Richard Arnell: Symphony no. 4

performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Martin Yates in a world premiere recording, which you can purchase here.

(Sorry, folks. No YouTube today either.)

Richard Anthony Sayer “Tony” Arnell was born on September 15, 1917 in Hampstead, London. He studied at the Royal College of Music under John Ireland. After his graduation, and while attending the New York World Fair, at the beginning of World War II, he found himself stranded in the U.S., with some other fellow composers, and decided to stay there for most of the ’40s, only returning to his home country in 1947. Interestingly, then, he’d developed somewhat of a reputation in America, but was still relatively unknown in his homeland. This was to be a situation that unfortunately plagued most of Arnell’s career.

While in America, he was Music Supervisor for the BBC there, and was commissioned to compose music for such occasions as the founding of the United Nations, as well as Winston Churchill’s visit to the U.S. It would seem, then, that he did quite well in that time, as he also earned the admiration of a few influential supporters and conductors, among them Sir Thomas Beecham. Upon his return to England, Arnell began teaching at Trinity College. Throughout his career, he wrote a total of six symphonies (a seventh later completed and recorded by conductor Martin Yates, a student of Arnell’s at Trinity), as well as a large collection of chamber works, stage works, and film scores.

In discussion of Arnell’s fame (or rather his lack thereof), the name William Glock may appear. Glock became sole Controller of the Proms in in 1960, holding the authority that had previously been given to a panel. It is said, although perhaps apocryphal, that Glock was in such wholehearted support of modern music that he had a blacklist of composers who he’d never feature, including Arnold Bax, Aaron Copland, Edmund Rubbra, and more. Arnell isn’t mentioned on Glock’s Wikipedia page in this supposed list, but it seems at least some of Arnell’s supporters and former students demonize Glock for suppressing his music.

Arnell is another symphonist who earns much praise from Robert R. Reilly in Surprised by Beauty. In speaking more generally of the composer’s middle symphonies (3-5) (on p. 46) he says:

Arnell seems to be working with variations of the same basic themes – similar thematic material keeps resurfacing at climactic moments. It is music of enormous tumult. There is always an underlying excitement and the sense of reaching for and finally achieving something magisterial.

He also speaks of the music as being “of almost Bruckner-like magnificence.”

The fourth is in three movements and lasts around 26 minutes in playing time. Reilly says that “The beginnings of both Nos. 4 and 5 are tremendously exciting, but that’s really about as much as he says of the fourth, leaving me to wonder why I didn’t choose the fifth, which he discusses at only slightly greater length.

The opening of the symphony seems to forebode bombast or chaos, with near-violent timpani strikes, but the first utterance of the orchestra is soft and supple, not cacophonous. Does a Bruckner slow movement come to mind here? Maybe. After long, arching lyrical lines, the music suddenly does boil to life, with an intensity and conciseness to match the focus of the softer first section.

I hate to use all those visuals and descriptors that are so commonly heard when talking about Bruckner’s music, and be not confused, there’s no mistaking this for Bruckner, but there’s something of the same organic, towering majesty and bigness, like an enormous castle slowly emerging from out of the ground, more and more of the structure revealing itself as it grows, but there’s some finer level of texture or detail in the orchestra that isn’t Bruckner’s giant ‘blocky’ organ-like sound. One gets the feeling here that this triumphant, majestic music is unstoppable, like the prow of a huge ship steadily cutting through rough seas. It has weight and momentum, but isn’t in the least heavy or sluggish.

I feel there’s no reason to discuss symphonic structure or themes here; the music is, almost to a fault, maybe, of one large unbroken gesture, albeit with some unique moments here and there, like trills in the strings, a trumpet solo, the timpani strikes, but there’s such a unity and leanness to it that I feel to dissect it would be a disservice. There are some wonderful orchestral colors and textures here, and this first movement gives us half of the symphony, with some beautifully touching, more intimate moments toward the end, if not a bit cinematic. It’s epic, decisive, charismatic, but almost a bit tiring in its persistence. What’s next?

The second movement is the other side of the coin, containing the same unbroken, never-ending flow of music, but now lyrical, even dreamy in places, giving focus to individual sounds from separate instruments, lending this movement a more intimate sound. We’re seeing Arnell as a master orchestrator, with perhaps as much color as, say, Berlioz, but perhaps without the flamboyance, at least so far in this work, or Strauss.

The finale, at half the length of the middle movement, is marked allegro vivace, and our thunderous timpani returns, but it introduces again still not a tumultuous theme, but one that’s a little more playful, full of texture, and something that might even seem like a Bruckner-esque scherzo in some ways. But just wait… It sounds for a while as if the instruments and sections and everyone are kind of entering the room one by one, finding their places, and then bam, England enters.

About halfway through the movement, there’s a quaint, pleasantly memorable theme that appears from nowhere, with some spring in its step from the strings, maybe the first utterance in this symphony of a melody that revolves around itself and isn’t always propelled toward something greater, if that makes sense. The bouncy, small melody quickly swells to a triumphant, expertly breathtaking full-orchestra exultation, and it could be for this splendid moment alone that I chose to feature this symphony. Wow. From there, we gallop on to the gripping close of this relatively small but somehow epic-feeling work.

I won’t say this is a work that awes me with its genius in the way that some others do, but it’s very likely that others of Arnell’s pen might. The work ends commandingly and a bit abruptly, and I”m left with the feeling that this work is an exquisitely crafted piece, masterfully laid out and presented, a compelling argument for hearing all his other symphonies. But something else first.

Martin Yates specifically deserves recognition for the recording of Arnell’s symphonies, a project that began in 2005, a decade after the sixth was composed, and more than half a century after the first symphony was completed. Having listened to just a few of Arnell’s works in preparation for this article (and the whole series), it is astounding that music of this quality waited so very long to be recorded. Many thanks to Yates and the RSNO for their work with this music.

Lastly, I want to say a bit about critiques and reviews and trying to explain something that someone clearly decided must be expressed with words, not music. That’s hard, and honestly, I feel like most of the time my attempts at giving a good impression of the work are soggy and long-winded. But I do try.

However, you know what they say about opinions. I’d like to draw your attention for a moment to a few reviews I found of this album and the two works on it, and how drastically different the responses are. For example, our buddy James Leonard says at AllMusic that these works are “Superbly crafted and convincingly modern, though imbued with an expressivity most modern composers would have abjured.” He also describes Arnell as “a cogent composer who sets out to achieve great things and accomplishes them with style and panache.” Wonderful!

But then… there’s David Hurwitz at Classics Today, who says the same album “does nothing to dispel the impression Richard Arnell’s music makes of a dutiful, well-trained, conservative composer with nothing especially distinctive or moving to say.” Ouch. He describes the fourth as the better of the two symphonies on the disc (the other being no. 5) “mainly because it’s shorter and has a particularly engaging finale.” And for one last little bit of negativity from Hurwitz:

Music written in this sort of bygone Romantic style thrives on its ability to communicate emotionally, and that means (issues of form aside) writing expressive tunes and scoring them arrestingly. Arnell does neither (compare him in this respect to, say, George Lloyd), and the best efforts of conductor Martin Yates can’t disguise this fact, nor does [sic] fine playing and good engineering.

Really ouch.

Now, I’ve seen Leonard’s name a lot on AllMusic, and Hurwitz’s elsewhere less, but critics, in some ways, are like conductors. We can get to know their tastes and inclinations and take what they say about or do with music with a grain of salt. It would just be a shame, I think, for someone to read the Hurwitz review above and decide never to go further than that, while his music is praised elsewhere.

My point is that it’s all subjective. It’s not necessarily a favorite of mine, nor is it really a highlight of this series, but it’s undoubtedly a mighty fine composition, and I’ll have to get around to hearing his other works sooner than later, but he definitely deserves a spot in a series discussing English composers.

That’s all for now, and we’re coming down to our last three symphonies in the series, one more this week and two next week as we come close to wrapping up the English Symphony series. Stay tuned for more good music. Next week’s works are perhaps the two I’ve been looking most forward to, in addition to this weekend’s quartet. Thanks for listening and reading.



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