Malcolm Arnold (b. 1921)
Symphony No.9, Op. 128
On Monday 20th January 1992, in Studio 7 at BBCManchester, the BBC Philharmonic gave the first performance of the SymphonyNo.9, Opus 128, by Sir Malcolm Arnold. The composer himself, aged seventyand not in the best of health, was present for the occasion. The new Symphonywas the sole work in the concert, and the conductor was Sir Charles Groves, along-time friend of Malcolm Arnold and champion of his music.
Shortly before that concert, Malcolm Arnold hadcelebrated his 70th birthday. He was born in 1921 in Northampton -birthplaceincidentally of Edmund Rubbra and William Alwyn, two other fine composers ofour century. There was music in his family, but nothing to indicate theprodigious talent that was soon to emerge. At the age of sixteen he won ascholarship to the Royal College of Music where he became a pupil of thelegendary trumpeter Ernest Hall, and since he had also shown a youthful benttowards composition, he pursued his composing studies with Gordon Jacob. Theravages of war meant that he was offered an orchestral post even before he hadgraduated. Arnold played with theLondon Philharmonic on and off until1948, when the award of the Mendelssohnscholarship meant he could finally devote himself full-time to what he now knewto be his true metier: composing.
It was a composer that Sir Malcolm has left anindelible mark. If most people think of his film scores -Bridge on the RiverKwai, Whistle Down the Wind, Hobson's Choice -there are literally a hundredothers as well- this is because he proved to have a natural flair for themedium, and seized his opportunities gratefully. In the Fifties and Sixties, hewas leading a double life, however, writing music of all sorts to commission,for friends, or even just for fun. With the exception of grand opera there wasno medium to which he did not contribute: concertos, ballets, chamber music,band pieces (brass and military), educational works, even a Nativity Masque.
And at the core of his output are nine superlative symphonies, each one highlyindividual, different from its predecessor. They are the heart of Arnold thecomposer and Arnold the man.
Arnold's Ninth Symphony had had a somewhat tortuoushistory, in which BBC Manchester played a not insignificant part. The idea of aManchester premiere went backto before the Eighth Symphony of 1979, when David Ellis, then Head ofMusic North, asked the composer (after he had conducted the orchestra at aconcert) if he would write his next symphony for them. Malcolm Arnold agreed,but explained that No.8 was already promised to a Foundation -and an orchestra-in the United States of America. David Ellis therefore arranged for the Ninth to becommissioned for European Music Year, 1985. Fate then intervened, in the formof the composer's breakdown and long period of ill-health. The symphony was notready in time: and London, seeing the deadline and an important occasion missed, withdrew thefunding.
The Ninth Symphony was eventuallycompleted, by then several years behind schedule, on 5th September 1986, at Wymondhamin Norfolk. Embarrassment thenensued, as first the BBC -where there had been a change of management, both in Manchester and in London -and Arnold's then publisher,Faber Music, took fright at the score, which was radically different from thecomposer's previous symphonies. The BBC's original commission was still notrenewed. Sir Charles Groves meanwhile conducted a run-through of the symphonyfor the composer's benefit in early 1988 in Greenwich, by the Orchestra ofthe National Centre for Orchestral Studies (now disbanded). Sir Charlesbelieved in the piece, and at his insistence efforts to secure a firstprofessional and public performance elsewhere continued, without success. Itwas not until the showing of a film about Malcolm Arnold in the 'Omnibus'series of BBC-1's, timed to co-incide with his seventieth birthday, that thetide began to turn. The film included Arnold conducting the closing pages of the symphony.
When Sir Malcolm Arnold came to Manchester to hear the Halle and BBCPhilharmonic Orchestras perform several of his earlier symphonies as part of anArnold- Haydn Celebration in November, 1991, in which Sir Charles conducted amemorable account of the Seventh, a happy combination of circumstancesled to the eventual unveiling of the new symphony on a very cold Manchesternight in January the following year: over five years having elapsed since itscompletion.
Ever since Beethoven, writing a Ninth Symphonyhas been for a composer something akin to climbing Mount Everest -thesummation of a lifetime's achievement. In addition there has come to besomething fatalistic about the very idea of a Ninth Symphony. To taketwo nearer examples, Bruckner died before he could complete what would havebeen the longest of his symphonies, while Mahler's Ninth was written in theshadow of his fatal illness. Shostakovich -much admired by Malcolm Arnold -wasso over-awed by the burden of this musical tradition that he deliberately stoodit on its head and wrote a lightweight piece. Arnold himself has admitted tobeing daunted by the weight of musical history; not surprising when we discoverthat it was written after a five-year period when the composer had, in his ownwords, "been through hell".
Malcolm Arnold's Ninth Symphony has fourmovements. First comes an Allegro in three time: a departure fromprevious models, in that it is not really dramatic, as in earlier Arnold symphonies. Ifanything it is rather naive in character, the themes being not so muchdeveloped as given a wide variety of different orchestral colourings. The onlyreal climax is saved for the end of the movement, where the tempo slows, whilepitch and dynamics increase almost to breaking point. One of the mostdisturbing features of the Ninth for performers and critics alike is theamount of straightforward (or sometimes not so straightforward) repetiton inthe symphony, and there is also much unison writing for the instruments. Thesecond movement is memorable: a gentle, pastoral-like Allegretto innine-eight time, with much of the writing in just two or three parts, and basedon a haunting melancholy tune that resembles a folk- like carol. The thirdmovement is a noisy two-four piece marked giubiloso and not unlike manyanother breezy Arnold scherzo, with much prominent and tricky writing for the wind,particularly the brass, and full of characteristic Arnold clashes and dissonances withina tonal context.
Itis with the finale that the balance of the whole Ninth Symphony changes.
It takes almost as long as the other three movements put together, and it isnot the usual Malcolm Arnold quick symphonic finale, but a huge Adagio slowmovement -just like the anguished adagio finale of Mahler's Ninth. Thecomposer himself, in an interview, did not deny the parallel. However, theemotional feel is different from Mahler, and is peculiar to Malcolm Arnold:there is for example none of Mahler's frenzy. Yet, almost throughout, themovement is bleak and intense, spare and grief-stricken; like a giganticfuneral march it forsakes dramatic contrasts for the sake of an unbrokencontinuity of atmosphere: until the final bars, that is, which form a