The Peterloo Massacre: Sir Malcolm Arnold’s response

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.

Live review – English Music Festival opening night: BBC Concert Orchestra & Martin Yates play Robin Milford, Stanford, Vaughan Williams & Arnold

Sergey Livitin (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra / Martin Yates

Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames
Friday 24 May 2019

Berners Portsmouth Point (1918) [World premiere]
Arnold Serenade Op.26 (1950)
Stanford Violin Concerto in D major (1875) [First public performance]
Vaughan Williams orch. Yates The Blue Bird (1913) [First public performance]
Delius A Song before Sunrise (1918)
Milford Symphony no.2 Op.34 (1933) [World premiere]

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Picture of BBC Concert Orchestra (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke

The 13th English Music Festival got off to an impressive start this evening, with Martin Yates presiding over the BBC Concert Orchestra for a substantial and wide-ranging programme that brought together the hitherto unknown and the relatively familiar in appropriate EMF fashion.

Who else would provide a platform for a first public performance of the Violin Concerto in D major that Stanford wrote at Leipzig in his mid-20s but which, despite the seeming approval of Joachim, remained unheard before being recorded two years ago. Admittedly the first movement rather outstays its welcome, the themes lacking memorability and a solo part not ideally contrasted with the orchestra, but the slow Intermezzo has an appealing poise; its cadenza artfully made an extended transition into the final Rondo (a procedure likely taken over from Wieniawski’s Second Concerto – the model in several respects), its winsome second theme brought back as a lingering coda prior to the closing flourish. Sergey Levitin proved an able and sympathetic soloist in a piece which, whatever its stylistic limitations, was certainly worth rehabilitating.

As too was the incidental music Vaughan Williams devised for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, idiomatically orchestrated from the piano score by Yates. This is essentially a ballet (or rather mime) sequence for the end of the first act, its series of thematically related dances striking a fantastical note such as the composer tellingly (if unexpectedly?) conveys. It may well have proved too ambitious in its original context though makes for a lively and imaginative suite, into whose whimsical spirit the BBCCO entered with evident enjoyment.

Malcolm Arnold’s Serenade exemplifies this composer’s early maturity with its pert melodic writing, harmonic ambiguity and rhythmic impetus. A Song before Sunrise is less often heard than other Delius miniatures, but its ruminative mood – barely ruffled by passing shadows, is no less characteristic. It could not have been more different from Lord Berners’s Portsmouth Point, redolent of early Prokofiev in its mechanistic aggression that, if it lacks the ebullience of Walton’s later overture, still packs an uninhibited punch when presented as a curtain-raiser.

The concert ended with its most intriguing item. Long considered a miniaturist (at least in his expressive scope), Robin Milford was not lacking in ambition – as reinforced by his Second Symphony (so designated following the rediscovery of its predecessor from six years earlier), admired by Vaughan Williams but only now receiving its first complete performance. Its four movements ostensibly reflect classical archetypes, but the first of these modulates ever more stealthily as it unfolds, while the scherzo’s latter trio unexpectedly opens-out the expressive range. The highlight is undoubtedly a slow movement of sustained and cumulative emotional depth, closer to Nielsen than Sibelius in tonal follow-through; after which, the (intentionally?) concise finale barely manages to provide a decisive resolution without seeming perfunctory.

Not in doubt was the commitment of the BBCCO and Yates in realizing this dark horse among British inter-war symphonies. A fitting end to an absorbing event: good to hear that orchestra and conductor will be returning for the 14th EMF – scheduled for May 20th–22nd next year.

Further listening

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on a date as yet unknown. Much of the music is not currently available in recorded versions on Spotify. However EM Records, the label who run the festival, made this enterprising release of Stanford‘s Violin Concerto no.2, coupled with Robin Milford‘s Violin Concerto no.2, both with soloist Rupert Marshall-Luck:

For more Robin Milford this album on Toccata Classics provides great insight into his writing for chamber music forces:

Meanwhile the following playlist includes the Malcolm Arnold and Delius works, the more familiar version of Portsmouth Point by Sir William Walton, and Arnold’s Symphony no.1: