Brain (father of that other legendary horn player Dennis Brain) and pianist Harriet Cohen, with whom Bax was romantically involved. The piece was first performed on December 11, 1936 in London, the night of the King of England's abdication. This two-movement work is filled with the subtle chromaticism one associates with the evocative vagueness of the Impressionists. The shimmering unison of the opening prepares the way for an idyllic horn solo, followed by lushly extended piano chords. The second movement, a hale and hearty scherzo, lifts away some of that ambiguity with its robust hunting horn-like theme. As much of Bax's work, the Octet is a mixture of harmonic sophistication and an understated intensity of emotion.