Arnold (1921-) - Overture: Tam O'Shanter
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
weakening, as witness the broadcasts of all nine symphonies on the BBC's
of the Week to celebrate his 80th birthday on 21st October 2001.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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