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It is marvellous news for all Arnoldophiles that in the coming months we shall see new productions of two of Arnold’s most popular works.  Birmingham Royal Ballet is currently touring a new production of Kenneth MacMillan’s  Solitaire choreographed to the ever popular English Dances; even more eagerly awaited will be the Royal Ballet’s re-construction of the coronation ballet, Frederick Ashton’s Homage to the Queen.  The MacMillan has been in and out of the repertoire of a number of ballet companies over the years but Homage has not been seen since the 50’s, although the Air pas de deux was restaged at Covent Garden in the late 90’s.

Homage to the Queen

While Symphony No 2 - the work that would cement Arnold’s international reputation -  was awaiting its first performance, Arnold  was commissioned to compose the music for a ballet to be choreographed by Britain’s leading choreographer Frederick Ashton  to celebrate the coronation of the  Queen Elizabeth 2. The ballet was to be performed on coronation night 1953, in the presence of Her Majesty and the great and the good of the world.

 Humphrey Searle had been a rather odd first choice for the job, and when he realised the speed with which he would have had to compose the score, he realised it was beyond him and so the commission fell to Arnold.  The ballet  'Homage to the Queen was composed, orchestrated, designed choreographed and produced in the incredibly short time of two months.  Such was the pressure of time that Arnold wrote the music during the night and handed it to the copyist the next morning. He got on happily with Ashton who 'loved the way the music came so quickly and easily', and with the cast, as dancer Anya Linden (now Lady Sainsbury) recalls: 'He was a heavy, lovely, jovial man and would stand by the piano to watch us, twinkling and laughing.  If Fred didn’t like a particular passage, he’d happily write something else’.

Part of the reason in choosing Arnold to write the score was his ability learned through many years of writing music for films to create music to tight deadlines and to specific timings. Like the Russian masters before him, Sir Frederick provided Arnold with a timed detailed scenario. Here are the notes for the opening of the ballet:

Distant Fanfare developing into loud fanfare as the curtain rises.

Entree of entire company. (March Allegro e maestoso 2 win.

developing into Adagio 2 1/2 wins developing into coda

Allegro Vivo 1/2 mm.)

1st entree (Elizabeth) 6 girls 1 win.

Solo (Grant) 1 win. Jig.

6 girls few bars 114 mm into Pas de Deux Pavane.2 wins.

Var Girl 3/4 mm and Var. man 3/4 Thin.

Coda All 1 win.

Allowing for changes which occurred as the ballet progressed, this is what happens in the score. Arnold meets these demands with some of his most appealing music.At the time Ninette de Valois compared the score to Tchaikovsky and Arnold believes this did him some damage professionally. It is however not a totally unjustified comparison for, like Tchaikovsky, Arnold is able to create within the eight and sixteen bar requirements of the dance, music of real beauty and originality. The restrictions of the medium do not compromise his originality. The music is wholly balletic and wholly Arnold. The original scenario for the ballet was to have four sections evoking different periods; Elizabeth 1, Anne, Victoria and finally the modern age. This was dropped at an early stage and the work became a divertissement in which the Queens of the four elements and their courts pay homage to the new Queen Elizabeth.

I give below a brief look at the work in the original version, exactly how the new version will turn out is not clear as yet but rest assured the music will still be the same.

The ballet begins (as requested) with echoes of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with an expectant note on the strings which provides the background for the quiet fanfares on the brass and woodwind. These get louder quickly and lead into a brisk march to which the entire company enter. Arnold shows his complete understanding of the ballet idiom early on when in the trio section, a beautifully- phrased adagio melody gives plenty of opportunity for the movements on stage to breathe.

Earth is the first and most problematic element to appear. Rather than write earthbound music, Arnold creates a pastoral scene complete with birdcalls. The main pas de deux originally for Nadia Nerina and Alexis Rassine is a lugubrious waltz, constantly attempting to rise but always being pulled back to the earth. The sense of weight is cleverly achieved by short abrupt musical phrases and an accented use of the lower instruments.

After the weight of Earth, Water shimmers and glistens onto the scene. The themes flow seamlessly into one another, each depicting the many facets of water. In what Arnold calls "the Resphigi bit", Brian Shaw's variation full of great classical leaps is supported by a surging theme coloured by the use of harp, celeste and glockenspiel.  Arnold's fountains seem to outshine those of Rome.

After what has preceded it the music for Fire comes as a shock. The themes are dissonant and angular with much use of muted and rasping brass and the wooden percussion. The highlight of this section is however not the psychotic pas de deux for Beryl Grey and John Field but the mazurka- like variation for Alexander Grant. This athletic solo full of spectacular leaps and dramatic falls is accompanied by one of the gems of the score. A strongly accented 3/4 with volcanic overtones coloured by whooping horns leads to a sharply phrased theme characterized by off-beat accents and unexpected pauses. Arnold has always understood the brass section and how to use it and in this section they are certainly put through their paces (as was Mr. Grant).

The tarantella which ends Fire is swept away by the clear syncopated chords which open Air, the final movement. The flying soaring elements will come as no surprise, coming as they do from a composer who had recently written the music for David Lean's aerial film 'The Sound Barrier'. The use of high scurrying woodwind suggest stratospheric heights while the clear open-textured string writing conjures up the limitless blue.

The climax of the ballet and the only section to have been seen since the 1950’s was a pas de deux for Margot Fonteyn and Michael Soames, which Clive Barnes thought 'one of the finest pieces of classical choreography yet produced'. The Air pas de deux is the most extended section of the ballet and Arnold allows his beautiful theme to breathe and develop. A taste perhaps of what he may have produced had as David Hunt suggested in the Dancing Times that had he been 'given more scope in a larger - perhaps a three act ballet, in which he could develop in more his own way'. This alas was not to happen. Homage to the Queen ends with a Firebird-like tableaux with the entire company on stage and the fanfares triumphantly heralding the new Elizabethan age.

The critic Richard Buckle suggested at the time that the ballet would have been better served had Glazunov’s 'The Seasons' been used instead of Arnold's score, although he has said to this writer that he was probably just trying to be provocative!  This however hurt Arnold deeply and, apart from the fact that it would have deprived us of the score, missed the point that the ballet had been created by three Englishmen to celebrate the coronation of the new Queen.  Buckle apart, most critics were taken with Arnold’s score, the Daily Telegraph found it ‘Full of resource and invention - supremely successful’, while the Scotsman thought ‘Arnold’s score was a superbly orchestrated dish’. In fact the score garnered some better reviews than did the choreography and  A.J. in 'The Musical Times', was correct when he wrote:  ‘If one cannot prophesy a long life for this ballet, the score will not be to blame.’   The ballet did indeed disappear, until now, although the music lived on and was released on LP the following year.

This LP was transferred to CD a few years ago but it is the one hugely popular major Arnold work that is crying out for a new stereo recording.


In 1956  the choreographer   John Cranko, had been working on the full length ballet to Britten’s score the Prince of the Pagodas.  At the same time he was supposed to be working on a new work for Sadler’s Wells for which Desmond Heeley had already made the designs.  When it was realised that Cranko would not be able to complete both on time  it  was decided that he should continue on the Britten project and postpone the other. It was in these circumstances that the young  Kenneth MacMillan, received a call from Dame Ninette de Valois the redoubtable Director of the Royal Ballet who, ever unwilling to waste anything, asked him if he would make a ballet to fit the Heeley designs.  Heeley had created a romantic yet thoroughly contemporary forest of white scaffolding against a turquoise sky.  Against this background Macmillan would create one of his most popular works Solitaire, sub-titled  ‘A kind of game for one’.

MacMillan had the idea but no music, but in the ensuing hurried, if not frantic, search of London’s record shops he came across the recently released record of Arnold’s two sets of English Dances, and fell in love with them immediately.  The trouble was that at fifteen minutes they were too short.  MacMillan had had an unfortunate experience with Humphrey  Searle on the specially commissioned score for Noctambules. He felt a certain trepidation at approaching another established composer - and at this time Arnold was at the peak of his reputation in England. But MacMillan need not have worried. 

Arnold was well known in Covent Garden as the good natured composer of two ballets for Frederick Ashton, the aforementioned Homage to the Queen and Rinaldo and Armida. MacMillan did not therefore feel too worried when he contacted him to ask if he would mind the dances being played in a different order, and if he would write two new numbers.  Arnold happily agreed to all of this and produced what would become two of his most popular pieces Sarabande and Polka which in his own words he ‘wrote in half an hour’.  The order of the dances in the ballet are  English Dance 7, 1, 2, 3, 4, Sarabande, Polka, 6, 5, 8, 7.

In choosing Arnold’s music, MacMillan showed that he was able to hear more than the surface meaning of a work.  Arnold was, and indeed still is, famous for the vigour and humour in his works.  Yet in all of his music, the English Dances being no exception, there is underlying sense of melancholy.  To the casual or less attuned listener this is not apparent, but MacMillan clearly picked up on it.  His tale of a loner attempting to join in with a larger group was based in part on the experiences of Margaret Hill, the ballerina for whom it was created. She had joined Sadler’s Wells from Ballet Rambert and was always trying to become a part of the large organisation. There is, as Edward Thorpe points out, ‘a distinct air of

melancholy beneath the surface gaiety of the ballet’ a phrase that could be used to describe the music as well.  His use of the ballerina within the ballet is also somewhat akin to Arnold’s use of the melodies within the music.  Constant Lambert once disparagingly said that the only thing one could do with a folk tune was to repeat it again louder.  Yet Arnold goes one step further and places his melodies against and within different instrumental colours and groups, exploring the effect of the sonic environment on the melodies. In much the same way MacMillan echoes this in his placing of ‘the girl’ against and within the different groups of Dancers, exploring her relationship with different emotional and physical environments.

It is a pity that Arnold and MacMillan never worked on another ballet together, although in an interesting turn of events Arnold’s next ballet would be for John Cranko’s 1959 working of the Sweeney Todd story. If only we could see that again!

copyright Paul R.W. Jackson.

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