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Arnold (1921-) - Overture: Tam O'Shanter

Arnold's is a curious case. For his "sins", our greatest living composer has long been shunned by  the musical establishment. Performances of his greatest works - the symphonies and concertos -  are rare. His knighthood in 1993, which might have triggered some sort of renaissance, had no perceivable effect. Yet performances and broadcasts of his "pop pieces" seem to have continued utterly unabated. I suspect that, where the establishment is involved, this might be propaganda,  an attempt to brainwash us into accepting Arnold as merely a populist composer. But in spite of  the shameful total exclusion of his music from the 2001 Proms the propaganda is weakening, as witness the broadcasts of all nine symphonies on the BBC's Composer of the Week to celebrate  his 80th birthday on 21st October 2001. 

Once you are convinced of the greatness of his major works, you risk overlooking the greatness of his  minor works. Beware! Arnold simply doesn't have it in him to apportion his talent relative to the  import of the work in hand. Even a simple advertising jingle - and he did write one once, though  it was never used! - receives maximum care and attention: "By Malcolm Arnold" is a kite-mark  for the highest quality, of both craftsmanship and invention. 

In this sense, Tam O'Shanter is not a remarkable piece, though by any normal standards it's a  masterpiece. The recipe is simple: take L'Apprenti Sorcier, A Night on the Bald Mountain and  the Dream of a Witches' Sabbath,  mix with a large overdose of Robbie Burns' favourite malt,  and Bob's your uncle! This should have been a prime candidate for Fantasia II

At the tender (and impressionable) age of fourteen Arnold had been riveted by Lockhart's Life of  Burns. It was only a matter of time (20 years!) before Arnold's graphic talent, that helped him  become one of the most prolific and successful of film composers, should be brought to bear on  this lurid tale: 

In the dead of night the drunken Tam, riding his mare somewhat unsteadily homewards, stumbles across a Sabbat. Having witnessed the most unspeakable horrors, he is discovered - and  pursued by a host of witches and demons. Fleeing for his very life, he escapes by the skin of his  teeth - but only because he crosses clear, running water (luckily, there's plenty of that in Scotland!). His mare is less fortunate: at the last moment she loses her tail to the claws of one of  the pursuing horde. 

Arnold has a field-day with the orchestration of this scenario, throwing in just about every device  imaginable of bibulous comedy, chase scene, and hammy horror. Both the burbling bassoons'  "scotch snap" at the beginning and the whole orchestra's "highland reel" in the middle can be  taken two ways. It's easy to laugh at Tam's predicament, but as the pursuit hots up Arnold subtly  alters the perspective: we start to feel the hapless sot's fearful panic, and it's disconcertingly real  . . . but don't let me frighten you (it'll be a dark journey home) - just enjoy the music!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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