performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox, or below by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Andrew Penny
We had a chance to hear Arnold’s second horn concerto a few months ago, but he was yet another of the composers who made a strong argument for this English Symphony Series, so here he is with his first.
If you go back and listen to that concerto, you’ll likely notice that it’s very approachable, a crowd pleaser. Arnold wrote lots of music like this, apparently, for chamber groups, or concert overtures, suites, and especially as film music, but we see something different in his symphonies, and this is a good example of how the choice of a form can affect the content.
Wikipedia describes his symphonies as distinctly different from the rest of his output thusly:
His nine symphonies are often deeply personal and show a more serious side to his work, which has proved more controversial.
Controversy might be a little extreme, but the symphonies are more serious pieces, but I find this completely suitable since the symphony is also a more serious form. Folks looking to hear something akin to his ‘light music’ will be disappointed, but I feel like this is where we might be hearing the real composer. I listened to a lot of his symphonies to try to decide on which to feature here, and had considered the second, fourth, fifth, even eighth, but ultimately decided the first was as good a place to start as any.
It was composed in 1949 and premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 1951, under the composer’s baton, with the Hallé Orchestra. As you will know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, I’m a sucker for motifs, cyclical structures, and all that kind of thing in music. The piece opens with intervals and a rhythmic figure that are central to the first movement, even a little bit repetitive. Naxos program notes, found here, tell us that:
The first movement draws much of its substance from the opening unison, particularly from the interval of a rising second and the figure of a third that occur in the first phrase.
Even just a few seconds into this work, we have those intervals and that rhythmic shape seared into our brains, and the music gets serious quickly. The utterances of low brass, side drum, and timpani give this first theme an ominous nature. We are, without introduction or warm-up, thrown into the maelstrom of Arnold’s first symphonic world, and it powers forth with driving energy until strings finally soften the hard edge of the movement down to something sweeter, and this transition is a genius one, not sudden, but also unmistakable. It’s certainly softer, but not carefree, it too bringing with it a cloud of mystery. Woodwinds and muted strings take the fore here, and this is what we have to work with in the development.
The second theme gives us some more exposed passages from individual instruments, like clarinet, for example, and flute, more transparent passages, but we can already hear how they’ll clash in the central part of this movement. There’s a perfect balance here with the two themes. They’re very different in character, but not so different that they completely repel each other. There is a long, placid passage in the development, the most tender passages of the movement, with muted strings and harp, but wait to see how the menacing first theme reappears.
The first movement shows Arnold’s Brahmsian economy of themes to create such an arresting first movement. From such straightforward themes comes a first movement with a strong symphonic argument. Light music this is not, but that’s not what I look for in a symphony, and by the end of the first (and longest) movement, we’re hearing that soft second subject with a tumultuous militaristic accompaniment behind it, a captivating juxtaposition that makes for unrelenting tension, and we end on an especially violent gesture.
Naxos says of the second movement:
The slow movement, Andantino, provides a necessary contrast in its gentle and meditative lyricism, although there are interruptions from the brass and percussion, momentarily shattering the calm.
It certainly helps to soften the blow that the first movement gave us, but if there was any doubt about Arnold’s ability to craft equally compelling lyrical themes and stick with them, it is dispelled here. It’s not all puffy clouds and green pastures though, because the brass interject every once in a while, disruptively calling out those signature intervals from the first movement, and strings follow their lead in an almost ghost-like moan, and this interruption develops contagiously, but is never really able to take over entirely, and despite a few dagger-like stabs, the peacefulness prevails, giving us at once a placid and tumultuous movement with a connection to the first.
The finale explodes with a fanfare-like burst and an instant torrent of contrapuntal movement. It’s unrelenting, like whirring gears of a well-oiled machine, the lines and figures jumping around the ensemble in a chirpy yet harrowing call-and-answer. It’s a fugue, but not entirely conventional. The theme of this work reappears persistently in the same way that the theme(s) of the first movement did.
The one sudden shocking difference stands out here, what the Naxos notes refer to as “the Mahlerian transformation of the subject itself into a popular march, played by the piccolos.” Does it remind you of the march passage of the first movement of Mahler’s third, out of nowhere but still somehow fitting? It’s almost comical in its lightness compared to the fiery fugal context in which it sits, but it isn’t really any respite, because, as Naxos says, “This lapse from the high seriousness of a symphony is repaired by the solemnity of the final metamorphosis of the theme, over a bass figure provided by double basses, timpani and tuba.”
A broad spacious passage takes over this nearly banal march section, and you might think we’re in the clear now, having triumphed, or overcome, or survived, but spoiler alert: it’s not that optimistic. The composer has one final card up his sleeve, and it’s the dagger through the heart, giving us hope here and there that this work would end triumphantly, but alas, that is shattered by the final gesture of this symphony. Or is it?
Arnold’s first symphony may not contain the depth and maturity that makes you question your existence or drop your jaw in awe at what you’ve experienced, but it is after all only his first symphony, and he shows an outstanding grasp of symphonic form, development, and the construction of something that keeps listeners listening. It might not be one of the greatest symphonies ever written, but as a first symphony, it makes a good argument for hearing the other eight Arnold wrote, and the prospect of those remaining works being of even higher quality than this excites me.
We have only one more symphony left to enjoy in our series here, and it was the one that really got me excited to prepare this series, which turned into much more music than I’d anticipated, but it’s all here for posterity if you didn’t get around to hearing it all when it was posted. Stay tuned for the last few pieces in this monstrous series, and for something completely different next week. Thanks for reading.