I am convinced that
one of the major problems in approaching
Arnold Cooke’s music is the presumption
that it owes virtually everything to
Paul Hindemith. At least this seems
to be the prevailing view amongst the
few music critics that I have read.
Most listeners will acknowledge Hindemith
as a well-known composer and teacher,
yet I guess he is not universally popular
beyond Germany. There is a thinking
abroad that somehow Cooke sold-out on
his Britishness to become a kind of
Germanic clone. On the other hand there
is a prevalent expectation that an English
composer should write music in a recognisably
nationalistic style: perhaps making
use of folk tunes or nodding to the
vocal lines of Tallis or the romanticism
of Elgar. Yet this assumption would
destroy the reputation of a number of
fine British composers. Think of Lennox
Berkeley and his French connection,
or Vaughan Williams’s valuable lessons
with Maurice Ravel. And what about the
Frankfurt Group including Balfour Gardiner
and Cyril Scott? All these composers
have absorbed teaching from French or
German composers yet have retained to
a greater or lesser degree a sense of
Englishness. So it is with Cooke.
Arnold Cooke was Paul
Hindemith’s only English pupil, and
it is fair to say that he learnt much
from his teacher. Malcolm MacDonald
sums this up in the programme notes
to this CD. He writes that what Cooke
"really imbibed was a broad framework
of technique and a sense of direction:
a view of music as a living polyphonic
entity and a feeling for individual
instruments that goes back to the practice
of J.S. Bach." As Havergal Brian
wrote in 1936, Cooke "appears to
think and breathe contrapuntally … and
he has tradition in his bones: his working
principles are nearer to the Elizabethans
and Bach than to Wagner and Strauss."
And note here Brian's reference to the
Finally, Arnold Cooke
had a deep love for English literature.
Although he did not set a great deal
of texts, those that he did set suggest
a fine response to poetry and a sensitive
ear for "choral sonority".
This is not the place
to write even a short biography or musical
study of Arnold Cooke. There is plenty
of information available on MusicWeb
and a fine booklet written by Eric Wetherell
and published by the BMS that may still
be purchased from that Society.
The Concerto in
D for String Orchestra was commissioned
by the South American division of the
BBC and was played on that radio service
in 1948. However the first concert performance
was at Malvern some three years later.
The programme notes suggest that it
has little in common with contemporary
essays – for example Ireland’s Concertino
Pastorale and Tippett’s Double
Concerto. There is certainly little
here that suggests the English landscape
or the musings of rustics on a summer’s
day. However this misses the point.
MacDonald suggests Bartók and
Stravinsky as possible models, and I
can see his point. Yet, I was forcefully
reminded of Lennox Berkeley. Maybe we
can both agree on the writer’s allusion
to RVW’s Concerto Accademico?
The title of ‘concerto’
may be a little misleading. It is not
a solo concerto and neither is it really
a concerto grosso. The solo instruments
emerge "briefly for textural and
colouristic effect". The opening
movement is full of energy and movement.
The second, an ‘Andante sostenuto’ is
the heart of the work. This is described
as an elegy and is worthy of the title:
deep music that tugs at the heart-strings.
Yet it is never sentimental. How this
treasure can have lain hidden all these
years is a mystery to me. This, to my
ear is one of the great utterances of
English music. The last movement once
again reminds me of Sir Lennox. It is
a cheerful counterbalance to the deep
thoughts of the ‘Andante.’ Here, if
anywhere, with the ‘jig’ and the ‘pastoral
lyricism’ we feel that Cooke approaches
an ‘Englishness’ that is somewhat removed
The First Symphony
was composed in 1947, when Cooke was
41 years old. As a work it is hard to
discuss, the reason being that I have
never heard it before and I have not
had the opportunity of hearing the following
five! In addition a ‘first’ symphony
may be typical or atypical of the composer’s
subsequent output. Yet if we consider
this work as a stand-alone composition
it will be seen on first impressions
to be a worthy addition to the catalogue
of 20th Century British Symphonists.
Time, repeated hearing and critical
reception of this CD will tell if it
is to be regarded as ‘great’. However,
the general opinion of the critics seems
to be that this work represents the
first major statement of Cooke’s fully
developed style – a style that was to
change comparatively little over the
next half century.
There are a number
of possible models for this work including
Hindemith’s Symphony in E from
1940. The British exemplars of that
time would have been Walton’s B minor
and Vaughan Williams’ 4 and 5. However
it is fair to say that Cooke neither
parodies nor cribs from any of these
works. What he has written is original
and quite personal.
There are four movements
with the first being the longest. Interestingly
the classical model is altered, with
the scherzo coming second. It seems
pointless in giving a full analysis
of the work as this is well done in
Malcolm MacDonald’s sleeve-notes.
The general mood of
the Symphony as a strong and
robust work is immediately apparent
in the opening movement. This is in
a reasonably traditional sonata form.
Yet interestingly, the tempo does not
slow up for the second subject. There
is some fine brass writing, particularly
for the French horns. A good balance
is maintained between what may be deemed
‘aggressive’ and ‘lyrical’ music.
The second movement
is not really a proper Scherzo.
The classicist would tell us that the
‘trio’ is missing. The impression is
of activity: the momentum never seems
to stop. It is not quicksilver - more
of a whirlwind. There is a swing and
a swagger to this movement that continues
unabated to the very last bar.
The heart of this work
is the elegiac slow movement. This is
deeply considered music, timeless and
beholden to no man. Here we find music
that may nod, according to MacDonald,
towards Bach or perhaps even the Elizabethan
viol school. However all this ‘source
criticism’ is small beer compared to
the overarching power of this expansive
and frankly sad music.
Fortunately the tension
is diminished during the finale. This
is an exuberant excursion into the world
of festivals and fanfares. Lots of different
themes and figures and episodes are
tossed around before the work concludes
with a fine coda.
Arnold Cooke was commissioned
by the Royal Ballet to write a work
for the 1961 season. Jabez and the
Devil is based on the American writer
Stephen Vincent Benet’s ‘The Devil &
Daniel Webster’. Jabez is a poor peasant
who makes a pact with the devil. As
in all these stories, wealth and fame
and fortune are short-lived. Jabez attempts
to outwit the devil by tearing up the
pact so as to avoid pay-back time. Of
course the devil is finally triumphant
and claims the soul of poor old Jabez.
Critically the ballet
was well received, with the writer Andrew
Porter declaring that this was the most
successful ballet since Benjamin Britten’s
The Prince of the Pagodas. No
The Suite’s Introduction
is truly spooky before being followed
by a rather vigorous ‘Dance of the
Devil’. It is as if Satan is looking
to make mischief. Soon we happen across
a village where the locals are making
merry. The Fiddle Polka is interrupted
when the Devil grabs the instrument
to ‘show them how it is really played’.
The Waltz is rather sinister
– it is certainly not romantic. This
is the moment when the Devil makes his
proposition to Jabez. A number of dances
follow revealing a group of demons in
their true colours: a Slow Dance
portrays Jabez’s wife and the villagers
mourning the loss of her husband to
the Devil. The Devil is driven away
from the hamlet in the novel Percussion
Dance - portraying the villagers
beating the pots and pans to scare away
the personification of evil. The finale
accompanies the apparent victory of
Jabez over his tempter; however this
is not the true end of the ballet. In
fact Cooke uses less than half of music
from the full ballet score – so the
suite does not really mirror the story.
But ‘nathless’ we are left in no doubt
about the moral of the tale. This is
fine music that well portrays the events
of this ballet. The suite Jabez and
the Devil is a great introduction
to Arnold Cooke’s orchestral works.
There is nothing complex or high-brow
about this music: it is a truly approachable
It is instructive to
have a brief look at Cooke’s representation
in the CD catalogues. Strangely his
most popular work would appear to be
his Nocturnes for soprano, horn
and piano. These are setting of poems
by such diverse poets as Shelley, Rosenberg
and D.H. Lawrence. Three recordings
of this work are available. One of these
is coupled with the setting of some
of William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’.
Recently the British
Music Society [BMS
342] has released a recording of
three important chamber works: the Second
Violin Sonata, the Viola Sonata
and the Second Cello Sonata.
This has been well received by critics.
Hyperion has been the most generous
record company to Cooke with three works
appearing on three separate releases.
These include the Sonata for Clarinet
and Piano [Hyperion CDA 22027] the
Concerto for Clarinet No.1 [Hyperion
CDA 55069] and the Quintet for Clarinet
and Strings [Helios CDH 55105].
It is interesting to note the preponderance
of clarinet works on this label!
Yet even the briefest
of glances at the composer’s opus list
reveals huge swathes of his output the
have been ignored by the record companies.
It would hardly be expected that his
large-scale opera Mary Barton
would be available; however his main
musical contribution of chamber music
and orchestral works is woefully represented.
It seems to me astounding that a British
composer with six symphonies to his
name should have only one of them available
on CD. It says much about how we as
a nation regard our composers.
As usual with Lyrita
the quality of the production is excellent.
One cannot fault the playing of the
LPO and their conductor Nicholas Braithwaite.
However it is only fair to say that
I - and most listeners - have nothing
to compare these recording with!
This CD is an important
addition to the musical repertoire of
English music. Cooke may not be in the
top five composers and I guess he will
never feature in Classic FM’s Top 100
works. Yet he is a major player
who has produced a catalogue of consistently
fine music that is well constructed
and convincingly scored. His musical
language is always accessible and provides
a balance between ‘Euro–music’ and a
The present recording
is a great start to what must surely
become a re-appraisal of Arnold Cooke’s
orchestral and symphonic music. In fact,
this is not so much a reappraisal but
an opportunity for the vast majority
of listeners to discover this composer’s
music for the first time.