Ever since Beethoven, writing a Ninth Symphony has been for a composer something akin to climbing Mount Everest – the summation of a lifetime’s achievement. In addition there has come to be something fatalistic about the very idea of a Ninth Symphony. To take two nearer examples, Bruckner died before he could complete what would have been the longest of his symphonies, while Mahler’s Ninth was written in the shadow of his fatal illness. Shostakovich – much admired by Malcolm Arnold – was so over-awed by the burden of this musical tradition that he deliberately stood it on its head and wrote a lightweight piece. Arnold himself has admitted to being daunted by the weight of musical history; not surprising when we discover that it was written after a five-year period when the composer had, in his own words, “been through hell.”
Malcolm Arnold’s Ninth Symphony has four movements. First comes an allegro in three time: a departure from previous modes, in that it is not really dramatic, as in earlier Arnold symphonies. If anything it is rather naïve in character, the themes being not so much developed as given a wide variety of different orchestral colourings. The only real climax is saved for the end of the movement, where the tempo slows, while pitch and dynamics increases almost to breaking point. One of the most disturbing features of the Ninth for performers and critics alike is the amount of straightforward (or sometimes not so straightforward!) repetition in the symphony, and there is also much unison writing for the instruments. A momentary suspicion that had Arnold had been listening to the then-fashionable minimalist school – Reich, Glass, Riley – is probably unfounded! The second movement is memorable: a gentle, pastoral-like allegretto in nine-eight time, with much of the writing in just two or three parts, and based on a haunting melancholy tune that resembles a folk-like carol. The third movement is a noisy two-four piece marked ‘giubiloso’ and not unlike many another breezy Arnold scherzo, with much prominent and tricky writing for the wind, particularly the brass, and full of characteristic Arnold clashes and dissonances within a tonal context.
It is with the finale that the balance of the whole Ninth Symphony changes. It takes almost as long as the other three movements put together, and it is not the usual Malcolm Arnold quick symphonic finale, but a huge slow movement – just like the anguished adagio finale of Mahler’s Ninth. The composer himself, in a BBC interview, did not deny the parallel. However, the emotional feel is different from Mahler, and is peculiar to Malcolm Arnold: there is, for example, none of Mahler’s frenzy. Yet, almost throughout, the movement is bleak and intense, spare and grief-stricken; like a gigantic funeral march it forsakes dramatic contrasts for the sake of an unbroken continuity of atmosphere, until the final bars, that is, which form a radiant resolution on to D major. Without that chord, the surrender to nihilism and despair would be total.
In purely music terms the material of this finale is often very simple, haunted throughout by the falling phrase of the opening; but at the same time it is extremely demanding, both on the players in terms of sheer concentration, and on the listener, in terms of its emotional journey. The symphony is dedicated to the man who has looked after Malcolm Arnold since his illness, Anthony John Day. A passage from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, nowhere quoted or mentioned by the composer seems not inapposite to the Ninth Symphony’s spirit and temper:
Do not go gentle into that goodnight –
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
If there is a note of finality about the symphony – which Malcolm Arnold says he regards as the highest form of musical composition – then it is intentional: it may well be the last that Arnold writes. One can but hope that the Ninth is heard often – to enable it to be studied, absorbed and finally learned from. It has a message for us all.
© Piers Burton-Page