Arnold (1921-) - Fantasy on a Theme of John Field,
for Piano & Orchestra
has evolved through three distinct stages. It first flowered in the Baroque
as the Concerto Grosso, wherein a selected solo group alternately
emerges from and blends into the general texture (a practice still alive
and well in the modern Jazz Band). By Classical times a soloist was standing
apart from, but still intimately related to, the orchestra. Finally came
the Romantic view of the Concerto (especially the Piano Concerto, as pianos
became more powerful), with soloist and orchestra locked in combat, natural
enough when the trend was to the ever more dramatic and spectacular.
written in 1975, is indeed a Piano Concerto - to be sure, the composer
tells us so. The Romantic form is of particular significance, the dramatic
device of conflict being turned to a particular, and personal, purpose.
Superficially, it might appear to be simply a typically colourful Variations,
brilliantly crafted, on the theme of John Field's Nocturne in C,
into which are woven musical allusions to Dublin, London, St. Petersburg
and Naples, John Field's four principal homes, cities Arnold also knows
and loves. Equally, Arnold's then residence in Field's native Ireland might
have prompted his choice of theme.
but it is more significant that Arnold was fondly recalling learning the
lovely B flat Nocturne as a child. The Fantasy emerged after
what was otherwise a barren year, when he was on the downward slide towards
nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. In such situations, it is common
enough to seek solace in childhood memories. So, had he turned the Romantic
Concerto to therapeutic use, trying to work out his troubles through the
commentator discerns a battle between "Me" (the piano) and "My Troubles"
(the orchestra), with the Field Theme's association with childhood innocence
standing for "sanity". This holds for the first two of the fourteen sections:
in the Introduction, we find piano and orchestra both drifting in a ghostly,
march-like limbo from which hints finally coalesce into the fluid 3/4 of
the Field Theme, dangled temptingly by the woodwind. Eagerly, the piano
grasps its salvation - and promptly gets ambushed by a venomous full orchestra!
Thereafter, though, the relationship becomes less clear-cut. Sometimes
they experience "lucid periods" of harmonious co-existence, but, in an
uncannily accurate analogue of real psychosis, mania can arise from both
within and without, moods lurching alarmingly in mid-sentence (at one point,
does the piano allude to a waltz from Dohnanyi's Variations on a Nursery
Tune?). Come the cadenza (the penultimate section), the piano takes
stock of its experiences, before sweeping off decisively into the sunshine,
where the Theme is belted out in a climax that Tchaikovsky would have been
proud of. Problem over? So it seems - but then the crash to the line lurches
alarmingly into a querulous: "Is it ever?"
not for the faithful support of such as Sir Charles Groves, it was possible
that Arnold's wonderful music might have sunk without trace. The emergent
recognition of the exceptional quality and originality of his music is
small compensation for many years in the wilderness. Many thanks Sir Malcolm,
for all the music!
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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