Listening to Malcolm Arnold – some reflections

Yesterday we marked 100 years since the birth of English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, and today I wanted to lift the lid on just a handful of his lesser known orchestral works, which I have been listening to while holidaying in Cornwall – just a few miles from St Merryn, where the composer lived from 1965 to 1972.

The first piece to catch my ear is an early one, however. Arnold wrote the short tone poem Larch Trees in his late teens, when he had just become principal trumpet player for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He introduced it to them in 1943 but it lay unperformed until 1984. It is as evocative as the title implies, a moody piece creating a colourful autumnal atmosphere but finding darker, more craggy harmonies. As it evolves, Arnold reveals the influence of Sibelius on his early musical thoughts, in particular The late masterpiece Tapiola. There are also hints of Moeran in the slower music, and vivid imagery of the wind sighing in the branches of the trees.

In contrast, the Serenade for Small Orchestra is a pocket dynamo of a piece. It’s bright and breezy first movement makes full use of the smaller forces, with impudent humour and a surprisingly big sound from the small forces. Arnold always has melodic interest in this music, and the soft second movement, followed by a brash third, are packed with ideas.

The Clarinet Concerto no.2, written for Benny Goodman in 1974, is also a loud piece at times – but carries a very different message. Infused with jazz, and channeling the spirit of New York, it has a riotous third movement in the form of a rag – The Pre-Goodman Rag, as titled by Arnold. Composer and performers throw caution to the wind here, improvising and revelling in free musical form. The cadenza of the first movement does the same, the clarinet stepping up with a full repertoire of brays and swoons. Just as revealing is the second movement, turning icy cold with its awkward harmonies. As Arnold’s biographer Piers Burton-Page notes, it is revealing of the composer’s increasing creative and ultimately mental turmoil.

The Viola Concerto has made an equally strong impression. It was written in St Merryn, Cornwall, in response to a commission from Roger Best and the Northern Sinfonia. It has a really strong first movement, the soloist ascending from the busy activity of the orchestra with a melody of power and poise. It is difficult not to equate this with the windswept Cornish Coast. The solo instrument retreats a little in the second movement, sharing the stage with some profound thoughts from the orchestra, and then a vibrant finale exchanges quirky ideas and syncopation. It is a fine vehicle for the viola, proving its strength and versatility.

These are just four pieces from an extensive and sadly underperformed body of work. They show off Arnold’s sense of humour and his gift as a tunesmith but also the depth of feeling lying just beneath the surface. He is an enormously approachable composer, and when could be better than his anniversary year to get acquainted with his music?

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