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Surely the most underrated contemporary composer is Sir Malcolm Arnold (b. Oct. 21, 1921), at least in regard to his major symphonic works. His versatility is extraordinary. He has written music for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, numerous concertos for a multitude of friends (guitarist Julian Bream, trumpeter John Wilbraham, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber, recorder virtuoso Michaela Petri, harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, oboist Leon Goossens, et al). Arnold also wrote music for more than 80 films, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, Whistle Down the Wind, Hobson's Choice, and Inn of the Sixth Happiness (he was approached to write the score for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, an offer he declined). However, to me his greatest achievement is a series of nine extraordinary symphonies.
Sir Malcolm Arnold was born in Northampton. His father was a well-to-do shoe manufacturer, amateur pianist and organist, his mother a fine pianist. They encouraged his musical interests which were wide-ranging. He absorbed the classics as well as jazz, and studied the trumpet, which he quickly mastered. Working with Ernest Hall, a leading teacher of the instrument, he became a wunderkind, in demand by all London orchestras. He selected the London Philharmonic and soon became principal trumpet; it was at that time his interest in composition developed. When he showed his comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt to Eduard van Beinum, then conductor of the LPO, Beinum was so enchanted with it that he recorded it for Decca in 1947 - a vivid performance that, unfortunately, has not yet been issued on CD. On this recording you can hear the virtuosity of trumpeter Arnold. The first set of English Dances soon followed, attracting national attention. Later would come suites of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Cornish dances. These are not just orchestrations of folk tunes, they are Arnold’s own music in the appropriate style. His name became firmly imprinted on the British musical scene as a composer of tuneful, highly entertaining music. Since that time he has composed profusely in all areas including two operas. In the 1950’s he began composing music for films and for the first time had the opportunity to conduct. major British orchestras and did so often. In 1969 he was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth, and was awarded the C.B.E. in 1970. He also has Honorary Doctorates of Music from Exeter University (1969), Durham University (1982) and Leicester University (1984). Arnold was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1983 and is an Honorary R.A.M. In 1986 he received the Ivor Novello Award for "outstanding service to British music," and received a knighthood in the New Year Honours List 1993 for his services to music. In 1999 Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, awarded him a Doctor of Music and Humane Letters.
In spite of his fame and recognition, Arnold's life has not been an easy one. Over the years he has dealt with periods of alcoholism, two failed marriages that produced three children, and two attempts at suicide.
Arnold is one of the most prodigious, inventive of all composers. He seems to have an endless supply of melodies and tunes. A total master of the orchestra, he knows well exactly what each instrument can do, with a particular fondness for brass instruments, taxing them to the extreme - to the delight of both performers and audiences. In virtually all of his works there are extended solos for individual instruments. The huge trombone solo in the second movement of his Symphony No. 7 is a prime example, but there are numerous other less expansive solos for various instruments throughout his music.
Sir Malcolm's music often is filled with whimsical humor, especially his earlier works. However, in his later works this humor often is counterbalanced by tragedy and despair. The Symphony No. 7 cryptically is dedicated, "To Katherine, Robert and Edward," his three children. Arnold said at the time of the premiere that each of the children was loosely portrayed in one of the movements. A rather odd dedication, as this symphony is Arnold's fiercest, scored for large orchestra with a huge percussion section that includes a massive Mahlerian cowbell, the entire work replete with dissonance and unrest. The dedication suggests that Arnold didn't particularly enjoy parenthood. Arnold had a break-down in the mid-eighties, from which he has now recovered. However, illness has plagued him for the past years and he has now officially "retired" from composition.
It is an incredible oversight on the part of American orchestras that Sir Malcolm’s symphonies are seldom programmed. The Symphony No. 8, commissioned by the Albany Symphony, has premiered by them in 1979. Because of publisher affiliation changes over the years it is difficult to account for other U.S. performances of the symphonies, although Arnold's other works are frequently performed. Fritz Reiner conducted Beckus the Dandipratt in 1954 and the Symphony No. 2 in 1956. There have been scattered recordings of the a few of the symphonies over the years, notably No. 3 recorded in 1958 with the composer conducting the London Philharmonic reissued on Everest (EVC 9001). He also recorded his Symphony No. 1 in 1979. Now Chandos is in the process of recording all of the symphonies, with Nos. 7, 8 and 9 yet to come. Conifer made fine recordings of all of the symphonies with Vernon Handley on the podium. This label now seems to be inactive and the fate of these superb performances (the only available of Nos. 7 and 8!!) is in question. Naxos also is recording a complete set with Andrew Penny conducting, and has already released 1, 2, 3, and 4 as well as the premiere recording of Symphony No. 9. The remainder of the symphonies will be released before the end of this year, and a boxed set will be issued in October 2001 to mark the 80th birthday of Sir Malcolm.
The Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1949 shortly after Arnold abandoned his performance career. He led the 1951 premiere. The symphony shows the influence of Sibelius especially in its somber second movement, and concludes, like many Arnold works, with a lively march. However, it has only brief glimpses of the mature Arnold style to follow.
The Winter Gardens Society of Bournemouth commissioned the Symphony No. 2, completed by Arnold in February 1953. Charles Groves, a close friend of Arnold's for his entire career, conducted the premiere May 25, 1953. It was the first major work of Arnold to attract international attention. The easy-going first movement again reminds us of Sibelius, the second is a dazzling Vivace, the third contrasts greatly with what preceded; it is an elegant, powerful funeral march reminiscent of Gustav Mahler, another composer who influenced Arnold in a major way. Again the mood changes with the last movement, a delightful "rondo"" with two fugues, a brilliant exercise in counterpoint that Arnold always does so effectively.
We are in new territory with the Symphony No. 3, Op. 63, commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society and first performed December 1957 with John Pritchard on the podium. This is a rather gloomy work; again we have but three movements. A glimpse of Arnold's later massive orchestration is the bleak second movement which has a funeral march interlude, with fortissimo chords disrupting the scene. The final movement begins lightly but soon once again we are in a tragic mood with huge slashing chords bringing the symphony to a conclusion. Scoring for this symphony is rather strange; there is no percussion except timpani.
Symphony No. 4 was commissioned by the BBC, completed in 1960, following the Notting Hill race-riots which perhaps influenced scoring for the symphony. It includes Caribbean instruments (and rhythms as well): marimba, bongos and tom-toms, all used in a rather menacing way. The first of the four movements has violent outbursts of brass and percussion with extensive interplay between instrumental clusters. The movement includes a rather sad "pop" tune that appears several times, each time with different orchestration. A "pop" tune usually consists of 32 bars, but this one has only 31, an effect that puzzled many listeners. This movement ends with a huge brass outburst which to me is reminiscent of West Side Story. A short, gossamer scherzo follows, all pianissimo except for the fortissimo last chord, leading to one Arnold’s most imaginative achievements, a 13:03 Andante (for Hickox; Handley takes but 11:45). Christopher Palmer’s notes in the Hickox Chandos recording describe the movement perfectly: "...slow, sensual sexy, steamy, sultry -- and the atmosphere is trance-like, almost hypnotic. Where are we? In a Turkish Bath, opium den (if they still exist) or night-club, very late at night?" It’s an incredible listening experience which sets an exotic mood totally devastated by the fourth and final movement. This begins with a fugue, continues with marches, dissonance, more Caribbean percussion, bells and ending in a cataclysmic blaze of percussion. A remarkable symphony!
The Symphony No. 5 is one of the most fascinating. A tragic mood prevails. It was commissioned by Cheltenham Festival Society and premiered in July 1961 with the HallÈ Orchestra conducted by the composer. Some have said some of the melodies are "banal." Perhaps some are, but in this context they should be. Tension builds with a sense of foreboding. One critic called it "a study in disintegration." The symphony was not well received and had to wait a decade before it was performed in London. Arnold has said that the music was influenced by the tragic deaths of several of his colleagues who had recently died while young (horn virtuoso Dennis Brain, clarinetist Jack Thurston, and humorist Gerard Hoffnung). After a rather quixotic first movement with underlying dark tensions we have a lengthy Adagio, again showing Mahlerian influence. Then a stunning scherzo, and a finale that opens with fanfares and a semi-march. An atmosphere of irony reaches a huge climax after which strings "dig in" a la the ending of Walton’s First Symphony, playing a lush theme heard before in the slow movement now given a rich "Hollywood Sound." However, the symphony soon dissolves into silence with minor chords and distant tolling tubular bells. It is a disturbing effect to say the least. It is said that this is Arnold's favorite symphony of the nine.
The Symphony No. 6, composed in 1967, is his shortest symphony ( about 25 minutes), has three movements and was premiered the following year with the composer on the podium. The first of the three movements suggests improvisational jazz, an influence often found in Arnold’s music, and in the second we have once again a powerful Mahleresque funeral march. The third is replete with brass fanfares and ends, as did the Symphony No. 5, with bells, but here they are triumphant
The Symphony No. 7 finds us in a totally different domain than anything before. Aside from the Ninth, it is his longest ( 38 min), with three movements. Bleakness pervades. It was completed at Sir William Walton’s home on the Italian island of Ischia in September 1973, commissioned by the New Philharmonia Orchestra and premiered by them the following May. This is the symphony cryptically dedicated to Arnold’s three children. There are three movements, the first longest of all. It is a terrifying score that calls for a huge percussion complement including a large Mahler-type cowbell that is darkly impressive. There is a "toys in the attic" atmosphere, with savage outbursts, ideas slashed off, constant conflict. Brass writing is brilliant. A solo trombone is featured in the brooding, ominous 14-minute Andante second movement. The 8-minute finale is episodic with one part suggesting music of the Irish group The Chieftains. French horns produce vivid sounds. There is much futile energy and motion, cut short by the massive cowbell. The composer said of this that it represents "hope - and if it is only a cowbell, at least it is something." A disturbing, powerful symphony, to say the least.
Things are a bit calmer in Symphony No. 8, although here, too, dissonance is the norm. An Irish marching tune is heard, a futile attempt at happiness; the ominous undercurrent obviously is there. In this movement we hear a theme Arnold wrote for one of his last cinema scores, The Reckoning. An elegaic slow movement features many wistful wind solos, in contrast to the dynamic final Vivace with its dramatic recollection of exuberant other Arnold symphony finales, brilliant writing for the horns, use of conflicting counterpoint, and explosive ending. This symphony, commissioned by the American Foundation, was completed in London in the fall of 1978 and premiered in the U. S. by the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
With the Symphony No. 9 we are in more serene, if disturbing, territory. The Ninth is Arnold’s longest symphony (49 min. in the Handley recording, 47 in Penny's ) intended for Manchester, completed in September 1986. However, because of various complications, it wasn’t premiered until January 1992 with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the late Sir Charles Groves, with the composer present. Writing a Ninth Symphony throughout the years has been an intimidating concept for any composer, the general feeling was that it would be the composer’s last considering what happened with Beethoven, Mahler and Schubert. For British orchestras collectively to wait so long before premiering the latest symphony by a major British composer is inexcusable but that’s the way it was!
The Symphony No. 9 has four movements, the first a rather easy-going Allegro of relative simplicity, the second a pastorale Allegretto, followed by a brief lively scherzo-like dissonant movement marked giubiloso. The final movement, Adagio, is as long as the other three, a huge slow expanse of despair, rather similar to the finale of Mahler’s Ninth in that after all of the angst and despair there is a radiant ray of hope with a change to the key of D major for the final page, a "rebirth" if you will. It is a strong emotional journey demanding for both performers and audiences, very different from anything Arnold had composed before. The Naxos recording’s program notes state, "...it makes uncomfortable listening.." There is no question of the sincerity of Arnold’s musical thought . He knew he was taking audiences down demanding paths but felt it must be done. In March 2000 I attended the U.S. premiere of this symphony which was presented by the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, a fine community orchestra in northern Maryland, with Sheldon Bair on the podium. It was a highly emotional event; Sir Malcolm was present. However, as I listened I couldn't help but wonder why one of the major American orchestras wasn't presenting this major premiere. At that time, I was honored to have Sir Malcolm as a guest in my home in Glen Burnie, Maryland, One of the recordings I played for him was the 1947 Decca issue of his Beckus the Dandipratt Overture which he said he had not heard for decades, and he seemed delighted to hear more recent recordings of various works played on an elaborate sound system. It was a memorable evening for me which I will never forget.
Richard Hickox started recording Arnold's symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1993, recording the first six for the label, stunning performances beautifully recorded. The final three were recorded for the label by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Rumon Gamba, equally successful. The competing complete set with Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is on Conifer , a label that apparently is now inactive although previous issues are available while supplies last.
Naxos has recorded a complete cycle with Andrew Penny and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, an admirable effort, but it cannot quite compete with the Olympian level of the Chandos and Conifer recordings.
An outstanding collection of "Arnold conducting Arnold" was once available on a twin-CD set in the BBC Radio Classics series with repertory ranging from big orchestra (Peterloo and Fair Field overtures, Four Cornish Dances, Op. 9l), concerted works (Concerto for Two Pianos, Op. 104, concertos for viola, horn, and two violins; chamber orchestra (Sinfonietta, Op. 1), solo works (Fantasy for Harp), and vocal works not available elsewhere (Five Blake Songs, op. 66 and Song of Simeon - A Nativity Masque, Op. 69). It is a fabulous set worth seeking out; it surely deserves reissue (BBC 918170.