On the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, this vivid musical interpretation of events on that day comes from Sir Malcolm Arnold.
Arnold completed the overture in 1968, when it was published as his Op.97. In his description of the piece for Faber Music, he described the events and his response in some detail:
“Peterloo is the derisive name given to an incident that happened on August 16th, 1819 in St Peter’s Fields Manchester, when an orderly crowd of some 80,000 people met to hear a speech on political reform. On the orders of the magistrates they were interrupted by the yeomanry attempting to seize the banners they carried, and to arrest their speaker, Henry Hunt. Cavalry were sent in, and eleven people were killed and four hundred injured in the ensuing panic.
This overture attempts to portray these happenings musically, but after a lament for the killed and injured, it ends in triumph, in the firm belief that all those who have suffered and died in the cause of unity amongst mankind, will not have died so in vain.”
The extraordinary piece – which really should be better known – can be heard below, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer:
It may start with a regal theme but soon the cavalry approach, and the music is thrown into disarray and discord. Ominous brass and squealing woodwind signal the onset of violence, before a description of the outright chaos on what has become a battlefield gets ever louder, like the climax of a Shostakovich symphony.
Then suddenly all is emptiness, the horrors fully revealed…but from the depths comes a beautiful lament from oboe and a repeat of the main theme from the strings, now held higher – before a salute from full orchestra ends the overture in triumph. The piece is a powerful and moving response to the tragedy, a musical portrayal of courage in the face of terror – and it proves every bit as relevant to today’s political climate as it would to the victims of the massacre.
If you want to hear more Arnold, the album from which this piece is taken includes three fine examples of his nine symphonies (nos.1, 2 & 5), and two more entertaining overtures, Tam O’Shanter and Beckus the Dandipratt:
As you will gather from those titles alone, the composer was not without a sense of humour!
The picture is a coloured print of the Peterloo Massacre, published by Richard Carlile.