Music: English Enigma—Malcolm Arnold

The stiad English sense of manners and propriety has always been counterpoised by a compensating craziness. The English do not tolerate eccentricity; they take pride in it. Once during a visit to a London club, I was quite accidentally thrown together for an evening with a marquis from one of Fair Albion’s most famous families. He wore no socks, laughed like a hyena, and, in his back pocket, sported a huge red bandanna that he frequently flourished when taking copious quantities of snuff. The next morning, one of the club butlers sidled up to me and said, “Oh, sir, I see you were with the marquis last night.” “Yes, Henry,” I replied. “Well,” he confided, “that’s the real thing.”

One would think that this prideful indulgence would extend to those who hear a different drummer in the world of music. But such has not always been the case with English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, who certainly is the real thing. With all the recorded care the British have lavished on their 20th-century composers, why have they neglected Arnold for so long? Perhaps because he is too atypical, even for the British. His music “tweaks”; he is the closest the British have come to Francis Poulenc, the marvelously mischievous French composer. Also, critics seemed perplexed by Arnold’s extraordinary knack for popular tunes, somewhat akin to that of the late Morton Gould in this country. Both composers suffered for their popularity with the “unwashed.” Additionally, in certain of his later symphonies, Arnold reveals an acerbic and violent side that stands in juxtaposition to his customary lyrical warmth and jocularity. People have come to accept the giant orchestral raspberries in Shostakovich’s symphonies, but not yet, apparently, in Arnold’s.

Arnold’s neglect was keenly felt by some of his compatriots—especially professional musicians who knew a master was in their midst. In 1990, I received a letter from the celebrated British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. He wrote: “Arnold has had a very poor deal in this country—the symphonies are virtually never programmed—it is rather a national disgrace. (How many movements like the slow movement of the Second [Symphony] are there around nowadays?)” Happily, this “national disgrace” is being remedied with three concurrent traversals of Arnold’s nine symphonies underway by the Chandos, Conifer, and Naxos labels. So far, the results of all three ventures are outstanding (with the Conifer now completed). These releases join a growing number of other recent recordings of Arnold’s many concertos, overtures, dance suites, chamber music, and film scores. Arnold’s time has come at last and, happily, Arnold, now seventy-seven, has lived to see it.

Arnold was born in 1921 in Northampton, a musically fecund town that also produced composers Edmund Rubbra and William Alwyn. Arnold showed early promise by steadfastly refusing to go to school. Educated at home by an aunt, he later did a stint at the Royal College of Music, from which he once bolted and had to be begged back by its director, composer George Dyson. Arnold learned the orchestra from the inside, which tells in his amazingly deft and highly transparent orchestrations. He became principal trumpet in the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the ripe age of twenty-one. He at first refused military service during World War II, but then later volunteered. He was relieved from duty after shooting himself in the foot. He returned to the Philharmonic but, after winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1948, left to devote himself to composition and conducting.

Arnold’s style of writing tonal, tuneful, and very entertaining music was officially frowned upon. Critics found it unseemly that a 20th-century composer would write in a classical divertimento style in an age of angst and ugliness. For example, instead of producing a Quartet for the End of Time during World War II, Arnold composed mellifluous serenades. As British critic Donald Mitchell once wrote, “The very emphasis on the melodic dimension in Arnold’s art itself gives rise to suspicions that … we are succumbing to the blandishments of the popular, while the composer is somehow abandoning the pedestal of high art and is wanting in seriousness.”

As if to confirm this diagnosis, Arnold turned to film scores to support himself. He wrote more than a hundred, including the Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai (dashed off in fifteen days). The film income left him free to write his “serious” music, some of which was deliberately silly. In collaboration with musical humorist Gerard Hoffnung, he produced such works as Grand, Grand Overture, which includes parts for three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher, and Grand Concerto Gastronomique, scored for eater, waiter, food, and orchestra (what, no wine?). Even on these high jinks Arnold lavished melodies that would leave most composers green with envy.

Arnold’s main body of work also contains a good deal of humor. He is such a complete master of both classical and popular idioms that he can play freely with them. And play he does, weaving them in and out of each other with a dizzying dexterity that leaves the listener exhilarated by the high spirits of the thing. Staccato jazz rhythms, Caribbean marimba bands, and march music mix with what at times sound like hilarious sendups of Mahler, Shostakovitch, and Sibelius. In fact, Arnold admits all three composers as major influences on him. He adds Berlioz for reasons that could well describe his own music. Of Berlioz, Arnold said: “His compositions always strike me as so fresh…. If he can express his ideas by a melody only he does so, and if it is a melody based on tonic and dominant harmonies (which would have been considered by some as ‘old-fashioned’ in his day) he is not afraid to do so.” Neither is Arnold, who deploys his wonderfully memorable tunes with such abandon, not only in his more popular pieces but also in his sometimes very serious symphonies.

Arnold accomplishes all this with what seems to be a cheeky breeziness. Some listeners misinterpret Arnold’s extraordinary fluency as facileness. But Arnold makes what he does look easy in the spirit of the famous dictum: Ars est celare artem (True art conceals art). A closer inspection reveals the hand of a master craftsman. In its sheer sound, Arnold’s music gleams. Though there is no mistaking Arnold for anything other than a 20th century composer, the strong element of fancy in his music places much of its spirit in the late 18th century. Like the classical composers, Arnold has a fine sense of scale, which enables him to create effective dramas within whatever forms he chooses, be they the limited ones of chamber music or the more expansive ones of the full orchestra. In either case, Arnold can turn from wit to wistfulness within a few bars, and be both haunting and puckish almost simultaneously. Arnold also hails from an earlier era in his belief that music “is a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship.” This is musicians’ music, not in some esoteric way, but in the sense that it is first of all a joy for musicians to play, and therefore, not surprisingly, for us to hear.

It is mainly Arnold’s puckish side that is showcased in three Hyperion CDs devoted to his chamber music. While the pranks, as well as the range of expression, that he can pull off with a full orchestra are missing, one can only marvel at the level of invention and wit manifest in many of these miniatures— including a goodly number for solo instruments. Sonatinas for solo instruments are rather exposed forms in which to write, and one had better have something fairly amusing or important to say to sustain them. Arnold proves himself a master with unfailing ingenuity, sparkle, and spice.

While much of the music on these discs is written in a divertimento style, all is not high spirits and hilarity. Certain pieces have a Shostakovich-like melancholy and intensity, in particular the Piano Trio, Op. 54. For the most part, however, novel treatments of delectable melodies abound, sometimes in highly unusual instrumental combinations, dictated by the fact that those were the instruments that Arnold’s friends played. For example, the Trio for Flute, Viola and Bassoon, Op. 6, is a Mozartian delight of ease, transparency, and grace. It was written in 1942 for the diversion of friends in the London Philharmonic and it shows not a whit of war strain. The Divertimento for Flute, Oboe, and Clarinet, Op. 37, is another lesson from Arnold to those who think we may live in too cruel a time to sustain the divertimento form at its highest level. The breezy, nostalgic Oboe Quartet, Op. 61, is in the same league.

Of the nine symphonies, the First, Second, and Fifth are perhaps the most immediately engaging. The first two especially are full of breezy optimism and high spirits. After the Fifth, the symphonies take on a darker and more somber cast, yet even they have unexpected moments of sprightliness. Arnold will interrupt a Shostakovitch-like onslaught with a wistful melody that seems to arrive from another world. What is it doing there? Is it, as Donald Mitchell suggests, a product of Arnold’s “unique recovery of innocent lyricism”? Or is Arnold being deliberately corny? One would have to think so from a composer so in command of his resources and idioms. Arnold explains that “in times of great emotion we speak in clichés….” In any case, these stylistic discrepancies set up a unique kind of tension in these works. Critic Hans Keller has tried to unlock their enigmatic meaning: “Arnold’s profundity usually manifests itself in pseudo-shallowness, which is his historical inversion of pseudo-profundity.” Any music that could give rise to such a sentence must be worth listening to.

After his Eighth Symphony, Arnold suffered a breakdown and underwent an excruciating five year period of suffering. His Ninth Symphony reflects Arnold’s experience of “having been through hell,” but is also, according to him, “an amalgam of all my knowledge of humanity.” The first three movements seem indistinguishable from his typical works. The last movement, as long in duration as the first three put together, is an amazingly spare, bleak procession through despair, yet still there is in it a beautiful Mahlerian melody. Arnold has written some extra-ordinary adagios—in the Second and Fifth symphonies particularly—but nothing to compare with the elemental grief and resignation he has achieved here. Yet despair, however real, does not have the last word. At the very end, when all seems lost in sorrow, a D major chord lights up the landscape. “You get to the last D major chord,” Arnold said of the finale, “and you know … you’ve won through.”

Arnold has won through, and I am sure that his legacy will extend well beyond his wish “to be remembered as a man who wrote tuneful music.”


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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