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Toward the Unknown Region

Malcolm ARNOLD – A Story of Survival - A Film by Tony PALMER

Ratio 16:9. Widescreen. All regions.


ISOLDE Films ISO 001 [133:00]

PAL only


Tony Palmer’s music-themed films are for grown-ups. He neither pulls his punches nor unduly dramatises. His Walton, Wagner and Sibelius films are uncompromising, fluently produced and memorably alluring as an introduction to the men and to their music.

What are the indelibly etched images the listener will carry away from watching this two hour plus epic about English composer Malcolm Arnold? Here are mine. Some are inspiring and some are almost terrifying. There is the placid and lucid elderly composer fixing you with an unflinching stare while a slim cigar dangles from his hand and telling you that music is: "art first and foremost ... I write music I want to hear." He speaks with clarity, great concentration and pith and with no sign of mental degradation. Then towards the end there is the disorganised rambling of the composer looking deathly and baring his teeth several times in shocking flashes of savage fury. One can see what his daughter means when she speaks of his towering destructive rages.

There are other images of course. There is the kindly conductor who worked with Jon Lord of Deep Purple to produce the Concerto for Pop Group and Orchestra and who refused to allow some of the orchestra to sneer their way through the sessions and rehearsals. Arnold is seen with The Chieftains capering to the Irish jigs that can also be found in the last three symphonies. The elderly composer wanders along a Cornish beach towards a brass band playing his music and takes over the direction of the band - a blessedly Ken Russell moment - as also is the scene where companion Anthony Day is seen leading the composer down the churchyard back to the car. Arnold’s face is vacant of expression - bleak and void of understanding.

Mania, suicidal inclination, depression, the neglect of his music, vituperative criticism and alcohol all took their toll. One marriage destroyed, the alienation of all those around him including his children, episodes of incarceration in a mental institution, electric shock treatment and massive insulin injections: the man who at one time produced an incredible stream of music for films, orchestral concerts, chamber recitals and solos has lived a personal hell .... and so on occasion have those around him.

The Cornish years in and around North Cornwall at Primrose Cottage at St Merryn are touchingly done. Rick Stein reminisces about Arnold and the children recall swimming and rock-pools. Arnold wrote his various Cornish works including the Dances (one of which is the signature tune of Rick Stein’s TV programme), along with the March - The Padstow Lifeboat. My own childhood recollections of family holidays at Constantine Bay, of ice cream (with crystals of ice in it), of peeling skin (Heaven help us!), of deck chairs and caravan parks, as well as pouring rain and the booming Trevose foghorn that also plays a part in the Padstow Lifeboat march are bound up with Arnold’s music.

Palmer makes gifted use of his material inter-cutting scenes from the feature films that handsomely fed and clothed Arnold's family. There are also family snaps, press cuttings (some scathing in the extreme), home movies, full-on interviews with family and friends, scenery shots and orchestral sessions. The film never drags but develops a gripping tempo all of its own.

Extracts from the symphonies and other works were recorded in the studio. You get to recognise certain members of the NSO of Ireland including the conductor, the harpist and the timpanist. I was a bit disorientated from time to time when clearly what I was hearing on the soundtrack was not what Arnold was conducting - a copyright problem perhaps in the case of the Jon Lord ‘happening’.

Arnold is in no way diminished by this candid film. That I was held transfixed by the slyly graceful dance in the Arnold Oboe Concerto all those years ago in the 1970s when I played to death a tape I had made of a studio recording off-air is testimony to Arnold’s genius. I was moved to tears by hearing the Fifth Symphony in rehearsal and in full concert back in 1999 where it was luminously and resoundingly performed at Stockport Town Hall (Stockport Symphony Orchestra/David Hoult). My wife can recognise Arnold instantly on hearing the Allegretto of the Scottish Dances. The rum-ti-tum jollity, out-Horovitzing Horovitz (Joseph, that is!) in the chamber opera The Song of Simeon is easily recalled. Idiosyncratically the Eighth Symphony with its march Sally-Army-out-of-Mahler is my favourite of the last three symphonies. The First Symphony is starkly dramatic - Sibelian in its manner. The tramping syncopated horns in the finale of the Fifth Symphony (CBSO/composer on an EMI Classics cassette) and its Hollywood sunset decaying into night are part of my memories of driving my first car (rusty Austin 1100) around Torquay.

A pity that there is no mention of his BBC studio conducting of the symphonies 3 and 4 of fellow Northamptonian, Edmund Rubbra, during the 1960s. However we do get to hear about Arnold from John Amis and we are assured that Arnold and flautist Adeney lifted the LPO during the 1940s and 1950s. Arnold played in the LPO for the premiere of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and for the UK premiere of the Walton violin concerto - that must have been the one played by Henry Holst.

Arnold’s astounding facility for music is illustrated by two anecdotes. In one he is recalled as reconstructing a band score with unerring accuracy from a 78. In another it is recalled that unlike many composers Arnold would compose direct into full score. Even Bax did not do that, preferring to write into short score and later expanding the orchestration across a full canvas.

His championing of Walton’s film music for The Battle of Britain is legendary, his friendship with Walton and various character traits are recalled by Susanna Walton. The films were a curse and a blessing. Open-handed generosity with wads of tenners handed out to friends was the product of his cinema commissions. Like Alwyn he wrote many scores. Mind you his judgement was not always unerring. We learn that he turned down commissions for Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Strangelove and 2001 - A Space Odyssey. His success in this world offered easy ammunition for critics already prone to vitriolic dismissal of concert scores that showed anything resembling a whistleable tune.

The Arnold film was shown in two parts on ITV in the UK and no doubt is already being franchised to the Arts channels on cable and satellite worldwide.

While we are not spared the composer’s tortured mind and experience neither are we denied the generosity of soul that beams through the many thousands of pages of his music. Palmer has once again done an audaciously honest job and stayed true to his subject - a composer whose experience of life in every aspect is bound up in his music.

Rob Barnett

see also

Review by Christopher Thomas
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