Saturday, March 20, 2010

Richard Arnell

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On April 11 4 PM at Scottsdale Center for the Arts Scottsdale Center for the Arts we will perform the slow movement of Richard Arnell's 3rd String Quartet to begin our MusicaNova Orchestra concert. I decided to add this piece to the program because it will be almost one year to the day that Arnell died (he died April 10, 2009). "Tony" Arnell has been an important part of the orchestra since we played his 5th Symphony in our second season. We recorded all the Symphonies in the summer of 2005, performed the magnificent 3rd Symphony that fall-the first performance in over 50 years-and have performed other works of his subsequently. Many years ago, it was my discovery of Arnell's music that was a critical part of the development of my theory of the vagaries of fame, and how loosely connected to quality is the fame of the composer. It is certainly true that most obscure music is bad; but there is enough music of first rank that is hidden that we must say that quality alone does not guarantee performances of your music.

I first heard Arnell's music at a concert at the British Music Information Center in London in September of 1991. The work was his Piano Sonata performed by Simon Murphy. I was immediately taken with the boldness, originality and beauty of this music. At the end of the concert I said to someone "the Arnell was the best work on the program", to which the composer-whom I had not met-turned to me and said "I agree with you!" A few weeks later Tony invited me to his place in Saxmundham, where we had lunch, he played me some of his music, and he made a few pithy comments about some music of mine that he graciously agreed to look at. At this point I had just started to conduct, and I made a promise to him that if I was ever in a position to do so, I would perform some of his orchestral music. By that time I had listened to broadcast and private recordings of several of his orchestral works and was in shock that there were no commercial recordings of this beautiful music.

It took many years, but by 1997 I was Music Director of the Southern Arizona Symphony, and I was able to fulfill my promise, playing the first performance of his "Overture 1940" with that group. I remember the music coming to me from the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music. The music had been copied as part of a "make work" project in 1941 (I had thought it was a WPA project, but I think the WPA was over by then). The string holding the parts together was falling apart, and the music was musty with age. The composer himself could not recall much of the music, composed when he was twenty-two, but I found it fascinating, with a great bassoon tune for the middle section. Later I was able to do first concert performances of the 2nd and 6th Symphonies with Southern Arizona, and American premieres of the 5th and 3rd Symphonies and the Ode to the West Wind with MusicaNova. We also did the Sinfonia Quasi Variazione, and with the Fine Arts String Orchestra I did his early Classical Variations. In Europe, I did the first European performance of the Overture 1940 with the Vidin Philharmonic.

We have so far only issued the recording of Symphonies 4 and 5 . The series that Martin Yates has done for Dutton has made getting the recordings out less of a priority, and in the intervening years both I and the orchestra have changed a lot, making it hard for me to revisit these sessions without wanting to redo certain passages. One thing I have been delighted with is the positive effect having two commercial recordings of 4 and 5 has had on the composer's reputation; people often distrust their own judgment about music, but seem more likely to look favorably on a composer with duplicate entries in the record catalog. So contrary to all the skeptics-having two recordings out was a good thing! Also, I was told that sales of the Dutton recording actually increased after ours was issued, and both versions have sold well for a classical recording.

I did not know Tony well, although we talked on the phone pretty regularly during the last ten years of his life and, until his eyesight got really bad, we used to write. He was extremely witty-his wit was so organic that you could sometimes forget just how consistently funny he was. Malcolm Arnold said Tony was the wittiest musician he knew.(for his part, Sir Malcolm always called Tony "Sir Richard"!) This reminded me of the perfect professionalism of Arnell's music-so effortlessly perfect that you might miss the depth, beauty and profundity behind those notes. (in this way, but no other, he reminds me of Poulenc.)

I visited Tony for the last time in 2005, when he was living at a Musician's Benevolent Home in Kent. He was frail, but his brilliance and wit were in full display. It was at this meeting that he gave me the ultimate quote about his Symphonies. When I asked why each was different from the other he said "Well, that's the point, isn't it?" At that meeting he also encouraged me to get in touch with and discover the music of his one-time amanuensis, Patrick Jonathan, a fine composer in his own right whose work I heartily recommend!

The Quartet Movement we will play is simply one of the most beautiful six minutes of music I have ever heard. When I asked the composer if I could arrange it for String Orchestra (there was actually no arranging involved-simply doubling each part and adding a bass part that doubles cello in some spots) the composer said, typically-"I am delighted to have you do this-just make sure you keep all my bowings-they are really good!"

We miss him, but it is great that in his last years, he saw the beginnings of a revival of interest in his music, and I am certain that fifty years from now he will be recognized for his wonderful contribution to the orchestral repertoire. And I am thrilled that I was there at the beginning of the revival.


  1. What a touching entry about one of England's least-known and excellent composers!

  2. I wish you had got Arnell to market sooner, I would have preferred to support your efforts. Maybe there are some still unrecorded orchestral works you could bring to light.
    BTW: I like much of Arnell's music, especially the piano concerto and 2nd symphony. I also believe his earlier works have a higher level of inspiration, and after his return to UK it seems he was less"The Gorilla Symphony"??.

    I hope you will bring Jacobo Ficher and your son's wonderful music to market as soon as possible.

    Rog Fischer


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