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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


SIR MALCOLM ARNOLD (1921–2006)

First Hon. Vice-President of the UK Sibelius Society

I am writing this tribute to Sir Malcolm while listening to two weeks of broadcasts of Sir Malcolm’s music on Radio 3. He would have been 85 on the 21 October 2006 but sadly died four weeks earlier, just as celebrations in our concert halls were getting under way. He was Radio 3 Composer of the Week in mid-October 2006 and the BBC are broadcasting all nine of the symphonies over the same period.

Many lovers of good music will say "About time!" Those of us who attend the Proms will know how shabbily he has been treated under the current regime. In this, his 85th year, not one work was heard at the Proms. This is not only inexcusable but also spiteful on the part of the Proms management. Arnold had been a doyen of the Proms in the 1950s and the 1960s, with compositions played and works (including those of others) conducted. Radio 3, under Roger Wright, at least is doing the right thing in allowing us to hear a wide range of Arnold’s output in his birthday month.

Sir Malcolm’s death is literally the end of an era of British composers who indefatigably supported the cause of Sibelius in the ever increasingly avant-garde period of post-war music in Britain. This was the time of a critical back lash against just about everything Sibelius stood for, basically predicated around the writing of symphonies in an age when such a "romantic" notion was dead and buried. Another composer to compare with Arnold’s thinking was Robert Simpson, his exact contemporary. Their creative lives were based on the writing of symphonies in the sense that each man would have liked their work to be judged fundamentally on the value of their symphonic thoughts. (Although Arnold was not in the best of health towards the end of his life he did live into an era of almost total acceptance of the genius and importance of Sibelius in the context of 20th century music, something that none of his contemporaries quite managed.)

Both Arnold and Simpson paid a heavy price for openly espousing the qualities of Sibelius in the prime period of their composing careers, which was in the 1950s to the 1970s. Due mainly to the BBC and the various Controllers of Radio 3 (the Third Programme as was) and a new, young wave of producers, the climate for composition was defiantly modernist. Arnold, Simpson, who himself was a BBC producer, and a whole host of other composers were simply ignored. This was best shown by the drying up of BBC commissions and broadcast performances.

In fact Arnold probably suffered the least of all his fellow reactionaries, as they would have been regarded by the emerging younger composers (such as drawn from the so-called Manchester school, i.e. Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle.) He was established as a multi-faceted writer capable of producing high quality music be it for films, orchestras, soloists, chamber ensembles and so on. Indeed Arnold’s capabilities were truly astonishing. But they only served to worsen his mood when his big works, his symphonies, were laid waste by the critics each time they appeared. His ambition was to be taken seriously but his skill was to write works that were accorded public approval to the extent that it worsened the situation with the critics. In many ways he was hoist by his own petard.

But this is history. Today we can see the whole output in the round. We can hear the happy, joyous side to his personality in many works including his anarchic Grand, Grand Overture, written for a Hoffnung concert [details], and his serious side in his many concertos and nine symphonies. The concertos are a rich tribute to some of the finest instrumentalists of their day, all personal friends of Arnold. Their names are a roll call of superlatives; Yehudi Menuhin, Leon Goossens, Richard Adeney, Julian Bream, Dennis Brain, James Galway, Julian Lloyd Webber and Benny Goodman to name a few.

The over 120 film scores are merely a sign of his ability to write appealing and highly effective mood pieces that often caught the public’s attention. But what an ability! It came through his early facility in writing music quickly, first in his head then straight onto the staves. This was not the happy lot of many others including his friend William Walton, a painfully slow writer of works. Humphrey Searle, a post-war composer was asked to write a ballet for the Queen’s coronation at short notice and passed on his recommendation for Arnold knowing of his speed at composing. The result was Homage to the Queen, revived this year at Covent Garden. This side of his musical genius could irritate Arnold. He was once congratulated for writing the score for The Bridge on the River Kwai in ten days as if it was some wonderful gift he had. He replied, "Nonsense, I was told I had to write it in ten days. There is a big difference!"

Arnold may have been out of step with the radical side of the musical establishment but he was certainly part of a much bigger movement of satire that sprung up in the 1950s with such radio and television shows as the Goons, Round the Horne and TW3. He was at the centre of performing satirical music in collaboration with Gerard Hoffnung in the Hoffnung concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall, writing works especially for the concerts with huge success. Accused of being a clown in some quarters it is easily forgotten that most if not all the members of the musical establishment took part in these events. They pricked a number of metaphorical balloons to very good effect and helped popularise serious music (that is to say music that is performed in a concert hall) far more effectively than the happenings of Stockhausen and Boulez.

When I asked Sir Malcolm to become our first Hon. VP he graciously replied, "I would be honoured". I subsequently had a series of conversations with him as recently as three years ago and I was always struck by his complete absence of ego. He could apparently become annoyed by being asked all the same old questions and he always preferred the company of musicians. My talks were peppered with anecdotes some unpublishable here but how many musicians can talk at ease with first-hand knowledge of both Ginger Rogers and Wilhelm Furtwängler?

He was by all accounts a generous man both with his money and his time in writing works for people. Julian Bream had asked him for a guitar concerto for ages and finally gave him a cheque in advance. Arnold relented and sent him one of his most famous works written in the space of days together with the cheque returned! Strangers would write to him seeking help with a musical issue only for Arnold to solve the problem with a new work. He loved attending concerts of his own music be they in this country or abroad. In retirement he derived much pleasure form travelling to many parts to hear a work. He wintered in the Middle East for many years and was invited to visit Oman to hear Chris Adey give the local premiere of the 2nd Symphony.

I recently gave a talk at my old school on Arnold’s compositions and ran out of time in playing a range of his music starting with the ubiquitous March from the River Kwai Suite, which earned him an Oscar, and finishing with the finale of the Sixth Symphony. I did not play any of his famous compositions or any of his 20 or so concertos because there seemed other sides of his genius worthy of hearing, particularly his symphonic output. Only one pupil had heard of the film The Bridge on the River Kwai but they all queued up for a complimentary CD at the end!

The nine symphonies are an extraordinary series of compact organic thought allied to a startling melodic dimension that completely undermined any sense of credibility Arnold may have had in the minds of most contemporary critics. In post-war Britain, with its eventual backlash against former musical icons such as Sibelius and Vaughan Williams, you simply did not write tunes in symphonies. Tunes were for film scores of which Arnold wrote over 120. He was, in fact, the original cross-over composer capable of writing film score gems such as for Whistle Down The Wind (his favourite) and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness alongside serious concert works such as the Double Violin Concerto and the 2nd String Quartet. The trouble was most of the narrow-minded critics could not understand nor accept Arnold’s ability to make this cross over. In this respect he resembles Leonard Bernstein, a polymath musician of enormous talent. Listening to two of the respective composers’ finest works, Arnold’s Double Concerto and Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin and Orchestra we are struck by the sweetly lyrical mood of the two middle movements. Both wrote some of the best film music of the 20th century and both wished to be taken seriously in their big concert works. Arnold was the better composer because he concentrated on writing whereas Bernstein was deflected by his conducting career. The irony is that Arnold said he began writing music for films so as to be able to learn how to conduct. He always loved waving the baton around whenever he got the chance.

How did he achieve the writing of music in so many styles? His early liking for jazz meant he had an unconventional musical upbringing although his studies on the trumpet under Ernest Hall at the Royal College of Music gave him a solid grounding sufficient to become a section principal in the wartime LPO. He was fortunate to have a sympathetic composing tutor in Gordon Jacob. What is striking about his composing profile is the immediate "Arnold" sound heard in his early Beckus the Dandipratt overture (1943). In this respect he resembles Sibelius where Kullervo and En Saga also announced an individual voice in music

Arnold stated that Sibelius and Berlioz were his two most admired composers. From the 1st Symphony onwards Sibelius’s influence can be heard in the tight organisation of musical material and various devices such as ostinatos, swelling brass chords, pedal notes in the bass, short snippets of melody gradually expanding into broad statements and so on. But Mahler and Shostakovich can also be heard in many of the nine symphonies. A comparison with the Russian composer is instructive. Both men met a number of times and the 6th Symphony was begun, without a commission, after the last meeting. The finale has the same extravert spirit as we hear in, say, the Shostakovich 10th. Arnold’s 8th is also shot through with dark and light thoughts as we hear in Shostakovich’s 6th. I would go so far as to say that Arnold is as great a composer as his Russian counterpart. They lived in different musical environments and today we laud Shostakovich for his withstanding Soviet/Stalinist pressures to conform. Arnold also failed to conform to the musical mores of his day by steadfastly ignoring all the post-war "isms" that plagued British contemporary music. (But he admired Webern and incorporated some Schoenbergian tone rows in certain works always in an Arnold mould!). The difference in the two great composers is one of global recognition. Arnold’s serious side remains unappreciated whereas Shostakovich is not given sufficient credit for his many and wonderful film scores.

Arnold today remains the victim of a musical snobbishness where a composer capable of writing The Padstow Lifeboat march and the English Dances cannot possibly be expected to write interesting and well-wrought symphonies. This just doesn’t happen. But neither Britten nor Tippett were capable of such range in their output. What is extraordinary in Arnold’s output is his mirroring of so many styles and yet maintaining the ability to be his own man. Hence we hear the heraldic sound of Arthur Bliss; the ceremonial style of William Walton; the technical fluency of George Lloyd; the obduracy of Robert Simpson and the astringency of Benjamin Britten. Only in the music of Michael Tippett do we not really hear any connection at all. However Arnold was keen for everyone to know he played in the premiere of A Child of our Time by Tippett!

No-one, even Britten, had the sheer range of output we hear in Arnold where every note is written to make its mark. The works might be uneven but they are clearly the work of a consummate craftsman who sometimes did not take life too seriously. But if we truly listen to the nine symphonies we hear a weighty composer who connects with his audience in a way that other post-war symphonists such a Robert Simpson and Peter Maxwell Davies have failed to do.

My prediction is our grandchildren will think today’s generation of music-lovers hopelessly old-fashioned in its stinginess towards Arnold’s total output, the honourable exception being certain quarters on Radio 3. Our senior orchestras ignore Arnold to their shame. But it is not too late to celebrate a remarkable composer, one of the most interesting and enjoyable of his generation. His music has touched the hearts of ordinary listeners in a way not heard since Elgar. When I ask conductors why they perform Arnold the reply is always the same, "Because audiences love his music."

Arnold himself said he wrote too much music (itself a miracle in the face of enduring mental health problems) and that inevitably it was uneven. But his sound is inimitable in a world of often grey conformity and his spirit is imbued with a brilliance of orchestration, a genuine and memorable melodic gift and a genius for communication that mark him out from virtually any other composer of his day. Apart from the handful of famous works, which will remain immortal, there is a substantial body of wonderful music that should be explored, starting with the nine symphonies.

We send our condolences to Antony Day, Arnold’s long term carer and manager and to his family.

Edward Clark
Sibelius Society

The Malcolm Arnold Society pages

see also MusicWeb Obituaries
Malcolm Arnold - an Obituary by Rob Barnett
Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) A Greater Composer than Some Might Think
- Paul Serotsky

[DVD - Toward the Unknown Region Malcolm ARNOLD – A Story of Survival - A Film by Tony PALMER]

 



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