Sir Malcolm Arnold: Horn Concerto no. 2, op. 58

performed by David Pyatt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Nicholas Braithwaite, or below by Alan Civil and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta under Normal Del Mar

Sir Malcolm Henry Arnold was born on October 21, 1921, in Northampton, the  youngest of five children, to a family of shoemakers. At 12 years old, he saw Louis Armstrong play the trumpet somewhere and was apparently an instant convert. He began playing the instrument himself and at 17 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied, at least for part of the time, under Gordon Jacob, whose horn concerto we discussed earlier in the week. In 1941, at only 20ish years old, he joined the London Philharmonic, becoming principal trumpet there only two years later.

The same year he begun at the LPO, he registered as a conscientious objector to the war, but in 1944, as Wikipedia says, “after his brother in the Royal Air Force had been killed, he volunteered for military service. When the army put him in a military band he shot himself in the foot to get back to civilian life.” Yes, he literally shot himself in the foot. Dedication? Insanity?

He spent a year with the BBC Philharmonic and then returned to his London Philharmonic until 1948, when he became a composer full-time. He was not even 30 by this point, and had already had quite an interesting career path. Within a few years of dedicating himself to composition, he was apparently hailed as equally “sought-after” as as Benjamin Britten. Wikipedia says:

His natural melodic gift earned him a reputation as a composer of light music in works such as some of his concert overtures and the sets of Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish and Cornish dances. He was also a highly successful composer of film music, penning the scores to over a hundred features and documentaries, including titles such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Hobson’s Choice and the St Trinian’s series.

Yeah, that’s right, The Bridge on the River Kwai. But atually, he didn’t compose that whistling theme from the movie; it’s from the Colonel Bogey March. Arnold did describe it as one of the worst jobs he’d ever taken, though, with only like “ten days to write around forty-five minutes worth of music.”

But we’re not here to talk about that, or about his nine symphonies (yet), which are often considered far different from his melodic, approachable pieces in other forms, like the one for today. This work, also written for Dennis Brain, like Jacob’s was, also appears on the same album as the work we discussed earlier this week. I mentioned in an article a few weeks ago that ‘the album’ as a physical concept can still have meaning, and I was suggested one of these two concertos (from Jacob and Arnold) and found the other because they happened to be on the same disc, which is great, because this is a wonderful work.

Arnold jumped at the chance to write a concerto for Brain, but may have been a bit too excited. The famous horn player had to convince the composer that some passages were impossible to play, and they were rewritten, but the work still bears significant challenges for the performer, and is overall an ebullient, outgoing, energetic work.

So those are the things at play here, Arnold’s own brassy background and his resulting enthusiasm, as well as his solid, strong musicality. No spoilers yet, but one thing I’ve noticed in his music is stark, almost jarring contrasts, and we see a little bit of that in this concerto, I think.

The first movement is acrobatic and has a certain nervous intensity. It’s compact, powerful, with a nervous energy that gives strong forward motion to the music. We can talk about all this in nebulous terms, but what stands out is the almost frightening, but also confident, virtuosity of the writing, which Pyatt handles in his recording with wonderful aplomb.

In contrast with the fireworks and athleticism of the first movement, with its compact approach to content, we have a middle movement that’s broader in all respects. Joseph Stevenson at AllMusic describes it as “a sustained tune like one of Satie’s works,” and that it is “designed to require exquisite cantabile playing.” True. I hate to keep saying it, but these works we’ve discussed show again and again the horn’s varied strengths, here as one of shimmering, relaxed lyricism, but with some darker, more mysterious-sounding passages, and the harmonies here are just outstanding. And just like that it ends.

And how do you add contrast to contrast? Well, the final movement is more exuberant and action-packed than even the first. It’s the shortest movement of this small-ish concerto, but the challenges to the soloist are readily apparent. The intensity of the solo part is breathtaking, for the listener, and likely more literally for the soloist. There are both some comic moments, as well as shades of greater seriousness here and there, but ultimately, the music needs no greater explanation: it’s an extremely well-written concerto, with a strikingly difficult part for the soloist, amply virtuosic but not without musical purpose and direction. I am looking forward to hearing more of Sir Malcolm Arnold in the future.

But that’s going to be it for now. It seems almost silly to talk about such immediately approachable and exquisitely composed music as if anyone needs help in understanding it. But some of this is like me speaking to myself… maybe? Just sharing what I’ve discovered, and hoping others may enjoy the piece too.

It’s interesting, though, that there’s that much out there to discover. How many horn concertos can the average classical music listener name? It’s a small corner of the overall repertoire that I’m obviously quite unfamiliar with. It’s not a string quartet or symphony, nor is it a piano or violin concerto. It obviously is a concerto, but there is at least  some remove in that a listener may feel less familiar with what is required of the soloist. A listener might be readily able to compare, say, piano concertos, or more specifically their cadenzas, from various composers because of the style of writing, or something, but the horn concerto’s history and tradition aren’t as familiar to many people, I think.

Thankfully, then, we’ve had a chance to hear some truly wonderful works, and the remaining two pieces in our horn series are small, a trio and a solo work to round out our almost-month-long series. If you didn’t read the Jacob horn concerto article from earlier in the week, I hint at what’s following all this horn business, and I am extremely excited about it, so do stay tuned. Thanks for reading and thanks for listening.

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