English composer (b. Northampton, 21 October 1921; d. Norwich, 23 September 2006) active from the Second World War onwards (almost exact contemporary of Robert Simpson; therefore younger than William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Humphrey Searle and Edmund Rubbra; but older than Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwhistle, etc) – best known for his work for orchestra and/or brass ensemble. He was also a successful composer of music for film, and won an Oscar for "The Bridge on the River Kwai".
Normal societies lock away their troublemakers, but the British have this peculiar habit of knighting theirs… and so, in 1993, a trumpeter, composer, conductor and firebrand called Malcolm Arnold woke up with the label "Sir" before his name (it's not known at this time whether he had to kneel before his Queen to collect the "gong"). It would appear, however, that Sir Malcolm has not permitted his belated respectability to tarnish a reputation for genial irrascability (from the interview appended to the National SO of Ireland/Andrew Penny recording of his Ninth Symphony: "There's life in the old dog yet")….
An impertinent beginning; but in many ways, Malcolm Arnold is an impertinent composer. To this day, the British musical establishment has struggled to get a handle on him… despite a flood of concerts in Britain celebrating Arnold's 75th year, the current (1996) London Proms program features one short work only (The Sound Barrier rhapsody as part of its "Last Night" carnival). Admittedly, even Arnold's admirers admit that sometimes he could be his own worst enemy… from the unexpected intrusion of the piccolos which shatter the dignity of his First Symphony through the persistently off-key foghorn of the Padstow Lifeboat march to the chilled despair of the Ninth Symphony, there are times when Arnold – like Dmitri Shostakovich – appears to have had a critical death wish… or at least, an agent provocteur's determination to antagonise as many people as possible. At a time when the critical mainstream in Great Britain was moving inexorably towards a clinical academicism, the sometimes savage accessibility of Arnold's music stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Arnold's musical catalog is dominated by works for orchestra: nine symphonies; more than a dozen concerti (most written with specific performers in mind; including Dennis Brain, Larry Adler, Julian Bream, Benny Goodman, Julian Lloyd Webber and – in the case of the Philharmonic Concerto – the entire London Philharmonic Orchestra); six sets of symphonic dances and a number of popular programmatic overtures. Also popular and progammatic is his music for film… more than a hundred scores in all; including three films for David Lean ("The Sound Barrier", "Hobson's Choice" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai"), the 1956 version of "1984", "The Belles of St Trinian's", "Whistle Down The Wind", "The Angry Silence" and "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness". His instrumental and chamber music is less well known; but his Symphony for Brass Instruments (like the concerti, written with specific performers in mind – in this case, the trumpeter Philip Jones and his brass ensemble) is one of a number of masterworks written for brass ensemble. Unusually for a British composer, vocal works are inconspicuous in his output (the composer is on record as saying that texts are an intrusion on his abstract sound-world); but to be honest, Arnold's music has never been obviously British.
(On the other hand, it isn't easy to think of another culture which would have him)
More than most composers, Arnold's music is distinguished by its sound: rhythmically vital (if – at times – melodically quite brutally sparse), his extrordinary flair for orchestration (Shostakovich and Walton the most obvious influences) has combined with one of the most potent dramatic senses since Berlioz to create an unmistakable soundscape. In some ways, Arnold is a chamber music composer writ large (solo instruments – particularly in the brass – tend to dominate a continuo-style orchestral texture); while his use of popular music styles (particularly jazz) is easily the equal of Heitor Villa-Lôbos. As a composer, Arnold is as capable of riotous humor (the "Tam o' Shanter" overture or his wonderful "Hoffnung Festival" pastiches) as blistering despair (the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies). He loved the challenge of writing with particular musician-friends in mind (his concerti are often musical portraits)… but no matter what the style, with Arnold there's always an edge, a spike (his best work isn't so much programmatic as has a secret (often not-so-secret) agenda). The self-consciously final symphony (his Ninth) is a case in point:
First commissioned in 1979 but not completed until 1986, the Ninth Symphony has been cast in a traditional four movement form; but its really in two roughly equal parts: three opening movements (Vivace – Allegretto – Giubiloso) acting as preludes to a massive Lento finale. As always, there's no real program to the symphony; but it isn't hard to hear the musical persona of Arnold quietly summing up his vision of the landscape… each of the three preludes are trademark Arnold: an opening Vivace, which gives the symphony a rhythmically dancing start (if one which lacks the fierce dramatic contrasts one often associates with Arnold); followed by an astonishingly sombre Allegretto (the kind of music I personally associate with Arnold, since I definitely enjoy his "dark side" even more than his flights of musical fancy… this Allegretto is an extended waste-land pastorale which never quite develops a melody. No composer that I know of can write music quite like this… sparse yet passionate; and very, very lost). Conductor Andrew Penny (in an interview with Arnold appended to the Naxos recording of this symphony (see below)) refers to the Giubiloso third movement as a "Malcolm Arnold scherzo"; and it's true that this giddy dance could easily slot into one of his six sets of British Dances… but in the context of this symphony, one can't help thinking of another wonderful (but equally nervous) dance – the third movement of Tchaikovski's final symphony. Like a true dramatist, Arnold is setting up his audience for the fall…
… which he delivers in the form of the massive Lento finale (more than twenty-three minutes in the Naxos recording)… a finale built around a theme which at times seems not so much a melody in itself as the bassline under the melody. Again, the inspiration of the "Pathétique" seems clear; but like (to the my mind) the best performances of Tchaikovski's masterpiece, there's no sense of a self-indulgent wallow. This is a lonely, shattered vision, within which the musical persona of Arnold quietly picks himself up, brushes himself down and walks (with as much dignity as he can muster) into the abyss. The Ninth Symphony is music without hope, without redemption – just a slow progression of unresolved chords drifting inexorably through space (in places, the movement sounds like a self-pitiless symphonic suicide note). If anything, the symphony's final transcendent chord actually accentuates this sense of stoic despair – for all it's simple beauty, this is a climax which changes nothing… but at least it gives this musical lost soul a dignified exit. In the final scene of "Amadeus", Antonio Salieri – unfairly cast as the patron saint of mediocrity – walks proudly amongst the insane; and forgives them their unfortunate lack of genius. In a single chord of D Major, Arnold almost seems to be forgiving himself….
(In a strange sense, this vision of (personal?/musical?/political?) failure results in Arnold's most terrifying success… and perhaps this one statement more than any other helps explain the conundrum which is at the heart of Arnold's music. His genius lies in a dramatist's vision of co-existing opposites, not a classical symphonist's search for unification)
Despite changing musical tastes, the music of Malcolm Arnold has retained a solid popular following; which – in recent years – has translated into a significant discography… unsually for a living composer, most his key works are now available on disc; with more recordings on the way. Although now retired from composition, Arnold continues to involve himself with the recording of his music… which certainly keeps him active, since there are now three separate cycles of his complete symphonies under construction: the London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox on Chandos; the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Andrew Penny on Naxos and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley on Conifer.
A fascinating but sometimes chilling biography – "Philharmonic Concerto – the life and music of Sir Malcolm Arnold" by Piers Burton-Page – was published by Methuen in 1994… since the book deals candidly with the personal troubles which helped mould Arnold's astonishing Ninth Symphony, its essential reading for anyone interested in the composer and his music. "Arnold at 75" – a birthday tribute to Malcolm Arnold published as a supplement to the British Gramophone magazine – is also well worth having.
There is also a Malcolm Arnold Society, based in England. For further details, please contact:
Malcolm Arnold Society
6 Walton St
Barnsley S75 2PE
… and whatever you do, please enjoy the music of Sir Malcolm Henry Arnold…. ~Robert Clements