Arnold (1921-) - Symphony No. 4
1960 Arnold enjoyed success, and suffered the stress of success, on both
counts having such a “hell of a time” that we might expect a new symphony
to rake the skin off our emotional knuckles. But, far from plumbing new
depths of the human psyche, in the Fourth he just plumbs new depths
- enter Politics, stage left! Unusually, Arnold justified this work: “[It]
was the year of the Notting Hill race riots, and I was appalled that such
a thing could happen in this country. [That] racial ideas have become increasingly
strong . . . dismays me even more . . . I have used . . . West Indian
and African percussion . . . in the hope . . . that it sounds well and
. . . that it might help to spread the idea of racial integration. This
. . . is only a small part of the work, and is only useful for me to know
as a composer”. Naughty! He could have played this down more effectively
by simply saying nothing - by spilling some beans, he's planted a non-musical
association that's impossible to ignore.
were unmoved, many brutally panning the symphony as tasteless, trivial
and vulgar (recently it was called “the most banal symphony ever”). Arnold,
you see, had transcended mere Afro-Caribbean percussion “effects”, stirring
in a hatful of “popular” elements, from “Come Dancing” to madcap marching
via romantic ballads and “modern” jazz . There're even occasional echoes
of a (then) newly successful musical dealing with similar matters: West
Side Story. Hugo Cole reckoned that Arnold “was surely aware [of] addressing
a far larger audience of radio listeners with little experience of 'serious'
concert music, and seized the opportunity to include explicitly popular
elements”. Interesting idea, but I doubt it. Broadcast audiences, just
as much as concert audiences, listen by choice. Even had that radio audience
been entirely “learners”, would Arnold have wanted to “dumb down” for those
who were, presumably, busily doing their damnedest to "un-dumb up"? My
guess is this: compare that declaration of racial solidarity with his opposition
to the musical Establishment's attitude. Clinging to ridiculously outmoded
concepts like “music must stimulate its audience”, in musical politics
Arnold was way Left of Total Serialism's extreme Right. Was he enlarging
that explicit racial theme to encompass musical prejudice, using
popular allusions as Shostakovich-style “codes”?
then, Mahler's symphonies were similarly condemned. Now, most folk are
reconciled with Mahler's idiom, perhaps because Mahler's “popular” sounds
were already “old hat”, their impact on our musical taste-buds diluted
by time. If so, then why, over forty years on and illuminated by
the Mahler experience, do people (especially the dictators of what “deserves”
our attention) still have a problem with Arnold's Fourth? Is it
really tasteless and trivial, or is it “good” music which uses tasteless
or trivial materials? Well, let's see. For those who want to dig down a
little, I've appended a short argument to the summary of each movement's
Allegro - Poco piu mosso - Tempo primo
prelude introduces the Afro-Caribbean percussion (marimbas, bongos, tom-toms
- let's call them ACP for short), with which the first subject [A], meandering
but aggressively inclined, eventually locks horns. The second subject [B],
which seems to “walk in off the street”, is a catchy “Come Dancing” refrain.
The development section resumes the conflict between [A] and ACP. Woodwind
apparently recapitulate [A], but then development resurges! Soon, very
quietly, [B] resurfaces. Development again resumes, belligerently! The
tamtam scatters the factions, and soon [B] recapitulates. [A] just drifts
off . . .
the ACP behave like a counter-subject, battling with [A], while the unexpected
(and unexpectedly charming) [B] is an apparently uninvolved fluffy
candy-floss, and hence generally dismissed as “gratuitous” by commentators.
Not this one. If you listen carefully, under [A]'s apparent recapitulation
you can just feel [B]'s rhythm, which gradually emerges. But, when it finally
“speaks”, it can change only its tone, not its tune, lacking the
necessary “authority” to influence events. If this were Romeo and Juliet,
[B] could be Friar Lawrence! Far from being merely “gratuitous”, this use
of a shallow confection is crucial to the music's reflection of the failure
to mitigate inter-racial (or musical) disharmony.
Vivace ma non troppo
in ethereal colours, oozing nocturnal luminosity, and evading our grasp
like a piece of wet soap, this fleet and fragmentary movement winds up
to a slightly tipsy trio tune, following which it unwinds much as it wound
- until decapitated by an emphatic bang!
first hearing this seems so diffuse, especially after all that hard-edged
drama. Soon, though, an ABA outline emerges. The trio, a binary form, feels
odd, and that feeling lingers. Well it might: the movement turns out to
be palindromic. While there's nothing new about musical palindromes, we
nevertheless must admire Arnold's ingenuity, firstly in wedding a purely
academic exercise to some evocative mood-painting, and secondly in harnessing
that academicism, which demands absolute adherence to its rules,
to occupy the antipodes of “triviality”, a striking - and timely
- reminder of his wholly serious intent.
subject is like one of those once-popular drop-dead gorgeous romantic ballad
tunes. The second subject is a drop-dead gorgeous ballad tune (we
even, eventually, get to feel the breeze in our hair!). Sharing the
same tempo, a third subject [X], entering on 'cellos, is otherwise completely
different: a chromatically-inflected waltz. The movement is ostensibly
a romantic set of decorative variations, whose tunes remain as unchanged
in outline as the first movement's confectionary second subject.
it's not obvious, the uses of these subjects carve out an amazingly intricate,
interlocked pattern. There's an overall arch form acting as the foundation
of an imposing edifice, the first layer of which incorporates binary, ternary
and rondo forms, bound by a second layer which is sonata-like, having an
element of “reprise”. [X] looks like a third subject, dutifully fitting
into this scheme. But “dutiful” is the last word I'd use to describe [X].
This extraordinary effusion forms another layer, a slinking, sleazy waltz
such as might be danced in some backstreet bar in Bilbao by a less-than-ladylike
woman (who, me? No! I'm only guessing, really!). With five
increasingly erotic costume changes, [X] pierces through the movement like
the spike through a kebab. There's an uncanny similarity to the “seduction”
number in Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, but Arnold's lascivious
largo is no mere “number”, it's the lynch-pin of a symphonic argument.
Con fuoco - Alla marcia - Tempo primo - Maestoso - Allegro molto
subject [A] is an abrupt fugue, lashing and flashing until quenched by
the liquid second subject [B]. A rondo-variations unfolds, convincing us
that after [A] (variation 2), [B] (variation 2) is inevitable.
So, precisely here and with consummate timing, Arnold unleashes a devastating
bombshell, his “mad march”! The subsequent coda finds [A] torn between
triumph and torture.
the first movement's “confection”, and just like that famous “piece of
torn bus-ticket” in Bartók's Fifth Quartet, the march really
an intruder,. But what, shocking our delicate sensibilities apart, was
Arnold up to? Well, just before this outburst, the fugue is tried out by
the ACP. Whereas, in the first movement, the ACP copped it for being
“different”, here, for trying to conform, it gets hammered by the “riot
police”! Is this that “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” logic beloved
of bigots? Maybe, but there's another possibility. Apparently, copyright
scuppered Arnold's intention to quote Alexander's Ragtime Band,
costing him a potential Shostakovichian “code”. Now, recall that similarly
riotous march in Mahler's Third, “portraying” the joyous but unruly
teeming of Primitive Life. In this light, the march could well portend
the Notting Hill Carnival! Whichever, the ensuing confusion of ecstasy
and anguish sounds a dire warning.
mind, the arguments I've summarised, and the many others I've not even
mentioned, all add up to an inspired and inspiring (as well as a hugely
enjoyable) symphonic masterpiece. But then again, I'm probably just prejudiced.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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