Thomas Arne: Symphony no. 4 in Cm

performed by Cantilena under Adrian Shepherd

Thomas Augustine Arne was born on 12 March, 1710, in Covent Garden. The two generations of Arnes that preceded him were upholsterers, but it didn’t work out so well for his grandfather, who died in a debtor’s prison. Somehow, his son, Thomas’s father, “earned enough money not only to rent 31 King Street, a large house in Covent Garden,[1] but also to have Arne educated at Eton College. In later life, he too lost most of his wealth and had to supplement his income by acting as a numberer of the boxes (ticket counter) at Drury Lane Theatre,” as stated by Wikipedia.

It’s a good thing that the Arne family came upon better times, because their son would fall in love with music and go on to write the British national anthem, God Save the King. That’s him. he was so obsessed with it, Wiki says, that he somehow snuck a spinet (a small keyboard instrument, like a harpsichord) into his room “and, damping the sounds with his handkerchief, would secretly practise during the night while the rest of the family slept,” also dressing up as a liveryman “to gain access to the gallery of the Italian Opera.” All of this swindlery seems to have paid off, because at this gallery, he eventually met composer and violinsist Michael Festing, of whom I have never heard, who gave Arne violin lessons, and brought him along to such musical happenings as an oratorio of Handel.

He appeased his father for a time with a law career, but was eventually able to make the transition to professional musician, no doubt with Festing’s help. Much of his output, it seems, was for the stage, with opera being only a part of that, “including plays, masques, pantomimes…” Unfortunately, much of his work is lost, likely as a result of the Covent Garden fire of 1808. Wiki has a reference for this statement, but it seems a bit surprising that three centuries after the composer’s death, there wasn’t anywhere else his music had been copied or published or stored, but we’re not talking about any of his operas today.

Instead, it’s a symphony, one of the extreme few purely orchestral works it seems he composed. You know there’s a paucity of information about a work when Amazon album reviews provide the greatest information about an album or work, but we’ve been here before. Ron B.  says of the work:

The symphonies on this CD had been forgotten for about 200 years until re-published/discovered in 1973.

He also discusses Arne’s coming up in England in a time when basically everyone, especially younger composers, lived in Handel’s shadow, but the statement about these works being forgotten for two centuries is an exciting one, and it’s a shame there aren’t more details. He describes the symphonies on this disc (yes, four symphonies fit on the disc) as “short, 3 movement symphonies written in an older, pre-Haydn style.”

To be honest, before even a first listen, I decided I’d probably choose the fourth. Of the four, it’s the latest, and likely the most advanced, right? Well, I was very impressed after only a listen or two, and Ron, in his review, refers to the third and fourth symphonies as “more developed and complex works”, where, in the fourth, “the use of horns playing melodies intertwined with those of the woodwinds and strings is captivating.”

In fact, this album has a perfect five-star review, out of eight reviews on Amazon, and you can read the rest of the comments here, which are of varying levels of insight.

But enough of all that. On to the music. As our reviewer mentions above, today’s work is in three movements, totaling only about 14 minutes, and also happens to be in Cm, like yesterday’s stunning work from Herschel.

Let’s be completely honest, this symphony is breathtaking from the word go, in a very similar way. It displays compelling momentum and clarity, and if you told me it was a neo-baroque work by a modern minimalist composer, I might almost believe you for a split second, especially with the richness and clarity of the recording and beefiness of the orchestral sound. A contemporary ensemble might not be so bassy, but this first movement gives us unabashed, unpretentious beautiful music with crisp, sharp contrasts, real brilliant stuff here, with commanding, spirited writing for strings and passages of whirling, thrilling bursts of energy in woodwinds. Really wow.

These three movements are of near-equal length, and the second movement presents a serenade-like larghetto, with horns taking the fore in the beginning, but over strings and harpsichord comes a tender, expressive passage, with delicate writing for oboes and flutes. This second movement is as soft and sweet as the first was electrifying. There’s a lot here to be very delighted about.

And the same holds true for the finale. Marked vivace, it has a sunny, buoyant energy and lightness that the first movement did not have in its very minor-key atmosphere. We’re in the middle of the 18th century, here, about the time of Mozart’s earliest operas. Can you hear an operatic, pastoral nature to this finale? The writing is transparent, crisp, but with a breathtaking, bright theatrical nature. It’s vibrant, and while we won’t talk at all about the structure of the movements, or how themes are presented, or anything like that, I think it’s more than enough to appreciate the skill with which Arne handles the ensemble, the color and sounds he evokes from the orchestra in a time where many symphonies sounded like string works in which the winds (horns aside, maybe) were at best afterthoughts.

Speaking of horns, they make some very exciting appearances in the finale with some pretty tricky and exposed writing. The music is playful, approachable, and the sense is that it is deeply felt by the composer, the performers, and that makes for a stunning, compact little symphony with a lot of punch, and not a single dull moment. What an amazing piece this is!

I say that while also admitting I usually don’t care much for music from this period, or at least I am not easily excited by it. Could it be that Arne was just removed from (or else ignored) the tradition and influence of German tradition? And what tradition was there? Haydn wasn’t yet the revered old ‘Papa’ of the symphony and string quartet, was he? Handel was the man, especially in England. Regardless of the reason, we have here what strikes me as a particularly unique sound, a blissfully beautiful standout work that I had to do some digging to find anything about. Don’t you think this piece would be an undisputed success in the concert hall? Me too!

I think that with these first two installments of our English symphony series, we are off to an outstanding start. They’re contemporaries of each other, more or less, but we have two more symphonies to discuss this week, each jumping ahead about another half-century, so stay tuned for those. We’ll get to a much more modern era pretty quickly, actually only touching on a few points in the heart of the Romantic era before we reach the 20th century. It’s going to be good music. Thank for reading and listening.

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