Archives for posts with tag: Malcolm Arnold


With James MacMillan’s Symphony No 4 just performed at the Proms, I thought it would be a good idea to put together a list of representative British symphonies composed over the past decade. I’ve listed one symphony per year and made it a rule that no composer can have more than one entry. The dates used refer to the premiere performance where possible or to the date of composition where the premiere took place a long time after the work was composed (or where there hasn’t yet been a concert performance).

As with all these things, this inevitably leads to some compromises – 2006 and 2011 were “famine years” as far as the symphony was concerned, whereas 2007 was crowded with new works. Omissions from the list include works by Ronald Stevenson and Giles Swayne (both 2007), and by Ronald Corp (2009) – not to mention just as notable alternative symphonies from the listed composers and many others by perhaps lesser known names, such as the highly prolific Derek Bourgeois, who has now written over 100 symphonies.

Excluding Bourgeois, there are over 50 symphonies on my full list that were composed or premiered between 2005 and 2015 – and I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed. Astonishingly, recordings are available for all but two of the eleven symphonies listed.

James MacMillan: Symphony No 4 (premiere 3 August 2015, BBC Proms). The Proms premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in 1990 made MacMillan internationally known. The first symphony “Vigil” came out in 1997, followed by No 2 (for chamber orchestra) in 1999 and No 3 “Silence” in 2002. (Listen again).

Michael Nyman: Symphony No 11 “Hillsborough” (premiere 5 July 2014, Liverpool). Nyman recently began to plan a series of 19 symphonies, some of them re-using themes and material from earlier works. The first of these (starting at numbers 5 and 6) received their premieres in 2013. Recording: MN Records

David Owen Norris: Symphony (premiere 27 May 2013, Dorchester). David Owen Norris is better known as a pianist and broadcaster, but studied composition with Eric Thiman and John Gardner. The London premiere of his Symphony is on October 1 2015 at St Paul’s Covent Garden, where the Piano Concerto in C and a new choral work, Turning Points, will also be performed.

Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No 9 (premiere 9 June 2012, Liverpool). The first of Maxwell Davies’ cycle was composed in 1976 and premiered two years later. Numbers 7 and 8 were both composed in 2000. No 10 was first performed at the Barbican in February 2014. Recording: Youtube

Christopher Gunning: Symphony No 7 (composed 2011). Gunning studied with Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett, but became best known as a composer of film and TV music (such as La Vie en Rose and Poirot). His first symphony was composed in 2002. Most of them have been recorded. Recording: Discovery

David Matthews: Symphony No 7 (premiere 24 April 2010, Manchester). Matthews has written eight symphonies (between 1978 and 2014) with a ninth in the works. The sixth, his biggest, was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2007. Dutton is working on recordings of the full cycle. Recording: Dutton

Richard Causton: Chamber Symphony (premiere 16 October 2009, Birmingham). Causton’s breakthrough work was The Persistence of Memory for chamber orchestra in 1995. His Chamber Symphony uses a combination of live and pre-recorded music. Twenty-Seven Heavens, for large orchestra, premiered in 2012. Recording: NMC

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No 2 (premiere 15 June 2008, Sydenham). Sawyers studied with Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra. He has been particularly successful in the US. Symphony No 1 appeared in 2004. A third symphony has been commissioned by the English Symphony Orchestra. Recording: Nimbus

John McCabe: Symphony No 7 “Labyrinth” (premiere 14 September 2007, Liverpool): McCabe, who died in 2015, wrote thirteen symphonies before he was eleven, but there are seven numbered symphonies in the official catalogue, the first composed in 1965. Recording: Youtube

Arthur Butterworth: Symphony No 6, op 124 (composed 2006, premiere 2009, St Petersburg). As well as the seven numbered symphonies (1956-2012), Butterworth wrote symphonic studies, concertos, brass band pieces and around 40 chamber works. The final symphony (No 7) had its premiere on 28 February 2012 in Huddersfield). Butterworth died in 2014.

Matthew Taylor: Symphony No 3 (premiere 7 January 2005, St John’s Smith Square). Taylor studied at Cambridge under Robin Holloway, and later with Robert Simpson and Malcolm Arnold. His largest body of work is chamber music, but he has also written five concertos and three symphonies, the first in 1985. A fourth symphony has been commissioned for 2015/16 by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra. Recording: Dutton


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.

Michael+Hurd+img767I was actually present at the premiere of this oboe concerto (including the afternoon rehearsals), written for the oboist Geoffrey Bridge and the Havant Chamber Orchestra, commissioned by the orchestra’s then conductor, Peter Craddock. The date (I can now discover) was 16 June 1979, a Saturday. I knew of Michael Hurd (1928-2006) from my school days because we had performed his “pop cantata” Jonah Man Jazz – the popularity of which did some harm to his reputation as a “serious” composer. (I remember some excitement at school about the jazz chords used in the piece, probably the first time I had taken notice of jazz harmony). But Hurd had studied with Lennox Berkeley and wrote a number of more substantial vocal works (including a choral symphony Shepherd’s Calendar in 1975, recorded on Dutton), and a handful of orchestral works, most of them now also recorded. Hurd was also a prolific author, but in 1979 I wasn’t yet aware of his book The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, which had been published the year before. He also wrote a full scale biography of Rutland Boughton.

The Concerto da Camera (also performed in a version for oboe and piano) is a light, melodic piece written as a tribute to Francis Poulenc, but also perhaps drawing comparisons with Faure and Malcolm Arnold – particularly the pastoral middle movement with its rich string accompaniment. The three main themes are all derived from two basic cells of notes heard in the first movement. The concerto has had a number of performances in Hampshire, where Hurd settled in the early 1960s, making his living as a freelance musician and author. It was eventually recorded in 2001 on an ASV disk, English Oboe Concertos, alongside works by William Blezard, John Gardner, Philip Lane and Kenneth Leighton. There’s a short extract from the disk here.

lambertI still find it incredible that Summers Last Will and Testament is now readily available (through a 1992 Hyperion recording). This piece was like the lost grail to me for years. Written in the dark days of 1933 to 1935, it is a melancholic work, obsessed with death, loss and the passing of time. That wasn’t what the public expected from Constant Lambert, a composer best known for the jazz-tinged brightness of Façade and The Rio Grande. And the first performance, in January 1936, took place only nine days after the death of King Geroge V. It sank almost without trace. However, reports of its worth continued to circulate – from Malcolm Arnold, for instance, who called it “one of the undiscovered treasures of the English choral repertoire”. Lambert himself, who died in 1951, thought of it as his best work. Summers Last Will and Testament is based on Elizabethan dance forms, setting words from Thomas Nashe’s masque of the same name, the subject of which is London during the plague years. Lambert’s friend, the composer Peter Warlock/Philip Heseltine, may have inspired him to look back to the Tudor era for inspiration. Warlock had committed suicide in 1930, and Lambert dedicated his dark Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments to Warlock.

In order to hear it I dug out the vocal score from the library – a massively oversized limited edition with two piano reduction. I visited the Institute of Recorded Sound (then in Kensington, near the Albert Hall) and listened to the 1965 BBC broadcast conducted by Malcolm Sargent, the music coming from the far distance somewhere beyond the coughing and shuffling of the audience. And eventually I saw two live performances, the first at the Brighton Festival (10 May 1986, conducted by Norman Del Mar) and then again in August 1991 at Leeds Town Hall, conducted by David Lloyd Jones. From that concert also came the Hyperion recording. I was almost sorry when it became better known – there was something exciting about being one of a very few who knew just how rich this music is. At 50 minutes long this is Lambert’s most ambitious work.

Intrata The work starts with a seven minute long section for orchestra alone, consisting of two parts: “pastorale” and “siciliana”. The mood is melancholy, but the pace and tension builds up until the expansive siciliana theme is introduced on solo oboe. Lambert has used the dotted 6/8 siciliana form before in his ballet scores (most notably in Pomona). Once again the music builds up to full orchestral treatment before returning at the end to the solo oboe. This is idealized pastoralism already tinged with sadness, preparing the mood for the darkness to come.