Monday, June 17, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of. Post 5: Malcolm Arnold

Post 1: Kurt Atterberg
Post 2: Cornelis Dopper
Post 3: Joly Braga Santos
Post 4: Alan Hovhaness

The next name on this list is known, if he's remembered at all, primarily as a film composer. But he was also a fine if somewhat challenging symphonist, and many other things as well. I've mentioned him already in this series, so it's time for him to take center stage. Let me introduce you to:

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).
This English composer - a veteran principal trumpet for the London Philharmonic before he took up full-time composition - achieved sufficient renown in the movie industry that he won an Oscar for the best-known of his film scores, the one for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). After saying which it is always necessary to add that no, he didn't compose "The Colonel Bogey March" - it was a genuine WW1-era Royal Army marching tune - but he did arrange it and he did put it in the film which made it famous.

I would nominate as his best and most characteristic film score, however, the one for Whistle Down the Wind (1961). (Brace yourself: we got the entire movie right here.) Like Life of Brian, it's about a man (Alan Bates) who gets mistaken for Jesus Christ; in this case, the disciples are a band of naive modern-day farm children led by Hayley Mills. Arnold's score is full of distinctive touches; the best is his transmutation of "We Three Kings" into a march when the children come bearing gifts.

In his photo, Arnold looks jolly, and this fits his early character. At the start of his career, he earned a reputation as the clown of contemporary English classical music, and he deserved it, with works like an overture with solo parts for three vacuum cleaners, an electric floor polisher, and a posse of wandering armed hunters, and his staggeringly ridiculous parody of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 - sometime I'd like to annotate what's going on in this one, but not right now - both of them written for Gerard Hoffnung's comedic concert series.

Better-known, and a little more normal but still funny as well as fun, in the light music vein are Arnold's sets of national dances, which sound folk-like but are all original tunes. Some of these have become staples in the kinds of nonprofessional venues that ensure that there's a large number of bad performances of them online, but here are better versions of the English Dances, set no. 2 and the Scottish Dances. Each set includes four dances; in the Scottish set, listen for the "shave and a haircut" ending of the opening strathspey (2:15) and the wobbly-drunken bassoon turn in the succeeding reel (3:30).

All this time, though, Arnold had a serious side as well, and his great quest was to find a way to integrate this with his humor and cheekiness. He wrote nine numbered symphonies altogether, and in three or four of them I think he managed that union splendidly well. The technique he used at his best could be compared to pop art: take something normal and conventional, even hackneyed, and draw the musical equivalent of huge black crayon question marks all over it.

The Arnold symphony you should start with is Symphony No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 40 (1953), the one in which he forged this cutting weaponry. I wish Sir Charles Groves' old recording with the Bournemouth Symphony were available; it's a terrific performance that really grasps the piece. Alas, all I can get is the late Richard Hickox, a dutiful but not always the most inspired conductor. It'll have to do. This one comes in three boxes.

The first box contains the first two movements, Allegretto and a Vivace scherzo. Like his First Symphony, this is music that's competent and interesting but also rather stiff and tense.
Then, in the second box, comes the slow movement, Lento. This starts out the same way, but the Shostakovich-like climax of the movement, which comes at 7:12, is the precise moment when Arnold the mature symphonist is born. Suddenly, the music releases its tension and becomes comfortable in its own body. (Oh, how I wish Hickox conveyed this better.) Listen for the funereal drum and fife accompaniment (7:35) and the weird and eerie wind passage (8:40): here Arnold's natural voice is coming through. Besides showing his superb talents as an orchestrator (after all those years sitting in the back of an orchestra, he knew how to write for one), these are what I meant by the image of black question marks, and their dynamic impact is unmistakable.
And after that, the finale, Allegro con brio, in the third box, is a different but equally ingenious blend of the somber and the jolly. Listen for how the perky, English Dances-like opening theme interacts with the the cutting, angry contrapuntal counter-theme (0:53), suddenly popping out of it in the calmest possible manner (1:48 and again in the recapitulation at 4:33), not to mention the astonishing attempt to convey both moods at once (2:15, at the start of the development, and again in the coda at 4:57).

The Third is also masterful, but it's altogether much darker-toned and more somber. (It reminds me a bit of the Sibelius Fourth.) It's online (mvts 1, 2, 3), and I wish I could also find there the Fourth, whose Caribbean influences make it the oddest and most distinctive of Arnold's early symphonies. Instead, let's go on to Symphony No. 5, Op. 74 (1961), possibly the finest of them all. The sound on this recording is not too great, but it's a tight and punchy performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Charles Hazelwood.
  1. Tempestoso. This starts out rather chromatically but has its long-breathed lyrical side (3:05) and its "nobody but Arnold" moments (3:27). And don't miss the theme for harp, celesta, and glockenspiel (0:55)!
  2. Andante con moto. The slow movement is daring for being utterly sincere, with none of the expected sarcasm at all. It begins with a sentimental string melody, followed by an equally effective counter-melody (1:20 - the odd initial sound is top-register bassoon combined with bottom-register flute).
  3. Con fuoco. One weird scherzo, with all the crazy stuff Arnold left out of the slow movement: strange clangs and shudders, hushed expectant jungle noises (bongos and tomtoms, held over from the percussion battery in the Fourth, help with both of these), lumbering brass fugues (0:45), and a completely unexpected sort of big-band interlude (2:05).
  4. Risoluto. The finale takes a military dance melody for piccolos and vigorously scribbles over it until the Big Tune from the slow movement abruptly makes a grand entrance (3:40), but then the harmony wrenches out of place (4:35) and the music settles for a quiet ending. This is the movement most like Arnold's later music.
These symphonies were not successful at establishing Arnold as a serious composer. Tending to distrust his caustic side, critics were even more suspicious of Arnold when he was being populist, as in the Big Tune of the slow movement of the Fifth and an even more notorious example in the first movement of the Fourth. Bitter at being dismissed by the establishment as a clown, as the 1960s and 70s went on Arnold began trying to be the clown who played Hamlet, never a wise move. At the same time, his previously settled personal life began to fall apart. There were divorces, frequent relocations, stays in mental facilities, alcoholism, and other unhappy things. Then he lost his creative juices, and even his later sets of national dances became gnomic and crabbed. Aside from squeezing out a thin, bleak Ninth Symphony and a few other works during a brief Indian summer of composition in the mid-80s, for most of his last 25 years he was kind of out of it and rarely wrote a note. But, before his death, his music underwent a revival in the UK, and he was compos enough to know that this was so. He was honored at a number of performances and festivals, and he was even eventually knighted during this period. Arnold's English Dances were among the first pieces of good modern music that I discovered, many years ago, and this composer has been sustaining me ever since.

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