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Sir Malcolm Arnold: Burlesque for horn and orchestra (world premiere)

Discovery of a missing manuscript by one of Britain’s greatest living composers is always an exciting event. Realisation that it is one of their earliest mature compositions - an unfinished work for horn and orchestra - makes it doubly so. Pre-dating the 1945 Horn Concerto No.1 Op.11 this 6 minute ‘Burlesque’ (a title appended by the publishers not the composer) is the first movement of a projected three movement concerto. Written in the space of a week during June 1944 it was probably intended for performance by Charles Gregory the first horn in Arnold’s then orchestra the London Philharmonic and, significantly, just before the composer enlisted in the Royal East Kent Regiment.

Originally thought to be a draft for a film score, the manuscript was discovered among a pile of other sketches during one of my many visits to the composer’s home in the winter of 2001. Many of the pages of the ink full score had separated, were out of order and interleaved with a pencil short score but once I had located the title page the re-assembly of the full score was relatively simple. I never found the the last two pages of the full score but these were reconstructed from the complete short score by Philip Lane (who also edited the work for its world premiere, to be given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Arnold Festival on October 22, 2006).  The score showed signs of incompleteness and haste - there were several passages with indications of "filling-in" to be completed plus many amendments in red crayon and pencil - Arnold’s ‘call-up’ may well have put an end to his initial burst of creativity that summer!

However, the listener can quickly detect that the Burlesque enters the sound world of Arnold’s earlier comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt Op.5 (1943) with typical fortissimo outbursts alongside moments of pastoral serenity and a distant fox-hunt. There are surprisingly few thematic connections with the later first Horn Concerto - admittedly the orchestration is identical (piccolo, double woodwind, timpani and strings) and both have no key signature being largely modal throughout. The rising (and falling) scale passages in the Burlesque’s middle section (which accompany the horn’s cadenza-like fantasia on the opening theme) also appear in the Op.11’s first movement and both works conclude with an identical rising horn call and a pianissimo dying fall. The enigma of the Burlesque is that it displays the character of a Rondo finale rather than that of a ‘serious’ first movement - it was little wonder that when the composer returned to his first real essay in concerto form the following year it had undergone a major, indeed magical, transformation.

@Alan Poulton, 2006

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