Simon Jenner on
Malcolm Arnold, October 21st 1921-September 23rd, 2006
Malcolm Arnold wrote 130 film scores, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he won an Oscar, in just 10 days. His Dances were famous and everyone could whistle the English Dance from Set 2, used in What the Papers Say, for so many years. But Arnold’s shaggy genius is enshrined in a dark and manically popular idiom, split between rejoicing, menacing boisterousness and despair. And he looked like Stephen Fry, too. The first thing I did when hearing of the death of Malcolm Arnold was to think: 'I knew this was coming', and reach for the biography, Rogue Genius which I'd bought exactly two years ago at the LPO concert featuring his intimate, edgy Sixth Symphony and pandemic Philharmonic Concerto. Buying the CD of this concert too, last week, I reflected it would be typical if he should miss his 85th (as did Rubbra 20 years ago), typical that he'd not been featured at the Proms this year or in 2001, and typical that he should receive a posthumous BBC boost. He's been buried, more or less, since he stopped composing in 1990. Let's skip posthumous oblivion. He's received all the obloquy whilst living - much of it hilariously self-inflicted following various drunken spats. His genius, wholly different to the granite of his exact contemporary Robert Simpson, was symptomatic of a bi-polar bear of a sensibility, Stephen Fry interrupting Sibelius - whose 4th symphony he admired perhaps above all others. Some claim his 2nd or 5th, and many his 7th and 8th symphonies and several concertos (like the Viola) as his masterworks. And of course the Dances, even the Irish and hallucinated Welsh Op 138. One might add the terrific 2nd String Quartet, Op 118. He spoke too faithfully of the wild uneveness of our condition. He was too uneven, and prolific. So was Shostakovitch. The truth is, we've only assimilated the popular Arnold, and not taken him on as we have the similarly 'unbalanced' compositional mood-swings of Shostakovitch and at his best, Schnittke. Arnold is rather more unnerving. If he wasn't British but Russian, would he now be more popular? But like Bax, his CD sales have told an utterly different story to the pucillanimity of the (particularly London) programmers. He's not Shostakovitch, but he is Arnold, and as someone who loves Maderna, Xenakis, Ligeti, Nono, Boulez and Berio I'd like to see all their centenaries in 15-20 years time. But 2021 should be a double date for the BBC, Simpson and Arnold, who of course were so critical of it. It would be typically disarming
if the BBC could celebrate that side, too.
Simon Jenner © 2008