Malcolm Arnold: Symphony No.8


Commissioned by the Rustam K. Kermani Foundation in 1978, Malcolm Arnold’s Eighth Symphony was his penultimate symphony. The premiere of the symphony happened in New York a year later by the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by Julius Hegyi. Of all nine Arnold symphonies, the Eighth was the only to have its premiere outside of the United Kingdom. Not too long after finishing this symphony, Arnold took a seven-year hiatus from composing, as he was hospitalised and treated for severe depression. It is said that the Eighth Symphony reflects how Arnold might have been feeling at the time of composition.


The Music

Set into three movements, Arnold’s Eighth Symphony offers a kaleidoscope of textures and colours throughout the orchestra.


Movement I – Allegro

The opening dissonance is striking and the bold brass lead the way here. The impending lower brass create a sense of dread, as the upper strings push their upper registers to create a shrill response. Borne from this is a march-like tune which is simple in its conception, but is soon developed within the cacophony of sound created in the rest of the movement. Arnold’s handling of dissonance and textures is what draws the listener’s ear into this symphony, and this is thoroughly showcased in the opening movement. Unlike the introduction, the end of the movement tails off quietly, with a nearly inaudible tam-tam hit at the end. 


Movement II – Andantino

Described as an elegiac movement, the solemn second movement is a big shift in character. The slow moving lines paired with rich and sonorous textures creates some really intriguing effects. A solo oboe, accompanied by strings, plays the main melody of this movement. Dark in character and laden with undertones of heaviness and despair, this movement is often likened a lot to Arnold’s state of mind at the time of composition. Short orchestral outbursts outweigh the quieter section towards the end of the movement. The spooky tone at the end becomes more and more hushed, until all music has faded away.


Movement III – Vivace

The finale movement opens with a sequence of organised chaos led by the woodwind. Unlike the other two movements, the finale is upbeat in character. A string fugato section ensues, which is reminiscent of Arnold’s lighter style, as well as that of his Russian contemporaries. A whirlwind of different phases are played through in this finale and as the quiet central section comes to a close the return of the opening theme begins. The percussion plays a large part in the end as the driving snare drum keeps the music moving as well as adding drama to the music. The huge dissonant chords at the end unite the orchestra as the symphony ends triumphantly.


Final Thoughts

The penultimate symphony penned by Malcolm Arnold, the Eighth is a bold symphony that combines advanced harmony, drama and atmospheres to create an unforgettable symphony.


Ⓒ Alex Burns 

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No.2


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