Malcolm Arnold: Concerto for Harmonica


Composed in 1954, Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Harmonica was premiered by harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler at the Royal Albert Hall in the same year. The BBC Symphony Orchestra accompanied Adler for this concerto. Clocking in at around nine minutes in duration, this concerto is packed full of twists and turns. The concerto was the one of the first of a number of more serious works for the harmonica after the Second World War. Other composers such as Darius Milhaud, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Ralph Vaughan Williams also composed for the instrument.

The concerto is set into three movements:


I) Grazioso

II) Mesto

III) Con Brio


The Music
Movement I – Grazioso

Opening with a bold brass chord, followed by mellowed strings, the harmonica enters with a sweet melody. Almost bluesy, the solo is accompanied by sustained strings. Pizzicato bass also enhances the idea of blues and jazz, and this style carries through this movement. The texture of the harmonica clashes somewhat with the orchestra, but the balance that Arnold creates keeps dissonances nuanced. 

A more chaotic middle section, which shows dialogue between the soloist and orchestra, is soon overtaken by the opening melody. The harmonica part is virtuosic in terms of flexibility, technical prowess and the stamina needed to keep up with the quick tempo. As the movement comes to a close, a quirky conversation between the soloist and percussion breaks out before a reprise of the opening melody appears once more. The movement concludes sweetly, with the soloist playing the main theme in a higher register.


Movement II – Mesto

The second movement, notably slower than the first, opens with a sort orchestral prelude before the mournful harmonica enters. The slow melody is accompanied by the horns and lower strings, which gives off an interesting texture. The lyrical melody is solemn in character, and Arnold’s use of blue notes keeps the blues/jazz feel to the music. The short rumbles from the percussion signal the brass to fanfare. The dissonances are more abrupt in this movement, with the climax sections practically fizzing with clashes. 

A percussion break then begins, with the timpani and tom toms rolling and syncopating together. The soloist returns, now only accompanied by fading drums. This cadenza-like section shows off the technical prowess of the soloist. The final bars of this movement see the brass and percussion in particular support the soloist with big chords and orchestral swells.


Movement III – Con Brio

The final movement, quick in tempo, opens with a jaunty melody from the soloist. The sparse accompaniment often mimics the soloist, creating waves of different melodies.The stamina and flexibility needed from the soloist is on show in this movement, with the fast passages and extended techniques shining through. The shortest of the three movements, this quirky finale is a culmination of movements passed. After a build up in texture, the orchestra finally unite with the soloist to play the final bars in complete unison. This is really effective as for the most part the soloist has been in conversation with the orchestra. The unifying is significant and ties up the whole concerto. 


Final Thoughts

Dedicated to harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Harmonica is one of the best in the repertoire. Due to Adler’s incredible talent British composers took to composing for this unique instrument, and because of his there is actually some serious repertoire for it. This concerto is full of character, technical dominance and excitement, making it a triple threat.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Simon Lawton-Smith · 23rd November 2021 at 9:16 am

A very good piece by Malcolm Arnold, not played enough – but that’s true of a lot of Arnold. This year (2021) is his centenary so there has been a few things on the radio, but not enough in my view. The symphonies majorly under-represented in the concert hall.

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