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The Fourth Symphony

The conductor John Gibbons discusses Arnold’s Symphonic status with particular reference to the Fourth Symphony - a work he will be conducting in two concerts this October, including the gala evening at this year's 'Malcolm Arnold Festival' in Northampton

‘The nine symphonies of Malcolm Arnold are an extraordinary series of works that display concise organic thinking coupled to a brilliant melodic dimension. Their very tunefulness was like a red rag to contemporary critics whose avant-garde leanings were at odds with both Malcolm and the general public. Tunes were the preserve of films and ‘light’ music and were perceived to be out of place in symphonic works.   In his ability to cross over musical boundaries, Malcolm draws comparison with Leonard Bernstein, whose serious works still struggle to gain full acceptance despite the enormous success of his popular works like West Side Story.

Malcolm, like one his of his heroes, Dmitri Shostakovich, wrote a great deal of light music and film music but regarded the symphony and the quartet as the peaks of musical form. It is interesting to contrast their reputations – Shostakovich the acknowledged symphonist but with a vast output of film and ‘light’ music hardly known in the West whilst whilst Malcolm acknowledged as a great composer of film scores and 'light' music but often misunderstood as a symphonist.

As I steadily conduct my way through the symphonies in chronological order (2009 is my year for No. 4) I am constantly amazed by the brilliance of the orchestration, the structural organization of the material and his sheer bloody-mindedness to do his own thing. It is clear that the years spent as a trumpeter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provided Malcolm with the perfect platform to learn about orchestration, in particular, the need to make all the parts relevant. Sitting amongst the orchestra he found “I intensely dislike” Wagner and “detest” playing the Elgar Symphonies - though he considered the Enigma Variations “his masterpiece”. The writer Donald Mitchell noted as early as 1955 that the fact Malcolm “has sat inside an orchestra is very evident from the natural feel of his instrumentation. Yet throughout his scores it is not only his intimate experience of the potentialities of an orchestra that is explicit, but also the judgment of an unusually discriminating and original ear. The pure sound of Arnold’s music is, to a degree, an expression of his exceptional musical practicality, practicality that is raised to a very high level of virtuosity…”. 

The influence of some of the composers he most admired can be seen in the symphonies. From Sibelius comes a number of musical devices such as bass pedal notes, swelling brass chords, ostinati and short snippets of melody that gradually expand into broad statements; Mahler surely is the inspiration behind the abrupt juxtaposition of unconnected material, in particular the various marches, both fast and funeral, whilst Malcolm claimed, in an article for Music & Musicians in July 1956, that the greatest musical influence on his life was Berlioz. His irregular phrase lengths, such as the long first idea in the Symphonie Fantastique, and opaque orchestration are clearly to he heard in all the symphonies. However, as a Symphonist Arnold believes himself to be rooted in the Germanic tradition. “I don’t see the symphony like Mahler, who said the whole world should be in it. A Symphony should be classical in form, like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms.” 

An analysis of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony allows us the opportunity to see how Malcolm bends the rules of sonata form to match his compositional ideals some of which he identified in the 1956 article:

“another point which is always in my mind is that of development. If one is really honest in listening to the music of all periods there are times when one's mind is inclined to wander. This will happen even when listening to accepted classical masterpieces, and to a greater extent when listening to contemporary works. To put it crudely, the mind wanders during the sections that occur in music between the recognisable themes - always assuming that the theme or themes have said something to the listener. Very, very roughly speaking, these parts of a composition are usually development sections; one cannot write a piece of music by just repeating one theme, unless it is a special effect one is after as in Ravel's Bolero. A composer has to compose something that contrasts and will show his original thought in a new light, and the play between these two or three or even more thoughts goes to make up a composition”.

I have for some time encouraged audiences at my orchestral concerts to consider listening to the development sections in classical sonata form as an area of ‘fun’ where the composer shows us innumerable different ways of casting new light on the motifs/tunes heard in the exposition section through their juxtaposition with each other and daring harmonic twists and turns. It’s a game where our expectations are constantly dashed by the composer’s inventiveness. Malcolm, to my mind, takes this a stage further by turning the whole movement into a zone of unexpectedness!

The main ideas in the first movement of Arnold’s Fourth Symphony (traditionally termed first and second subject) are lyrical (particularly the glorious second subject melody) and on each repetition undergo subtle changes: sometimes by orchestration, canonic treatment of the melody or the use of related countermelodies. These lyrical ideas are however thrown into sharp relief, even within the opening Exposition section, with Malcolm turning the transitional passages into sections that explode with life and energy as marimba, bongos and tom toms beat out their Caribbean rhythms. What is usually a passage that can drift between two ideas is now turned into a major contrasting idea. It reappears in expanded form towards the end of the development section with music closely reminiscent of Bernstein’s West Side Story and then reappears in the middle of the Recapitulation section to drive the movement to its climactic moment, marked by a strike of the tam tam. The tension is now dispelled with the reappearance of the second subject (now in the subdominant key of F major), a brief reappearance of the first subject with its intertwining countermelody and then a short coda which reprises the very opening of the movement.

Is this musical structure clear for the listener and does it hold one’s attention for the length of the movement? It is ultimately a question that only each individual can answer, hopefully after the chance to hear the work live in concert without the distractions of ordinary life. I hope you can all join us for the closing concert of the Malcolm Arnold Festival in the Derngate, Northampton on Sunday 25th October with the Fourth Symphony, Carnival of Animals, A Flourish for Orchestra, Op.112 as well as the young Russian violinist, Boris Brovtsyn playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.’

The Ealing Symphony Orchestra complete Malcolm Arnold symphony cycle reaches No. 4 on Saturday 10th October in St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, W5. Further details from  or the Hon. Secretary, Richard Partridge, on 020 8567 4075

John Gibbons, Conductor & Composer. MA (Cantab), FRCO, FRSA, Dip Ram



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