Spring Symphonies: 33/60 - Arnold: Symphony No 6

Malcolm Arnold's music has a patchy reputation and understanding.  His film scores were famous and delighted many in the 50s and 60s and his wide ranging musical skills were applied to chamber music, ensemble and orchestral music.  His orchestrated sets of Dances have delighted us for years but his symphonies are still not well known.  There's plenty to explore within each genre but the symphonies are really only available in recordings it's been ages since I saw one on a concert programme.  There are various sets available but for this symphony - and in the absence of his set recorded for Conifer - an LPO release by Vernon Handley of a live performance in 2000 does the job.

Arnold left us with some notes which accompany the score and these are to be found on his publishers website here http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/symphony-no-6-700

Malcolm Arnold wrote 9 symphonies - I think its fair to say that they became progressively darker  as he aged and depression became more of a pre-occupation for him.  He was born in 1921 in Northampton and died in 2006.  The man responsible for that eminently whistlable tune from "Bridge Over the River Kwai" and the mischievous impish humour of the St Trinian's films was frank y not a nice bloke.  But his music has a style and as we like in this series a style.  This symphony was premiered with the composer conducting the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1968 in Sheffield City Hall.

The work opens in a smoky haze of strings, high winds in jazz mode, brass punctuation abounds - one wonders what the burgers of Sheffield made of it.  The thing about Arnold is that he very rarely leaves the listener uncertain.  In his time I think that may have counted against him but in many ways this is now put to one side as we unpick music for it's colour and other qualities.  The movement here is steady and well underline step tribute to Charlie Parker's jazz that Arnold was making overt. But this music is also tightly symphonic - it's effects may be borrowed and it's material conservatiive but it shares a form with great works and it's composer know more about drama than most.  The music rises through a series of crescendi to a darker place, all underlined with the tremendous pizzicati bass line.  There are some sublime harmonic moments - such as the chord about two minutes which is repeated with added intensity, flavoured with precision and heady reminiscence.  The movement ends where it began - without fuss.  All the drama here is subtle and internalised and not much of it is structural - two more charges that might be laid at Arnold's door.  But unlikely much ease that was written in the classical field in 1967 - it is immediate, catchy, well balanced and uncomplicated.

The so called funeral music is a threnody to a pop genre that I have to confess I can't quite place in the pantheon.  I will claim I'm too young if pressed...

The marking is Lento - Allegretto - Lento and the sorrowful combination of strings and trumpet is certainly transfixing.  The march that develops which is propelled by some of the same material but presented in different ways.  I'd not demur from those who would say that this is typical of some film music of the times and it carries all of the atmosphere of a film noir score.  As a drum set comes in the whole tones changes and we are in more animated territory.  It has a superficiality about it and that is perhaps where the composer was suggesting that a genre was on it's way to the gallows.  The second slow section is much more marshall - perhaps no less hackneyed than the middle section.  It has a mood not dissimilar to some of John Barry's Bond scores.  But it is aimless until on a piercing chord that just gets loud it abruptly cuts off.  It is a movement not of form but of flavour and whilst our expectations may be of something higher or more complex, this is as simple as anything Haydn wrote and no less entertaining for its lack of complication.

The final movement marked "Con Fuoco" is indeed warmer.  It begins with a galloping rhythm behind a trumpet solo the composer himself would no doubt enjoyed playing. And in standard Rondo form is followed by an episode and a repeat another episode and a final repeat.  It's tell that Arnold notes some of the effect here is put in for his pleasure, not necessarily ours.  There's may magical effects in the movement which remind us of the rest of Arnold's output.

You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-RAXEKVZz8


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