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Arnold (1921-) - Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, for Piano & Orchestra

The Concerto 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. 

Arnold's Fantasy, 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. 

Maybe, 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 music? 

One eminent 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?" 

Were it 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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