• Malcolm Arnold
  • Wind Octet (Divertimento) (1988)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • 2ob.2cl.2bn/2hn
  • 18 min

Programme Note

Sir Malcolm Arnold: Divertimento for Wind Octet, Op. 137

Malcolm Arnold is no stranger to wind music and to such forms as the Divertimento and this work is a happy synthesis of various strands in his output. Born in Northampton in 1921, ever since he began composing he has found room for a strand of pure entertainment: music to sit alongside his more serious Symphonies and Concertos. In the early days he was stimulated by the thought of his enormous number of friends in the musical profession who wanted entertaining music to play in small-scale groups. There is even a wind quintet among his early, lost compositions; and his first acknowledged pieces include a substantial quantity of works involving, and often combining, woodwind, brass and even string soloists.

Among these relaxed and spontaneous offerings from his early and prolific years, one in particular is worth a moment's attention in the light of tonight's new piece. The brief, high-spirited Divertimento for Wind Trio, Op 37 is relevant not just for its title, suggesting something apparently unserious but not un-considered, but also for its tight structure - a sequence of six short, linked movements - which is formally unusual even in Malcolm Arnold's vast output. For some reason best known to the composer's subconscious, the new Divertimento for Wind Octet also turns out to be one of the most tightly-organised of the composer's much more recent pieces! Is this, perhaps, a response to the suggestion of looseness inherent in the title Divertimento?

What we are confronted with is a five-movement work, again with some of the movements virtually running into one another, and again with some close-knit thematic integration. Listen out for the opening flourish that runs through the entire ensemble and forms the very first thing they play. The rising seventh occurs again and again throughout the whole piece, very obviously, and bind it together with classical rigidity. The octet ensemble is classical, too: pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons, with the first member of each pairing given occasional moments in which to shine - the first clarinet in particular, for Janet Hilton is not just a close musical friend, but the commissioner and dedicatee of this octet!

Arnold begins, then, with a three-four allegro that is very much in the nature of a prologue; it is very short, and sets out the basic material, much of it stated in unison and most of it fortissimo. The ensuing larghetto, in common time, is also short, and seems principally concerned to develop the inherent somewhat spare lyricism contained in the motif of sevenths that is again prominent. The third-movement vivace is in compound triple time, and moves with vehement speed and almost hectic energy. There is plenty of virtuoso writing, particularly for the clarinet; some wild dynamic contrasts; and not one but two abrupt cut-offs - a favourite Arnold device this! A four-bar maestoso coda wittily echoes a theme from the first movement. The fourth movement is a three-four allegro, very fast and again almost scherzo-like, and there is more than a hint of a sardonic waltz about it before the music peters out in a clarinet solo. Arnold stipulates a lunga pausa before the final movement, a four-four piece marked 'alla marziale'. The rhythms are indeed march-like, and the march tune is not so much a cousin as a twin brother to the sevenths motif heard at the outset. This march is much the most substantial part of the Divertimento, a weighty piece exploring a variety of moods and even setting the march theme against a variety of new material that includes a fanfare-like flourish, and a sinuous, even chromatic motif first given out on the oboe and quickly taken up by the horn. Once again a lean clarinet heralds the ending, which is forceful and very brief. We shall, hopefully, have been entertained - but also challenged! Malcolm Arnold completed his Divertimento for Wind Octet in May 1988, at his home in Attleborough, Norfolk.

© Piers Burton-Page