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
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
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.
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
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,
6. Peter J Pirie Op. Cit
7. Peter J Pirie Op. Cit