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The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold

The Brilliant and the Dark


Paul R.W.Jackson

277 pages
26 plates
107 Musical examples


Ashgate ISBN 1 85928 381 0


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'All of my music is biographical' declared Sir Malcolm Arnold in an interview in 1991. Arnold's turbulent life has permeated his music to a greater degree than probably any other British composer as Paul Jackson reveals in this illuminating account. Interweaving biographical details with close analyses of Arnold's major works, particularly the nine symphonies, and drawing on sketch material never previously examined, Jackson provides fascinating insights into Arnold's compositional process, and the ideas informing such works as the John Field Fantasy and the 7th symphony.

Extensive interviews with Arnold himself as well as with his family, friends and colleagues add further perspectives on his relationships with fellow composers and musicians, publishers, critics and family. A combination of joi de vivre and periods of depression and personal tragedy, Arnold's life has mirrored his music in its combination of seemingly disparate elemnts that make a compelling whole.


Paul Jackson’s The Brilliant and the Dark is a welcome addition to the superb Ashgate catalogue. It is an elegantly presented book and has a pencil sketch of Arnold (drawn by son Robert Arnold in 1969) adorning the dust jacket.

Jackson’s literary style is fluent, loose and at times chatty, and although there is much analytical study within the text, it never becomes dry or difficult to understand. The manner in which the book is written reminds me a little of Arnold’s music; bright, good humoured and witty on the surface, but offset by a deep understanding and sometimes seriousness at the very heart of things. Both men have something worthwhile to say and the means with which to say it. I don’t always agree with everything that Jackson writes in his book (nor should one). Nor do I always agree with the style of writing, sentence construction and the like; these are personal preferences and each reader will have their own opinions on this. I also found Jackson’s own picture painting of some works a little irksome, but as he states in the foreword "these are my own views the conclusions are my own". There is, of course, little wrong with offering one’s own hypotheses and conclusions as it opens things up for lively debate.

Biographical details and musical analysis go hand-in-hand throughout the book and are presented chronologically from the outset (but not always strictly). Jackson is not afraid to analyse and comment on events and pieces from different periods, and correlate them when justifying a particular point; this is the key to thorough analysis. The Biographical details are comprehensive and often revealing. Jackson is candid when it comes to the facts - some of them new - and is not afraid of giving us the "warts and all" view, including some rather sadly amusing bad language! Much new material is uncovered, including insights into Arnold’s relationships with family, friends, colleagues and of course his critics. There are also some well-presented plates showing Arnold at work and play, but more important (to me) are those showing old and new manuscripts and working sketches for the 7th and 8th symphonies.

Given the sheer volume of Arnold’s catalogue, choosing works for analysis must surely be a major task. Much of Jackson’s analysis is concentrated upon the larger works, such as the symphonies, concerti, ballets and some chamber music. The rest of Arnold’s output is mentioned - some of it at length - and put into biographical and historical context. There is a particularly concise chapter on Arnold’s film work, in which the author expresses some strong views on taking film music "out of context".

The musical analysis is uncluttered, easy to follow and brimming with musical examples. Even if you know the music the analysis is helpful (or perhaps I should say) if you thought you knew the music. Jackson’s in-depth research has, for me, proved the existence of ciphers in Arnold’s music, most notably in the 5th and 7th symphonies and the John Field Fantasy. Before reading the book I was sceptical about ciphers in Arnold’s music, but it is not until all the evidence is presented that one sees just how important they are. The biographical MHA (Malcolm Henry Arnold) motif, appears in a number of compositions: Beckus, English and Cornish Dances, Symphonies No.1 and 2, Organ Concerto, Harmonica Concerto and so on, this must be more than coincidence.

There are three appendices. All are useful, particularly the concise list of works, but unfortunately a discography is often out of date very quickly and the list of films can be seen in other literature. Reading through the notes is also interesting, but it would be my preference to use and see footnotes rather than endnotes. The endnotes do, however, reveal the extent of Jackson’s research; no stone is unturned in his quest for information, which becomes very clear after only a few pages of the main text.

So now the burning question. How does this book compare with the likes of Burton-Page, Cole and Poulton? You must judge that for yourselves. I can only say that Jackson’s addition to this select band - and it certainly is an addition because of its content - is very welcome. All four of these books stand up individually; the Burton-Page is mainly biographical, the Cole is seminal in its analysis whilst the Poulton is excellent reference material. Jackson, however, goes a little further and delves a little deeper in his exploration of this unique composer.

Whether you are interested in Arnold and his music or British music in general, you (like me) will find this book entertaining, absorbing and revealing.

Philip Wood

This review first appeared in Beckus - The Journal of the Malcolm Arnold Society



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