In Memoriam. Malcolm Arnold

‘In Memoriam Malcolm Arnold’. Published in Musical Times 147, no. 1897 (2008): 2–6.

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In Memoriam. Malcolm Arnold by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Malcolm Arnold

(born Northampton, 21 October 1921; died Norwich, 23 September 2006)

One measure of the success of a composer – not the most cleverly reasoned, but a decent gauge of developing reception – is his or her effect on language. Resonance is crucial. If a composer can be referred to by surname alone, then the music probably has a place in the canon, with everything that indicates about critical acceptance. Composers who go a stage further, and have the potential to become an influence to be anxious about, will warrant an adjective like ‘Beethovenian’ or ‘Stravinskian’: they have got into a culture’s blood, and we (and future composers) must reckon with the consequences. If a composer can rise still higher and beget a subsidiary noun – probably the only one in frequent use is ‘Wagnerism’ – then deification has set in and we should ask for faith schools to be set up for inculcating the young.

Sir Malcolm Arnold seems unlikely to be remembered without his first name, and although the fact that there is no adjective associated with his musical style does not at all prove it substandard, it might indicate that his widely noted eclecticism (actually not so wide-ranging as all that) denies his music the stamp of the individual voice that marks other composers. Yet despite these indicators, Arnold, like other composers of a similar rank in 20th-century Britain, such as Havergal Brian, has a small cult of worshippers who are not chary of calling him a ‘genius’. This is always a difficult assertion to substantiate, but in the case of most claims (for example, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten) there is considerable collateral evidence, as Tovey would call it, to cite in support. With Arnold, the argument is more often made from quantity – ’he wrote many orchestral works’ – than named qualities, and it is frankly difficult to see how it can be sustained. The critical linchpin for his supporters, as is usual with hagiographers, is

[start of p. 3]

the manifest sublimity of a nominated genre.

Arnold’s votaries usually try to encourage a focus on his symphonies and concertos, rather than his nearly 120 film scores. One reason why they should do so is that the reception of film music tends to be limited to the shelf-life of the film it was written for; and aside from blockbusters like the David Lean trilogy, The sound barrier, Hobson’s choice, and (particularly successful as film and score) The bridge on the River Kwai, this could doom the majority of his music to be forgotten. Aside from its practical justification, a narrative goes with this invitation to look away from the overwhelming bulk of his work. We know that Arnold grew tired of London and the pressure of writing for film and broadcast media, and retired first to Cornwall, and then to Ireland, because ‘he knew that his profoundest thoughts were always going to be contained within that classical medium, the symphony- a form in which he still (in 1966, a year before the Sixth Symphony) had a great deal to say’.[1]

A composer who writes precisely nine numbered symphonies is inviting comparisons. In interviews Arnold was honest about his ambition in completing a nine­ symphony ‘cycle’, and about the Tchaikovskian and Mahlerian resonances of his Ninth. The capital letter, of course, underscores the popular feeling that ‘a Ninth’ is a Thing In Itself even beyond the majesty of the Symphony: for the symphony­ – and, better, the symphony cycle – is the music critic’s, and the CD collector’s, favourite touchstone of musical worth. Views like this are a residue of the Beethovenian chutzpah of the 19th century, and modern musicology has, rightly, rejected them. In some cases, such as Arnold’s, popular musical voices (encouraged by the composer’s own proclamations) are drawn into making misguided claims out of a fear that, if the only mark of musical greatness is a symphonic ability, then, by God, it had better be demonstrated.

Exemplifying this approach, the composer’s friend Julian Lloyd Webber remarks that many ‘headlines announcing the death of Sir Malcolm Arnold referred to him as a “film composer” [read: ‘mere film composer’) – but he was very much more than that. […] His greatest music is to be found among his nine symphonies and 20 concertos. Like Mahler and Shostakovich, Arnold threw everything into his symphonies.’[2] These are big names and big claims. To weigh them we should assess one of Arnold’s more successful works. The Seventh Symphony is probably the most satisfying of the nine symphonies (or 12 if we count the named ones), its tone almost unremittingly sour, its mien purposeful, its orchestration and broad structural handling as assured as anything by this consummate craftsman. It does the work few favours to compare it to the white-hot symphonic works of Walton or Vaughan Williams, but it is at least in the class of Robert Simpson and Arnold Bax, and more involving than anything by Rawsthorne. The first movement has a gritty, pounding energy whose oom­-pah-pah accompaniment is apotheosised in the ghoulish ragtime march that enters before the recapitulation. The second movement is chilly and pared­ down in a manner that convinces more than similar passages of the Ninth. Although it touches only a limited part of Mahler’s range, the Seventh is one of the cycle that is sometimes compared with his symphonies – and indeed the irruption into Arnold’s finale of Irish traditional music seems a clear attempt at mimicking one of Mahler’s most characteristic structural moves. The clash of high and low styles, a famously potent feature of Mahler’s protean idiolect, is drawn into a symphonic argument this way for perhaps the most striking

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time in Arnold’s oeuvre, but in a context that has a less obvious potential.

The Irish music emerges from nowhere, utterly disappears after rising to a swift climax followed by a brief silence, and affects nothing that follows, that is, the symphony’s cursory but big­ boned conclusion. One wishes that Arnold might have made more of this, perhaps by giving it a more strategic structural location or otherwise showing it to be an essential and form-changing part of the design – in short, that he had made it ‘meaningful’. Instead it is as if, in a mercilessly violent play, an innocuous outsider in anachronistic costume walks on to an empty stage, opens his mouth, apparently to say something seditious or heartwarming or inconsequential (it doesn’t matter what: we want something), then after taking a gulp of air and puffing out his chest, walks off calmly without having made a mark or given us anything definite to think about. Then the old familiar characters return and the play is wrapped up in a satisfying bloodbath. This moment in Arnold’s symphony is a disappointment. It is a rare point where he sets himself up a symphonic opportunity to aspire to some of the subtlety of one of his heroes – but he flunks it. In fact Arnold’s handling of form is a general problem for his assumption into the coterie of Great Symphonists, not only for the reason just given. A more considerable obstacle is that, for him, sonata form depends primarily on differential characterisation of themes, and not on a dialectical tonal struggle of some sort or other. This is a poor man’s approach to the form, and one that makes profound exploration of its potential almost impossible.

Elsewhere in his symphonic music, where the lighter stylistic element is not spotlit as in the Seventh Symphony finale, but merely forms part of an essentially cohesive light musical language, one is left feeling, as often with Shostakovich (Lloyd Webber’s other exemplar), that Arnold’s many modes of amiability (or, in Shostakovich, of intentional banality), would have a better effect in a different home than the symphony. For instance, Shostakovich’s swift mood changes are ideally suited to an opera like Lady Macbeth, where hamfisted wooings, hypocritical paeans, comical quotations from Boris Godunof, and grotesque dance music over mushroom-murdered corpses, give the composer opportunities to richly employ his native mastery of quicksilver changes of mood.

Insofar as they can be pigeonholed, symphonies aim for various kinds of cohesiveness, even if it is the cohesiveness of a well-controlled but irresolvable ambiguity. They digest stylistically disjunct passages better if the fact of that disjunction is foundational to the manner of a composer’s argument – as in Mahler. They are in general less forgiving of sudden inexplicable shifts in tone. So, just as one could argue that Shostakovich was an opera composer compelled to write symphonic music which, while frequently the work of genius, is decidedly uneven, for similar reasons one must say that Arnold’s style makes film composition, not the writing of symphonies, his authentic musical home.[3] Therefore defenders who wish to protect his memory by demonstrating his achievement in ‘the’ great concert tradition in which he extensively wrote are, if not quite backing a nag, certainly speculating ill-advisedly.

To begin to see where Arnold’s best qualities lie, we must look to different models. Rather than judging him a parallel of Mahler or Shostakovich, we should acknowledge the sense in which Arnold is a Walton-imitator. The two composers were friends, and Arnold orchestrated parts of Walton’s Battle of Britain music for him; Walton’s earlier film scores are important for Arnold. Their musical relationship

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appears on some accounts to have been one-sided, as one might expect given the age difference (Walton was 18 years Arnold’s senior). Lady Walton said Arnold ‘would embarrass William with his constant eulogies’, and that she ‘felt Malcolm resented my being so close to William, whom he hero-worshipped’.[4] But the relationship was useful for the younger man.

Arnold learnt from Walton’s style a prickly wit, wholly removing the acid to produce the simple, genial humour that characterises much of his music. Not without cause do we find, among randomly picked reviews of premieres and CD recordings, recurring epithets such as ‘endearing’, ‘amiable’, ‘charming’, ‘delightful’, ‘accessible’, and ‘winning’. The typical experience of Arnold’s music, for those open to it, is unalloyed pleasure. Part of this springs from his own character, part from the influence of Walton’s music. It is also probably fair to say that some of Arnold’s other influences­ – for example, rhythmic twitches from Stravinsky, or formal processes (especially in the early symphonies) from Sibelius – come through Walton at second-hand. That would explain the sense one has that Walton engages with their influence, for instance by giving a new tint to Sibelius’s method of teleological genesis, while Arnold simply nods to it.

Once his image has sloughed off the restrictive skin of The Symphonist, Arnold’s contribution to the last century’s music in England will be better appreciated. Principally this is in the bailiwick of film music, where his gifts of melody and orchestration­ – including, as is often remarked, a knowledgeable treatment of the trumpet, picked up from his early RCM training and orchestral career – can have their most immediate effect. Film does not allow scope for him to demonstrate his nimble (if unoriginal) navigation of form, or his obvious facility of method, but since facility and nimbleness are not the only or most important characteristics of a symphonic composer, we should not regard this limitation as a waste of Arnold’s talent.

The kindest way to preserve Arnold’s memory is to clear a space for him in which he can show up best. The symphonic arena is too crowded with giants, especially in the 20th century in Britain, for attempted membership of that club to do anything positive for his reputation. But if critics can divest themselves of the long­ outmoded idea of the symphonic gold standard and explore the value of other musical contributions, composers like Arnold will find more comfortable accommodation.

  1. Piers Burton-Page: ‘Arnold at 70’, in The Musical Times vol. 32 (1991), pp.493–95, at p.494.  ↩
  2. Julian Lloyd Webber: ‘Malcolm Arnold – my friend the musical genius’, in The Daily Telegraph (25 September 2006).  ↩
  3. He wrote two one-act operas, which provide a similarly comfortable home for his range of modes; but in contrast to his clear symphonic ambition, these indicate no attempt to join the pantheon.  ↩
  4. Susanna Walton: William Walton: behind the façade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp.219 and 220.  ↩

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