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Sheldon Bair and Sir Malcolm Arnold. Maryland, USA,  March 2000










Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony and the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra,
Bel Air, MD, USA


The Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra (SSO), an all volunteer, community orchestra in northeastern Maryland, has been rehearsing Sir Malcolm’s great 5th Symphony since the middle of January.  It is a wonderful and moving work, filled with great moments and long-breathed melodies.  The orchestra members really seem to enjoy playing the work, especially the woodwinds, brass, and percussion musicians.  Some of the strings would rather be playing Mozart or Tchaikovsky, but string players can be a cantankerous lot! J

The SSO has a history of performing the music of Arnold.  Sir Malcolm and Anthony Day visited us for ten days in the year 2000 for the US premiere of the Ninth Symphony (see photo).  We have also performed Arnold’s First Symphony (also the US premiere), several suites from his film scores, a number of overtures, and the Oboe Concerto. 

As with all of Malcolm’s orchestral music several points are readily apparent:

- Malcolm’s orchestration is of the highest quality and he stands with composers like Rimsky-Korsakov and Berlioz in this regard.  Malcolm’s orchestration makes working with an amateur orchestra easier than many composers’ work, particularly because the conductor and musicians don’t have to struggle to bring the proper lines to the fore.  Musicians call this ‘balance’ and when playing Arnold we don’t have to worry much about balance.  There are many composers whose music requires hours of work to make ‘sound’.

- Malcolm’s tunes are always a delight to work on and phrase.  The melodies of the 5th Symphony are wonderfully long and full of many emotions. 

- Certain Arnold-isms are apparent throughout, especially in his treatment of the horns.

- Malcolm’s writing is always succinct: he writes exactly what the work needs, no more, no less.

- The musicians seem to relish all of the glisses, especially the basses in the second movement!

- The continued use of tom-toms and bongos from Symphony No. 4 is notable.

Other items are not so normal for Arnold like the use, sometimes in canon, of the celesta and harp (often along with the orchestral bells).  What was Malcolm’s reason for using these instruments together?  Are they angelic meditations for those recently departed friends that the first movement in particular seems to be about?
The first movement is the longest and, to the casual listener and amateur musician at least, the most disjointed and the most difficult to grasp formally.   It has taken the most of our rehearsal time to date.  In some ways it is like chamber music (a pre-curser of compositions to come?) with only a few instruments or sections playing at any one time.

The second movement, by contrast, is quite easy to listen to and to play, and contains two of Malcolm’s most beautiful melodies.

We find the third movement to be quite fun, though it is rhythmically challenging.  We love the little film-like music section, which seems to me to be reminiscent of a tune from Whistle Down the Wind.

The finale is really the crux of the piece, bringing back tunes from the first and second movements.  The build up to the reprise of the 2nd movement’s main theme and the subsequent tune, orchestrated in full-blown brilliance, is full of hope, but the devastating, short coda of the symphony, culminating in the surprising and emotionally draining E Minor conclusion, is quite desolate.  It will be interesting to see what our audience makes of this coda! 

Our concert is March 9th.  The full Be-Knighted program is as follows:

Harty – Londonderry Air
Arnold – Symphony No. 5
Walton – Touch Her Soft Lips and Part from “Henry V”
Elgar – Cello Concerto

Please see for more information.  What is the next Arnold we are planning to program you might ask?  The 2nd Horn Concerto and then perhaps another Symphony (maybe No. 3 or No. 7) are on the short list.  Believe it or not, we have yet to play any of the dances.  We must program at least the Scottish Dances and the dances from Solitaire!

Finally, I very much like what our 2nd clarinetist wrote in response to the attached photo of Sir Malcolm and me after I posted it on the Internet:

“This is great. And thank you, Sheldon, for having us play his symphony this season! I LOVE it and am now completely obsessed with listening to his music.”

c. Sheldon Bair
February 23, 2013



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