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Arnold (1921-) - Symphony No. 4

Around 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. 

The critics 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”? 

About 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 action: 

1. Allegro - Poco piu mosso - Tempo primo

A brief 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 . . . 

Curiously, 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. 

2. Vivace ma non troppo

Dressed 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

On 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. 

3. Andantino

The first 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. 

Although 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. “Decorative variations”? 

4. Con fuoco - Alla marcia - Tempo primo - Maestoso - Allegro molto

The first 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. 

Unlike the first movement's “confection”, and just like that famous “piece of torn bus-ticket” in Bartók's Fifth Quartet, the march really is 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. 

To my 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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