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Con Brio Recording

Richard Arnell's Symphonies 4 and 5 conducted by Warren Cohen with the Musica Nova Orchestra

Review by Rob Barnett


Sleeve notes

Richard ‘Tony’ Arnell: A Personal Note
Patrick Jonathan

“I don’t remember writing that. Did I write that…? Thank goodness
I did!”

Anybody who knows Tony well will recognise an Arnellism when
they hear one. The fact that I found this note among the many
documents I have relating to his life and works, but have not noted
when, or where he said it, or about which of his works means that I
could also say, “I don’t remember writing that. Did I write that…?”
This may be one of the reasons why Tony and I have been such
close friends for almost a quarter of a century. Whatever the
context, it’s fairly certain that my reaction would have been to
agree, “Yes, Tony, thank goodness you did!”

From the first occasion I heard Tony Arnell’s music I ‘got it’ and
was perplexed by the fact that a larger public didn’t also ‘get it’. His
music is so full of individuality, expression, vision and ambition,
and his use of the orchestra so technically assured that it offers
every possible satisfaction that a music lover could desire.
In the late 80s Tony conducted a performance of his Fourth
Symphony at York Minster, and I went up from London to spend
the week with him, and to attend all the rehearsals. There was no
separate rehearsal venue, so Tony took the orchestra through their
paces in the Minster while tourists wandered around the building.
Sitting in the pews with my score, I was persistently disturbed by
passers-by who were transfixed and desperate to know what the
beautiful music was. Most were then determined to buy a ticket for
the concert, or cursing their luck that they were leaving town
before the end of the week.

This told me what I had always known: that there is a potential
audience for Tony’s work and it was only lack of vision on the part
of programmers and administrators that was keeping them away
from what they wanted. Now, thanks in no small part to the
tremendous insight and efforts of Warren Cohen, this wonderful
music is available for all, and I hope this will be the first in a series
of recordings that will play a significant role in cementing his
reputation and establishing his music within the concert

I’m delighted that this process has begun while he is still with us.
When I first met Tony, the bookshelves in his study where he kept
his life’s work were draped with a blanket, as he couldn’t stand ‘to
look at them just sitting there, and not being played’.
In his early seventies, at a low ebb, he confided to me that had he
died at the same age as Mozart, or perhaps been allowed a couple
more years - so as to include the Fifth Symphony (written when he
was 37) , his life’s work would have been complete. This seemed a
very sad commentary on the second half of his life. However, fuelled
by encouragement and a renewed self-belief, he has been
tremendously productive over the last couple of decades, and for
this we should all be grateful.

Biographical Note

Richard Anthony Sayer Arnell was born in London on 15th
September 1917, during an air-raid. It is a remarkably sad irony
that his mother actually died in an air-raid during the Blitz of
WWII, while Arnell was in America.

Having been educated at the Hall School, Hampstead, and
University College School, Arnell entered the Royal College of Music
in 1935, where he studied composition with John Ireland and
piano with St. John Dykes. Vaughan Williams was chair of the
panel that awarded him the Farrar Prize for Composition in 1938.
He still speaks in glowing terms of Ireland’s humanistic approach,
providing a solid grounding in harmony and counterpoint before
helping a young composer find his own, true voice rather than
imposing personal preferences and influences upon them. A factor
in Arnell’s continued clarity of thought was Ireland’s rule that his
students should not work in pencil, but in pen. Erasing was not an
option, and alternative’s should be thought through and worked
out fully in the mind before the music was actually committed to

He left England, as a newly-married man, in 1939 and headed for
New York, where he was to reside until 1947. On a rented piano in
a small apartment, while helping to raise his infant daughter, he
set about producing a substantial body of work, and Opp. 1-47
date from this period. Important compositions completed during
this period include the first 3 ‘official’ symphonies, as well as the
‘Sinfonia-Quasi Variazione’, which is, in fact, his first symphony.
Arnell has spoken about ‘Brahms syndrome’ - that fear of taking
that initial step to declare oneself a ‘symphonist’. Unlike Brahms,
however, he overcame this fear in his early-twenties, rather than
waiting till middle-age.

It is remarkable, for a young composer in a foreign land, that the
majority of these works were performed, and by some of the most
prominent conductors and soloists of the day, Leopold Stokowski,
Bernard Hermann, Leon Barzin, Dean Dixon, Vera Brodsky, Moura
Lympany, et al.

In 1941 Arnell came to the attention of Sir Thomas Beecham, first
meeting him, through an introduction from the critic-composer
Virgil Thomson, in the green room of Carnegie Hall after one of the
great conductor’s concerts, and despaired of ever hearing from him
again after his ‘tongue-tied’ performance at that first meeting.
When he received - out of the blue - a telegram asking him to
telephone. Arnell was ecstatic, as he knew that Sir Thomas, as a
rule, kept his private number just that: private. What an honour
this was!

Elation turned to disappointment when, upon calling, Arnell was
informed that Sir Thomas was ‘out of town’. Arnell was not to know
that this was in no way intended as a slight, but that a crisis (as so
often happened with Sir Thomas) had blown up and all else had
been forgotten.

When Arnell finally got a score to Sir Thomas it was of the
‘Sinfonia-Quasi Variazione’, which he duly performed with the New
York City Orchestra in 1942. Arnell was 24 at the time, and it
meant all the world to him. Beecham continued his support of
Arnell on both sides of the Atlantic right up until the great
conductor’s death. In many ways his support for and promotion of
Arnell’s work was reminiscent of what he had done for Delius
during the previous three decades.

During this American sojourn, from 1943-1946, Arnell acted as
Music Consultant to the BBC’s North American Service. Among the
many prestigious commissions Arnell received during these years
was one to compose a ‘Ceremonial and Flourish’ for brass to mark
the occasion of Sir Winston Churchill’s visit to Columbia
University, in 1946.

Upon Arnell’s return to England, he became a teacher of
composition at Trinity College, London, and he remained a member
of staff there until his retirement in the 1980s. He was made an
Honorary Fellow and Principal Lecturer of the College in
acknowledgement of his long-term commitment to the institution
and its students.

Just as had happened in America, the most prominent conductors
and soloists in England took up Arnell’s music, among them Sir
John Barbirolli, Sir Charles Groves, Norman Del Mar, Rudolf
Schwarz, Tibor Paul and John Ogden. A later generation of
conductors, including Richard Hickox, James Carewe, Howard
Snell, James Blair, Bernard Keefe, Colman Pearce, Edward
Downes, Adrian Leaper, Martin Yates and Joseph Horowitz,
ensured that British audiences continued to hear Arnell’s works
through the 70s and 80s.
Having encountered Arnell’s music during his stay in England in
the early 90s, Warren Cohen, the conductor of these performances,
has been in the vanguard of a renewed impetus in the performing
of the works of this grand old man of British music.
Arnell is currently living in a Musicians’ Benevolent home, and
continues to compose even into his ninetieth year.

Arnell Symphonies 4 and 5

During an incredibly long creative career which his seen his name
so often linked with the ballet and the cinema, and during which
he has produced work of the highest quality in virtually every
genre of concert music, it is clear that the symphony, as a concept,
form and title, holds a special place in the oeuvre of Richard
Anthony Sayer Arnell. The standard numbering of his own works
shows that he has composed six, although the Sinfonia-Quasi
Variazione has a strong claim to be included within their number
(indeed Arnell, always conscious of his legacy, and often musing on
how it should best be catalogued, did suggest to me at one stage
that it might be numbered 1, and to avoid bumping the numbers
of the others along one, the existing No. 1 could be renamed
Chamber Symphony - an idea he has subsequently reconsidered)
and his setting of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind is, in my opinion
a symphony - with the addition of a vocal soloist - in all but name!
Listening to the six ‘official’ symphonies as a sequence it is clear
that they are the work of the same composer, surface detail and
structural specifics never obscuring the fact that these are all the
product of a singular vision and imagination. They are, though,
remarkably different from each other. The conductor, Warren
Cohen, once asked the composer why they were all so different
from each other, to which he received the straightforward and
absolutely typical retort, “Well, that’s the point, isn’t it!” A concept
that many other composers, who determinedly try to compose ‘the
same piece’ over and over again may benefit from taking to heart.
When one looks at the Arnell symphonic scores in a detailed,
analytical way, it is probably as well to abandon all preconceived
ideas of sonata form, and traditionally distinct development and
recapitulation sections. Arnell’s works are much more organic and
structurally intuitive, often featuring structural, motivic and
thematic links that are not disrupted by the punctuation of the
separate movements. Movements almost always feature
tremendous contrasts, often precipitated by original and
unexpected transitional material, and often expressing unity in
diversity. It is in this respect that I think a link to the symphonic
thinking of the mature works of Sibelius is apparent.
This is particularly true of the Fourth Symphony which, in the
words of Arnell himself, “…seems to me to be the most condensed,
the most intense and perhaps the most personal.”

The symphony is in three movements, (i) Andante-Allegro, (ii)
Andante, (iii) Allegro Vivace, each initiated by motivic material
introduced by the timpanist. Already it is apparent from the tempo
directions that the three movement form is somehow subverted into
a balanced binary structure. In 1989, following a rehearsal of the
work at York Minster, I - rather naively - commented to the
composer that the finale seemed on the brief side for such a
monumental work. Very clearly and concisely (Arnell is a born
educator) he explained to me that this was the plan. The structure
was, in a sense, telescopic, each movement growing progressively
briefer, the combined weight of movements two and three
balancing that of the first.

Arnell describes the opening Andante as a prelude but, “unlike the
classical model which in Mozart and Haydn was a kind of curtain
raiser to the main action, this movement contains ideas used and
greatly expanded in the following Allegro.” The seeds of what is to
come are expertly sewn and, to quote Donald Mitchell (Music
Survey, Vol. II, No. 2 (Autumn, 1949), p 96) “the first movement
of the symphony seemed to increase in weight and importance on
closer acquaintance; in particular its epilogue has about it a
quality that I can only describe as ‘inevitability’.”

After such a ‘monumental’ opening movement, which concludes
with a brilliantly conceived and orchestrated chorale-like epilogue,
the second movement is a beautifully-judged contrast. The theme
of this movement has been described as ‘romantic’, ‘pastoral’,
‘sentimental’ and ‘bitter-sweet’, but I think Arnell’s characterisation
of it as “nostalgic, first happily so, alternatively sadly so” is exactly
right. The beautiful theme ebbs and flows, and occasionally swells
over a varied and meticulously detailed undulating

The timpanists initiation of the finale is violently rhythmic, which is
emulated by the rest of the orchestra when they join in. Arnell
describes the movement as “vigourous and eventually heroic,
perhaps”. The ending is savage and abrupt, and features the same
three notes from the timpanist with which the opening movement
was initiated. These three notes - F,E and A - are, again in the
composer’s own words, “components of the mysterious Phrygian

That this work should be considered a milestone in the
development of the British symphony, and one of the most
important symphonic statements from the middle of the Twentieth
Century without the need for nationalistic qualification can most
easily be demonstrated by the quality of the musicians who were
inspired to introduce it to various audiences around the globe:
1st British performance Sir John Barbirolli
1st London performance Sir Thomas Beecham
1st USA performance Leon Barzin
1st French performance Jacques Pernoo
1st BBC broadcast performance Sir Charles Groves

That audiences are immediately aware of the work’s quality is
possibly demonstrated in this extract from a review by William
Mann of Beecham’s London premiere (The Times 27.3.52) “… He
dragged Mr. Richard Arnell three times from the seat he had just
sat down in, and bade him share the applause for a stunning
performance of Arnell’s fourth symphony. He stood on, and
stamped on, his dignity with unnerving capriciousness, resorted
constantly to Hi! or to any loud cry…”

The words of Virgil Thomson (New York Herald Tribune
25.2.52) seem perfectly to capture the monumentality of this piece:
“Mr. Arnell’s Fourth Symphony is full of a great sadness, a
deep and triumphal sadness. Its sombre cast does not seem,
however, to be a matter of personal sentiment. Its dignity
brings to mind some more objective cause for the dark view
than merely private experience. This particular note of
mourning, rising constantly to grand and massive chord
statement by the orchestral brasses, is characteristic of
Arnell. I noted it ten years ago in his First Symphony and
was struck by it then as a form of seriousness rare in the
British composer. His Fourth is a more extended statement
of the same thesis and a more powerful one. But essentially
it is the same. It is at once exultant and pangent, even in
its lighter moments. I call it to myself “the funeral of a
British Empire”.

Arnell’s Fifth Symphony is, in many ways, a perfect complement
and foil to his Fourth. Its expansiveness balances its predecessor’s
tautness, its rhapsodic nature the Fourth’s terse intensity, its
relaxed sense of movement a contrast to the driven momentum of
its immediate sibling.

All this is plausible, but - as so often is the case with Arnell’s
creations - the contrasting surfaces mask the manifold similarities
that lie deep at the heart of both works.

Just as the Fourth is a masterful working-out of the thematic and
harmonic possibilities suggested by the timpanists opening
gesture, so the Fifth is a thesis extrapolated from the defiant,
dissonant chords that mark its opening. The orchestration of both
is brilliant, but not showy. This, again, another indicator of the
respect he holds for the concept of ‘the symphony’: for brilliantly,
showy orchestrations explore his ballet scores, in particular Punch
and the Child, or The Great Detective.

Despite its rhapsodic feel, the Fifth is, if anything, more formally
laid-out than the Fourth, and as pregnant with contrapuntal
intensity, but in this case cast as long, arching, lyrical lines rather
than tight, repetitive motifs. An instant to listen out for is the
beautiful and plangent duet between cor anglais and horn in one
of the slower sections of the central movement.
Whereas the form of the Fourth is seemingly open-ended, each
surprising new turn growing naturally, organically and -
seemingly - inevitably from the music that precedes it, there is
much more of a sense of sequential exploration and revisiting of
themes in the Fifth.

All three movements of Arnell’s Fifth Symphony are essentially cast
in broad tempi, although in the composer’s description the central
movement is a vigourous scherzo introduced and often interrupted
by music of a slow, lyrical nature.

Arnell’s music is punctuated amazingly regularly by melodies of
delicious lyricism, and in many ways the Fifth Symphony displays
the fullest flowering of this rare and precious gift. There are themes,
particularly in the finale, that have a visionary, almost otherworldly
quality. It is music of such entrancing beauty that you
wish for it never to end.

Arnell’s Fifth Symphony was first broadcast on 13th October,
1964, on Radio Frankfurt, in a performance by the Hessische
Rundfunk Orchestra, conducted by Dean Dixon, a longstanding
friend of Arnell’s from his time spent in New York. The composer,
himself, conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (founded by
his beloved Sir Thomas Beecham) in the first concert performance
at the Odeon, Swiss Cottage, as a part of the St. Pancras Festival on
22nd March, 1966.

Virgil Thomson, in his New York Herald Tribune article quoted
above, speaks of Arnell’s symphonism as “clearly British music…”
but also remarks that it possesses “an emotional reality that we are
not accustomed to associate with the British composer.” He is
correct in spotting the influence of a culture other than the stoic
British. The first three of Arnell’s symphonies were composed in
America, the Fourth composed during most of 1948 immediately
after his return. Arnell once sent me a cassette of a piece of his, and
on the reverse side, as a filler, included Roy Harris’ Third
Symphony. For a composer as sui generis as Arnell, his
accompanying letter (dated 28.08.97) includes a very interesting
I’ve put Roy Harris on the B side which perhaps you don’t
know? One of the best American works I think, written in ‘39
and I first heard Toscanini’s broadcast in ‘40 or so. Had an
influence I think don’t you? - on me, I mean.

So, it is, perhaps, very apt that the first commercial recordings of
these important symphonies from the middle of the last century
should be performed by an American ensemble. Wherever,
however, they are listened to, it is certain that they will speak
directly to the heart. I give the final words to that most esteemed of
American Music Critics, Virgil Thomson, from the same source as
previously quoted, writing about the Fourth, but applicable to

Arnell’s complete symphonic output:
“It is not landscape nor personal statement; it can only be
deep feeling about something very large. It has no
concealment in it or reticence, or any preoccupation with
minor pleasures. It is straight and deep and triumphal and
very, very sad. It lifts one up. It is not landscape.”

Patrick Jonathan
22nd April 2007


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