Suggested Listening: “Three Shanties” by Malcolm Arnold

Introducing… SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC!  Every week, I will post a recording of some great pieces that anyone can enjoy and appreciate, and include some brief, skeptic-friendly “program notes” for those inclined to read them.

First up: Three Shanties, Op. 4 for Woodwind Quintet, composed by Malcolm Arnold; performed below by del’Arte Ensemble (Portugal).

About the Composer:

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) was an Oscar-winning knight with an unhealthy enthusiasm for alcohol and a sharply British sense of humour.  Born into a family of shoemakers, Arnold took up trumpet at age twelve after seeing Louis Armstrong perform, and by age seventeen he was attending the Royal College of Music on a full scholarship.  He won the position of principal trumpet in the London Philharmonic in 1943, but after a short-lived enlistment in the British infantry he turned his attention to composing.  His prolific output varied widely, from the 1958 Best Score to Bridge on the River Kwai; to A Grand, Grand Overture for orchestra, three vacuum cleaners, one floor polisher, and four rifles; to his charming chamber and solo works for winds.

About the Piece:

Tales of pirates and the high seas have fascinated British history and folklore for centuries.  Arnold was intrigued by this aspect of his native culture when he composed this, his earliest chamber work, in 1943.  Each of the Three Shanties is based upon actual pirate and sailing work songs that may have originated as far back as the 1400s: the first movement recalls the old shanty “What Would You Do With A Drunken Sailor?”; the second, “Boney Was A Warrior”; and the third, “Yo Ho! Blow the Man Down”.  Pirates, sailors, fishermen, and other men of the sea used shanties to synchronize such tasks as unfurling the sails or raising the anchor, to relay the captain’s orders, and simply to keep from growing bored.  Shanties often featured a call-and-response style, with the ship’s Shantyman (self-appointed lead singer) beginning the melody and the rest of the crew repeating or completing his lines.  This can be heard in Arnold’s Shanties as the melody is passed between the instruments.  Pirates also loved to dance; Arnold includes several dances, including an exotic tango in the first movement and a jig in the third, so the landlubbers in the audience can imagine a lively pirate party!


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