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Malcolm Arnold - Rogue Genius: The Life and Music of Britainís most misunderstood composer

by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris

529 pages

Published by Thames/Elkin, ISBN 0 903413 54 X

Price £30.


At the risk of being accused of violating the unwritten rules of criticism, Iím going to start not only by referring to a review I found elsewhere on the Web, but also by quoting it in full.:

"A sordid, dirty, little book that will do nothing to enhance the reputation of this great composer. Don't bother with it unless you are a fan of sloppy research and tabloid tittle-tattle. What is missing from this book is a scholarly analysis of the man's music."

The main virtue of this "review" is its brevity. The main failing is its accuracy. Iíve quoted this, not to join the slanging match that it seems hell-bent on provoking, but because it actually - and from its tone I would guess accidentally - raises a pair of particularly pertinent points.

Firstly, indeed there is no scholarly analysis of the music. Like Paul Jacksonís, published early in 2003 [review], this book almost exclusively considers Arnoldís music in relation to the composerís professed "All my music is autobiographical". You will find oodles of analysis, but not of the dry, academic sort that is usually implied by the adjective "scholarly". Instead, the analysis is non-technical in style, and might more usefully be termed "description" or "interpretation". Aimed squarely at the general reader, it is thus entirely in keeping with the bookís express intention, first and foremost, to be a biography of the composer - as well as a determined attempt to remove the "mis" out of the "misunderstood" of its sub-title.

Secondly, thereís this little matter of "sordid". Here the authors run into the same critical problem as did Arnoldís "serious" compositions. With Arnold, as with (say) Mahler and Shostakovich, we have to be particularly careful to distinguish between music that actually is tasteless, trivial, banal or downright vulgar, and music which uses materials which are tasteless, trivial, banal or downright vulgar. To put it another way, some folk did, and for that matter still do, confuse "content" with "craftsmanship". Meredith and Harrisís researches, which involved an uncommon amount of seeking out of actual witnesses, uncovered much about Arnoldís life that could be considered "sordid". To put it bluntly, they dug, and found that they had dug up a lot of "dirt". This left them two choices: gloss over it all, or publish and be damned. The former option hardly constitutes a proper foundation for the pathway to enlightenment that we generally expect of a serious biography. That leaves the latter option, in which case the book itself can be considered "sordid" only if it drools over the supposed juicy bits. Well, it doesnít.

The first and most obvious thing that you notice is that this is by no means a little book: it weighs in at a fairly wrist-wrenching two and a half pounds (1.15 Kg.). Eighteen of its nineteen chapters are devoted to more or less linear narrative. However, the narrative comes to an end in 1996, whilst the last chapter is subtitled "Ten Scenes in the Life of an Octogenarian". That means that nearly five years have gone missing down a literary "black hole"! Why? It isnít as if nothing of note happened; just for starters, there was a weekend-long Arnold festival in Northampton in 2000, and then there were the landmarks of the completions of two recorded cycles of the symphonies. It is doubly frustrating that, because of the "snapshot" nature of the final chapter, the most recent major upheaval in Arnoldís life to date, which happened after Jacksonís book came out, is only sketchily - I nearly said "scantily"! - covered. The near-fatal attack of pneumonia in 2003, and the subsequent protracted tug-of-war between Arnoldís daughter, Katherine, and his faithful carer, Anthony Day, surely should have been part of the narrative. It isnít as if timing had anything to do with it: the composer was finally returned to the haven of his home in Attleborough in February 2004, well before the finishing touches were applied to this tome.

As you get on with reading, the second thing you notice is, not surprisingly, the style of writing. Grammar and spelling are exemplary. There is, inevitably but commendably rarely, the occasional minor "blooper". For example, the word "intent" in the quotation at the top of p. 284: either this is a typographical error or it should be qualified by "[sic]". Again, on p. 236 youíll find the term "based around", an internally-inconsistent specimen of fashionable usage that fair makes my teeth grind! OK, so in the Acknowledgements they also spelt my name wrongly; Iíll try not to let that colour my judgement!

With dual authorship, it is inevitable that the individuality of the "person" talking to you in your head as you read will be diluted. That imagined voice speaks fairly dispassionately, which is good when you consider the subject matter is as hot to handle as incandescent coals. Yet, this voice is also intimate and friendly, which is just as well when you consider how deeply depressing is some of the material. One evening, when I put the book down, I could have wept. Iíll tell you this: if you think that Tony Palmerís new film [ review, review] is candid and - to quote Rob Barnett - "pulls no punches", then you are in for a right old shock. Without the cosy buffer of filmed images, alone with that still, small voice and your own thoughts, Arnoldís life-story unfolds as a thoroughly unnerving experience. By comparison (I stress) Palmerís film pales to a rose-tinted whitewash.

That leads us nicely to the third thing you notice - you canít miss it, as it slaps you in the face! - the abundance of fine detail, an abundance that simply cannot be accommodated within the span of a film. Continuing the trend established by Jackson, Meredith and Harris provide what is, thus far, the most penetrating insight into the composerís tumultuous and eventful life. This is largely due to their comprehensively "networked" - and blatantly far from "sloppy" - research, based mostly on talking with people who were "there" or, failing that, with people who had known those people, resulting in what is a conspicuously eye-witness - and far more hair-raising - account.

However, this doesnít just give us more of the day-to-day minutiae of Arnoldís life. Numerous "myths and legends", such as the young Malcolmís refusal to attend school, are clarified, and several long-standing misconceptions are corrected. In particular, the authors bring forth some important influences that had previously, at best, been only dimly recognised. By far the most significant of these important influences can be summed up in one word: ladies. The fair sex has had short shrift in all previous writing about Arnold, yet the ladies in his life turn out to be one of the dominant factors. Fascinating as it is to observe the developing patterns of Arnoldís responses to the different categories of lady - ranging from the sex-object through the girl-friend to the wife, sister and daughter - what is most revealing is his relationships with those who, to quote Paul Harris, "loved him the most": his sister Ruth, his first wife Sheila, second wife Isobel, and daughter Katherine.

However, to my mind at least, the most important "revelation" has to be the elucidation of the unseen forces that moulded the composerís psyche. Oh, we always knew that Arnold had a drink problem, a liking for the ladies, a predisposition to riotous behaviour and wild mood swings, a tendency to become depressed and occasionally suicidal - and all the rest of it. We also had the impression that this was also, to an assumed large degree, entirely voluntary: if heíd just knocked the boozing on the head, and settled himself down a bit, then everything would have been OK, more or less. What Harris and Meredith report, however, brings the real truth of the matter into stark relief. They ram home with unsettling candour the unpalatable fact of the composerís manic-depressive illness. Driven from the very outset by this horrendous, pervasive, incurable malady, Arnold was as helpless as a dead leaf in the wind. It lay behind everything, including the drink problem that generally gets the blame, and of course, residing in his head, it wormed its way into much of his music.

This is why the authors contend that "We cannot divorce the man from his music ... to understand one is to understand the other." It is understandable that they should make such a claim, but it is nevertheless a highly contestable one, certainly in its conclusive phrase. The problem here is that our - by which I mean each individualís - "understanding" of music is determined not just by what the composer puts into our heads, but also by what else is already there. To coin a rough analogy, music is a bit like flour: what comes out of the oven depends on what you mix with it! However, this doesnít invalidate the intention behind the authorsí statement: you can learn a lot about what makes Arnoldís music tick if you understand his motivations.

Of course, as ever it is the exception that proves (i.e. tests) the rule. Although many of the major works jibe with their biographical contexts, some of the arguments strike me as being just a wee bit fanciful, I suppose largely because of the chemistry between the music and the pre-existing contents of my particular brain - and this will be true of anybodyís particular brain. However, there are occasions where the music presents a square peg for insertion into their round hole, and then generally they seem to whittle the peg to suit. For example, they note that the "gloomy introspection" of the Sinfonietta No. 3 is at odds with Arnoldís new wife and child, and so they blithely attribute the musicís mood to the composerís "looking at the recent past" and "purging his soul of chaotic selfish[ness]". Such things are not "paradoxical", as the authors at one point suggest, but merely go to show that life and art canít always be forced to fit such simple equations. They do, however, tacitly admit defeat over the first set of English Dances, which are "... so simply and lovingly crafted, it is hard to believe that they were created in the wake of extreme mental anguish." Rule proved?

The problem doesnít stop there, not quite. Sometimes the authorsí interpretations of the emotional goings-on in the music strike me as a bit curious. I suspect that the zealous pursuit of their thesis has coloured their impressions of the music - the "zeal" being part of the "brain chemistry" I mentioned above! In the case of the Second Symphony, they conclude that the first movement is all sweetness and light, that the second has "impish optimism" with "no hint of mania", in the third they find a "quiet homage to the third movement of Mahlerís First Symphony" although Arnoldís is "deeper than Mahlerís [because he] was simply mourning the desertion of ... Joanna Richter", and in the finale they find Arnold "at his happiest". Personally, excepting that Mahlerís funeral cortège was indeed emotionally shallower than Arnoldís, if not for the reason quoted, I would disagree with pretty well all of that.

More problematical is the description of The Padstow Lifeboat, where I have real trouble squaring the detailed goings-on of the authorsí progressive "programme" with what is, after all, a march in simple ternary form. Then again, there is one angle on the "enigmatic" close of the Fifth Symphony that I know is missing, simply because it came from my own thoughts on the music and a discussion I had with Arnold in 1998 - right in the middle of the narrativeís "black hole"!

Itís a difficult thing for me to pin down, so let me put it like this: the difficulty lies in the authorsí attempts to describe this supposed interlocking of the composerís life with his music. It would perhaps have been better to merely interleave the descriptions of his life and his music, and leave the figuring out of the interlocking of the two, and its extent, to the reader!

The wealth of reportage is a good thing, because the sheer weight of evidence hammers home the message. The down-side is that you can get too much of a good thing! I wasnít much over half-way through when I noted "This is getting repetitious!" - as yet another witness stepped forward to testify, yet again, that Arnold was either a jolly good chap, or an unmitigated b*****d, or could change from one to the other in the blinking of an eye. Yes, it is vital that we have all this on record, and yes, I would much prefer all these witness statements be included rather than omitted - but perhaps, in order to de-clutter the narrative a bit, shouldnít more of the quotes that donít tell us anything essentially new be relegated to the footnotes or an appendix?

However, I donít want to make too much of such things. I have what seem like a million minor carps, questions and comments swilling around in my head. If I were to plod through them all they would, by sheer weight of numbers, give the false impression of diminishing the overall achievement of the authors. So, look at it this way: Jacksonís biography already showed Arnold to be a more complex personality than many of us had previously suspected. Meredith and Harris have gone much further, peeling off several more layers, and bringing us preciously close to that "last five per cent" that Arnold, they tell us, said we donít want to know about anybody. The story that they have to tell is uncomfortable, often extremely so, but it is also absorbing and utterly compelling. Will it, as the authors hope, finally change the "establishment" attitude to Arnold - an attitude, by the way, that the authors have also more clearly elucidated? It ought to, purely because they have immensely enhanced our understanding of the man behind the music, and the irresistible forces that shaped his destiny, that caused his flame to burn brightly, and that ultimately burnt him out.

There is one other, very curious reason: the authors have shown, pretty well conclusively, that Arnold is disabled - a musical genius of the very first order, but nonetheless the sufferer of a life-long, disabling mental illness. It doesnít matter that the manic-depressive illness and the genius probably go hand-in-hand; the fact remains that in todayís political climate his disability, like so many others, should earn him some "positive discrimination". In the light of Meredith and Harrisís revelatory account, what will be the consequences of the "establishment" continuing to suppress - or, more to the point, failing to promote with all due vigour - Arnoldís astonishing music? With bated breath, I await developments.

This biography fearlessly confronts the most appalling situations and circumstances with what I can only describe as "sympathetic detachment", almost from the standpoint of a concerned but remote relative. For anyone wanting to get to know and understand Britain's greatest living composer, up close and in intimate detail, this illuminating book now takes pride of place: it is absolutely essential reading.

Paul Serotsky

The Malcolm Arnold Society

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