The Malcolm Arnold
I write music because it is only possible to express the ideas and emotions I wish to express through the medium of music.
Music appeals to me chiefly because of its abstract quality. It is not necessarily tied to a story or a subject. That is the reason why most of my works are orchestral or chamber music, and although I have written a certain amount of vocal music, for me the most worthwhile thoughts are to be expressed without words.
I do not have any theory about the ways of putting notes together, but I have a number of strong beliefs which are the basis of all my work, and possibly some day, if anyone listens without prejudice to all my music, he will be able to see clearly what these beliefs are, and, no doubt, decide whether they have been worthwhile.
When a composer writes a phrase for a performer he should be acutely aware that the person he is asking to play his phrase is someone to whom the performing of music is just as important as the composing of music is to the composer. Therefore this is a responsible task and not to be approached lightly. One must know that the phrase is absolutely necessary to the whole work and that it is written in such a way as to give the player the finest possible chance to show himself at his best.
In the eight years I spent as an orchestral player I spent many hours practising difficult passages from all kinds of works, contemporary and otherwise, knowing full well that the result of them in performance would be to clutter up an already over-thick texture. This sort of thing, of course, does not encourage a player to give of his best, and when one arrives at a place in the composition when one's instrument (in the immortal phrase of Sir Henry Wood) must 'tell', one is too exhausted for this to be possible. The number of climaxes in music that have suffered because of these circumstances is too numerous to mention!
Another point which is always in my mind is that of development. If one is really honest in listening to the music of all periods there are times when one's mind is inclined to wander. This will happen even when listening to accepted classical masterpieces, and to a greater extent when listening to contemporary works. To put it crudely, the mind wanders during the sections that occur in music between the recognisable themes - always assuming that the theme or themes have said something to the listener.
Very, very roughly speaking, these parts of a composition are usually development sections; one cannot write a piece of music by just repeating one theme, unless it is a special effect one is after as in Ravel's Bolero. A composer has to compose something that contrasts and will show his original thought in a new light, and the play between these two or three or even more thoughts goes to make up a composition.
To hold a listener's attention throughout a whole work is a major problem.
Composers during the whole short history of written music have used all kinds of devices to develop their music and give it formal continuity. One can use the first few notes of the original thought by themselves, one can use the original thought backwards, or as a rhythmic pattern, making a new melody out of it; one can use its harmonic pattern and a new idea may spring from that.
The ways of continuing or developing music are legion, but an important point which we composers in our enthusiasm as specialists in music are apt to forget is that these ways in themselves are of no interest to anyone. The music must say more to the listener than "I am the first three notes of the original thought" or "I am the original thought backwards". What this something more is, is impossible to define in words; which will help to explain why I search after this elusive something only by writing music.
To use two of my favourite composers as examples: one can find in some late Sibeiius works perfect unity and form in performance, and yet to the eye there is no apparent connection at all between the musical statements. In some works of Mahier one can find every kind of technical connection between statements by looking at the score, and yet in performance the unity and form of the music is difficult to grasp. This slight obstacle which I have to surmount to enjoy some of Mahler's original and beautiful music is so small as not to detract from it as a whole. Since Mahier's death very few composers have used the wonderfully clear and clean sounds which he used to such perfection, and I can see endless possibilities, stretching into the distant future, of creating new music within the limits of the tonal system if one always thinks in terms of sound and not only of notes on paper.
The greatest musical influence in my life has been, and still is the music of Berlioz. His compositions always strike me as so fresh, and far more contemporary in spirit than so much of the music written only a few days ago. If he can express his idea by a melody only, he does so, and if it is a melody based on tonic and dominant harmonies (which would have been considered by some as 'old fashioned' in his day) he is not afraid to do so. At times within a tonic and dominant context he will astonish by a harmonic change which is decidedly 'not done' - which goes to prove once again that so many of the things which are so well worth doing are 'not done'.
Sometimes, when I am annoyed by reading a critic dismiss all of my work on the basis of one appalling performance he has just heard, I think of all the stupid arguments that are still brought forward when the name of such a giant as Berlioz is mentioned, and I thank my lucky stars that I am in the fortunate position of being able to earn a living by writing music and not by writing about music.
When I am asked to write music for ballet, a school orchestra, a film or a revue, I write exactly what I would like to hear if I were to go to the particular entertainment for which the music has been commissioned. On quite a number of occasions my ideas have coincided with other people's - from which you will gather that my stars have been lucky indeed!
First published in Music and Musicians - July 1956
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