arnoldThe opening movement of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No 2 is a great place to start getting to know the music of this fascinating composer. Arnold has often been accused of undermining the intent of his more serious works through the inclusion of over-sweet and sentimental melodies, but such conflicts are at the heart of this composer, who in his day-to-day life often swung between personality extremes to alarming effect – he was a manic depressive and an alcoholic. Arnold’s music can seem jolly enough in his lighter pieces, such as the sets of English and Scottish dances. But his nine symphonies are another matter altogether.

However, in some of his earlier works the clashes can seem less anguished. The opening allegretto of the Second Symphony is a brilliant fusion of light music and symphonic writing – it’s in traditional sonata form, and almost straight away we hear in the first clarinet theme a classic light music melody, with its signature upward flourish towards the end, echoing some of the popular dance melodies often found within Mahler symphonies. The theme is immediately repeated three times in its entirety, as it might be in a lighter piece, but with each repeat more ambiguous material swells up from underneath, undermining the regular dance tempo. Then comes the more angular second subject, heard first in the flutes and then in the strings, with a similar throwaway melodic flourish hinted at here too. It all flows beautifully despite the contrasting material, with the two themes more closely united at the end. However, the geniality of that first theme is never overwhelmed or defeated in this generally easy-going and lyrical movement.

The composer himself commented: “If this movement expresses the quiet joy of being alive on a fine summer’s day, then it is successful.” More turbulant moments are evident elsewhere even in this symphony (particularly the third movement), but in later works the balance would change more often towards darker moods.

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