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Len Mullenger:

Malcolm Arnold and the String Quartet

by Piers Burton-Page

The image of Malcolm Arnold as a lightweight composer has been persistent. It is to Hans Keller that we owe a pioneering article1 which, along with early essays by Donald Mitchell, was and has remained one of the few pieces of writing about this composer to see beyond the buffoonery and brashness of more obviously 'popular' scores such as the Beckus the Dandipratt or Tam O'Shanter overtures to the serious musician beneath.

The insights which that article reveals into the complexities of Arnold's musical character were so shrewd that one must regret that they were never followed up. Keller's comments on our over-simplified understanding of the orchestral musician as composer, or on the psychology of trumpet playing, are in many ways strangely anticipatory of later developments in Arnold's composing career. There are many dark corners in Arnold's work which would have benefited from the penetrating beam of Keller's musical searchlight: the ambivalent attitude to tonality in much of his later music, and the precise extent of Arnold's indebtedness to Schoenbergian models and methods; the originality or otherwise of the hundred-plus film scores (film music was another of Keller's early interests); the melodic rather than harmonic nature of Arnold's thinking as a symphonist. Above all, we lack Keller on Arnold's two contributions to the form that was Keller's love throughout his life, the string quartet.

Malcolm Arnold's quartets date from 1949 and 1975 respectively. Looking back from a vantage-point in the 1960s, Arnold retained a soft spot for his first quartet venture. He told an interlocutor2 that he had written a great deal of chamber music, some of which I consider to be my best work . . . one of the best things I have written is a string quartet. String Quartet no.1 was his op.23; by 1963 Arnold was up to op.79, and had five symphonies, ten concertos and countless further pieces of chamber music behind him. The first quartet was indeed a youthful work; although the composer was 28, his composing career did not effectively get going until the end of World War II. It was a sign of growing self-confidence that the earlier quartet was the next work to be completed after Arnold's most substantial composition from the 1940s.

Opportunities to hear Arnold's two quartets have been few and far between. In some way their neglect is unsurprising, though both contain much fine music. The reasons for their neglect are widely and interestingly different. With no.1, the blame may perhaps be laid at the door of the composer's own youthful search for his true voice. This is a four-movement work, lasting some 19 minutes in performance; the score bears the completion date August 1949, and the major piece which immediately preceded it was his First Symphony. Of the growing power of Arnold's musical argument even at this comparatively early stage in his career there can be little doubt. The opening movement of his op.23 is an Allegro commodo that sets out from two three-note figures, one of falling whole tones, the other of a semitone followed by a leap of a 4th. They are combined in a more extended melodic phrase, but the falling whole tones then acquire another ending, of repeated notes, that turns out to dominate the movement (ex. 1).

Ex. I

When this is treated in close canon (letter H) the counterpoint becomes severe, even harsh. At the climax of the movement, all four instruments play savage repeated C sharps at the heel of the bow, initially violins against viola and cello, then in unison, then with the first violin pitting a D against his colleagues. But this harsh outburst subsides as rapidly as it arose. Suddenly the violins are playing the repeated notes in sweet 3rds, there is a wisp of a coda, just seven bars long and marked slightly slower, that alludes to the opening (this time over mysterious trills), and this terse movement is over.

Repeated notes also dominate the whirlwind scherzo, and Arnold here sets himself a compositional problem: to keep the eight staccato semiquavers going in at least one part in almost every bar of the movement. The pace is furious, and although this perpetual motion is assaulted by other brief figures - some chromatic triplets in the lower strings, then ferocious pizzicato eftects in all parts - there is only one real moment of departure from the relentless semiquaver figuration. This is an extraordinary passage of glissando harmonics over thrummed four-part chords (letter L), which has more than an echo of Britten's Frank Bridge Variations (which Arnold would have had many opportunities of hearing). The slow movement, Andante, is by far the longest, and its links with the night-music world of Bartók are not far to seek: in particular, it is full of spectral harmonics deployed with great technical resource, and one section where they appear over low subdued trills has an almost melodramatic frisson to it. just before this, the movement has almost come to a halt, when the metric pulse yields to two passages of quasi-recitative; but thematically the principal component of the movement is an angular tune, first heard on the viola, and after these moments of stasis Arnold brings it back in full for the end of the movement.

The Allegro con spirito finale is marked as fast as the scherzo, but it turns out to be more relaxed, chiefly because of the growing dominance of a Holstian theme that first appears where the second subject should be in a movement that sets out like an unambiguous sonata structure. But of the first subject little more is heard. Instead, the movement turns rondo-like with, as episodes, first an echo of the falling figure of the very opening of the quartet, and second a brisk fugato, abruptly curtailed. The end of the work brings back the Holstian theme one last time, but is in effect a gradual fade-out on long held notes. Through them it is possible dimly to discern once again the outline of a four-note motif of the kind that has casually occurred at other points in the quartet. There are four main occurrences that do not necessarily relate to one another (at i/letter X, ii/5 after E, iii/2 before N, iv/0). Almost all involve an initial rising or falling semitone followed by a minor 3rd in the opposite direction. The effect is somewhat perplexing in that it is difficult to detect precise thematic or structural significance. Is there, one may wonder, a hidden significance, or a homage to the shade of B-A-C-H? In the search for clues, it is worth noting that the motif in the third movement corresponds exactly to D-S-C-H, Shostakovich's musical monogram. Shostakovich himself had used this motif long before the Tenth Symphony and Eighth Quartet made it famous. It surfaces in his First Violin Concerto, which was written precisely at the time that Arnold was writing the First Quartet - but the cornposer held back the piece for fear of Stalin, and the first performance was not until 1955. But Arnold could have played in or heard Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony of 1939, where the motif is found at the end of the second movement. Is this pure coincidence? In this work, Malcolm Arnold does not yet speak with a readily identifiable melodic or harmonic voice., but there is no. doubting the technical assurance and strength of creative character that lies behind its often forceful gestures.

Arnold, as we have seen, retained an affection for the work and has freely admitted the influence Bartók had on him at this early stage of his composing career, in particular in an article in The Times3:The music that has influenced me most is that of Berlioz, Mahler, Sibelius, and Bart6k. And jazz as much as anything else. But almost in the same breath he admits to a certain ambivalence towards Bartók in his current thinking, and appears to distance himself from that composer's more uncompromising aesthetic attitudes: I used to think of music in terms of Bartók's quartets - I admire them tremendously. But it struck me that to carry the emotions they express into everyday life - frenzy and despair and so on - would be raving lunacy.

Arnold and Bartók share another attribute in their quartets, and it constitutes a paradox that would have aroused the suspicions of Hans Keller, who was always at pains to point to the links between quartet playing and quartet composing. He once wrote of composers writing quartets whose substance and texture were simply addressed to the psychology and acoustics of the concert hall4, as opposed to the drawing-room for which the quartets of Mozart and Haydn had been intended. As a result of the shift, the quartet became a cruder medium, and even a string player like Britten was forced to compromise (until that most private of his works, his third quartet). Arnold, though he learnt the violin briefly, would not describe himself as a string player (his first wife, Sheila, was a violinist), and his two quartets are both public statements - the early one perhaps compromised by Bartókian introversion, the later a wholly uncompromising and now deeply characteristic piece of self-expression.

Arnold's Second String Quartet followed some 30 years after his first: it was completed in Dublin in August 1975 and first performed by the Allegri Quartet the following year at the 29th Aldeburgh Festival. It is dedicated to the then first violinist of the quartet, Hugh Maguire - himself an Irishman, which provided the composer with a pretext for one of his most extraordinary inventions, at the start of the second movement.

At the outset of the work it is immediately clear that the quartet medium has suggested to Arnold an unusual intensity of utterance. The string quartet does not have to be the most personal and intimate of forms, but it is scarcely surprising nonetheless that it has often acquired something of a confessional character: Arnold is no exception to this rule. The opening of the Allegro is not arresting or dramatic: instead, in its gentle rise and fall it suggests a dialogue already in progress between first violin and cello on the one hand and second violin and viola on the other.

As the movement unfolds, Arnold's instinctive understanding of quartet texture, and his ability to vary it without artificiality, are soon apparent. A second theme consisting of just four notes, a falling minor 3rd followed by a falling 2nd, is briefly taken up, but intrusive semiquavers high in the first violin indicate the development's impatience to begin. This turns out to be the heart of the argument with furious semiquavers in all parts, and much contrapuntal imitation, as well as the use of dissonant 7ths and 9ths. When the argument eventually subsides, there is a brief recapitulation, and the return of the second theme, slowed down first to crotchet =84 and then 60, morendo,ends the movement on an inconclusive note. The first violin goes straight into a long cadenza, notable particularly for double-stopped glissando harmonics; and then, again solo, launches into an Irish reel! One's suspicions are aroused: this is surely not to be the place for Arnold's Irish Dances? But soon enough this banal tune is assaulted, almost physically by bitonal outbursts from the other instruments, and the furiously explosive energy is sustained throughout. This is angry music, similar in tone of voice to that of Shostakovich in, say, his Eighth Quartet. The Andante is bleak and bare in its long, two-voice beginning; but this abates in the middle of the movement, where there is a very simple tune, harmonized with great warmth and played sul tasto, pp semplice. Yet despite its presence, and indeed its later repetition, it is with the sinewy counterpoint of the opening - now on muted viola and cello - that the movement ends.

How then will Arnold resolve the ambivalences and ambiguities of this complex, personal music? Is this another finale-problem? The finale offers in fact two solutions: first an Allegretto that, with a long-breathed theme over a murmuring tremolando accompaniment, carries no trace of the compression that has been a hallmark of the quartet so far. Its subsequent contrapuntal treatment seems to hark back to the less disturbed world of another Arnold string work, the Double Violin Concerto op.77. But then the alternative emerges: a Vivace where the material is now more aggressive, short-breathed, dominated by a recurrence of the eerie glissando harmonics and particularly by a disturbing, jagged four-note fanfare rhythm. Neither side wins: eventually, the four-note figure precipitates an accelerando that collapses on to a final brief Lento consisting of a simple, song like theme in the first violin. This tune is not obviously related to anything that has gone before, and its final arrival into a D major cadence suggests expediency rather than genuine resolution. Arnold's Second String Quartet is a disturbing work; beautifully crafted for the combination, it is on a par with the greatest contemporary quartets, those of Britten, Simpson or Shostakovich, and should be performed more often for the insight it offers into a cornposer's mind at full stretch.

I Malcolm Arnold's Third Symphony', London Musical Events (Jan 1958)
2 Murray Schafer, in British Composers in Interview (London, 1963), 147-8
3 14 May 1959
4 'The Crisis of the String Quartet', The Listener (13 April 1974), 494

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