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Views And Reviews: Malcolm Arnold - Symphony No. 2

Paul Serotsky introduces Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No. 2, a work “worthy in every respect to be ranked alongside the best. It is full of technical subtlety for the cerebral listener, and yet (no mean feat, this) is not afraid to entertain the public at large.’’

This introduction was part of the programme notes for a concert by Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra.

For more Paul’s perceptive articles on classical music please click on Views And Reviews in the menu on this page.

Arnold (1921-2006) Symphony No. 2

The snobbishness of the elitists was, with Malcolm Arnold, not limited to his Second Symphony, but generously extended to his entire output. Fortunately, he is lately gaining some recognition, but for too long his "problem" was that he wrote nice tunes in an age when tunes (except those to facilitate respiration) were well and truly "out".

Worse, he also wrote music for films – the Establishment was definitely not amused: anyone who writes tunes and film music cannot possibly have any real substance (and yet the St. Trinians "Flash 'arry" soundbite, to cite just one example, is a small stroke of pure genius). What amazes (and amuses) me is that Shostakovich was not similarly condemned. After all, he committed the same crimes. But then, I suppose, it was alright because he was foreign.

The symphony was written to a commission from the Bournemouth Winter Gardens Society, completed in 1953, and premiered by its dedicatees, the then Mr. Charles Groves and the then Municipal Orchestra, in May of that year. As an orchestral player himself, Arnold had studied the reactions of both musicians and audiences, and consciously set about crafting music that would be gratifying to play as well as to hear – which point will surely not be lost on the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra.

As it happens, the parallel with Shostakovich goes deeper. In both, a carefree surface often conceals a dark and dangerous undercurrent, which can rise to conflict with the superficial jollity, or simply "blow it away". Arnold is something of an "English Shostakovich", as exemplified, I think, by the Second Symphony. This is a symphony suffering psychoses – a distant relation perhaps of the Symphonie Fantastique?

The 1st. movement (allegretto) sets out with a characteristically genial, mildly cheerful tune which soon begins to suffer disfiguring waves of anxiety, even the odd fit.

The 2nd. movement (vivace) dances happily, but rapidly develops schizoid tendencies with sudden, violent bursts of anger, and obsessive chattering.

In a film the 3rd. movement (lento) might well have been used to underpin some scene of a “post-nuclear holocaust desert”, but here the landscape is that of the hopeless mind of a depressive.

The 4th. movement (allegro con brio) is a nightmare, a succession of surreal images that might be comical were they not so fearful. The real shock comes at the end: a colossal, grinding crisis suddenly dissolves into catharsis, a brief, unexpected awakening. So, it was really only a "Dream of a Psycho-Sabbat" after all – phew, what a relief...

This is a symphony worthy in every respect to be ranked alongside the best. It is full of technical subtlety for the cerebral listener, and yet (no mean feat, this) is not afraid to entertain the public at large. As was said on the way to the Forum, "Something for everyone, a Comedy tonight!", an apt quote for a man who sees music as "a social act of communication among people", had no time for purveyors of ivory tower elitism, and had the courage to stick to his principles while they ruled the roost and committed him to the sidelines. Tonight you have a golden opportunity to rise and shout "Viva, Malcolm Arnold!"

© Paul Serotsky


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