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  Founder: Len Mullenger

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)

A Greater Composer than Some Might Think

With the death of Sir Malcolm Arnold on 23 September 2006, England lost one of its national treasures. This is tragic for at least two reasons. First and foremost, of course, he was adored and respected by many people, ranging from fine musicians to ordinary music-lovers – and film-buffs. The second reason is rather less palatable: he died with his music still almost completely ignored by – for want of a better term – the Musical Establishment of his native country, and whilst his music does get performed, to all intents and purposes it is still barred from the most influential venues and events. This crime is compounded by effective misrepresentation – if, by some chance, anything at all of his is programmed in a relatively "high profile" concert or broadcast, you can bet your bottom dollar that it’ll be one of his light pieces – never, it seems, a symphony! Consequently, whole swathes of the population must be forgiven for dismissing Arnold as merely a "lightweight" composer, pure and simple.

It might seem paradoxical, then, that Arnold is one of the – if not simply the – most extensively recorded of British composers. Moreover, those companies that have taken Arnold to their hearts and catalogues have by no means fought shy of his major compositions. This is just as well, otherwise the entire population, never mind mere swathes of it, would require the aforementioned forgiveness. Yet, it’s not really a paradox, but simply a difference of opinion. I’ll leave it at that – and leave you to make up your own mind who you think is right - because now is not the time for diatribes, but for reflection.

On occasion, Arnold has been called the "English Shostakovich", and with good reason: the two have so much in common. Yet, crucially, there is a major disparity. Whereas Shostakovich is wholly a child of the Twentieth Century, Arnold is not. Let’s look at what is arguably an even stronger parallel - that between Arnold and Tchaikovsky. Both were beset by, and to some extent driven by, internal demons. Both could write on the one hand the most delicious confections and, on the other, the most searing expressions of their personal anguish and - if I could borrow a third hand for a moment – they could encapsulate the latter within the former. Certainly in the case of Arnold, who made this encapsulation into an art form, this trick seems to be one of the things that confounds – again for want of a better term - Establishment cognoscenti. Like Stalinist lackeys, somehow they can’t see past the sugar-dusted surface. But, just as with any "code" of Shostakovich’s, to many ordinary mortals, listening with their hearts, the message is as clear as dew-bright day.

A fair proportion of the charm of Tchaikovsky comes from his having one foot firmly planted in the past, courtesy of his admiration of Mozart, whose elegance and "formal perfection" turned Tchaikovsky green with envy. Tchaikovsky wins the hearts of music-lovers not just because he speaks their language but because, able to see where he’s coming from, they can better perceive where he’s headed. The same is true of Arnold, if anything even more so when you take account of the musical environment he inhabited.

In his days as an orchestral trumpeter, he absorbed not only the craft but also the music of many masters, and even more than might at first be apparent. For example, some years back I had been puzzling over the supposedly "Sibelian" opening movement of the First Symphony. One evening, on the telephone to Anthony Day, I mentioned this. "Ask him yourself," Anthony suggested. So I did: "Was Nielsen in the back of your mind when you wrote that music?" The bluff answer: "Yes!" Thankfully, although he might well have, he didn’t actually add, "Any fool can see that." Yet, quite a few, fools or otherwise, don’t.

As we all know, Tchaikovsky was an absolute whizz at ballet music. I’ve often heard it said that the Ballet influenced his symphonies. Just as often, I’ve reacted by thinking that the same holds for so much of his music that, really, it’s more a matter of the Ballet being happily suited to his inherent style. If for "Ballet" you read "Film", then pretty well the same thing applies to Arnold. Very early on in his career – when his only prior work of any significance was Beckus the Dandipratt – he took to film scoring like the proverbial duck to water. Setting aside the purely practical qualifications – confidence, craftsmanship, quick-wittedness, and alacrity – what made him so exceptionally good at this job was an innate flair for drama.

Although Arnold’s absorption of the past was evidently far broader than Tchaikovsky’s, this did not make him the outmoded, boring old "traditionalist" that certain pundits would have us believe. In particular, they would point to those overtly "modern"-sounding works, the two string quartets. "There! You see?" they would exclaim, "He can only pretend to keep up with the times by parrotting Bartok!" Nor, I suppose, did it help that the first, and most obviously "Bartokian", was written in 1949, with the ink on Bartok’s own final essay in the form only 10 years in the drying. Yet, back then, nobody had really woken up to Bartok’s quartets, so if anything Arnold was pretty quick off the mark, both perceptive and forward-looking in choosing such a model. Naturally, those pundits conveniently ignored the subtle but distinctive tang that Arnold’s own unmistakable character and ingenuity brought to the form.

The fact was that Arnold, to an extraordinary degree, used the past as a torch to illuminate the future - his music may be rooted in tradition, but it is also positively bristling with innovation. It’s simply that, unlike his heart, he didn’t flagrantly display his technical achievements on his sleeve or, for that matter, waste time writing pages of pretentious "explanation" – with hindsight, we can see that this was probably a mistake! Instead, in keeping with his expressed ethos of the triumvirate of "composer – performer – listener", he considered that such technicalities fell firmly in the corner of the composer, and certainly not the audience.

Arguably, though, it is those very technicalities that tickle the listener’s subconscious. By way of illustration, let me cite just a couple of examples. Firstly, what about the slushily romantic slow movement of the Fourth Symphony? Its tunes – not themes! - dripping honey laced with saccharine, paraded like Mantovani muzak to accompany a candlelit dinner for two (nudge, nudge - wink, wink), surely this is not worthy of a place in a symphony?

Well, if that’s what you think, or at least suspect, then listen again. The movement’s overall five-section arch-structure is like a sonata form, whose "exposition" and "recapitulation" comprise rondo layouts, whilst the "development" comprises two binary forms either side of a central extended ternary form. This complex, but beautiful, almost crystalline symmetrical structure is grown from variants of the first two subjects, whilst the third subject, unchanging in outline but ever more erotically-attired on each appearance, skewers the structure like the spike through a kebab. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s one hell of a form to be considered unworthy of a symphony.

Secondly, the Fifth Symphony’s first movement can seem bewildering, a rhapsodic confusion of events bound together more by their glorious sound than any sensible musical form. What, then, other than that sound - which in itself should not be sufficient - draws us back to it time and again? Simple: it is nothing less than the elusive, cunningly concealed, and startlingly original form. This I would briefly, and hence unavoidably cryptically, describe as "based on a pair of interleaved pyramids" – as the Man himself might have said, "Stick that in your total-serialist pipe and smoke it!"

So, we get this picture of Arnold as a composer whose major works are like the sonic equivalents of high-powered "action movies", and yet have plot-lines as subtle as Shakespeare, and emotional undercurrents that threaten to swallow up the unwary in one gulp. "Dramatic narrative" and "formal ingenuity" seem like somewhat incompatible bedfellows, whose union is sufficiently immoral and likely to corrupt the innocent as to scare the pants off the self-appointed arbiters of good taste. If so, then how come they have admitted Mahler and Shostakovich, not to mention good old Tchaikovsky, into their hallowed repertoire – and having gone thus far, what’s so different about Arnold’s case? To me, that sounds a fair question. Does anybody know the real answer?

I seem to be veering dangerously close to the diatribe that I was at pains to avoid. However, really it is utterly unavoidable. It is a crying shame that Arnold did not get his full measure of recognition whilst he was still alive – I sincerely hope that this sin will not be compounded now he’s gone. As I said, we have lost a national treasure. Would the powers-that-be please be good enough to realise that fact? Fact? Yes – and for the evidence they need look no further than Antony Day.

When Antony took on the job of looking after the shattered remnant of Malcolm Arnold, he was more or less told that it would occupy him for, at best, six months or so. Antony knew nothing of the man or his music, and was thus about as unprejudiced as it’s possible to be. But, as his ministrations gradually drew Malcolm back from the brink of extinction into the land of the living, he learnt – and came to love the man and his music. For Antony, Malcolm’s music became as manna, providing him with all the spiritual sustenance he needed. In return, Antony’s selfless devotion enabled Malcolm to enjoy some twenty-odd twilight years of life.

Moreover, if it hadn’t been for Antony, the seemingly enigmatic Ninth Symphony – arguably "the only Ninth, in spite of Beethoven"! - would never have been written. Just of itself, that’s a lot to thank him for. Thanks, Antony - and thank you, Malcolm, for all the "bloody music" you once forcefully commanded me to listen to. If there’s a heaven, you’ll be up there, no doubt creating merry hell – and, I hope, observing that I’m still following your orders.

Paul Serotsky

Malcolm Arnold Society

Malcolm Arnold - an Obituary by Rob Barnett

[DVD - Toward the Unknown Region Malcolm ARNOLD – A Story of Survival - A Film by Tony PALMER]
[Complete Symphonies: Naxos Whitebox/Penny £20]


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