Saturday, 10 December 2011

Arnold the Dandipratt

The late Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) has been the object of a particularly intense Neglected British Composer campaign. Personal sympathy for a man who suffered a long and deep depressive illness must be part of the story. The neglect was real, though far less complete than that suffered by most other NBCs - and he had some influential critical supporters (Hans Keller and Donald Mitchell among them) as well as detractors. There were a number of snubs (especially in the '70s and '80s) that must have hurt - especially over the Ninth Symphony. He was the victim of that tendency for things to turn into unpleasant ideological tussles. The stricter guardians of the serialist-inspired avant-garde (who, for a while, became powerful) had no time for Arnold's overwhelmingly tonal, tuneful and instantly communicative style. Those whose allegiance, however, was to the 'conservative' opposition's banner found in him and his music a cause to rally around. There is also the far from incidental point that the enthusiasm expressed by many of his supporters is clearly real enthusiasm for his music and what they feel to be its intrinsic qualities.

The campaign has been more successful than any other that I know of. Arnold's works are regaining a wide currency and BBC Radio 3 has made up for any past neglect with plentiful broadcasts of his music. His symphonic output (nine in total) is regularly lauded as one of the finest British cycles, with some of the keenest voices praising it as one of the world's finest 20th Century cycles too. I'm hearing increasingly frequent uses of the phrase "the English Shostakovich" about Sir Malcolm Arnold. Plus the tide has long turned against the avant-garde in much of the world. The claim by the great critic (and pianist) Charles Rosen in his Critical Entertainments that his music would arouse no enthusiasm, inspire no passion in audiences was, I think, just wishful thinking on his part. The record-buying public is demonstrably spending plenty of its hard-earned money on Arnold.

Though some of the claims for Sir Malcolm's greatness seem overblown to me (I half expect to hear someone on Radio 3 saying, "When you think of the greatest symphonic cycles...Haydn's, Mozart's, Beethoven's, Arnold's, Brahms's, Bruckner's, Mahler's, Shostakovich's..."), I'm very glad his music is getting its due these days. His many lighter works are full of colour and memorable melody. His serious works often chart an involving struggle between light and dark, in time-honoured symphonic fashion, though they also never forget to give us memorable melodies either. In a very personal way, he often manages to cast shadows in his lighter works and cock a snook in his darker, serious ones. He has certain stylistic tics - those oscillating harmonies that act as an ambiguous drone beneath many a tune, for example - and in many a work you'll find a similar structure (especially in his many 15-minute concertos), with a melancholy central movement framed by lively movements, the finale usually being cheerful, chirpy even. That said, the depth of the melancholy ranges widely from the ambiguous to the despairing, and the cheerfulness of many of those finales is often undercut by irony (in the manner of Shostakovich, some would say). For all the occasional faults and frustrations, I must finally come clean and admit (to Charles Rosen and the world in general) that I have a passion for some of Sir Malcolm's music. I love hearing familiar and unfamiliar pieces by him and will always seek out opportunities to hear his music.

What pieces then to recommend to the uninitiated?

A good place to begin would be the Scottish Dances. If your heart doesn't melt (metaphorically-speaking) on hearing the gorgeous melody of the third movement, then (Spock) I pity you. It's a breathtakingly beautiful melody for sure, but it's the treatment of that melody by a master orchestrator (and Malcolm Arnold was a fine conductor too) that makes it so magical. From there, please try out some of the other national sets of dances, of which the two sets of English Dances (wonderful!) and the Cornish Dances are the brightest and most bushy-tailed (with the usual qualifications about slow movements, especially that of the Cornish Dances) and the later dances (Welsh and Irish, not yet on YouTube) far more touched by sadness. Other light music pleasures to treasure include The Padstow Lifeboat and the Robert Burns-inspired overture, Tam O'Shanter (a Scottish Dance expanded into a symphonic poem).

Approaching the symphonies, I would recommend beginning with the Fifth. Here the (self-confessed) Mahlerian underpinnings of Arnold's work are most obvious, especially in the slow second movement. Those who claim a close kinship for our man with Shostakovich would point out that the tart irony of a Mahler is most definitely overlaid here by the even tarter irony of a Shostakovich. Malcolm Arnold was fond, like both of these composers, of using popular music in his art. The smooth pop tune at the heart of the scherzo third movement is proof of that. The mock-cheerful finale (with its disconcerting echoes of Orange Order marches in Northern Ireland) features a satisfying yet puzzling reprise of the big tune from the slow movement, and is an instance of 'the English Shostakovich' in action. The piece is, characteristically, both easy to follow and somewhat inscrutable. The United Kingdom in 1961 wasn't the Soviet Union of Stalin and this wasn't an artist's reply to just criticism. What was Malcolm getting at? Anything important? Does it matter? The Sixth Symphony (not yet on YouTube) is almost as fine, with an eruption of jazz in the grim slow movement that might take you by surprise (if I hadn't put in this spoiler!) and a finale with such a populist, heroic main tune that thoughts of Shostakovich-style irony will be hard to ignore. The unsettling Ninth Symphony (of ill-fated origin) contains much that is stark and gloomy (with lots of two-part writing) yet is a strangely beautiful work that casts a spell almost in spite of itself. At the other end of his career, the First Symphony marked a confident début, though I wouldn't rate it so highly as some of its successors. The first movement is dramatic and grim, but its grim passages have nothing on the tense and atmospheric central slow movement. This is the movement that means most to me. Its main theme incorporates one of those little tics of Malcolm Arnold - a cheeky little melodic kick - despite being a morose melody rather suggestive of Sibelius (another of Arnold's acknowledged influences). The Finale, beginning in fugal fashion, maintains the gloomy, anxious mood and ends imposingly but, as mentioned earlier, a mood of high serious in Arnold is prone to fall victim to a prank (funny ha-ha, or funny strange?) and that's just what happens here some three minutes before the end. I'm unfamiliar with the Seventh, but several prominent Arnoldians place it at the pinnacle of the composer's symphonic achievement.

There are a stack of Arnold concertos, for many instruments. My favourite is the Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands) of my birth year, 1969. There are shades of the Indonesian gamelan in the opening movement, though the smoothly beautiful second subject carries us delightfully into the cocktail bar of a luxury hotel (c.1969). The central Andante, as you might expect, is full of sadness. It also has something of the cocktail bar about it, but it's tears over the tia maria here, and what a tune! The crisis at its heart is characteristic of the composer, but the big return of the big tune is just as characteristic. To end is a finale with an edgy jazziness to begin with, followed by a cheerful pop tune that will bring you out (I hope) in a huge smile. The music is instantly appealing (and grows ever more so on repeated listening), yet it's mood remains somewhat mysterious - which is Malcolm Arnold in a nutshell.

Unavailable on YouTube yet are the string quartets, where Arnold ploughed his most serious furrow. The Second String Quartet, in particular, is as far from light music as can be. The influence of Bartok can be heard here and might surprise those who haven't journeyed very far into Arnold's output. Near the start of his output you'll find his Three Shanties for wind quintet, which critics describe as the true birth of the mature Arnold style. They certainly sound it.

Malcolm Arnold also wrote large amounts of film music, including The Belles of St. Trinians (with its unforgettable theme for Flash Harry), The Bridge over the River Kwai (now how many has Goebbels got?), David Copperfield (ripely romantic) and Whistle Down the Wind (so delicately orchestrated, the main theme very characteristic). Should you be in the Christmas mood, try out his fantasia on Christmas carols for the film The Holly and the Ivy (not deep, but charming nonetheless).

So much to explore. Enjoy, if you wish.

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