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Arnold (1921-) - Symphony No. 5

How on earth could the self-appointed musical establishment have the arrogance to sideline Arnold? To answer that would necessitate inappropriate language on my part, so suffice it to say that, inadvertently, they may actually have done us a favour. For, while their ignorance drove him to despair and near self-destruction, he ever more stubbornly stuck to his guns. This kindled a chemistry producing intensely expressive music, of which (luckily) his unique wit remained an essential part. Consequently, Arnold has emerged as nothing less than a Mahler in our time and a Shostakovich in our country. 

Arnold believes that "Music is a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is". Implications proliferate: music is not for the composer's self-gratification, but involves performers and audience in a tripartite communion. Composers must  address their audiences in a comprehensible language: listeners may be stretched, but never broken. Music must be commensurately interesting and challenging to play. And, there must be something worth communicating. This statement underlines the whole purpose of music, which Arnold so clearly understands, but which the musical "proletkult" seem to have ignored. Having enjoyed this symphony (as I'm sure you will), try asking the players if they did. 

The Fifth Symphony (he cannily retired at nine!) was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival Society for the 1961 Festival of British Contemporary Music, and completed in May 1960, well ahead of schedule (old film music habits die hard, perhaps?). Arnold cited his reason for featuring certain solo instruments: "Without wishing to sound morbid, [it] is filled with memories of friends . . . who all died young. Jack Thurston [clarinettist], Dennis Brain [horn player], David Paltenghi [danseur/choreographer], and Gerard Hoffnung [tuba player] . . . The references to each are fairly obvious in the first movement". The succeeding movements run the entire emotional gamut of grieving. As many unfortunately but inevitably know, bereavement can play strange tricks: the stricken mind tends to wander in a garden of memories. Consolatory images, seeming real, bring smiles to ease the pain, until reality bursts the bubble and torment floods back in. Then there's the ultimate horror: the feeling of guilt. Arnold simply tells it like it is. 

Formally, the work is a tease. Aspects of the first movement's germinal material are elaborated in the remaining three movements, but not pervasively. You can, if you wish, safely ignore the formal pointers given below because the emotional narrative is what really drives this music. 

1. Tempestuoso: The initial five-note motif feeds a string of variations. Some ideas recur, though with no sense of any stabilising form, sonata or otherwise (well, none that I can detect - and I usually can). This is Arnold's "garden of memories": a meandering procession of fleeting visions illuminated by chimerical chamber-music scoring. Some are comforting, some disturbing, some wryly amusing ("Hoffnung" puffing away on his tuba near the end), and all likely to trigger anguish. 

2. Andante con moto: is a set of variations on two subjects. The first, on strings, is sentimental and utterly memorable, while the second emerges on woodwind (with a texture like clotted cream!). Both work on the most direct level: "In times of great emotion we speak in clichés" was Arnold's perception - a statement of fact, not excuse (this music needs none). Eventually the harmony turns sour. A shrill trill prefaces a dreadful climax: trombones droop balefully, like music for some blood-curdling monster movie (another, entirely apposite cliché). From the ensuing fractured stillness, "all passion spent", the first subject whispers a  poignant condolence. 

3. Con fuoco: This ostensibly straightforward scherzo and trio uses first movement materials, the main subject amplifying an episode redolent of the squawky "modern jazz" style.  Brass rip into the counter-subject, an angular fugato based on the symphony's motif, succeeded by a tom-tom tapping over wierd pedal chords like a buzzing in the brain. The first subject returns to complete the "ABA". Over string pedals and horn pulses, the trio slides in, one of those inimitable rolling romps, beset by discordant stabs of pain. The scherzo repeat is smashed in an impulsive fit of rage. Straightforward? No, not quite. 

4. Risoluto: The bulk of the finale is a rondo, whose ritornello comprises a fanfare from the first movement grinding into a cheerful "fife and drum" march. The jolly march, undermined by subversive harp and violas, grimly persists but is gradually consumed by demonic fires. A colossal crisis looms, brewing recollections from earlier movements, the most obvious of which (on account of their being telegraphed by the tamtam) are the climax of the second, and the germinal motif. Suddenly, the second movement's " cliché" floods the world with light, as if the gates of paradise were flung wide to reveal the beckoning dear departed. But a sickening harmonic sideways lurch slams the gate, leaving a hum of numb dismay.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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