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CD Review

Malcolm Arnold

Symphony #9

National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Andrew Penny
Naxos 8.553540
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Aristotle defines a tragic action as having a "beginning, middle, and end." As a high-school student reading those words for the first time, I thought, "The man's an idiot. What could be more obvious?" Fortunately, I continued to meditate on them, my thoughts at first consisting mainly of "why would anyone ever say anything like that out loud?" Almost forty years later, they now strike me as among the most profound aesthetic pronouncements I know, and I credit G. K. Chesterton with providing the breakthrough. In The Man Who Was Thursday, a would-be anarchist tries to prove himself to a group of potential conspirators by an extravagant praise of the revolution of chaos and ends with something like, "I want the order of tube stops to change every time." The group rejects him, because chaos is, after all, the status quo. That the order of tube stops never changes is what is truly revolutionary. Similarly, in art, a maker always tends to incoherence or silence and must struggle against it. Some time, listen to a four-year-old try to tell a long joke.

Similarly, a chaotic musical surface is often easier to understand – a mere matter of dogged pursuit and technical knowledge – than something incredibly clear. To me, the most misunderstood composers present the most straightforward face – Mozart, Haydn, Satie, and, Malcolm Arnold. It took me a long time to "get" Arnold, to think of him as anything but slick. The clarity and the technique required to achieve it (think how hard it is to say exactly what you mean) were always apparent. Yet I missed whatever emotional message he had. The concertos, especially the ones for guitar and for two violins, kept my interest up. The symphonies were, for me, tough nuts but, again, not because I couldn't follow the musical matter, but because I didn't see where emotionally they led. It took the seventh symphony to reveal Arnold to me – a shattering work. It shattered any lingering image of a jolly composer (the usual critic's epithet applied to Arnold was "Falstaffian"), as it expressed a shattering desolation, all the more powerful because the composer was far from humorless. In other words, the critics I read were simultaneously right and wrong. Arnold knows fun and a good time, but he knows more. I went through the symphonies again, this time ready to really hear them (see my review of the Symphony #2). His music shows a Mahler-like duality, often without Mahler's transcendence. Death stalks the Carnival.

Arnold's ninth, and probably last, symphony shows this duality yet again, and, like most of Arnold's major work, has puzzled listeners from the first. To read the liner notes, you would gather that the symphony broke into two emotional parts: breezy, with the first three movements, and "profound," with the last. I believe the writer has missed the point. None of this work is breezy, not even the scherzo. The markings of the first three movements – Vivace, Allegretto, and Giubiloso – are, if anything, darkly ironic. The first movement begins with an arpeggiated major triad, but there's little joy here. The textures are spare (often just two lines), the rhythm inexuberant, and just enough dissonance to suggest a kind of harmonic queasiness. It reminds me in a lot of ways of Shostakovich's 15th (yet another Mahlerite symphony), although less overtly grotesque. The musical matter limps along, crippled and straitened in spirit, until two minutes before the conclusion, with an abrupt increase in dynamics. Nevertheless, this is hardly the promised vivacity. It comes across more as a cry of pain. Nothing improves in the Allegretto – the same ennervation, the same bleak textures, and an obsessive worrying of the same theme. The third movement opens frenetically, rather than jubilantly – with the exhilharation of a pursuit by wolves. Again, Shostakovich comes to mind, but Arnold characteristically holds back, refraining from Shostakovich's all-out grimace. This reticence seems central to the man as well, if I can judge by the interview appended to the CD. Arnold is clearly someone who wants to keep his horrors to himself. Yet, it is equally clear that he has seen them.

So I view the first three movements of the symphony as a parade of demons and despair. The Lento finale, if this were indeed Mahler, would overcome the horrors in a yearning and striving for a vision of heaven. Arnold probably doesn't believe in heaven or at least doesn't rely on the hope of one. Indeed, the movement opens dark and descends until a yearning motive in the violins, taken up by the solo brass about seven minutes in. The music turns to tender mourning – for what, I don't know – but it celebrates no triumph over the initial despair. For that despair returns, and the movement toward resignation begins again, with slightly more strength. Roughly six minutes before the end, we hear a chorale in the winds, traditionally the musical symbol of heaven. Arnold's chorale, however, keens, quietly at first, then builds up to the movement's dynamic climax. After the peak, we plunge suddenly back to the black beginning of the movement. It seems as though we will wind up with psychological devastation, but Arnold has one more surprise. With less than a minute, the orchestra color turns radiant and ends on, considering what we've been through, an enigma. What does this mean?

The journey from Beethoven's Ninth to this amazes me and seems to tell the intellectual history of the past 200 years. Beethoven can all-out rejoice in a vision of universal brotherhood. Dvořák dances and sings a kind of pantheistic hymn, with more than one musical nod to the Beethoven symphony. Bruckner glories in God Himself. His famous suggestion that his Ninth end with a Te Deum indicates pretty much his intent for the emotional progress of the music, although I'm glad the hymn to heaven takes place "off-stage," as it were. I can't be sure, of course, but I'd guess that Mahler's Ninth corresponds most closely to the inner life of most of us – an awareness of the crisis of living and the willingness to dare, to risk belief. Shostakovich, on the other hand, avoids the problem, most likely because, if anyone, certainly he knows the dangers of a transcendant ideal. As I've said before, Arnold feels the distance between himself and heaven, if indeed he believes in it. What this symphony knows and expresses again and again is the pain of life and its inexorability. You resign yourself to it or you go crazy, and Arnold the man has done both. If you deny yourself the ideal or the hope of transcendance, what do you wish for? What comes as the welcome deliverer? I believe Arnold waits for death and longs for it, not for eternal life (one life is bad enough), but for oblivion. Or perhaps death and the brief light at the end of the symphony simply opens a door, and Arnold can't say what lies beyond.

I realize I've gone on about things occasioned by, but definitely not music. In my defense, I contend the purely musical aspects of it – remarkable in themselves (how he continues and manages a large span with such spare means, the incredible assurance and imagination of the orchestration, for example) – nevertheless don't seem the point of the work. Penny certainly doesn't conduct it that way, and yet you don't achieve this kind of performance without attending to the mundane details. So much of the writing is so spare, that none of the players can hide behind a Wagnerian "wall of sound." In the two-part writing, the NSO of Ireland keeps the resulting intervals in tune. Penny keeps the 23-minute finale moving coherently, no small feat. The sound is acceptable. Furthermore, it's on Naxos and cheap. A bargain.

Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz