You are here:   Classical Music > The Light And The Dark

Other than the apparently dated nature of their form and content, the symphonies have also attracted criticism for their outrageous habit of, in most of them, marrying up the clichéd or banal with the deeply felt. This to me seems to be part of Arnold’s genius as a symphonist, writing at a time when culture was being cheapened all around him and, more significantly, classical music was being removed from a place in that culture where (as in the days of Vaughan Williams and Elgar) it could be readily accessed by people curious about music but who were not yet musical specialists. Arnold does match moments of almost painful introspection with what one can only imagine is drink-induced mischief, but that was probably his way of dealing with a world with which he felt less and less comfortable as he matured as a composer. The Fifth Symphony of 1961, which was partly inspired by the tragically early death a few years earlier of his friend Dennis Brain, contains such moments of deep sadness, loss and reflection: but it is also obviously a symphony written by the same man who supplied the theme and incidental music for the St Trinian’s films. To my mind the Fifth is Arnold’s masterpiece, not merely his best symphony but the finest of all his works. It is almost an outrage that it is not more regularly given public performances, particularly in London: perhaps this will change when the Official Period of Neglect is deemed to have come to an end.

Yet all the symphonies — whether the relatively uncynical early ones, or the Ninth, shot through with despair and resignation — all contain something of beauty and of wonder. They are not Beethoven or Schubert, but they are the works of a composer who had his own inner world that mainly troubled, but occasionally delighted him, and which he had the facility to represent powerfully to everyone else. They are a conspicuous achievement, and the Chandos cycle showcases them in all their considerable glory. I would wager that anyone coming to them who is unfamiliar with Arnold — other than, perhaps, his film music — will find them somewhat addictive listening, and discover a composer of range, intelligence, sensitivity and, undeniably, novelty. And I should be surprised if such a listener did not feel compelled to go and investigate the other great works of this regrettably underestimated man — such as his English, Scottish and Cornish Dances, his Quintet For Brass, his Trumpet and Guitar concerti and, indeed, the film music, much of which Rumon Gamba has also recorded for Chandos. In all the works one finds not just a man with a vivid and playful imagination, but one of enormous compositional talent: no wonder the critics are suspicious of him.

Perhaps this issue of the symphonies will provoke the Arnold revival. England needs to claim him more volubly, and embrace him more enthusiastically, because such fervour is what his music seems to demand. He may well have been a distasteful man personally — he wasn’t the only such musician — but we need to realise that he was one of 20th-century Britain’s truly great composers.

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.