Recommendations by Warren Cohen

Richard Anthony Sayer Arnell (known as Tony›to his friends)›was born in Hampstead in 1917. He played the piano from early childhood and studied composition at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland. He went to New York to visit the World's Fair in 1939, and when war broke out, he was advised to stay in the United States. He did so, not leaving until 1947. Essentially his career started in the States; he also returned for several other lengthy visits, including a stay in Maine and New York for two years in the late sixties and several excursion to California where he worked on some films. The American influence in his music is clearly apparent, and readily acknowledged by the composer. He describes himself as "the first Anglo-American composer", and it is one of the many factors that make him such a unique musical voice.›

An essay celebrating his 80th birthday in 1997 by David Wright described him as the "greatest living British Symphonist". Quite a claim, given that there has never been a single commercial recording of any of his symphonies. He has no wealthy patrons sponsoring recordings, and has had himself been beset by financial complications throughout his life. If luck and circumstance had been only slightly different, this story could have been completely different. I have given concert premieres of two of his symphonies and an overture, and the response of the musicians and audiences to his music›has been very revealing. People seem almost confused, as if wondering why they have never heard this music before.›It is immediately apparent that this is›work of the highest caliber. Arnell's music demonstrates›tremendous craftmanship, a remarkable ear for orchestral color, and a talent for the "big tune". Furthermore, as has been pointed many times, his music has staying power. I have had several of my players talk about how often they listened to our performance of the Symphony no.2 for fun after we premiered it this past season.››

What happened? Early in his career, he was introduced to Sir Thomas Beecham, who became his champion, introducing eight of his orchestral compositions. His monumental Third Symphony (lasting 65 minutes) was introduced by Barbirolli. But he never managed his career that well; he is not interested in self-promotion and he has been besieged by bad luck. Beecham was supposed to introduce the Symphony no.2 in Seattle in 1944. He promised the composer that he would perform it in Seattle and then on tour "in the great halls of New York and Chicago". The performance never took place. There was a musicians' strike, and the tour was cancelled. The first performance was a radio broadcast in 1988, and I gave the first concert performance with the Southern Arizona Symphony in April of 2003. When I recently tried to get a copy of the score to his Classical Variations, the publisher had lost the score. When I brought this to the composers' attention, he said it was not the first time that this had happened! He has been married many times, fruther draining both emotional and financial resources. He also suffered a serious career setback during the years when William Glock was head of Music at the BBC. The BBC has always been the primary source for first performances by British composers, and he, along with several other composers who never embraced atonality, were effectively›blacklisted for many years. The composer himself probably did not help his cause when he embraced electro-acoustic music in the 1970's; it was an odd choce for a great orchestrator, but it did show his›willingness to try new things and grow, even though he knew he could not embrace every modern trend that came along.

There have been very few commercial recordings; the complete organ music was recorded by Nicholas Jackson; Beecham recorded the ballet Punch and the Child (it was re-released on CD in Britain a few years ago) a wind serenade was recorded by Karl Haas; the composer conducted his ballet score to The Great Dectective. Recently, a beautiful recording of some chamber music was released by the Locrain Ensemble (to rave reviews in the Gramophone). But none of the Symphonies have made it to disc, and these are arguably his greatest achievement.

What is his music like? The early music shows the influence of Hindemith and Sibelius. He has been described as "the English Rachmaninoff" because of his gift for melody and sumptous orchestration, but he really sounds nothing like him. His compositional craft is extraordinary, with a particuliar gift for counterpoint and clever rhythmic alterations of his thematic material. The harmonies are distinctive- open and clear, suggesting Copland, especially in the 4th Symphony, and frequently very dissonant, although the clarity is such that the dissonance seems almost incidental. Throughout his career he reacted to trends of the times, but filtered them through his own unique voice. It is a remarkable experience to hear the›2nd Symphony back to back with the Sixth. Written fifty years apart, they are clearly the work of the same composer, although both are recognizably products of their time of composition, without ever sounding trendy or pop.How could one composer keep his own voice while at the same time embracing influences as distinct as Hindemith and minimalism? This is the genius of Richard Arnell.


Written by Warren Cohen.
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