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Views And Reviews: The Brilliant And The Dark

Paul Serotsky, who conveys in words his effervescent enthusiasm for the greateast music ever written, reviews a biography of one of his favourite composers, Malcolm Arnold.

(Please note that this review was written before the composer’s death).

For more of Paul’s sparkling words please click on Views And Reviews in the menu on this page.

The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold – The Brilliant and the Dark
by Paul R.W. Jackson

277 pages, 26 plates, 107 Musical examples
Published by Ashgate, ISBN 1 85928 381 0

If all you’re after is a short, sharp recommendation, my advice is, “Go forth and buy!” If, on the other hand, you seek a detailed, in-depth appraisal of all aspects of this book, then look elsewhere for it. The rest of you just follow me . . . but, before we set off, I’ve got a couple of bits of “housekeeping” to get out of the way. Firstly, in view of the author’s most tasteful choice of forename, I’m going to refer to Paul Jackson simply as “Paul”. Secondly, you may conclude that the amount of apparently adverse comment I make below contradicts the snap recommendation above. Well, I have to speak as I find, don’t I? I find on the one hand a lot of essentially minor niggles which take up a lot of room to relate, but on the other an overall impression of magnificence which takes up a lot less room to convey. So, in spite of the litter of carps, believe me when I insist that this is a very good book!

Generally speaking, it seems to me that biographies of people who are still with us tend to fall into two categories: the “reverential” and the “ribald”. The former, in the manner of This is Your Life, have a habit of whitewashing their subjects, while the latter with a great glee pander to our baser instincts and drool over all the dirt that has been dug. Of course, I’m over-simplifying things, but if someone were to put a gun to my head and ask me (nicely) into which category this biography fell, I’d have to say the latter. Mind you, once the gun was safely gone, I’d add, “Only because Sir Malcolm Arnold has had one hell of a life.” More to the point, at over 80 years old he has had a life, which is more than you can say for some of the folk “immortalised” by biographies – and here I’m thinking of “stars” barely out of (or, in some cases, still in) short pants.

At this juncture, those looking for lurid sensationalism can take their leave, because this biography is an appraisal of its subject that is serious in both intent and execution, as befits our greatest living English composer – in fact, by the time you’ve read this book, you’ll feel some justification for arguing that Arnold is simply “The Greatest”. At this juncture, I suspect that fans of Sir Edward Elgar will be thinking of taking their leave – well, don’t: I only said “some justification for arguing”!

Enough of this banter, there’s a lot to consider. The question is, where to start? Let’s get the easy bit out of the way first: at around £45 Sterling this is not a cheap book. As you can see from the illustration, it has a tastefully muted dust-jacket. What you can’t see, however, is that the cover of the book itself is plain, dark green cardboard with the legend in simple black lettering on the spine – no inlaid baroque curlicues of gold leaf (or even leaf that looks like gold). That’s because Ashgate have preferred to invest in the quality of what lies within – really nice paper, really clean and clear print, and really clean cutting and finishing – it makes for a right rare riffle when you’re flicking through!

Between the covers, in addition to the 218 pages of narrative, analysis and appraisal, there are 26 very fine plates, over 100 musical examples, and 3 substantial appendices. These last comprise a list of compositions by year (and including first performance details), a list of the films for which Arnold composed music, and a comprehensive list of recordings available since 1995 ( including Arnold both as composer and conductor of other composers’ works). There is also a full bibliography, which I suppose is a fourth appendix in all but name.

Missing, and in view what I’m going to say these would have been useful “extras”, are some sort of family tree and a “time line” summary of the main events. Still, if you really need these, all the information is in there – just take a sharp pencil, several large sheets of paper, a month off work, and away you go!

The author has a couple of notable antecedents with which to contend. Firstly there’s Hugo Cole’s seminal Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to His Music (1989). This does “what it says on the tin”, that being to focus on the form and content of Arnold’s music using the tools of formal musicological analysis, leavened with some comment on the “meanings”, and including only as much biographical background as is absolutely necessary for the pursuit of this goal. Secondly, there’s Piers Burton-Page’s Philharmonic Concerto, a largely complementary volume which focuses on biography, with only as much analytical background as is necessary to lend substance to his appraisals.

Paul’s book comes somewhere in between, with biography and analysis in much more commensurate proportions. In his Foreword, stressing Arnold’s own confession of an intimate connection between his music and his life, the author declares that his objective is to illuminate this link. Overall, he does just that: in biographical terms he provides the most sharply resolved picture to date, whilst his analyses penetrate deeper into that connective realm than heretofore (now, there’s a funny old word!). The result is arguably the most satisfyingly full and rounded view of Arnold available to us, no mean feat when you consider that Arnold is revealed as one of the most complicated subjects in the known universe.

The main difficulty of Paul’s undertaking lies in its sheer breadth, and therein lies my main gripe with this book: really, it needed to be about twice as long as it is! Notwithstanding the impact on the price, and with all due respect to the World’s rain-forests, I am not being facetious. Although his style comes nowhere near a gossip over the back garden fence, it is more agreeably conversational than the dessicated academicism of many comparable tomes, but the broadened accessibility this brings is inevitably at the expense of compactness (as anyone who reads my reviews will be only too aware!), which within the confines of the printed page means less space for the informational import.

Ah, yes, while we’re on about style, if you’re a stickler for good grammar you should be quite comfortable, but be warned – if your nerves are jangled by fashionable latter-day manglings of English, there are occasional outbreaks of “based around”, “centred around”, and the dreaded “their” used as a singular pronoun. Also, the use of “*” to “bleep” letters in profanities (which are always in quotes, I hasten to add!) is strangely arbitrary. The “f” word, thankfully, is always bl**ped, but who decided to leave “pissed” and “arseover” (sic) unbleeped, whilst considering “s*d off” worthy of voluntary censorship? In any case, it hardly takes a crossword genius to figure out the missing letter! All these are minor points, but if you are sensitive to them then they will disrupt the flow of your reading. Both logically and linguistically, Paul is at his considerable best when he’s laying into Arnold’s critics, particularly in the final chapter, where I found myself cheering him on – out loud, much to my wife’s consternation!

The two aspects of biography and analysis are not segregated – musical analyses, along with interludes of reflection, nestle like buttercups in the hedgerows of the narrative. Whilst this is in itself a good thing, it will make life just a bit awkward for those unwilling or unable to take in the technicalities of the musicological bits, because bits of biography do sometimes get entangled with these technical tracts. The analytically disinclined must perforce pick up some skill at “skimming”! So, everything sweeps by in chronological order, n’est-ce pas? Sadly, non, not quite! There’s quite a bit of cinematographic “flashing” going on, to the extent that sometimes I had to do a fair bit of hunting around to discover just “when” I was “at”. Oh, and just occasionally a character is “quoted” before he is actually “introduced”, which can be puzzling even if only temporarily so.

The one major break with chronological sequence is quite deliberate – a separate chapter is devoted to the film music. This turns out to be a singularly good move: to a large extent, Arnold kept his “true vocation”and his “day job” in separate boxes. The author in effect makes it a “second movement scherzo and trio” by, at the appropriate junction, taking the fork onto the film music branch-line. When he gets to the end of that, he nips neatly back to the junction and sets off again, this time down the main line. Elegant.

That word “elegant” also nicely describes the narrative. It starts with something of a coup de theatre (or should I say “cinema”) using the boots-and-shoes sequence from Hobson’s Choice to grab the reader’s attention and link very neatly to the start of the story proper. This “fanfare” is followed by a “slow introduction” of family background., essential for context and reference but never (in my experience) especially riveting, no matter how well written (which it is). However, once we’re into the “main allegro” the pace picks up a treat, and like a good novel it just gets harder and harder to put down.

This would be edifying enough even if he was simply raking over old, well-trodden ground. On the contrary, he’s done a lot of spade-work, and come up with plenty of eyebrow-raising revelations. Lest the odd hanger-on from the “lurid sensationalist” school should prick up his ears at this point, let me add that Paul does not make these into self-aggrandising pronouncements, but skilfully weaves the new material into his tapestry to enrich the image, and thus our understanding of Arnold’s often bewildering character.

However, lots of new material does not an encyclopoedia make. Almost inevitably, there are still gaps, some of which you may find frustratingly obvious – though what is “frustratingly obvious” will no doubt be different for each of us. Doubtless, editorial constraints had a part to play, but there is one omission that I personally would consider fairly serious. Having read about the high regard that Arnold had for amateur performers, and aware of the vital importance of legions of amateur organisations in keeping his name alive in the darkest years of establishment neglect, I was a little dismayed to find that whereas some professionals were given due credit, amateurs were (in their turn!) woefully neglected.

Permit me to put that at least partly to rights, through an example of which I have personal experience. Keith Llewellyn, who as the secretary of the Arnold Society has his finger pretty well on the pulse of Arnold performances worldwide, agreed wholeheartedly with my suggestion that the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, through the unstinting efforts of their recently-retired conductor Adrian Smith, were unparalleled in their championship of Arnold’s music during the period 1995-2001. Cop this little lot: Cornish Dances (with Richard Baker, tambourine!), Little Suite No. 1, Clarinet Concerto No. 2 (with Julian Bliss), Fantasy on a Theme of John Field (with Philip Dyson), Philharmonic Concerto, and the Second, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Particularly when you consider that they put on only three or four concerts a year, that is impressive indeed and (I would have thought) worthy of a mention. So, if you buy this book, why not copy these words onto one of the three blank flyleafs at the back?

Arnold’s essentially enforced retirement from composing in 1990 – the tail end of an area of the narrative that makes particularly harrowing reading – is by no means the end of the tale. This affords Paul a convenient opportunity to pen a “coda” untrammelled by analytical diversions, in which he can both bring the story to its contemporary close and sum up his arguments. In a way, he is fortunate in following Piers Burton-Page by a goodly margin. Why? Because the winds of change that were barely stirring for Piers had become a stiff breeze for Paul, which is partly the reason for the appreciably more “up-beat” conclusion.
Turning to the musical analyses, I found a couple of little problems. Paul’s technique is the same “traditional” musicological approach as was used by Hugo Cole. In fact, the “look and feel” is strikingly similar. However, Paul’s express intention is to probe the “autobiographical” influences in the music, and to be brutally frank I don’t think the musicologist’s usual “toolkit” is up to the job. Where conventional analysis of the form and logic of a passage of music is conclusive (“it does this, and then it does that”, full stop), applied to the emotional processes in a passage it is not (the musicological “full stop” generally represents a host of unresolved questions and implications). This is not Paul’s fault: whilst there are other tools with which it is possible to dig a fair bit deeper into the psyche of the music, he does a very impressive job with the tools that he knows, and you’ll still come out at the other end all the wiser for it.

One feature of the analytical episodes that might (just might, mind you!) be considered sensational is Paul’s discovery of substantial evidence of Arnold’s use of what Paul describes as “ciphers”. If I were pedantic, and of course nothing could be further from the truth (readers please consume one large pinch of salt at this point!), the more correct word is “codes”, because these are “look-up tables” whereas ciphers are algorithmic transformations. I just thought you’d like to know that! Anyway, these are explained in admirable detail, as they tell us much about how Arnold worked, and in particular reveal much about his “hidden” use of serial techniques.

However, to my mind Paul omits one vital consideration, and by this omission may lead the unwary up a proverbial gum tree. The use of a code to translate words (like “Katherine” or “Saint Petersburg”) into a musical theme – what we might loosely term a “diatone-row”! – does not magically imbue that theme with any unique and universal meaning. It merely associates in the composer’s mind a particular musical motive with a person or place. If, say, Arnold had laid out the letters of the alphabet in a different order, then the notes of any encoded word(s) would be different. I think that this must have been at least partly in Arnold’s mind when he (on more than one occasion) intimated that awareness of the technicalities of composing is useful only to the composer, and need not concern the listener. Of course, if you’re trying to dissect the composer’s thought-processes during the creation of his music, then these things are indeed useful to know. Nevertheless, they tell the listener damn-all about what the music is doing to his thought-processes as he listens to it!

Paul declares that this book is by no means the “authorised version”, and sadly I doubt that there ever will be any such, not least because Arnold’s character – notably his irrepressible predilection for leg-pulling – prevents it. I have one vivid memory of Arnold telling me, with a face straighter than Boycott’s bat, that he helped Gerard Hoffnung to write the famous Oxford Union speech. It conjured such a glorious image of the two of them together, gleefully plotting every twist and turn of the Bricklayer’s misfortunes, that I was doubly deflated when a voice whispered in my ear, “He didn’t, you know – he’s just pulling your leg!”

Authorised or not, to my mind this book now takes pride of place as the best all-round reference on Sir Malcolm Arnold. In itself that should be recommendation enough for anyone interested in Arnold and his music (and , let’s face it, that ought to be everyone with any interest at all in Music!), but it is much more than just that – it is also an intensely moving account of the composer’s life, an account that more than once brought a lump to my throat (yes, me, a case-hardened Yorkshireman!). I’ll tell you what, I can’t wait for the film!

© Paul Serotsky


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