Wednesday, August 03, 2016

More evidence of the permissive society

My plea that audiences should be given permission to like unfamiliar music is being answered in unlikely places. One example is Sony's Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Complete Conifer Recordings. The centrepiece of this newly released 11 CD box, which retails for around the cost of a single full price CD, is Vernon Handley's cycle of the composer's nine symphonies. These are supplemented by myriad other delights including concertos, overtures and the familiar Scottish, English and Cornish Dances in their less familiar versions for brass band. All the recordings date from the late 1980s and 1990s, and they demonstrate why the sadly defunct Conifer was celebrated for its commitment to recorded sound quality.

In recent years Sir Malcolm, who is seen above, has suffered from insidious marginalisation, whereby his symphonic masterworks are resolutely ignored, but his occasional pieces are programmed. Which means that a new generation of concertgoers is growing up perceiving him as a composer of amuse-bouches. To give an example, Sir Malcolm's A Grand, Grand Overture was played at the 2009 Last Night of the Proms, and his English Dances were given an outing in a 2013 English Light Music Prom. But there have only ever been five performances of his symphonies at the Proms, the last in 1994. This despite growing recognition of the worth of Sir Malcolm's symphonic output and its undoubted appeal to audiences steeped in Mahler and Shostakovich. None other than Norman Lebrecht has described him as "the major British symphonist" and Norman wrote this in The Companion to 20th-Century Music (Simon & Schuster, 1992):
A sniffy British establishement, suspicious of a former London Philharmonic player who presumed to write symphonies, crossed him off its agenda... he wrote music that orchestral musicians liked to play, and this counted against him with the intellectuals and managers.
It takes something truly remarkable to make me agree with Norman Lebrecht. The music of Sir Malcolm Arnold is truly remarkable, and this new overview of his music from Sony offers a unique opportunity to experience its addictive power. So once again I advise, buy or live forever in darkness.

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Pliable said...

Simon Brackenborough writes a tweet in response to my post saying that Malcolm Arnold is "belittled/patronised in terms of what is played".

That is a description I wish I had come up with.

Kevin Scott said...

The music of Malcolm Arnold is, in a word, excellent but, like you said, is taken totally for granted. Yes, he composed some excellent film scores and works that have been classified either as light classical or bon-bons, but never once do we hear any of the present-day conductors going out of their way to champion his music.

This can also be said for a number of English symphonists who have been ignored in recent years, among them David Matthews, George Lloyd, Benjamin Frankel and others who have, shall we say, not composed works to satisfy the Oliver Knussen crowd of British music. Young British conductors simply look the other way, and most likely have classified these composers as "second-tier" composers who have very little to offer, leaving their music open to conductors such as myself who want to perform them, but either have orchestras that may not be able to aptly execute these compositions, or simply don't have an orchestra they can call home.

Such snobbery and class-ism seems to be welcome in many quarters. I know I have a friend of mine who is a musicologist where we don't share the same viewpoint on new music, though I feel I am more open to choices than he is, is what it is.

Arnold, Frankel and Lloyd, for my money, are kindred souls in that they were romantics in a hostile atmosphere (Post-serialist fascism was the rage - you either composed in that idiom or were prepared to be damned), yet managed to find a way to integrate some aspects of contemporary language in their works without sacrificing their integrity (Frankel's symphonies are no less thorny than those of Humphrey Searle - another neglected figure in British music that should be programmed more often - but they tend to have a tad more melodic infusion than Searle's searing orchestral canvasses).

One hopes that the current trend of conductors will "re-discover" Arnold and the other composers I mentioned and go out of their way to persuade orchestra administrators that their work is significantly relevant to today's music scene as much as it was when the works were first composed. But I don't see Knussen, or any of the young turks of the podium, championing any of these composers any time soon.

Opus Alba said...

Knussen? He spends most of his time championing works by *living* composers. That's not to say he dosen't like or admire Arnold's music. I know that he likes his symphonies very much and so do many in 'his crowd'; however, they're caught between prioritising new music and trying to make a living. You can only forgive them for not playing Arnold's Ninth when there are few other people with the dedication and skills to perform, say, Ruth Crawford Seeger. Yes, Arnold is woefully marginalised but not as much as some of the composers we try to give the attention they also deserve. There would be plenty of space if people played less god-damned Mahler! I love Mahler but, honestly, all these empty, empty performances are exasperating.

Graeme said...

When the BBC Proms regularly recycle complete symphonic performances of Beethoven and Mahler, how long before we get complete VW, Rubbra and Arnold? I'm still waiting. Why?

davidderrick said...

Bob is surely right in calling Arnold's music addictive. It's also mysterious, while appearing to be easy. Some find this duality unsettling. They deal with their confusion by resenting him. We know what Bax’s, Holst’s, Britten’s music is saying to us and we respond to them accordingly. What on earth is Arnold’s blustery, brassy, blowsy, vulgar, impure, cheerful, tuneful, dark, English music about?

It's worth remembering that the marginaliser-in-chief of the likes of Arnold – William Glock – did, I suppose under pressure from somebody, commission Arnold's 4th symphony (which was a musical reaction to the 1958 Notting Hill race riots).

If being a great composer means having a sound like nobody else's, Arnold qualifies. Often the uniqueness is the string sound. With Arnold, it's the sound of his brass.

The story of Arnold's rescue by Anthony Day (for which see Tony Palmer's film) is more than just true: it belongs in the realm of English legend, like the story of Delius's rescue by Eric Fenby.

Constant Lambert, Alan Rawsthorne, Malcolm Arnold: three great drinkers of 20th c English music.

Which of Arnold's post-rescue works were the equals of his earlier ones? The Irish Dances are as good as the earlier ones. Could he have sketched them in Ireland before his breakdown? The jury seems to be out on the 9th sym. (I haven't heard it.)

The soundtrack for the 1957 movie Island in the Sun has just been uploaded by James Stuart (in occasionally wobbly archival sound, but most of it is OK) and is sheer pleasure:

Pliable said...

David Derrick emails saying the words “English and Cornish” should be read in place of “ones” in the penultimate para of his comment above.

JMW said...

I'm probably just about the only person in the states that actually has a score to Arnold's 9th Symphony. The Proms should call me, as I'll conduct this masterwork gladly, particularly since now we've given the audience permission to like and love the unfamiliar!