It is difficult to believe that Malcolm Arnold’s Divertimento No. 2, op.75 is not one of his most popular works, with regular performances in concert halls and on Classic FM. The fact is that there have only been two recordings of this work, one of which is deleted and the other only available as a specialist download.
The origins of the Divertimento go back to 1950 when Arnold produced the first version of this work, which was then his op.24. The British musical director and conductor Ruth Railton had asked the composer for a piece for the National Youth Orchestra’s first overseas concert in Paris. The Divertimento was completed in March 1950, however the holograph has disappeared. According to Piers Burton-Page (Philharmonic Concerto: Life and Music of Malcolm Arnold, Methuen & Co., 1994), the composer gave the score to Railton’s assistant when they were returning to England on the cross-channel ferry. It never resurfaced.
The previous year had seen the completion of Arnold’s Symphony No. 1, op.22 as well as the rarely heard Quartet for Strings [No. 1] op.23. Other works completed in 1950 included the Serenade for Small Orchestra, op.26a as well as the ever-popular first set of English Dances, op.27.
The first performance of the Divertimento (1950 version) was given on 19 April 1950 at The Dome, Brighton by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Reginald Jacques. There were three movements: Fanfare: allegro, Tango: lento and Chaconne: allegro con spirito. They were designed to show the ‘various qualities’ of the orchestra as well using its ‘full strength.’ This concert also included Berlioz’s Overture ‘Benvenuto Cellini’, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat with Nigel Coxe as soloist and Dvorak’s Symphony no. 4. The concert was billed as ‘immediately prior’ to the orchestra’s first overseas visit to France. The Divertimento was subsequently played in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot on 21 April 1950.
Seven years later the Divertimento was heard at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert on 10 August 1957 with the same orchestra, this time conducted by Hugo Rignold. It is difficult to square this with Piers Burton-Page’s statement that the score was lost seven years earlier: one can only assume that it was played from the orchestral parts, without a conductor’s score. The Times (12 August 1957) reported that ‘…they glowed with energy in the bright Divertimento written for them by Malcom Arnold, a clever piece of writing designed to display every part of an orchestra and doing that particular job most efficiently. They repaid the composer’s skill by being equally efficient.’ The Musical Times (October 1957) was equally fulsome in its praise. Harold Rutland stated that ‘…under Hugo Rignold, who evidently revelled in the opportunity of conducting these keen youngsters, the Orchestra played music by Weber, Bizet and Dvorak (the G major symphony); they also gave, under the direction of the composer, the first performance in London of a high spirited Divertimento by Malcolm Arnold, originally written for the Orchestra's visit to Paris in 1950.’
In 1961 the composer completely recast (from memory and the orchestral parts) the Divertimento. He abandoned the middle movement ‘Tango’ and replaced it with a Nocturne: Lento. It was first heard in this new form at Leeds Town Hall with Lawrence Leonard conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on 24 April 1961. The following year, on 26 March, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Kenneth Jones performed it at the Royal Festival Hall. It then ‘largely disappeared from the repertoire’ of professional orchestras.
The Divertimento is written for full orchestra with six trumpets and makes much of Arnold’s characteristic brass writing. The first movement is an ‘extended’ fanfare for orchestra with heavy brass expounded against a bright string passage, which has overtones of Walton’s wartime film music. Amongst all this excitement, a little woodwind phase tries and partially succeeds in establishing itself. The movement calms down with a reminiscence of the fanfare, followed by muted brass now supported by harp and leads quietly into the Nocturne. The woodwind phrase has the final word. Lewis Foreman (liner notes for Classico, CLASSCD 294) found the new ‘haunted’ Nocturne contains ‘delicate atmospherics, scurryings and [a] brief nightmarish central climax…’ The main theme is a characteristically gorgeous tune. The final movement, a Chaconne, is an Arnoldian romp. It has a ‘gaiety and brilliance’ not normally associated with the stately nature of the form which is usually somewhat dignified in concept. Arnold makes use of jazz effects and St Trinians’ ‘pop’. Hugo Cole (Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to his Music, Faber & Faber, 1989) has explained the formal structure as based on an ‘eight-bar harmonic sequence repeated thirteen times…’ in 3/4 time. There is a moment of repose before the work comes to a sparkling conclusion.
In 1967 the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO) included this charismatic work on their Golden Guinea album (GSGC 14103) featuring music by Alan Ridout, Michael Tippett and William Mathias. Eric Pinkett, the then Music Adviser for the county, in his book about the LSSO recalled that they ‘had in their possession a Divertimento by Malcolm Arnold which was still in manuscript and which had been played only by the National Youth Orchestra apart from ourselves…’
The LSSO had first played the Divertimento at a concert in the Norwegian city of Stavanger in 1960 – presumably the original version. It was, at that time, a regular feature in their programmes. The sleeve notes for the LP explain that Malcolm Arnold had first conducted the orchestra in 1962 and since then ‘one or another’ of his works had been in their repertoire. Music by Arnold played by the orchestra included the Overture: Tam o’ Shanter, the English and Scottish Dances, the Little Suites (1 & 2), the Trevelyan Suite and Solitaire.
The Divertimento (1961 version) was conducted on the new album by Pinkett as the composer was unable to attend the recording sessions.
To be continued…