I am convinced that one of the major problems in approaching Arnold Cooke’s music is the presumption that it owes virtually everything to Paul Hindemith. At least this seems to be the prevailing view amongst the few music critics that I have read. Most listeners will acknowledge Hindemith as a well-known composer and teacher, yet I guess he is not universally popular beyond Germany. There is a thinking abroad that somehow Cooke sold-out on his Britishness to become a kind of Germanic clone. On the other hand, there is an expectation that an English composer should write music in a recognisably nationalistic style: perhaps making use of folk tunes or nodding to the vocal lines of Tallis or the romanticism of Elgar. Yet, this assumption would destroy the reputation of a number of fine British composers. Think of Lennox Berkeley and his French connection, or Vaughan Williams’s valuable lessons with Maurice Ravel. And what about the Frankfurt Group including Balfour Gardiner and Cyril Scott? All these composers have absorbed teaching from French or German composers, yet have retained to a greater or lesser degree a sense of Englishness. So it is with Cooke.
Arnold Cooke was one of only two English pupils of Paul Hindemith: the other was Walter Leigh. It is fair to say that he learnt much from his teacher. Malcolm MacDonald sums this up in the programme notes to the Lyrita CD of this work. He writes that what Cooke ‘really imbibed was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S. Bach.’ As Havergal Brian wrote in 1936, Cooke ‘appears to think and breathe contrapuntally … and he has tradition in his bones: his working principles are nearer to the Elizabethans and Bach than to Wagner and Strauss.’ And note here Brian's reference to the Elizabethans.
This is not the place to write even a short biography or musical study of Arnold Cooke. There is plenty of information available on MusicWeb and a fine booklet written by Eric Wetherell and published by the BMS that may still be found in second hand bookshops.
The first Symphony was composed in 1947, when Cooke was 41 years old. The general opinion of the critics seems to be that this work represents the first major statement of Cooke’s fully developed style – a style that was to change comparatively little over the next half century.
There are a number of possible models for this work including Hindemith’s Symphony in E dating from 1940. The British exemplars of that time would have been Walton’s B minor and Vaughan Williams’ 4th and 5th. It is fair to say that Cooke neither parodies nor cribs from any of these works. What he has written is original and quite personal.
There are four movements with the first being the longest. Interestingly, the classical model is altered, with the scherzo coming second. The general mood of the Symphony as a strong and robust work is immediately apparent in the opening movement. This is in a reasonably traditional sonata form. Yet the tempo does not slow up for the second subject. There is some fine brass writing, particularly for the French horns. A good balance is maintained between what may be deemed ‘aggressive’ and ‘lyrical’ music.
The second movement is not really a proper Scherzo. The classicist would tell us that the ‘trio’ is missing. The impression is of activity: the momentum never seems to stop. It is not quicksilver - more of a whirlwind. There is a swing and a swagger to this movement that continues unabated to the very last bar.
The heart of this work is the elegiac slow movement. This is deeply considered music, timeless and beholden to no man. Here we find music that may nod, according to MacDonald, towards Bach or perhaps even the Elizabethan viol school. However, all this ‘source criticism’ is small beer compared to the overarching power of this expansive and frankly sad music.
Fortunately, the tension is diminished during the finale. This is an exuberant excursion into the world of festivals and fanfares. Lots of different themes and figures and episodes are tossed around before the work concludes with a fine coda.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published 7 May 2007.
Arnold Cooke’s Symphony No.1 has been recorded in LYRITA SRCD.203