Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Four Cornish’ Dances Half-Centenary
by John France
Malcom Arnold’s ‘Four Cornish Dances’, op.91 celebrate the half-centenary of their first performance on 13 August 2016. Over a period of forty years the composer made a round-Britain tour with a series of this novel genre. The first attempt at this form is also the best-known: the ‘English Dances’, Set 1, op.27 which were composed in 1950. A second set, op.33, followed in 1951. Six year later the ‘Four Scottish Dances’, op.59 were first heard during a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. These have become nearly as popular as the ‘English Dances.’ The ‘Cornish Dances’ were followed by ‘Four Irish Dances’, op.126 written in 1986, ‘Four Welsh Dances’, op.138 were composed in 1989, and finally the last of the series although not officially ‘dances’, the ‘Manx Suite’ (Third Little Suite, op. 142) was commissioned for the Manx Youth Orchestra in 1990.
Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Four Cornish Dances’ was the only major concert work composed in 1966. Other pieces that year included the ‘Theme and Variation for orchestra’ which became a part of the composite Severn Bridge Variations written to commemorate the opening of the first Severn Bridge in 1966. Other composers who contributed variations to this work included Alun Hoddinott, Nicholas Maw, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams and Michael Tippett. Arnold wrote a song for unison voices and piano, ‘Jolly Old Friar’, to a text by the Billy Bunter author, Frank Richards. It was published in the 1966 edition of the Greyfriar’s School Annual. The film scores for The Heroes of Telemark, Sky West and Crooked, and Africa-Texas Style were completed.
The previous year had resulted in no major compositions apart from five fantasies for wind instruments which were commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for the Birmingham International Wind Competition in May 1966. These included the Fantasies for Bassoon, op.86, Clarinet, op.87, Horn, op.88, Flute, op.89 and Oboe, op.90. Arnold’s last major orchestral work had been the Sinfonietta [No.3], op.81, completed on 1 September 1964.
The popular ‘Cornish Dances’ were composed when Malcom Arnold was living with his second wife Isobel, in Primrose Cottage at St Merryn, near Padstow, Cornwall. Having recently escaped from a frantic London life, he entered into the spirit of brass bands and other local music making. He stated in an interview (cited Meredith & Harris, 2004) ‘I am now aggressively, chauvinistically Cornish.’
Arnold has described his time at St Merryn as being ‘happy but not idyllic – there is nothing idyllic about writing music and bringing up a family.’ It was during his years in Cornwall that his son, Edward, was diagnosed as being autistic. Major compositions written during Arnold’s residence at St Merryn included the Symphony No. 6, op.95 (1967), the Peterloo Overture, op.97 (1968) and the Concerto for two pianos (three hands) op.104 (1969).
Locally-inspired works featured A Salute to Thomas Merritt, op.98 (1967) for two brass bands and orchestra and the well-known Padstow Lifeboat for brass band, op.94 (1967). At this time Arnold had become involved with the Cornish Youth Band, the Cornwall Symphony Orchestra, the Cornwall Rural Music School and the East Cornwall Bach Festival. On a more relaxing note he was known in ‘most pubs from Tintagel to Bude.’
In recognition of Arnold’s contribution to local music he was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1969. In 1972 he left Cornwall and moved to a village near Dublin. The ‘Four Cornish Dances’ were completed on 26 May 1966 and were dedicated to Malcolm Arnold’s wife, Isobel.
First Performance & Publication of the Score
The ‘Four Cornish Dances’ were premiered during the Promenade Concert season in 1966. The concert given on Saturday 13 August included a wide range of music played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Arnold. Works included a Proms Premiere of the Overture, La cambiale di matrimonio by Rossini, Symphonic Dance, op.64, no.4 by Edvard Grieg and Georges Bizet’s L' Arlésienne: Suite No. 2. There were two major concerted works: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042, with Derek Collier, violin, and Manuel de Falla’s atmospheric Nights in the Gardens of Spain featuring Malcolm Binns. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4 in A major, ‘Italian’, op. 90 was also performed.
There appear to have been no reviews of this concert in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Musical Times, Daily Mail or the Manchester Guardian. However, Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris (2004) quote an appraisal from The Northampton Chronicle and Echo (15 August 1966):
‘One of the [Promenade Concert] season’s triumphs! The work received an ovation lasting several minutes during which the Prommers stamped their approval vociferously demanding an encore, which was unfortunately not forthcoming.’
Meredith and Harris (2004) also cite a letter from the music critic Donald Mitchell to the composer:
‘I really feel that anything I say about your Four Cornish Dances would be superfluous, after the ovation they received at the Albert Hall on Saturday night. What a glorious roar of approval! It almost wrecked our radio at Barcombe, but even had it done so we would have thought it a worthy sacrifice…They are a stunning set of dances…’ (15 August 1966).
The ‘Four Cornish Dances’ were subsequently heard at the Proms on 12 September 1981 and 30 August 2010.
The orchestral score was published in 1968 and did receive some critical comment in the musical press. The score is prefaced by a programme note written by the composer:
‘The Cornish people have a highly developed sense of humour. Many are sea-faring folk, and it is a land of male voice choirs, brass bands, Methodism, May Days, and Moody and Sankey hymns. The Cornish, despite, or even because of, their great sense of independence have been ruthlessly exploited. The deserted engine houses of the tin and copper mines bear silent witness to this, and these ruins radiate a strange and sad beauty. I hope some of these things are present in this music, which is Cornish through the eyes of a “furrener”. Malcolm Arnold
Reviewing the score Hugh Ottaway (Musical Times, July 1968) began by suggesting that the listener does not look for musical development in “a 10-minute work like the Four Cornish Dances.” Like other critics he sees them as “a kind of tone-picture, evoking the landscape and ethos of the county.” He concludes his comments by insisting that “some of the best pages of the ‘English Dances’ are brought to mind, especially in movements 2 and 4, and there are characteristic touches at every turn. Nothing more, nothing less.”
After reviewing the score of Alun Hoddinott’s Variants for orchestra (1966) ‘with his hard-edged, uncompromising thought [that] meets the listener but fractionally…’, E.R. (Edmund Rubbra) in Music & Letters (July 1968) considers that Malcolm Arnold:
…goes three-quarters of the way. What a contrast is afforded by the genial, ingratiating music of his set of Cornish Dances! Whether the ideas are boisterous, deliberately commonplace, impressionistic or dance-like, all are widened and deepened by diatonic insights and scoring that belong only to the intuitions of an instinctive musician…Both Hoddinott and Arnold add a much enlarged percussion section to the otherwise normal instrumental demands.
Musical Opinion (July 1968) is extremely rude about Cornwall – the critic answers Arnold’s ‘…a land of male-voice choirs, brass bands, Methodism, May Days…’ by suggesting this description is on safe ground –as he “wouldn’t really know, for one visit to Cornwall was enough…” He goes on to say:
‘…but my eyebrows rose when I read that in his [Arnold’s] opinion the deserted engine houses of the tin and copper mines bear silent witness to the fact that “The Cornish, despite, or even because of, their great sense of independence have been ruthlessly exploited…” I had thought – on the admittedly slender evidence of Ethel Smyth’s opera, [The Wreckers], and my stay at several hotels – that the exploitation was on the other foot.
After this extremely ill-humoured riposte, the reviewer admits that he “has nothing but enthusiasm for his Suite, full of character, and splendidly orchestrated”.
The ‘Cornish Dances’ were later arranged for concert band by Thad Marciniak (Faber Music, 1975) and for brass band by Ray Farr (Faber Music, 1985)
Hugo Cole (1989) gives a detailed account of the ‘Four Cornish Dances.’ He begins by suggesting that there were “no obvious models or precedents…for Cornish Music in the twentieth century”. Certainly this was the case for Arnold who eschewed the use of folk-songs from any particular locality. Cole thinks that he was “able to draw more freely on inner inspiration…to produce one of the most interesting of his dance-suite sets that is furthest removed from dance roots”. He suggests that the opening ‘vivace’ may well allow the listener to imagine “fishermen, farm workers, and tin miners leaping vigorously to the bold and rhythmic music of the first dance”. There were a number of musical aberrations that a local fiddle player would not have found conducive, for example the downward modulation of a minor third in each entry of the main theme.
I agree with Cole’s suggestion that the second dance has an “almost oriental character”. The harp and tuned percussion add to this disposition. The relationship with Cornwall may be the impressionist mood that Arnold successfully creates which is redolent of blue skies and clear waters. Cole recognises that the third movement seems to abandon any attempt at ‘dance.’ In fact this is a Cornish hymn tune, “even down to the final amen”. This music “measures the height of Methodist fervour”. The score insists that this ‘dance’ is played senza parodia however Cole believes that there is just a “touch of affectionate parody” in these bars.
The final movement is likened to Holst’s St Paul’s Suite with its “mixture of march and jig”. There is a seemingly ‘out of area’ reference to the Yorkshire tune ‘On Ilkley Moor’ and Cole concludes that the “spirit of the dance has been transformed into something almost threatening: we have moved away from the village green and into Arnold’s inner mind”.
Piers Burton-Page (1994) believes that the ‘Cornish Dances’ “strike a deeper note than the earlier English or Scottish collections”. He considers that the “four movements are carefully contrasted in tempo and texture to form a coherent whole”. Following Hugh Ottaway (Musical Times, July 1968) he sees them as “miniature tone poems” which, I believe, is an excellent listening strategy for these dances.
The first tune is a “seafaring song of Arnold’s own invention” utilising the “Cornish trick of repetition on a single note”. He observes the “highly independent counterpoint in the lower strings” and the “lurches into a new and often hilariously unexpected key”. The second dance is a “landscape in music, ghostly, eerily atmospheric, [and] exquisitely scored”. Burton-Page elaborates:
…this is the deserted engine house of the composer’s programme note. The Cornish landscape is dotted with such abandoned mines, tragic reminders of Cornwall’s past, now objects of bleak beauty in themselves-some with preservation orders on them.
He quotes an undated letter from Arnold to Christopher Ford: “Sometimes you climb down the cliff and you have a feeling of mystery, of all those people who have suffered, and yet who are still walking out there.”
Malcolm Arnold’s father, William, was a Primitive Methodist so his son would be familiar with Cornish religious practices and musical preferences. He notes that this is not a dance, but a hymn tune in the style of Moody and Sankey. There is “no hint of Arnold parodying Victorian sentimentality, nor any implied condescension towards local custom, but only warm hearted enjoyment”. Burton-Page is reminded of the ‘Fêtes’ movement from Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes in the last of the ‘Cornish Dances.’ The piece begins with an ‘offstage procession’ that gradually builds up to a huge climax. Arnold had used the Padstow May Day celebrations as his inspiration, without actually quoting the tune, for which the composer admitted “I would never have been forgiven”. In his letter to Christopher Ford, the composer had said:
May Day in Padstow is a Pre-Christian rite, of strange and mystical origin: nobody knows its exact date…I create an impression of the excitement, ending with a huge finale which I always think should be called Bruckner’s Day Trip to Cornwall!
A detailed analysis of the ‘Four Cornish Dances’ is presented by Paul R.W. Jackson’s (2003). The first dance, a vigorous vivace in 3/4 time, has the main theme repeated, beginning in C major but modulating downwards by a minor third –A, F sharp, E flat and back to C. Jackson notes the “full-throated melody” that is supported by “increasingly elaborate counterpoint, often highly rhythmic with the emphasis on the most unexpected beats”. The sea is evoked in this melody, and Jackson reminds the reader that the chef Rick Stein, an old friend of the composer, used this as the theme music to his BBC2 series, Taste of the Sea.
Getting a handle on the slow movement has proved difficult for critics. This is hardly a dance at all, more a piece of impressionism that “owes much to the sea music of Debussy and Ravel”. Jackson suggests that it was inspired by Arnold’s walks along the Cornish coastline. He quotes the above mentioned letter from Arnold to Christopher Ford. Tubular bells, harp and percussion are used. The main theme is based “on descending chromatic figures which meander like wisps of mist”. The middle section is unsettling, with the “roar of waves on some distant outcrop…”. The original mystery and stasis returns. Jackson mentions that the composer used a ‘version’ of this movement in his score for 1966 film Sky West and Crooked.
Like other commentators, Jackson sees no sense of condescension in the hymn-like third dance. In fact he believes that it “sums up the dignity of the Cornish people, whom Arnold feels ‘have been ruthlessly exploited’”. He suggests that the composer did introduce a touch of humour when, in the final ‘peroration’ of the hymn-tune, a counter melody on the horns played “bells up” is introduced, “in the best Mahlerian fashion”. The final movement makes use of two contrasting melodies: a 2/2 tune first heard in the distance takes its rhythm (but not melody) from the traditional Padstow May Day Dance and an “anxious jig-like tune in 6/8” played on the flute. The Dance ends with the first tune “played at half speed against in canon in a blazing peroration”. It was a favourite ‘device’ of the composer.
Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris (2004) provide an interesting analysis of the work as well as providing details of the personal context. They declare that these Dances “strike a much deeper note than their English and Scottish counterparts…” The first movement has an “insouciance about it which suggests a confidence which the Cornish air gave Malcolm, the swagger and panache, the ‘sense of community more so than I’ve ever known’”. The authors then quote Christopher Ford (Guardian 17 April 1971):
This is the movement of a man who can “breeze into his local before midday, amiably abuse the landlord for not stocking a hangover cure, buy drinks all round, then hammer out the end of Walton’s First Symphony on an out-of-tune upright, shouting the percussion parts he cannot play, followed by sweltering chunks of Tosca.”
The second Dance has a “ghostliness of…melody and orchestration” that, in their opinion, is more focused on the deserted tin mines than the Cornish sea-scape. The author suggest that it owes much to Arnold’s discussion with his friend the artist Tony Giles (1924-95) who specialised in semi-abstract landscapes, often depicting Cornwall. The third movement is ambiguous. Sometimes regarded by listeners as moving “from quiet reflection to brazen protestation, very moving.” Others take Arnold’s instruction to play this dance senza parodia with a pinch of salt and “think him merely mocking Cornish revivalism”. The view is taken that Arnold was in fact saluting it, in memory of his father, who was a staunch supporter of this strain of Methodism. The music may well reflect his father “listening to his revivalist hymns in some God-forsaken chapel, gritting his teeth in grief” as he witnessed the troubles and illnesses of his family.
The last movement celebrates May Day in Padstow. Meredith and Harris note that Arnold was a devotee of the ‘Obby Oss’ ritual: “it starts at midnight outside the Golden Lion, one of Malcolm’s favourite pubs, with lots of singing, accompanied by accordions, triangles and drums.” The composer loved this ritual, especially that of the two horses – one the “charity horse” and the other the “drinking horse”. The reader is left in no doubt as to which one the composer supported in the event!
Selective Reviews of the Recordings
The earliest recording of these Dances was made by the BBC at the premiere on 13 August 1966, with the composer conducting. It was released on Malcolm Arnold: The Composer/Conductor A 75thBirthday Tribute in 1996. The reviewer E.G. (Edward Greenfield) in The Gramophone (November 1996) highlighted “the joyful wildness in this Prom version, full of humour, which sets them apart from studio performances”. The cheering and applause have been included at the end of the last dance.
T.R. (Trevor Harvey), provided an assessment of Malcolm Arnold conducting the City of Birmingham Orchestra (HMV ASD 2878) in the May 1973 edition of The Gramophone. This LP included the Peterloo Overture, op.97 and the great Symphony No.5, op.74. Harvey writes that the ‘Cornish Dances’ “are pretty well-known by now and are wholly delightful…”. He wonders if the third dance is actually based on a genuine ‘Moodey (sic) and Sankey’ tune, or whether it is “a clever Arnold imitation”. Whatever the provenance, he identifies “an absolutely dead-pan performance that makes the point to perfection”. This recording was re-released on CD in 2001. (EMI Classics CDZ 5 74780 2) Six years later, Harvey (The Gramophone March 1979) reviewed the Lyrita album (SRCS.109), of Malcom Arnold’s ‘Dances’ which featured the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He admits that his “own favourite set is the less often played ‘Cornish Dances’, not least because of the second dance, a nostalgic and most evocative piece inspired by the deserted engine houses and tin mines that were once Cornwall’s wealth” and he was also impressed with the “wonderfully ‘dead-pan’ (an expression he likes) performance of a pseudo Methodist Moody and Sankey hymn tune.” It is a “testimony to Arnold’s love of the Cornish people”.
Chandos released their conspectus of the ‘Dances’ with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson. Ivan March (The Gramophone, October 1990) considers that although Arnolds’s “gleeful sense of irony is still apparent in his solemn ‘Sankey and Moody’ (q.v.) pastiche, the sky now has become rather more cloudy...” In 1990 Edward Greenfield (E.G.) reviewing the Lyrita CD release of the LP (SRCD 201) (The Gramophone December 1990), agreed with Trevor Harvey that his favourite set was the ‘Cornish Dances.’ He suggests that the work is: “in tribute to Arnold’ s years as a Cornish resident, the colour and vigour which mark all these dances, goes further towards deeper emotions, notably in the second dance with its melancholy chromatic melody…”. Greenfield considers the third dance to be “a sublimation of a Salvation Army band, with a Moody and Sankey-style hymn rising in thrilling crescendo”.
Malcolm Arnold paces the hymn slower than Bryden Thomson, thus making “the piece far more powerful”. E.G. points out that the Liner notes erroneously omit the word senza from the direction sempre senza parodia, which would change the interpretation away from Arnold’s “underlying seriousness” to one of parody.
Robert McColley, (Fanfare, January 1997) assessing the Naxos recording the ‘Dances’ with Andrew Penny and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra on Naxos (8.553526) writes:
In the Cornish Dances hints of something less cheerful begin to appear, though there is nothing like the long stretches of tragic and despondent music we find in the Fifth, Seventh, or Ninth Symphonies…The cheer is much diminished, but not the originality, or the ability to directly reach the heart as well as the ear of the listener. No one who has developed an interest in the music of Malcolm Arnold can be without…these symphonies-in-miniature.’
Malcolm Arnold: The Composer/Conductor A 75th Birthday Tribute, Four Cornish Dances, Peterloo Overture, Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands), Song of Simeon, Viola Concerto, Fair Field Overture, Concerto for Two Violins and strings, Fantasy for harp, Sinfonietta No.1, Horn Concerto No.2, Five Blake Songs. BBC Radio Classics 15656 91817-2 (1996)
Malcolm Arnold/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Malcolm Arnold: Orchestral Works, Four Cornish Dances, Peterloo Overture, Symphony No.5 HMV ASD 2878 (1973) EMI Classics CDZ 5 74780 2 CD (2001).
Malcolm Arnold/London Philharmonic Orchestra, Four Cornish Dances, English Dances, Irish Dances, Scottish Dances, Solitaire: Sarabande and Polka. Lyrita SRCD 201 (1990) Original Vinyl, SRCS 109 (1979)
Bryden Thomson/Philharmonia Orchestra, Four Cornish Dances, English Dances, Scottish Dances, Irish Dances, Solitaire: Sarabande and Polka. Chandos CHAN 8867 (1990)
Andrew Penny/Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Four Cornish Dances, English Dances, Scottish Dances, Irish Dances, Welsh Dances. Naxos 8.553526 (1996)
Elgar Howarth/Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Four Cornish Dances etc., Conifer CDCF 222 (1993)
Burton-Page, Piers, Philharmonic Concerto: The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold (London, Methuen, 1994)
Cole, Hugo, Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to his Music (London, Faber, 1989)
Jackson, Paul R.W., The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003)
Craggs, Stewart R., Malcolm Arnold: A Bio-Bibliography, (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998)
Meredith, Anthony and Harris, Paul, Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius, (Norwich, Thames/Elkin, 2004)
Hunt, Phillip, Malcolm Arnold in Cornwall (accessed 4 June 2016)
The files of The Musical Times, Fanfare, The Gramophone, The Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Music & Letters, CD liner notes, etc.