The Malcolm Arnold
"Music Maketh Malcolm" by Paul Serotsky
This article is based on the substance of a talk given by the author at a symposium held as part of the Malcolm Arnold Festival, Northampton, October 2000. It was first published in Beckus (Autumn 2001 issue) and appears in this present, somewhat expanded form with the kind agreement of the Secretary of the Malcolm Arnold Society.
Do you remember those old adverts where that eternal stalwart William Franklin, holding a bottle of a certain well-known brand of tonic water, his fingers covering half of the name in deliberate violation of one of the most basic rules of TV advertising, slyly asked if anyone knew "the Secret of Schhh - you know what"? If you're my sort of age, you probably will, otherwise you'll just have to take my word for it. Of course, the whole point of the advert was to suggest that the product had a special "something" that set it apart from the crowd. People as well as products can be blessed (or cursed) with a special "something". Any Arnold fan worth his salt will, at some time or other, have been challenged with something on the lines of "Go on then, chum, tell me: what's so special about him anyway?" - and as likely as not will have struggled to come up with anything even remotely approaching a really incontrovertible reply. I know that I have (struggled, that is), and that resonant memory of dear old Bill gets me wondering, "Just what is the secret of Mmmmm - you know who?" It strikes me that now is as good a time as any to try to pin it down once and for all. It almost goes without saying that the operative word is "try" - in what follows I'm just giving you the benefit (if that's the right word) of my own deliberations, and then it's "over to you"! But, where do we start? Even that's a bit tricky but, well, I suppose that we could do worse than Arnold's professed "credo":
"Music is a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is"
As ever, he's a man of few words, but these particular words generate a whole rabbit-warren of implications! For example, this tells us that Arnold considers music is neither for the composer's self-gratification, nor for the self-glorification of its performers (although, I might add, there are plenty who think otherwise), but should also embrace its audience in a sort of tripartite communion. If it is to be a "gesture of friendship", the audience must be admitted on equal terms, which means that composers have to speak in a generally comprehensible musical language. While listeners may be (or even should be) stretched, they must never be broken. It also follows that the music must be commensurately interesting and challenging for all the players and (here's the rub!), if the entire venture is to be worth our while, then there must be something worth communicating.
When you think about it, for as much as a second or two, it seems obvious that Arnold's apparently simple statement does in fact underline the entire purpose of "serious" music (even where it's "lighthearted" serious music). This is a purpose which he so clearly understands, but which a certain dominant establishment faction seems to have wilfully ignored. Maybe this is part of the reason for his "excommunication": at a time when most composers were deliberately excluding ordinary, "uncultured yobs" (like me) from their equations, Arnold was (equally deliberately) including them in his. This desire, to communicate with the entire spectrum of humanity, is something that he shared with Leonard Bernstein. However, I recall that in a recent TV tribute Bernstein was praised to the skies for his courage in bucking the trend and sticking with "old-fashioned" tunes and tonality - while in his own country there are those who still condemn Arnold for taking precisely the same stance. Why?
Perhaps it's something to do with this: I've heard it said that Arnold "too often played the jester", so that when he tried to be serious, no-one would take him seriously. You can imagine some high-falutin critic snorting, in high dudgeon, "Symphony? Symphony?! Is this another of his jokes? Well, let me tell you, he's not going to fool me!" Nevertheless, fool them he did, but surely (with apologies to our Andrew) after fully forty years you'd have thought that the "penny" should have dropped, even for the thickest of critics! Then again, don't we all scream in frustration over why it is that Arnold's own compatriots can cope with combinations and concatenations of clowning and profundity in foreigners, like Shostakovich & Co., but not in their own Malcolm Arnold? Is this anything to do with "Prophets" and "Honour"? Maybe.
In my experience, most ordinary folk have little time for "atonal" music, no matter how well written. That's because their ears, bound by the laws of nature in general and physics in particular, have to work pretty damned hard to "decode" even tonal music, fogged as it is by the artifice of Twelve-Tone Equal Temperament. Basically, it's because our ear-brain systems are geared to music where the notes of the scale point us unerringly towards a tonal centre, and naturally object when the signposts are fuzzy - or simply not there at all. Viewed in this light, dodecaphonic music and its stable-mates must be considered to be acquired (very acquired!) tastes. Arnold, however, knows that if he wants to communicate with the broadest possible audience (and they don't come much broader than me), he has no option but to use "traditional"melodic and harmonic styles, otherwise the "common man", expecting a full bob's worth when he shells out a whole shilling, will simply shrug his shoulders and walk on by.
This is all well and good, but it tells us only that Arnold wrote generally approachable music, not what makes his music unique. So, we are still faced with the question: what really sets him apart from the crowd? Could it be his highly individual character? That sounds a likely possibility, but NO! Although this has some bearing on the matter, we must ultimately discount it, because Arnold is (in this respect) just another wave in a whole ocean of composers who have similarly distinctive "fingerprints". The crucial point is that this precious "Secret" has to be something that practically no other composer possesses. Here we must set aside all Arnold's "popular ditties" - because in these he really is just one of a crowd, even if an exceptionally talented one - and in so doing we are compelled (by no less than Mr. George Boole) to infer that this "Secret" has to lie within his more substantial stuff.
Mind you, it doesn't help that the enigmatic Arnold doesn't say much, is often self-contradictory, and as often as not is just pulling people's legs. For example, we learn little from pronouncements like "I think of music in terms of sound", except perhaps that he regards dodecaphonists etc. as thinking of music in terms of abstract mathematical constructs! For another example, Donald Mitchell said, "There is no doubt that Arnold enjoys writing music", while Piers Burton-Page quotes Arnold as saying, "I have to get into an almost suicidal state before I can put pen to paper". Taking these two together, our only reasonable conclusion (again courtesy of Mr. Boole) would be that Arnold "enjoys feeling suicidal", which is hardly likely (OK, he did once attempt suicide, but that doesn't mean he enjoyed it!).
This is starting to look like another blind alley, so I think that, at this stage, we should turn the issue around and look at it from the other end, by giving some thought to what "the crowd" does. My feeling can be summed up like this: practically all the composers of "profound" works that you can name do the same typically "artistic" thing: seduced by the Siren of "High Art" (and possibly by intimations of immortality), they "abstract", or "universalise" what they are trying to express. As a rule, Arnold doesn't. Moreover, it is brain-meltingly significant that this is especially true of his major works. What he puts into his deepest music is so rare that the blood's still dripping from it. As music's answer to "Kitchen Sink Dramatists" like John Osborne - the parallels positively chafe your cheeks - he perforce speaks in a vernacular far more "common" than even Tchaikovsky's, and moreover a vernacular utterly unlike anybody else's. While others merely use the musical vernacular for parody or shock effect, for Arnold (as for Osborne) it's much more than that: it's a dialect, intrinsic to communication at this broadest and most basic level, and utterly unavoidable if he's to practice what he preaches.
Now I think we might be getting somewhere, because working at this corporeal level, working through this "common" language, he can express our gut feelings - not only our day-to-day joys and sorrows, not only our aspirations or our own worst nightmares, but also (and most uncomfortably of all) our most toe-curling "embarrassments". To give you the general idea, imagine that at a polite social function, you are introduced to a stranger. Suddenly, amid polite small-talk, this person blatantly scratches him (or her) self in a less then publicly polite place, and regales you with a loud and lurid account of the tribulations of some intimate affliction (you can cite your own examples - I'm not about to suggest any!). How would you react? Go on, admit it, you'd be completely flummoxed! I can't over-emphasise that the musical equivalent of this kind of "socially unacceptable behaviour" is exactly the sort of thing that you cannot "universalise" - if you try, it doesn't just become "artistically refined", it completely evaporates!
So, to a large degree, while people have accepted Mahler's "universalised" emotional excesses, many (and especially those in "polite" musical circles) still baulk at Arnold's outbursts of uncensored, real-life "sex 'n' violence". Consequently, either they perform intellectual somersaults to try to impose "socially acceptable" interpretations, and remain blind to the otherwise blindingly obvious (a classic example is the denouement of Arnold's First Symphony), or they take the easy option - they simply shun his music precisely because it is "socially unacceptable". A composer who dares to scratch his ******, musically speaking, in the Board Room of Musical Establishment Incorporated will, as sure as eggs is eggs, be registered Persona Non Grata, until either he proves that he's "fully rehabilitated into Polite Musical Society", or there's a drastic change of Board membership and/or policy. The former demands the utterly unthinkable prerequisite of the ritual burning of most of Arnold's major scores whilst, regarding the latter . . . well, we all live in hope, don't we? At this point, I'll resist the temptation of entering into (yet another) tirade about the Proms.
Yet, if you can summon up the guts to face up to the stark, "bare-arsed" realities expressed in Arnold's music, the rewards are more than commensurately greater. Not that the need for guts is always blatantly obvious - think of that jaw-droppingly beautiful transformation of the second subject, at the end of the first movement of the post-Bartokian Second String Quartet. He seems to be whispering some forbidden intimacy right in your ear, so that only you can hear what he's saying. Turning Matyas Seiber's famous remark on its head, it's like an oil-painting stuck in the middle of a torn 'bus-ticket, and in its quiet way is every bit as alarming as that bit of Bartok's Fifth Quartet (although Bartok, being foreign, is of course allowed to get away with it). In future, when challenged by some "Malco-sceptic", you might like to consider replying, "Unlike that of practically any other composer you can name, Arnold's music deals with bare-arsed realities", secure in the knowledge that if your choice of words causes offence, you've probably hit a fully deserving target.
Although this effectively concludes my main point, there are a couple of related topics that I feel I should touch on before we're done. Is Arnold's music really old-fashioned, and behind the times? I hear most of Arnold's detractors, and even some of his stoutest supporters, claim that his music is hardly ground-breaking, cutting edge stuff. His detractors see this as a technical justification for condemnation of his music, while those supporters will argue defensively that you don't have to break new ground to be "great". Maybe I'm over-simplifying it, but actually I don't need to dig into the details, because the entire argument is in any case fallacious - Arnold's music is just as ground-breaking and cutting edge as any of the most advanced excrescences from the Ivory Tower. What's more, Arnold was advancing on not one, but two fronts. Firstly, this "bare-arsed reality" that we have been discussing seems to be effectively a development of the antics of Les Six (et sim.), who scandalised "Polite Musical Society" by introducing outrageous street-wisdom into "light" music. Arnold took this further by extending the principle into the realm of "profound" music: he boldly went where no man has gone before - or since, for that matter. Secondly, he invested traditional symphonic forms with all manner of original ideas and innovations, not least of which was the almost symbiotic fusion of sonata form with the dramatic narrative techniques of film music (most pertinently exemplified by the first movement of the Fourth Symphony) - practically every single symphonic movement he wrote draws in some kind of "air from another planet". Each of these on its own should be sufficient to secure him a place of honour in the history of music, but there's more: the two are complementary, mutually reinforcing. Arnold could have got away with putting the "new wine" of his unique mode of expression into the "old bottles" of unmodified traditional forms, but the former would not have sat very comfortably within the latter. Equally, he could have followed a safer path, expressing the same old "universals" within his "new, improved" symphonic structures, and achieved something merely of academic interest. But putting the two together is like tossing a lighted flare into a powder-keg! The general image in my mind is that Arnold's "formal structures" and "expressive content" are both extruded from, and bound together by, a form of "cinematographic dramatic narrative" - which kind of makes sense when you consider the flair he showed for his "day job".
And, what about the contribution of that oft-neglected "third corner" of that tripartite communion - the listener? I'm of the opinion that a composer is no more "right" than anyone else when it comes to what his music "means" to any particular listener, because "meaning" is the result of a brain chemistry catalysed between the listener's ears by the sound that enters that fermenting retort. Because the listener's brain is one of the reactants, the "meaning"of a piece of music is - has to be - unique to each individual. Maybe this is why Arnold says so little about what his music is intended to "mean". Nevertheless, because of his creative insight, the composer can still cast a light to illuminate a riddle - provided, of course, that he's prepared to spill beans. It seems that my personal understanding of the end of the Fifth Symphony differs from most. I don't find the "deliberate trashing" of his "big tune" even the least bit enigmatic, but feel that the glorious expansion of that tune represents self-delusion - it's a utopian bubble that must burst, and when it does (in that dismaying sideways harmonic lurch), it douses you in the bone-chilling, slate-grey, unpalatable truth. When I had the chance to ask The Man Himself whether this in any way concurred with his intention, he replied simply, "Quel Grand Illusion!" Afterwards, conscious of his reputation with words, I wondered whether this was acquiescence, or that he meant I was deluding myself. I believe, if only to give my own ego a much-needed boost (even the most over-inflated egos need a boost now and then), that the former is the correct alternative!
However, considering the symphony's historical context, there is another possibility, which is that Arnold, unwilling to compromise his artistic imperatives, foretold his own "fall from grace". Either way, it's an expression of something very real, very close to the heart of an individual, and in singularly stark contrast to the epic disaster that finishes off Mahler's Sixth Symphony. I also wonder, bearing in mind his legendary mastery of orchestral technicalities, whether Arnold deliberately set about crafting his music so that even competent amateurs could make half-decent (or better) stabs at it. It's almost as if he knew that was going to need those dedicated amateurs to carry his torch through a long, dark winter.
Ultimately though, as I've said, the choice of "understanding" is ours, and ours alone - provided, that is, we are given sufficient opportunity to make that choice. It is a sad indictment of our supposedly enlightened times that there are still those in positions of power who would abuse their power to deny Arnold's music its rightful place in the repertoire (nowadays, even Wagner has gained a toehold - however tentative - in Israel, for Heaven's sake!). Sooner or later, Malcolm's Magnificent Music will ultimately defeat those Mealy-Mouthed, Malicious Mandarins. I just hope that it's sooner rather than later - so let's keep up the barrage of protest letters (you can at this point burst into a quick chorus from Arnold's Fantasy for Audience and Orchestra, if you like). In the meantime, I raise my glass to all those dedicated amateurs who carry his torch, to those maverick professionals who put their necks on the block, to those bold recording companies who afford us often our only means of access to whole swathes of Arnold's output, and of course to The Man Himself - happy 80th. birthday, and thanks for all the music. "Thanks" - now, that's a small word, but it generates a whole rabbit-warren of implications, doesn't it?
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