Malcom Arnold’s ‘Four Cornish Dances’, op.91 celebrated their half-centenary of their first performance on 13 August 2016. Over a period of forty years the composer made a round-Britain tour with a series of this novel genre. The first attempt at this form is also the best-known: the ‘English Dances’, Set 1, op.27 which were composed in 1950. A second set, op.33, followed in 1951. Six year later the ‘Four Scottish Dances’, op.59 were first heard during a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. These have become nearly as popular as the ‘English Dances.’
The ‘Cornish Dances’ were followed by ‘Four Irish Dances’, op.126 written in 1986, ‘Four Welsh Dances’, op.138 were composed in 1989, and finally the last of the series although not officially ‘dances’, the Manx Suite (Third Little Suite, op. 142) was commissioned for the Manx Youth Orchestra in 1990.Genesis
The previous year had resulted in no major compositions apart from five fantasies for wind instruments which were commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for the Birmingham International Wind Competition in May 1966. These included the Fantasies for Bassoon, op.86, Clarinet, op.87, Horn, op.88, Flute, op.89 and Oboe, op.90. Arnold’s last major orchestral work had been the Sinfonietta [No.3], op.81, completed on 1 September 1964.
The popular ‘Cornish Dances’ were composed when Malcom Arnold was living with his second wife Isobel, in Primrose Cottage at St Merryn, near Padstow, Cornwall. Having recently escaped from a frantic London life, he entered into the spirit of brass bands and other local music making. He stated in an interview (cited Meredith & Harris, 2004) ‘I am now aggressively, chauvinistically Cornish.’
Arnold has described his time at St Merryn as being ‘happy but not idyllic – there is nothing idyllic about writing music and bringing up a family.’ It was during his years in Cornwall that his son, Edward, was diagnosed as being autistic.
Major compositions written during Arnold’s residence at St Merryn included the Symphony No. 6, op.95 (1967), the Peterloo Overture, op.97 (1968) and the Concerto for two pianos (three hands) op.104 (1969).
Locally-inspired works featured A Salute to Thomas Merritt, op.98 (1967) for two brass bands and orchestra and the well-known Padstow Lifeboat for brass band, op.94 (1967).
At this time Arnold had become involved with the Cornish Youth Band, the Cornwall Symphony Orchestra, the Cornwall Rural Music School and the East Cornwall Bach Festival. On a more relaxing note he was known in ‘most pubs from Tintagel to Bude.’
In recognition of Arnold’s contribution to local music he was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1969. In 1972 he left Cornwall and moved to a village near Dublin.
The ‘Four Cornish Dances’ were completed on 26 May 1966 and were dedicated Malcolm Arnold’s wife, Isobel.First Performance & Publication of the Score
There appear to have been no reviews of this concert in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Musical Times, Daily Mail or the Manchester Guardian. However, Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris (2004) quote an appraisal from The Northampton Chronicle and Echo (15 August 1966):
‘One of the [Promenade Concert] season’s triumphs! The work received an ovation lasting several minutes during which the Prommers stamped their approval vociferously demanding an encore, which was unfortunately not forthcoming.’
Meredith and Harris (2004) also cite a letter from the music critic Donald Mitchell to the composer:
‘I really feel that anything I say about your Four Cornish Dances would be superfluous, after the ovation they received at the Albert Hall on Saturday night. What a glorious roar of approval! It almost wrecked our radio at Barcombe, but even had it done so we would have thought it a worthy sacrifice…They are a stunning set of dances…’ (15 August 1966).
The ‘Four Cornish Dances’ were subsequently heard at the Proms on 12 September 1981 and 30 August 2010.
The orchestral score was published in 1968 and did receive some critical comment in the musical press. The score is prefaced by a programme note written by the composer:
‘The Cornish people have a highly developed sense of humour. Many are sea-faring folk, and it is a land of male voice choirs, brass bands, Methodism, May Days, and Moody and Sankey hymns. The Cornish, despite, or even because of, their great sense of independence have been ruthlessly exploited. The deserted engine houses of the tin and copper mines bear silent witness to this, and these ruins radiate a strange and sad beauty. I hope some of these things are present in this music, which is Cornish through the eyes of a “furrener”. Malcolm Arnold
Hugh Ottaway (Musical Times, July 1968) reviewing the score began by suggesting that the listener does not look for musical development in ‘a 10-minute work like the Four Cornish Dances.’ Like other critics he sees them as ‘a kind of tone-picture, evoking the landscape and ethos of the county. He concludes his comments by insisting that ‘some of the best pages of the ‘English Dances’ are brought to mind, especially in movements 2 and 4, and there are characteristic touches at every turn. Nothing more, nothing less.’
After reviewing the score of Alun Hoddinott’s Variants for orchestra (1966) ‘with his hard-edged, uncompromising thought [that] meets the listener but fractionally…’, E.R. (Edmund Rubbra) in Music & Letters (July 1968) considers that Malcolm Arnold:
‘…goes three-quarters of the way. What a contrast is afforded by the genial, ingratiating music of his set of Cornish Dances! Whether the ideas are boisterous, deliberately commonplace, impressionistic or dance-like, all are widened and deepened by diatonic insights and scoring that belong only to the intuitions of an instinctive musician…Both Hoddinott and Arnold add a much enlarged percussion section to the otherwise normal instrumental demands.’
Musical Opinion (July 1968) is extremely rude about Cornwall – the critic answers Arnold’s ‘…a land of male-voice choirs, brass bands, Methodism, May Days…’ by suggesting this description is on safe ground –as he ‘wouldn’t really know, for one visit to Cornwall was enough…’ He goes on to say:
‘…but my eyebrows rose when I read that in his [Arnold’s] opinion the deserted engine houses of the tin and copper mines bear silent witness to the fact that “The Cornish, despite, or even because of, their great sense of independence have been ruthlessly exploited…” I had thought – on the admittedly slender evidence of Ethel Smyth’s opera, [The Wreckers], and my stay at several hotels – that the exploitation was on the other foot.’
After this extremely ill-humoured riposte, the reviewer admits that he ‘has nothing but enthusiasm for his Suite, full of character, and splendidly orchestrated.’
The ‘Cornish Dances’ were later arranged for concert band (Thad Marciniak) Faber Music (1975) and for brass band (Ray Farr) Faber Music (1985).Bibliography:
Burton-Page, Piers, Philharmonic Concerto: The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold (London, Methuen, 1994)
Cole, Hugo, Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to his Music (London, Faber, 1989)
Jackson, Paul R.W., The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003)
Craggs, Stewart R., Malcolm Arnold: A Bio-Bibliography, (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998)
Meredith, Anthony and Harris, Paul, Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius, (Norwich, Thames/Elkin, 2004)
Hunt, Phillip, Malcolm Arnold in Cornwall http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Jan06/Arnold_Cornwall.htm (accessed 5 March 2021)
To be continued…