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CD Review

Malcolm Arnold

Wind Chamber Music

  • Wind Quintet, Op. 2 (1942)
  • Duo for 2 Clarinets, Op. 135 (1988)
  • Dream City (1938; arr. Harris)
  • Hobson's Wind Octet (1953; arr. Radok)
  • Grand Fantasia, Op. 973 (1940)
  • Overture for Wind Octet (1940; arr. Radok)
  • Suite Bourgeoise for Flute, Clarinet & Piano
  • You Know What Sailors Are – Scherzetto (1954)
  • Fantasy for Clarinet, Op. 87 (1966)
  • Fantasy for Flute & Clarinet (1960)
  • Divertimento for Flute, Oboe & Clarinet, Op. 37 (1953)
  • 3 Shanties for Wind Quintet, Op. 4 (1943)
East Winds
Naxos 8.570294 76:24
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Lively, accessible music, often surprising you with its depth.

British composer Malcolm Arnold played several instruments but was a virtuoso trumpeter (listening to Louis Armstrong inspired him to take up the instrument), at one point a member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He had many musician friends, a good number reed and brass players, and wrote works for them. For a major composer, music for wind and brass take up a fairly large space in his catalogue. Of major composers, I can think off the top of my head only of Mozart who created an even larger collection for these instruments.

This CD presents early, middle, and late Arnold. Except for the three Shanties, a staple of the wind repertoire, Most of these pieces aren't that well known. All, however, show great finish, wit, and poetry within a small space.

The previous edition of Grove's listed the Wind Quintet as lost. Arnold wrote it shortly after his encounter with Constant Lambert, one of his musical heroes. The score then disappeared for sixty years, coming to light in the original clarinetist's musical papers after the composer's (and the clarinetist's) death. You can see what in Lambert's music appealed to Arnold, namely a sophisticated wit and use of vernacular material. However, Lambert was essentially a miniaturist, Arnold a symphonist, although he could turn out exquisite miniatures as well. The three movements of the Quintet fall into that category. The first breaks up a neoclassic contrapuntal good time which at times turns into a rumba. The second zanily knocks about like a French farce, with taxi horns breaking in every once in a while. Arnold expert Paul Harris sees the final march as an anti-war statement. Arnold was a pacifist, but while I take the irony of the march, it's still too good-humored to bear the weight of Harris's interpretation. For real anti-war music, check out Arnold's Fifth Symphony. This movement ends as lightly as the pop of a soap bubble.

Dream City started out as a solo for Arnold's pianist mother. Paul Harris arranged it for wind quintet. The composer wrote after his first term at the Royal College of Music. Consequently, one discerns very little of Arnold's mature voice. It's a vaguely neo-Impressionist piece, very capable from a composer so young. The Grand Fantasia (flute, clarinet, and piano), another bit of juvenilia, reveals some of Arnold's humor. "Op. 973," indeed! It appeared under the byline "A. Youngman." Beyond that, the music, a variation set, sends up 19th-century opera and the operatic paraphrase. The humor, frankly, is rather obvious, but the skillful instrumental writing impresses nevertheless. My favorite movements include, in the second half, a sultry habanera and a low-down blues, which foreshadow the Arnold to come.

The Overture for Wind Octet probably would have become part of a larger work, but Arnold, in the press of other activity, completed only this piece. It also shows the influence of Lambert as well as the considerable technical progress and assurance over his material Arnold had gained since either Dream City or the Grand Fantasia. The idiom is deeper and more complex, the form something more than simple variation or song form.

The Suite Bourgeoise, for flute, oboe, and piano – yet another World War II work – we can compare directly to the Grand Fantasia. First, the adolescent, Mad-Magazine lampooning has disappeared. When Arnold does introduce parody, it's at a more abstract, less jokey level. The work contains five movements: a serious prelude; a pastorale that morphs into a tango, not merely a joke, but beautiful in its own right; a snappy "jazz" number (originally entitled "Whorehouse") which slides into a rumba; a Hollywood-Forties ballad, again too pretty to be mere satire; a jazz waltz, with an old-fashioned trio. The level of invention runs much higher than what one normally encounters in such works, and the quality of the instrumental writing reveals a master.

Arnold composed his Divertimento for Flute, Oboe, and Clarinet for his friends: Richard Adeney, Sidney Sutcliffe, and Stephen Waters, respectively. Keep in mind there are only three instruments, all pretty close in range. Arnold not only solves these basic problems, he creates a work of surprising depth, all through miniatures. Those familiar with the 3 Shanties will recognize many of the gestures here.

Arnold wrote many film scores, most famously that for Bridge on the River Kwai. It provided a fine source of income, and it suited both his facility and his dramatic instincts. He wrote Kwai in ten days to that tight a deadline and won an Oscar. Several little chips fell from these scores. Hobson's Wind Octet uses material from the comedy Hobson's Choice, starring Charles Laughton and Arnold's favorite of the movies he worked on. The movie concerns a successful Northern shoemaker (Laughton) with three marriageable daughters. To avoid having to settle a dowry on them, he decrees, "No marriages!" The movie shows him getting his comeuppance. Arnold's own father ran a shoe factory in Northampton, and for the score, the composer comes up with music reminiscent of provincial music-halls. Again, if it's parody, it's affectionate and, in the film, absolutely right. You Know What Sailors Are sounds like a sex farce and isn't, rather a gentle satire on the postwar arms race, with such luminaries as Donald Sinden, Akim Tamiroff, and Michael Hordern. Rent it if you can. Having written dozens of scores, Arnold built up a band of musicians he liked to record with, and they included some of the finest players in Britain. Knowing he was going to write for the great clarinetist Frederick Thurston, he created a little Scherzetto, a mixture of the rollicking and the sly. This number has seen a number of arrangements, including this one for clarinet and piano.

The 3 Shanties, as I've said, stand as Arnold's biggest hit among his wind chamber music. Each movement arranges a well-known shanty: "What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor," "Blow the Man Down" (also known as "Boney was a Warrior"), and "Johnny Come Down to Hilo." The arrangements are brilliant and often slightly daffy, particularly when "What Shall We Do" begins a drag-your-girl tango. Arnold tosses off roulades of jaw-dropping counterpoint and fills the work with bright, scintillating textures. The work bounces along to an elated, slightly manic, conclusion. It should raise a smile.

Arnold seemed fascinated by the problem of getting as much music as he could from as few instruments as possible. We have already seen this in his Divertimento for flute, oboe, and clarinet. He also wrote a number of works for solo instrument he called fantasies, sometimes to fulfill a commission, sometimes because he admired a musician's playing, sometimes for personal reasons. The Fantasy for Clarinet was written as a test piece for a Birmingham competition. The brief Fantasy for Flute and Clarinet was written for his children. The dark Duo for Two Clarinets appeared shortly after the Ninth Symphony, also a pretty dark work, so spare in its textures that often only two sections are playing at a time. The emotional depth in these pieces, even in the very short kiddy work, amazes me. However, the Duo counts as some sort of masterpiece. Each of its movements is short, but the impression they leave is sphinx-like and mighty. It puts me in mind of Webern, although without Webern's obvious complication.

The performers of course from Arnold's instrumental expertise, but they also enter into the Arnoldian world, its shape-shifting Alice in Wonderland quality and the uneasy sub-current that often lurks beneath a bubbly surface. I complain only about the decision to break and space out the Duo for Two Clarinets. The notes say it was done to provide "interludes" between other pieces, but why? It obviously obliterates the score's integrity. If you have a programmable CD player, this objection has less point, but why should you need a programmable player? This decision baffles me. Otherwise, it's a fine disc.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.