Sir Malcolm Arnold's oeuvre, too often dismissed as "light" music, deserves rehabilitation
Sir Malcolm Arnold died in 2006, and so is nearing the end, one hopes, of the apparently compulsory decade-long period of neglect that is supposed to follow on from the demise of composers, but especially British ones. Jumping the gun — and commendably so — is the classical label Chandos, which has just released a bargain-priced boxed set of all of Arnold’s nine symphonies, each of them a fine recording either by the late Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra, or Rumon Gamba with the BBC Philharmonic. One can sit quite happily and play all nine from beginning to end, covering a period in Arnold’s compositional life from the early 1950s to 1986 when, like Beethoven and Schubert, having written his ninth he chose to stop. Mind you, so raddled by alcohol and its attendant psychological afflictions was Arnold by the time he finished the rather dark, complex and introspective Ninth Symphony that there was never going to be another. The last 20 years of his life, as anyone who has seen Tony Palmer’s stunning and deeply troubling film about the composer, Toward The Unknown Region, knows, were years of sad, humiliating decline, perhaps the worse for being so largely self-inflicted.
Arnold’s Wikipedia entry begins by describing him as a composer of “light music”, which is a little like focusing on Ian Fleming as the writer of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The nine symphonies show how very serious a composer Arnold was — the lighter stuff, mainly his atmospheric and highly successful film music — being written to pay the bills. Posthumously, Arnold has suffered from two obstacles that seem to prevent his being taken seriously. The first is that he specialised in the banal and jolly, and therefore anything he wrote with pretensions to being serious or more developed must be treated with immense suspicion, and probably cannot be very good. The second is that he was for much of his working life a pretty revolting man, a drunk, a womaniser, and utterly vile to almost everyone with whom he came into contact. Given his long decline there can be few in the musical world today who had first-hand experiences of the tantrums, the abuse, the sheer unreliability and the exhibitionism, so perhaps it is time to give him another chance.
A further reason why Arnold is felt to be unworthy of great respect is that he seemed to find writing music so incredibly easy. He was not merely prolific but had a knack of turning out music that was immediately accessible and memorable and yet which had a distinctive voice; he was not above using, for amusement purposes, the musical cliché, but sadly few of those who listened to him managed to get the joke. Arnold was easily branded as conservative, and therefore pointless, by generations of critics from the 1950s to the present day, because he chose to ignore the nostrums of modern, atonal, music with its radical forms. When one listens to a piece of music by Arnold — whether a symphony, a movement from a symphony, or any one of his countless other shorter works — one recognises at once why it begins where it does, ends where it does, and why it has what it has between those two points.
Other than the apparently dated nature of their form and content, the symphonies have also attracted criticism for their outrageous habit of, in most of them, marrying up the clichéd or banal with the deeply felt. This to me seems to be part of Arnold’s genius as a symphonist, writing at a time when culture was being cheapened all around him and, more significantly, classical music was being removed from a place in that culture where (as in the days of Vaughan Williams and Elgar) it could be readily accessed by people curious about music but who were not yet musical specialists. Arnold does match moments of almost painful introspection with what one can only imagine is drink-induced mischief, but that was probably his way of dealing with a world with which he felt less and less comfortable as he matured as a composer. The Fifth Symphony of 1961, which was partly inspired by the tragically early death a few years earlier of his friend Dennis Brain, contains such moments of deep sadness, loss and reflection: but it is also obviously a symphony written by the same man who supplied the theme and incidental music for the St Trinian’s films. To my mind the Fifth is Arnold’s masterpiece, not merely his best symphony but the finest of all his works. It is almost an outrage that it is not more regularly given public performances, particularly in London: perhaps this will change when the Official Period of Neglect is deemed to have come to an end.
Yet all the symphonies — whether the relatively uncynical early ones, or the Ninth, shot through with despair and resignation — all contain something of beauty and of wonder. They are not Beethoven or Schubert, but they are the works of a composer who had his own inner world that mainly troubled, but occasionally delighted him, and which he had the facility to represent powerfully to everyone else. They are a conspicuous achievement, and the Chandos cycle showcases them in all their considerable glory. I would wager that anyone coming to them who is unfamiliar with Arnold — other than, perhaps, his film music — will find them somewhat addictive listening, and discover a composer of range, intelligence, sensitivity and, undeniably, novelty. And I should be surprised if such a listener did not feel compelled to go and investigate the other great works of this regrettably underestimated man — such as his English, Scottish and Cornish Dances, his Quintet For Brass, his Trumpet and Guitar concerti and, indeed, the film music, much of which Rumon Gamba has also recorded for Chandos. In all the works one finds not just a man with a vivid and playful imagination, but one of enormous compositional talent: no wonder the critics are suspicious of him.
Perhaps this issue of the symphonies will provoke the Arnold revival. England needs to claim him more volubly, and embrace him more enthusiastically, because such fervour is what his music seems to demand. He may well have been a distasteful man personally — he wasn’t the only such musician — but we need to realise that he was one of 20th-century Britain’s truly great composers.