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MALCOLM ARNOLD AT EIGHTY

by

Hubert CULOT
 

Malcolm Arnold holds a unique position in the British musical establishment. In spite of having achieved some popular success in the field of film music - and that of light orchestral music - and probably because of it - Malcolm Arnold has long remained a rather neglected composer whose achievement has never been seriously assessed. Too many highbrow critics have dismissed him as a serious composer by refusing to look deeper under the surface of his music. Malcolm Arnold’s prodigious orchestral and instrumental mastery was very often seen as a liability rather than an asset. The paradox is that Arnold’s facility tends to conceal his innermost self, his many human experiences and concerns which often lie at the very heart of his music.

His large output ranges from short didactic piano pieces to large-scale symphonic works, and includes quite a number of pieces for various instrumental combinations as well as ballets and some choral or vocal items.

The backbone of his oeuvre lies in his nine symphonies, in his concertos and in some of his chamber music. Nevertheless he scored his first successes with works in a somewhat lighter vein. These included the comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt Op. 5 (1943), the two sets of English Dances Op. 27 and Op. 30 (1950 and 1951) and some of his film scores including the Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai (1958).

His symphonies are among his most significant works and span his composing career. To his nine symphonies one should add the earlier Symphony for Strings Op. 13 (1946) which is a quite remarkable, serious piece, though very uncharacteristic of Arnold. It nevertheless shares many common features with its near-contemporary Violin Sonata No.1 Op. 15 (1947) and also with the String Quartet No.l Op. 23 (1949). This is to be remarked especially in its recourse to some "advanced" techniques lending unusual astringency to the music and bringing it nearer to Bartók or Berg than to Walton or Vaughan Williams.

The Symphony No.1 Op. 22 (1949) went almost unnoticed at the time of its first performance. Later recordings revealed its highly personal originality. It is a violent piece, the violence being suggested rather than bluntly exhibited. The whole leaves the listener with a strong feeling of unease. The Symphony No.2 Op. 40 (1953) is a more relaxed work, although it is also far from being freely unbuttoned. It also includes many disquieting elements that belie its apparent optimism. On the other hand the Symphony No.3 Op. 63 (1957/8) is a more serious and, at times, sombre work. On the whole it is probably the most successful of all, i.e. in symphonic terms.

"Less popular than some of his other symphonies, this is an impressive work. The personality is as strong here as it is in any other piece by him" (1).

By contrast the Symphony No.4 Op. 71 (1960) seems very episodic and superficial although some moments in it point forward to the much more satisfying Symphony No.5 Op. 74 (1960).

"After the serious and impressive Third, the Fourth seems a greatly inferior work to the Fifth, and in it Arnold’s penchant for pop tunes rather runs riot." (2)

The Fifth Symphony is a deeply personal utterance, sometimes concealed under its more superficial moments. Peter J. Pirie (3) gives a short and illuminating analysis of the work, and we may best refer the reader to it. The Symphony No 6 Op. 95 (1967) is one of the most economical so far although all the usual fingerprints are present. The feeling of unease in the first movement is still more evident in the doom-laden slow movement which is a long funeral march of Mahlerian intensity with a whimsical Allegretto central section. The restatement of the funeral march ends quite enigmatically in a long crescendo leading nowhere. The rhythmically alert Finale vainly attempts to dispel the gloom and the bleakness of the preceding movements.

The Symphony No.7 Op. 113 (1973), cryptically dedicated to the composer’s children, is a dark, and troubled piece. The first movement contains some of Arnold’s most violent music. There is no respite whatsoever in the second movement which is dominated by the solo trombone "whose angular theme if not strictly a 12-note row is certainly atonal enough to suggest Berg or Shostakovich". A static central section with solos for untuned percussion leads to another grinding dissonance which the hollow sounds of the cowbell try to stop. The movement ends with a restatement of the opening music, a subdued, questioning conclusion. The Finale is again full of extreme and sudden contrasts which include a brief allusion to the Irish group, The Chieftains. It also has a long rather static central section which leads to a restatement of the opening material, once again interrupted by the cowbell before a powerful final chord. The composer said that here the cowbell represents "hope - and if it is only a cowbell, at least it is something." However this movement hardly dispels the gloom and unease of its predecessors.

The Symphony No . 8 Op. 124 (1978) may, at least superficially, be compared with the Second or Fifth Symphonies although closer examination reveals that it has its share of enigmas. The first movement might be a "traditional" Arnold Allegretto but the familiar gestures (brass outbursts, percussion onslaughts) are offset by an Irish-sounding marching tune actually lifted from the film score for The Reckoning - which is often confronted in clashing dissonance with the main subject. More than one touch of irony here! The second movement is mostly elegiac in mood, still with some bleak moments. The Finale begins in a somewhat lighter mood that does not necessarily last long, but the symphony nevertheless ends on a more positive note.

The Symphony No.9 Op. 128 (1986) was his last major work written after a very difficult period of Sir Malcolm’s life which he himself describes as "having been through hell." It is quite unlike its predecessors although from many points of view it is not that different. Indeed from the First Symphony onwards Arnold’s view of the form has been deeply Mahlerian and many of the earlier symphonies had a number of Mahlerian characteristics as seen through Arnold’s eyes. As such the Ninth Symphony presents itself as the culmination of a life-long symphonic quest. The Ninth Symphony has a quite unusual structure: three short movements capped by a long final slow movement which slowly moves to a "radiant resolution to D major." In spite of this comparatively affirmative resolution Arnold’s Ninth is a most enigmatic, bleak, despairing and at times furious work that certainly has about it more than one touch of finality.

In all his symphonies and in most of his orchestral works Malcolm Arnold succeeds in saying something new while still relying on fairly traditional devices.

"If anything came along that was fresher or more vigorous than our diatonic system, and could give the corresponding feeling of strength and weakness, I would certainly use it; but all the other systems available today are chromatic, and I cannot feel the poles as clearly with them." (5)

His symphonies in spite of their occasional weaknesses leave an impression of deep human struggle, very often expressed in almost clownesque terms although the composer is not always successful at concealing his deeply human nature: the slow movements of most of the symphonies amply show the point. The somewhat grotesque gestures in Arnold’s symphonies reflect his admiration for Mahler and are in fact the "Arnoldesque" equivalents of Mahler’s marches, fanfares, waltzes and ländler rhythms. In all his symphonies there are deeply disturbing elements that deliberately shatter well established forms, a good example being the fugue in the last movement of the Second Symphony. In the First Symphony as well as in the Fourth or Fifth the rumbustious mood of the finales is torn apiece by violently eerie episodes that clearly reflect the composer’s unease and utter pessimism. A possible exception is the last movement of the Fifth at the end of which the big tune from the slow movement is restated on a maestoso scale.

"The ending of the [Fifth] symphony is quiet and serene, which is unusual for Arnold." (6)

Also consider the last movement of the First Symphony: here a similar device is used, though with a different result.

The importance and significance of Arnold’s symphonies has often been overlooked by critics. This is likely in large part to have been because of the composer’s overt references to Mahler. This was at a time (1950s and 1960s) when the Austrian composer’s symphonies were still rarely heard, were ignored or at best were misunderstood. Now with three complete Arnold Symphony cycles underway (one is actually completed at the time of writing) the symphonies will at long last be appreciated for what they are worth - as highly personal statements expressing the composer’s inner struggle to overcome his deeply pessimistic nature.

Malcolm Arnold’s nine symphonies form the core of his compositional achievement spanning his long career. They thus deserve to be given a somewhat closer examination.

One should not overlook other facets of his large and varied output, especially his many concertos and his chamber works. Malcolm Arnold always considered music as a gesture of friendship, "the strongest there is", and many of his concertos were written for colleagues he admired. Most of his concertos are written for smaller orchestral forces, i.e. either strings or small chamber orchestra. These works reveal the poetic side of Arnold and the scoring for smaller forces fully exhibits the musical qualities of the pieces. In these works the composer can no longer disguise the occasional weaknesses with somewhat grandiloquent gestures from the brass and percussion, as is often the case in the works for symphony orchestra. However the chamber-like quality of these pieces is not totally devoid of any comedy elements, though the latter are much more subdued and therefore acquire a deeper poetic quality. This is particularly clear in the concertos for wind instruments such as the Second Clarinet Concerto Op. 115 (1974) or the Harmonica Concerto Op. 46 (1954).

Malcolm Arnold has also written a considerable amount of chamber music, although one would not associate him readily with that intimate genre. Most of the earlier chamber works were created with individual performers in mind and also under rather peculiar circumstances. This accounts for the sometimes unexpected instrumental combinations he used. Nevertheless all these pieces are deftly written, always grateful to play and much fun to listen to. Arnold’s instrumental mastery is evident throughout. Some of these pieces, it must be said, sometimes belie Arnold’s reputation as writer of jolly, funny pieces: the Violin Sonata No. 1 Op. 15 (1947) about the longest chamber work of his, may sound rather impersonal but shows many of the potential influences on Arnold’s music at the time. The piece has an aggressiveness rarely to be found in his chamber music. As already noted it has much in common with the Symphony for Strings and the First String Quartet. Most other pieces, especially those for wind instruments, are marvelously written and the music shines and sings with enjoyment. This is particularly true of the wind sonatinas and the wind fantasies. The music is never superficial nor "obvious". Another feature of Arnold’s chamber music is the ability to express beauty with simple means, e.g. the opening idea of the Oboe Quartet Op. 61 (1957) or the overall structure of the wind sonatinas.

In his chamber music Arnold rarely stretches his ideas beyond their implied limitations for development. This is the reason why they all seem - and actually are - perfectly conceived scores. Generally speaking Arnold’s chamber music shows him at his most intimate and his most poetic, even if some of it still has some sense of fun and joke, without which Arnold’s music would not be what it is.

Malcolm Arnold always had practical views on music which, he firmly believes, must always be written for the instrument, rather than against them.

Music for brass and wind bands provided Arnold with repeated opportunities to add many original works to these particular repertoires that would otherwise largely have been limited to various transcriptions of sometimes dubious quality. Arnold always felt a deep empathy for wind instruments as is evident in his concertos and his chamber music for winds.

Besides a number of transcriptions of some of his best known pieces Arnold composed a considerable amount of original music, some of which proved to be very fine, e.g. the beautiful Water Music Op. 82 (1964) which he later arranged for full orchestra.

One should also briefly mention Arnold’s vocal music of which there is comparatively little but out of which one should single out the magnificent Song of Simeon Op. 69 (1959) and the beautiful Five William Blake Songs Op. 66 (1959) as well as The Return of Odysseus Op. 119 (1976) and Songs of Freedom Op. 109 (1972), the latter being for the unusual combination of treble voices and brass. The Song of Simeon Op. 69 is an occasional piece, one which combines song, dance and mime as well as some spoken parts. It therefore is near-impossible to perform in concert form. A pity indeed for the music shows Arnold at his most imaginative and most inspired. The music is vintage Arnold. It has emotion and humour, serenity and grandeur and is both highly sophisticated and disarmingly simple. A studio recording of this beautiful piece was released commercially some time ago but it seems that this disc is no longer available, which is very sad indeed.

The song cycle for contralto and strings on texts by William Blake is another minor masterpiece the neglect of which is really difficult to understand. It sets some unfamiliar, early, simple poems of Blake chosen by the composer and arranged into his own sequence. The music is simplicity itself and is quite effective and touching in its simplicity. Songs of Freedom Op. 109 was commissioned by the National Schools Brass Band Association. As the result of a competition for poems by schoolchildren on the subject of "Freedom", Arnold was sent a large batch of poems to set from which to choose texts for the commissioned piece. He remarked that he found the directness and, very often, the sadness of the poems to be most moving. His setting is certainly very straightforward but again possesses all the best qualities of Arnold’s music. Although it was recorded many years ago this finely wrought and challenging piece does not seem to have been regularly performed, which is a real pity.

Thanks to the efforts of the Malcolm Arnold Society and of a number of committed artists and to some enterprising recording companies, Arnold’s discography is now generously expanding. Nevertheless, there are still a number of pieces that have to be re-assessed. Among these one should mention some of his latest pieces such as his Cello Concerto Op. 136 (1988) and first performed by Julian Lloyd-Webber. His cantata The Return of Odysseus Op. 119 (1976) and his Organ Concerto Op. 47 (1954) or some of the pieces he wrote for Michala Petri. All remain conspicuously absent from his discography. (The Recorder Concerto Op. 133 of 1988 has already been recorded but Theme and Variations Op. 140 is still unrecorded and is too rarely heard.)

Malcolm Arnold’s position in the British musical establishment is unique indeed. Although his music always had its champions among performing artists and was always warmly received by audiences, it was not without detractors. His music has often been accused of superficiality because it is technically accomplished. It is always gratefully written for the instruments and readily recognizable, which is the mark of a highly personal artist. Arnold’s music moves into its very personal sound-world. Harmonies, melodies and rhythms are Arnold’s own. It has been regularly overlooked, misunderstood and underrated by a number of critics unable or unwilling to dig deeper. There are depths beyond the brilliant surface which, true to say, may sometimes obscure the deep inner human struggle underneath. Arnold’s music may indeed be uneven, slight at times but it is never indifferent. Most importantly it is imbued with a deeply felt humanity and this is the real strength of Malcolm Arnold’s music.

In spite of faults so glaring that even to mention them is a trifle naive, Arnold has a gift that has been denied to all the solemn academic symphonists in England in those later years of the century. It is not unknown for a new work of his to raise an easy laugh, followed by the uncomfortable realisation of its quite remarkable power. (7)

As has been the case with Mahler, tides are now turning and Malcolm Arnold might at long last be appreciated as the most significant composer of his generation and a distinguished artist whose complex personality is now given due consideration.


© Hubert CULOT

Visit the Malcom Arnold Web site
 
1. Peter J Pirie The English Musical Renaissance, Gollancz, 1995
2. Peter J Pirie Op. Cit
3. Peter J Pirie Op. Cit
4. Piers Burton-Page, insert notes for CONIFER CDCF177
5. Malcolm Arnold in Composers in Interview, Faber & Faber, 1963
6. Peter J Pirie Op. Cit
7. Peter J Pirie Op. Cit


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