If all youíre after is a short, sharp recommendation,
my advice is, "Go forth and buy!" If, on the other
hand, you seek a detailed, in-depth appraisal of all aspects of this
book, then look elsewhere. The rest of you just follow me ... but, before
we set off, Iíve got a couple of bits of "housekeeping" to
get out of the way. Firstly, in view of the authorís most tasteful choice
of forename, Iím going to refer to Paul Jackson simply as "Paul".
Secondly, you may conclude that the amount of apparently adverse comment
I make below contradicts the snap recommendation above. Well, I have
to speak as I find, donít I? I find on the one hand a lot of essentially
minor niggles which take up a lot of room to relate, but on the other
an overall impression of magnificence which takes up a lot less room
to convey. So, in spite of the litter of carps, believe me when I insist
that this is a very good book!
Generally speaking, it seems to me that biographies
of people who are still with us tend to fall into two categories: the
"reverential" and the "ribald". The former, in the
manner of This is Your Life, have a habit of whitewashing their
subjects, while the latter with a great glee pander to our baser instincts
and drool over all the dirt that has been dug. Of course, Iím over-simplifying
things, but if someone were to put a gun to my head and ask me (nicely)
into which category this biography fell, Iíd have to say the latter.
Mind you, once the gun was safely gone, Iíd add, "Only because
Sir Malcolm Arnold has had one hell of a life." More to the point,
at over 80 years old he has had a life, which is more than you
can say for some of the folk "immortalised" by biographies
- and here Iím thinking of "stars" barely out of (or, in some
cases, still in) short pants.
At this juncture, those looking for lurid sensationalism
can take their leave, because this biography is an appraisal of its
subject that is serious in both intent and execution, as befits our
greatest living English composer - in fact, by the time youíve read
this book, youíll feel some justification for arguing that Arnold is
simply "The Greatest". At this juncture, I suspect that fans
of Sir Edward Elgar will be thinking of taking their leave - well, donít:
I only said "some justification for arguing"!
Enough of this banter, thereís a lot to consider. The
question is, where to start? Letís get the easy bit out of the way first:
at around £45 Sterling this is not a cheap book. As you can see from
the illustration, it has a tastefully muted dust-jacket. What you canít
see, however, is that the cover of the book itself is plain, dark green
cardboard with the legend in simple black lettering on the spine - no
inlaid baroque curlicues of gold leaf (or even leaf that looks
like gold). Thatís because Ashgate have preferred to invest in the quality
of what lies within - really nice paper, really clean and clear print,
and really clean cutting and finishing - it makes for a right rare riffle
when youíre flicking through!
Between the covers, in addition to the 218 pages of
narrative, analysis and appraisal, there are 26 very fine plates, over
100 musical examples, and 3 substantial appendices. These last comprise
a list of compositions by year (and including first performance details),
a list of the films for which Arnold composed music, and a comprehensive
list of recordings available since 1995 (including Arnold both as composer
and conductor of other composersí works). There is also a full bibliography,
which I suppose is a fourth appendix in all but name.
Missing, and in view what Iím going to say these would
have been useful "extras", are some sort of family tree and
a "time line" summary of the main events. Still, if you really
need these, all the information is in there - just take a sharp pencil,
several large sheets of paper, a month off work, and away you go!
The author has a couple of notable antecedents with
which to contend. Firstly thereís Hugo Coleís seminal Malcolm Arnold:
An Introduction to His Music (1989). This does "what it says
on the tin", that being to focus on the form and content of Arnoldís
music using the tools of formal musicological analysis, leavened with
some comment on the "meanings", and including only as much
biographical background as is absolutely necessary for the pursuit of
this goal. Secondly, thereís Piers Burton-Pageís Philharmonic Concerto,
a largely complementary volume which focuses on biography, with only
as much analytical background as is necessary to lend substance to his
Paulís book comes somewhere in between, with biography
and analysis in much more commensurate proportions. In his Foreword,
stressing Arnoldís own confession of an intimate connection between
his music and his life, the author declares that his objective is to
illuminate this link. Overall, he does just that: in biographical terms
he provides the most sharply resolved picture to date, whilst his analyses
penetrate deeper into that connective realm than heretofore (now, thereís
a funny old word!). The result is arguably the most satisfyingly full
and rounded view of Arnold available to us, no mean feat when you consider
that Arnold is revealed as one of the most complicated subjects in the
The main difficulty of Paulís undertaking lies in its
sheer breadth, and therein lies my main gripe with this book: really,
it needed to be about twice as long as it is! Notwithstanding
the impact on the price, and with all due respect to the Worldís rain-forests,
I am not being facetious. Although his style comes nowhere near a gossip
over the back garden fence, it is more agreeably conversational than
the desiccated academicism of many comparable tomes, but the broadened
accessibility this brings is inevitably at the expense of compactness
(as anyone who reads my reviews will be only too aware!), which within
the confines of the printed page means less space for the informational
Ah, yes, while weíre on about style, if youíre a stickler
for good grammar you should be quite comfortable, but be warned - if
your nerves are jangled by fashionable latter-day manglings of English,
there are occasional outbreaks of "based around", "centred
around", and the dreaded "their" used as a singular pronoun.
Also, the use of "*" to "bleep" letters in profanities
(which are always in quotes, I hasten to add!) is strangely arbitrary.
The "f" word, thankfully, is always bl**ped, but who decided
to leave "pissed" and "arseover" (sic) unbleeped,
whilst considering "s*d off" worthy of voluntary censorship?
In any case, it hardly takes a crossword genius to figure out the missing
letter! All these are minor points, but if you are sensitive to them
then they will disrupt the flow of your reading. Both logically and
linguistically, Paul is at his considerable best when heís laying into
Arnoldís critics, particularly in the final chapter, where I found myself
cheering him on - out loud, much to my wifeís consternation!
The two aspects of biography and analysis are not segregated
- musical analyses, along with interludes of reflection, nestle like
buttercups in the hedgerows of the narrative. Whilst this is in itself
a good thing, it will make life just a bit awkward for those unwilling
or unable to take in the technicalities of the musicological bits, because
bits of biography do sometimes get entangled with these technical tracts.
The analytically disinclined must perforce pick up some skill at "skimming"!
So, everything sweeps by in chronological order, níest-ce pas?
Sadly, non, not quite! Thereís quite a bit of cinematographic
"flashing" going on, to the extent that sometimes I had to
do a fair bit of hunting around to discover just "when" I
was "at". Oh, and just occasionally a character is "quoted"
before he is actually "introduced", which can be puzzling
even if only temporarily so.
The one major break with chronological sequence is
quite deliberate - a separate chapter is devoted to the film music.
This turns out to be a singularly good move: to a large extent, Arnold
kept his "true vocation" and his "day job" in separate
boxes. The author in effect makes it a "second movement scherzo
and trio" by, at the appropriate junction, taking the fork onto
the film music branch-line. When he gets to the end of that, he nips
neatly back to the junction and sets off again, this time down the main
That word "elegant" also nicely describes
the narrative. It starts with something of a coup de théâtre
(or should I say "cinema") using the boots-and-shoes
sequence from Hobsonís Choice to grab the readerís attention
and link very neatly to the start of the story proper. This "fanfare"
is followed by a "slow introduction" of family background.,
essential for context and reference but never (in my experience) especially
riveting, no matter how well written (which it is). However, once weíre
into the "main allegro" the pace picks up a treat, and like
a good novel it just gets harder and harder to put down.
This would be edifying enough even if he was simply
raking over old, well-trodden ground. On the contrary, heís done a lot
of spade-work, and come up with plenty of eyebrow-raising revelations.
Lest the odd hanger-on from the "lurid sensationalist" school
should prick up his ears at this point, let me add that Paul does not
make these into self-aggrandising pronouncements, but skilfully weaves
the new material into his tapestry to enrich the image, and thus our
understanding of Arnoldís often bewildering character.
However, lots of new material does not an encyclopaedia
make. Almost inevitably, there are still gaps, some of which you may
find frustratingly obvious - though what is "frustratingly obvious"
will no doubt be different for each of us. Doubtless, editorial constraints
had a part to play, but there is one omission that I personally would
consider fairly serious. Having read about the high regard that Arnold
had for amateur performers, and aware of the vital importance of legions
of amateur organisations in keeping his name alive in the darkest years
of establishment neglect, I was a little dismayed to find that whereas
some professionals were given due credit, amateurs were (in their turn!)
Permit me to put that at least partly to rights, through
an example of which I have personal experience. Keith Llewellyn, who
as the secretary of the Arnold Society has his finger pretty well on
the pulse of Arnold performances worldwide, agreed wholeheartedly with
my suggestion that the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, through the
unstinting efforts of their recently-retired conductor Adrian Smith,
were unparalleled in their championship of Arnoldís music during
the period 1995-2001. Cop this little lot: Cornish Dances (with
Richard Baker, tambourine!), Little Suite No. 1, Clarinet
Concerto No. 2 (with Julian Bliss), Fantasy on a Theme of John
Field (with Philip Dyson), Philharmonic Concerto, and the
Second, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Particularly
when you consider that they put on only three or four concerts a year,
that is impressive indeed and (I would have thought) worthy of a mention.
So, if you buy this book, why not copy these words onto one of the three
blank flyleaves at the back?
Arnoldís essentially enforced retirement from composing
in 1990 - the tail end of an area of the narrative that makes particularly
harrowing reading - is by no means the end of the tale. This affords
Paul a convenient opportunity to pen a "coda" untrammelled
by analytical diversions, in which he can both bring the story to its
contemporary close and sum up his arguments. In a way, he is fortunate
in following Piers Burton-Page by a goodly margin. Why? Because the
winds of change that were barely stirring for Piers had become a stiff
breeze for Paul, which is partly the reason for the appreciably more
Turning to the musical analyses, I found a couple of
little problems. Paulís technique is the same "traditional"
musicological approach as was used by Hugo Cole. In fact, the "look
and feel" is strikingly similar. However, Paulís express intention
is to probe the "autobiographical" influences in the music,
and to be brutally frank I donít think the musicologistís usual "toolkit"
is up to the job. Where conventional analysis of the form and logic
of a passage of music is conclusive ("it does this, and then it
does that", full stop), applied to the emotional processes
in a passage it is not (the musicological "full stop"
generally represents a host of unresolved questions and implications).
This is not Paulís fault: whilst there are other tools with which it
is possible to dig a fair bit deeper into the psyche of the music, he
does a very impressive job with the tools that he knows, and youíll
still come out at the other end all the wiser for it.
One feature of the analytical episodes that might (just
might, mind you!) be considered sensational is Paulís discovery
of substantial evidence of Arnoldís use of what Paul describes as "ciphers".
If I were pedantic, and of course nothing could be further from the
truth (readers please consume one large pinch of salt at this point!),
the more correct word is "codes", because these are "look-up
tables" whereas ciphers are algorithmic transformations. I just
thought youíd like to know that! Anyway, these are explained in admirable
detail, as they tell us much about how Arnold worked, and in particular
reveal much about his "hidden" use of serial techniques.
However, to my mind Paul omits one vital consideration,
and by this omission may lead the unwary up a proverbial gum tree. The
use of a code to translate words (like "Katherine" or "Saint
Petersburg") into a musical theme - what we might loosely term
a "diatone-row"! - does not magically imbue that theme
with any unique and universal meaning. It merely associates in the
composerís mind a particular musical motive with a person or place.
If, say, Arnold had laid out the letters of the alphabet in a different
order, then the notes of any encoded word(s) would be different. I think
that this must have been at least partly in Arnoldís mind when he (on
more than one occasion) intimated that awareness of the technicalities
of composing is useful only to the composer, and need not concern the
listener. Of course, if youíre trying to dissect the composerís thought-processes
during the creation of his music, then these things are indeed useful
to know. Nevertheless, they tell the listener damn-all about what the
music is doing to his thought-processes as he listens to it!
Paul declares that this book is by no means the "authorised
version", and sadly I doubt that there ever will be any such, not
least because Arnoldís character - notably his irrepressible predilection
for leg-pulling - prevents it. I have one vivid memory of Arnold telling
me, with a face straighter than Boycottís bat, that he helped Gerard
Hoffnung to write the famous Oxford Union speech. It conjured such a
glorious image of the two of them together, gleefully plotting every
twist and turn of the Bricklayerís misfortunes, that I was doubly deflated
when a voice whispered in my ear, "He didnít, you know - heís just
pulling your leg!"
Authorised or not, to my mind this book now takes pride
of place as the best all-round reference on Sir Malcolm Arnold. In itself
that should be recommendation enough for anyone interested in Arnold
and his music (and, letís face it, that ought to be everyone
with any interest at all in Music!), but it is much more than just that
- it is also an intensely moving account of the composerís life, an
account that more than once brought a lump to my throat (yes, me, a
case-hardened Yorkshireman!). Iíll tell you what, I canít wait
for the film!
See also review
by Philip Wood