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Views And Reviews: Malcolm Arnold's Symphony No.3

...Malcolm Arnold produced many great works, but “greatness” eluded him. Why? In a nutshell: influential enemies. Some – let’s call them “snobs” – sneering at his “day job”, condemned him for getting above his station. The cognoscenti, perceptive as ever, considered a “light” composer incapable of serious thought. Feeling threatened, Darmstadt’s despotic devotees disdained his style – and pretty well everything else – as “old hat”. Finally, his often outrageously offensive behaviour alienated the all-important Establishment...

Paul Serotsky introduces us to Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No,3, a fine work by a great, and greatly undervalued, composer.

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) – Symphony No. 3

Once upon a time, there was a young musician. Inspired by “Satchmo”, he became a wonderful trumpeter. But, he really wanted to be a “great” composer. Unfortunately, whilst his orchestral job furnished funds, it denied him freedom, so he embarked on a quest to find something better. Eventually, he came to the gates of the post-war British film industry, which proclaimed, “If you’re clever and quick, we’ll pay good money – and your time’s your own!” Becoming a full-time professional composer was a singularly astute career move. Sadly, it made mincemeat of the fairy-tale.

Malcolm Arnold produced many great works, but “greatness” eluded him. Why? In a nutshell: influential enemies. Some – let’s call them “snobs” – sneering at his “day job”, condemned him for getting above his station. The cognoscenti, perceptive as ever, considered a “light” composer incapable of serious thought. Feeling threatened, Darmstadt’s despotic devotees disdained his style – and pretty well everything else – as “old hat”. Finally, his often outrageously offensive behaviour alienated the all-important Establishment.

One by one, these coconuts have been shied. “Station” (need I say?) should never have been an issue; his serious works all have demonstrable substance; his “old-fashioned” style veneers a wealth of innovation; and we now know his alarming behaviour was caused by a congenital manic-depressive illness [1]. So, why does his star still languish in the descendent? You might well ask!

Written soon after his career-change, the First Symphony (1948) was conceived as a big, bold “tick” on his C.V., but nevertheless expressed his current doubts and fears. This deliberately autobiographical aspect would inform virtually all his major works. In particular his symphonies, chronicling his state of mind, are as unnerving as they are fascinating.

The Third Symphony (1957, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic commission) was a real turn-up for the book. Gone were its predecessors’ lurid “cinematography” and gratuitous – but only the gratuitous! – “sex and violence”. Suddenly more serious-minded, Arnold had highlighted formal processes by pruning his orchestra and adopting a more linear style, and he’d also polarised playfulness and profundity. Again, why?

Meredith and Harris [1] find much to suggest that Arnold was commemorating his beloved mother [2]. However tempting that idea might be, there is another, far more recent seminal experience: as part of a British delegation, Arnold had just attended the Prague Spring Festival. With their host, Kazimierz Serocki [3], they’d occasionally slipped the leash, and learnt some horrific home truths that became public knowledge only after the Soviet’s collapse. Arnold’s fervent left-wing sympathies were severely dented. Then again, he was thrilled to have befriended Shostakovich, a kindred musical “bad boy” in a somewhat similar situation – provided you overlook the loaded gun held at Shostakovich’s head.

I’d lay odds that, as Arnold worked on the Third, these diverse experiences were buzzing like hyperactive wasps inside his head; immediate, burning, clamouring for inclusion in his “diary”. As we’ll see, the music bears this out. At best, “Nan” is in the background – the crucial element of bereavement being conspicuously absent.

Arnold was uncomfortably aware of that growing opposition. Seeing how the other half lived must have fired his determination – the Third was a no-holds-barred attempt to confound his detractors. As such, it largely failed. Following the première, Darmstadt devotees devotedly stuck to their pop-guns. Most critics, ignoring the title’s blatant clue, were simply bewildered – and, typically, blamed it on the music! One, who must have slept through the earlier symphonies, even suggested Arnold had sacrificed “proper symphonic argument” at the altar of “mere orchestral effects"! Egg for their faces came courtesy of two sharp cookies who understood this profound precept: a symphonist can only be judged by his symphonies.

Arnold’s “failure” wasn’t for want of trying. In this, his most purely symphonic symphony, one foot stands securely on comprehensible tradition, the other perpetually probes the path of originality and innovation. It’s an absolute gem, readily yielding its riches to anyone giving it a fair hearing. Yet, it remains the “Cinderella” of Arnold’s symphonies. I have no idea why. Listen. I bet you’ll be as puzzled as I am.

1. Allegro – vivace. [Subjects: FS = First, SS = Second] Arnold’s “new” linear style is right up front, two thematic fragments entwining like a wisp of smoke. These coalesce into the FS, a closely-knit group of complementary variations – ranging from wistful to hyperactive. Contrariwise, the innocent SS (oboe) varies only in colour and dynamic, but is harassed by its own, increasingly aggressive coat-tail (a falling fourth). The usual “masculine/feminine” contrast is both augmented and inverted, the FS being “at peace with itself”, whilst the SS is “at war with itself”.

Any incipient sonata form is soon nipped in the bud. Listless sparring between FS fragments and the “coat-tail” is soon superseded by a substantial reprise of the hyperactively chattering FS variant. Encouraged, the beleaguered SS appeals to the FS for help. FS and aggressor lock horns. As their struggle intensifies the music telescopes, becoming a belligerent “scherzo”. The evil aggressor wins the day.

2. Lento Of this movement one Darmstadt devotee commented, “we [are] floating, agreeably enough, in some shallow cranny after the tide has gone out” and “[There is not] much continuity or purpose . . .” Really? Well, this is a concentrated 20-variation chaconne [4], overlaid by an “exposition-development-recapitulation” structure that itself supports a further, emotional “layer”. But don’t worry about that; just imagine the whole thing tracing a huge letter “U”. At first passive, it descends ever deeper into despondency. Having reached rock bottom, an “idea” starts to germinate. Thereafter increasingly active, it ultimately becomes towering, glowering, grimly resolute. Our hero, it seems, has licked his wounds, planned his campaign, and girded his loins.

This “agreeable” movement stands comparison with the finale of Brahms’s Fourth. Yet, there’s a significant something more. Arnold’s theme incorporates a four-note cell [the notes A, A#, G, F#]. This is nothing less than a transposition onto the note A (for “Arnold”) of “DSCH”. Shostakovich’s now-famous musical monogram first surfaced in the third movement of his Tenth Symphony (1953), at first tentatively, but ultimately in bold affirmation. In the same manner, with sublime subtlety, Arnold thus declares his extramusical subject-matter – and confirms it, on searing trumpets, right at the summit of the closing climax!

3. (Rondo) Allegro con brio – Presto

Hugo Cole [5] says, “Arnold does not attempt to resolve the . . . tensions of the passacaglia. Instead, [like] Haydn after [a] strangely modulating slow movement, he serves up a vigorous, cheerful . . . finale”. And off it goes on its jolly way, two main themes spawning seven mischievous offshoots. However, as the aforementioned critic of the passacaglia observed, it lacks the “point, pungency and precision that raise mere good humour to hilarity or wit.” We might have admired his acuity, had he squared it with Arnold’s enviable reputation for, well, as it happens, hilarity and wit.

Basically, both commentators missed the point – those playful pranks are a calculated sham, a smoke-screen craftily contorting both form and intent. Arnold vividly evokes the skittering of a gambler’s dice, whilst one thematic offshoot recalls the erstwhile “aggressor”. By the light of Arnold’s “DSCH”, we recognise the latter as the “Stalin” leitmotif of Shostakovich, gambler supreme! Those “home truths” must really have hit home: Arnold is patently paying tribute to Shostakovich, by playing Shostakovich’s own “game”. Significantly, the butt of Arnold’s “subversion” is also an “uncomprehending ruling class”.

Again, the apparently incongruous disturbances, flaring ominously through the smokescreen, are revealed as growing, covert dissent. Inevitably, this brew comes to the boil. Ripping apart the shrieking screen, the main theme rises massively, its terrible triumph complementing the Lento’s concluding grim resolve. Finally, with a flurry of thunder, the “enemy” is summarily dispatched.

When you think about it, it takes an imaginative composer to weave a convincing dramatic narrative, and an ingenious composer to build intriguing structures, but it takes a rare genius to do both together – especially without falling off! Does this mean that Malcolm Arnold is a rare genius, and if so, isn’t it about time that the World was made fully aware of it?

© Paul Serotsky, 2009


[1] “Malcolm Arnold – Rogue Genius” by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. My review can be found at http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Dec04/Arnold_Rogue.htm

[2] Talking to Malcolm, I happened to mention my mother. He cut in with bitter, almost savage intensity, “My mother’s dead!” and a look of desolation crossed his countenance. She’d then been dead for 33 years.

[3] No relation! Although this surname is pronounced identically to mine, Malcolm never confused us. Instead, he preferred to tangle my surname with the vaguely similar name of an American trombonist friend.

[4] Variations on a ground bass or chord sequence. The distinction between Chaconne and Passacaglia is so hazy that one apocryphal dictionary said, “Chaconne [n] – see Passacaglia” and “Passacaglia [n] – see Chaconne”. Do you reckon they’re just French and Italian for the same thing?

[5] See his book, “Malcolm Arnold – An Introduction to his Music”


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