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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

The Four Scottish Dances

by

SIR MALCOLM ARNOLD.

 

It is not at present possible to pass review of all Malcolm Arnold's music that has been inspired by Scotland. It is true that we have the well-loved Tam O'Shanter Overture and the lesser-known Scottish Dances as an established part of the British music repertoire. However a glance at the catalogue reveals at least two other works that would be worthy of our attention if we were to have them available. These are the film scores to 'The Beautiful County of Ayr' (1949) and 'Hawick, Queen of the Border' (1948). One can only imagine that these two films would be totally evocative of a past era. The films are desiderata and the British Film Institute should begin to publish some of these 'shorts' on DVD. It seems to me that it is too important an archive to be left hidden in the vaults available only to specialists and those with the time to be able to visit the film library and organise private viewings. The BFI have, of course, made an excellent start in this direction with the series of 'Sceptred Isle' videos. There are many other composers whose film music is just waiting to be discovered, not least amongst them Britten and Rawsthorne.

Malcolm Arnold has composed a number of 'national dances'. Perhaps the best known of these are the two sets of English Dances - Opus 27 & 59. These were composed in 1950 and 1951 respectively. There is no doubt that these works display an understanding of form and orchestration that would be the envy of any composer. It is fair to say that Arnold did not actually make use of any known English folk tune in these works. However he has been able to assimilate the prevailing qualities of the genre to produce eight convincing dances. They cover all the emotions from 'vigorous exuberance' to 'modal lament.'

The Cornish Dances Op.91 were composed much later, in 1966. However these pieces have retained most of the charm of his earlier exercises in these forms. I feel that the use of the Methodist Hymn is somewhat of a low point on these movements.

The Irish Dances Op.126 followed in 1986. These are quite attractive and make use of similar musical constructions to the earlier sets. There is a sense of 'spare-ness' in some of this music. One feels that he is being much more economical with his material.

The Welsh Dances Op. 138 of 1989 is quite a late work. There is a great sense of Celtic lament about these four movements. In some ways this is the most serious of this cycle of national dances.

The last set of dances is the 'Little Suite No. 3' or the Manx Suite Op. 142 (1990). This is atypical in relation to the other works as it is actually based on Manx folk tunes. Once again it is music that is much more 'simple' than the earlier suites.

However it is the Scottish Dances Op. 59 with which we are concerned here. They were composed in 1957, having been produced for the BBC Light Music Festival. There are four dances or movements. This work was written two years after the composition of Tam o' Shanter Op. 51 (1955) and retains some of the vitality of that most exuberant of works.

The Scottish Dances are composed for a medium orchestra - however three trombones and four horns are called for along with harp.

The opening movement is a 'pesante'. It begins in the relatively unusual time signature of 5/4. In many ways the music seems to lumber on - this is not a criticism, of course - simply a quality of some of the indigenous music of the Scots. Perhaps it is a Strathspey - a slow Scottish dance that is set in un-common time. We hear a bagpipe in there somewhere, with its characteristic drone. There are many dotted notes here; some wild passages for horns and drums. Throughout the piece we are aware of the 'Scotch snap'. Some wonderful rhythmic passages in semi quaver triplets are heard, before the 'pesante' theme returns. There are some fine passages for brass that call for the players to perform heroics. Already in this orchestral arrangement we can see the potential for a brass band setting. The movement ends with a scurry followed by some interesting chords for brass and a final pizzicato. There is certainly nothing of the 'misty isles' or the 'blue hills' in this first dance.

The second movement is derived from the music scored for the film 'The Beautiful County of Ayr.' This dance begins quite gently. It is a 'vivace' and takes the form of a reel. The movement begins in Eb and each time it is repeated rises a semitone. The woodwind writing is particularly effective. There is a bassoon solo that plays the melody at nearly half the speed of the main tune that quite obviously suggests a drunk making his way along the street. This has some affinity with Tam O' Shanter and also a well-known passage from Offenbach's Gaité Parisienne. In the original film this music accompanies a bull being led around the auction ring. Once again, as is so often the case with Malcolm Arnold's orchestration, the brass writing is particularly effective. When the interlude is over the clarinet enters quietly for a few bars and then the movement ends with a woodwind polytonal slide up the scale.

In the 'Allegretto' Arnold has succeeded in producing music that is more 'Scottish' than the Scots would write. He himself, in programme notes, has written that it is in the style of a Hebridean Song. Those movie fans that have enjoyed films like 'I Know where I am Going' and perhaps 'Whisky Galore' know what this movement is all about. An evocation of a magical kingdom that probably never really existed. It is two lovers looking across the sea to a beautiful land of lost content. The melody is pentatonic, exactly in the 'received' style. It is a beautiful reflection on the Scottish Landscape especially the "sea and mountains on a calm summer's day in the Hebrides." It is perhaps one of the finest tunes that Malcolm Arnold has composed. Arnold is able to do what a generation of Scottish composers have tried to do but often failed - that is to write a piece of music that perfectly defines both the Scottish landscape and the emotion of looking at that landscape. It may well be sentimental, it actually most certainly is, but one is left feeling - so what! It is a perfect evocation of the Scottish Scene.

The movement is quite lightly scored with the harp making gentle comments against the melody given first of all by the flute. A small crescendo with brass chorale only helps to heighten the emotion, before the strings take over the haunting tune. There is the sadder tone of an oboe taking up the theme in the middle strains, however it is left to the flute to bring the movement to a close.

The last movement is a 'Con Brio'. This is in similar mood to the opening movement and comes as quite a contrast to the previous dream movement. It is a 'highland fling.' It is in 2/4 time and has a tremendous energy. Only occasionally stopping for breath. All the time we hear the woodwinds being extremely busy. Much use is made of the open strings of the violin, which lends some of the sense of abandon. The horn players are called on to perform a succession of 'grace' notes that give a sense of 'wildness' to this dance. However it is a very short movement being over in a mere one minute and sixteen seconds. It comes as a fitting epilogue to these most effective of all the 'dances' composed by Malcolm Arnold. The score is inscribed 'Jan/57' on the closing page.

Hugo Cole in his book on Arnold remarks that the Scottish-ness of these 'dances' is more obvious than the corresponding English-ness of the two sets of those national dances. The reason is perhaps that it is easier to 'stereotype' the Scottish flavour by use of 'scotch snaps' and pentatonic melodies. Of course the second dance is based on an actual tune by Robert Burns himself. I have been unable to identify the melody used by the composer. Cole remarks that the 1st, 2nd and 4th dances are appropriate for a cold climate - vigorous with stamping rhythms. He reflects that the slow movement is 'out of the same stable' as the seventh English Dance.

The first performance of this piece was at the Royal Festival Hall on 8th June 1957, with the composer conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Ray Farr published the work in a Brass Band arrangement in 1984. This arrangement is superb. In many ways we are left wondering which version is the better. It is an example where the arranger has been able to assimilate the intention of the composer without importing too much of his own invention. The slow movement has some special 'brass band' treatment from Ray Farr. The cornets are especially attractive here. The last moments are of a soloist against a glockenspiel accompaniment. Altogether quite a magical effect which long lingers in the memory. The first performance of this Brass version was given in the Usher Hall Edinburgh on 6th May 1984.

All the national dances by Malcolm Arnold are worthy of much more regular performance. Each set in its own right somehow seems to evoke and encapsulate the 'local' landscape and environment. Yet somehow I feel that these Scottish Dances were Arnold at his most significant in this genre. There is no argument that what we have here can be classified as 'light' music. But that is no criticism. As we work through the compositions of Arnold we will find pieces that exemplify both 'light' and 'serious.' One has only to listen carefully to the symphonic cycle to be aware of the vast range of Arnold's competencies. He is capable of shifting between styles within a piece - sometimes even within a movement. It is virtually possible to find 'dance' rhythms next to music that seems dodecaphonic. Yet somehow his music always retains integrity. Many composers would produce a potboiler that would lack the quality of even Arnold's lesser works.

Recently David Mellor, in his popular Classic FM radio programme, reflected how Arnold had been out of favour for a number of years. He considered it strange that a composer with his musical and melodic gifts did not have a single piece in the 'Classic FM' charts. He reflected how as Arts Minister he had pressed for Malcolm Arnold to receive official recognition with his knighthood.

It is a fitting time to reflect on the composer's achievement. He largely eschewed experimental music; not for him the aleatory or the rigorously 12-tone works which were so popular in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Arnold's music is always accessible, if not always easy to understand. The Ninth Symphony, for example is a million miles away from the Concerto for Two Pianos - yet both works are masterpieces in their own right; both are unmistakably by Sir Malcolm Arnold.

It would be a pity if the 'pseudo-intellectualism' that prevailed for a generation were to disallow Malcolm Arnold his 'grand, grand' achievement.

It would be a tragedy if 'informed' opinion were to 'rubbish' a work like the Scottish Dances simply because it was sentimental and full of fun and 'damned good tunes'.

John France

 

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