Malcolm Arnold's 90th birthday was celebrated October 21 – 23 in the Royal Derngate Concert Hall in Northampton, his birthplace. This was the sixth annual festival and the programme included all nine of his symphonies, two on Friday, four on Saturday. Our stick-in-the-mud professional orchestras rarely perform these or any works by Arnold but there are no less than three cycles available on CD.
MA started his career as a golden-toned young trumpeter; was a star in the wartime London Philharmonic. Eduard van Beinum conducted the overture Beckus the Dandipratt and a composer was launched. Bingo! The composer explained that Beckus was a reckless, cheeky urchin …. perhaps without realising that the explanation held good for himself too. There was tenderness in his music but what caught the ears was its exuberance, brilliant scoring of music that buffeted the ears with its plethora of tunes and its joie de vivre. He exploited the highs and lows of sound and was economical with the middle, more congested middle range. He boasted "I have never used a cor anglais in my life".
A most welcome feature of this festival was that all but one of the orchestras were amateur: the Cambridge Symphony, the Slaithwaite Philharmonic, the University of London Symphony, and orchestras from Hull and East Riding (Youth). Never did one find any short comings; Arnold's music is difficult to play; he stretches his players but rewards them also. The names of the conductors were unknown to me but they all came up trumps.
Here are some notes on the symphonies: No.1 (1948) was clearly influenced by Shostakovich's symphonies 2,3, & 4, cocking snooks, it almost bullies its audience – note the characteristic silences and space in the score; No. 2 (1953) is a successful, integrated work, a joy to hear; 3 (1957) is, by contrast, a bit thick and convoluted, not ingratiating – during its composition MA wrote the first 25 of his 113 film score, including the first of the St.Trinians set and Bridge on the River Kwai; 55 minutes of music that took 10 days to write, 16 hours a day but Oscar winning; after completion MA would roister in gargantuan – Rabelaisian fashion with an excess of food, drink and girls, scattering £50 notes to drivers, waiters and so on No. 4 (1950) showed contempt for the Establishment and the critics by including bongos and a pop tune in the opening allegro, kitchy but entertaining; No.5 (1961) has super kitch, a love theme in the slow movement that out Mahlers Mahler and is followed by a little masterpiece of a scherzo that is the essence of Arnold; No.6 (1965) shows the composer's mind disintegrating with obsessive gestures that are alienating rather than entertaining, long notes likes fireworks that eventually explode, brutal brass forays and deafening percussive onslaughts; No. 7 (1973) is sombre and gritty but suddenly relaxes at the end into hommage to the countryside near Dublin where MA was living with his second wife, music that is bog – and jig-Irish; No. 8 (1979) seems to be keeping mental instability at bay, to behave like an agreeable symphony that everybody can enjoy.
No.9 (1986) is the saddest music I know, the creative spirit of a composer totally absent. Conductors and publishers turned it down initially and I only wish the work were forgotten. It reminds me of the final scene of Kubrick's Odyssey film with a man sitting in a chair doing nothing for an inordinate length of time. As a friend and admirer of Malcolm Arnold for half a century I can only listen to it with extreme anguish. Since I couldn't face it in Northampton I fled.