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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Malcolm Arnold (1921–2006) might have pointed to his nine symphonies as the items in his vast catalogue he would most like to represent him in posterity. They peppered his career at regular intervals from 1949, just when he committed to being a full-time composer, until 1986, by which time he was doing his best to reassemble a life decimated by depression. In those works Arnold grappled most overtly with personal, political, and strictly musical issues that interested him. Then, too, he might have pointed to his twenty-odd concertos, conceived as musical portraits of the soloists for whom they were written, an A-list of instrumentalist friends that included violinist Yehudi Menuhin, oboist Leon Goossens, clarinetist Benny Goodman, hornist Dennis Brain, and guitarist Julian Bream.

The listening public, however, is not likely to be dissuaded from pigeonholing Arnold as an adroit master of light music. If most of his 130 film scores have been forgotten along with the movies to which they were attached, a handful live on as classics, including David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), an Oscar-winning score with an unforgettable march. British music lovers of advancing maturity are sure to remember Arnold as a key collaborator of the tuba-playing humorist Gerard Hoffnung, for whom he produced his once famous A Grand Grand Overture (1956) for Organ, Three Vacuum Cleaners, Electric Floor Polisher, Four Rifles, and Orchestra—perfect ammunition for Hoffnung’s skewering of musical pomposity.

His compositions inhabited a tonal, melodious world that earned him the reputation of a reactionary. Asked in a 1991 interview about the populist streak in his music, Arnold replied: “All the concert music is meant for the largest possible audience that can be had. I say always, when I write music, the loneliest thing is to sit at a desk with a piece of manuscript paper in front of you, and no thought of an audience.”

He wrote his Suite Bourgeoise in 1940 for fellow students at the Royal College of Music, which he left during his second year of study to assume a position in the trumpet section of the London Philharmonic, where he was soon named principal. Although the piece was certainly performed when it was new, it was then lost for decades, resurfacing only in 1996. This five-movement work opens with a “Prelude” of somber, questing mood, its phrases unrolling through various slow tempos and coming to occasional pauses. The rest of the suite assumes a more cheerful mien. According to Richard Adeney, one of the musicians for whom the piece was written, the “Tango (Elaine)” was inspired by a friend of Arnold’s—Elaine—who sang in a monotone, never departing from F-sharp; hence, the preponderance of F-sharps in the piano’s figuration, often dissonant to the overriding key. The raucous “Dance (censored)” is so called because Arnold initially intended to title it “Whorehouse” and thought better of it. The “Ballad” is graciously melodic, and the good-humored “Valse” is a tribute to a friend “Ugo” (actually Hugo Rignold), a jazz violinist and conductor.—From notes by JAMES M. KELLER, SCOTT FOGLESONG, MICHAEL STEINBERG, and STEVEN ZIEGLER