Word quickly spread that the old composer had lost it

October 2021 brings the centenary of Sir Malcolm Arrnold's birth. But it is unlikely that the photo above* will appear in any of the fulsome tributes to this still sadly neglected composer. It shows Sir Malcolm towards the end of his life with Anthony Day. In 1984 Anthony was appointed by the Court of Protection as Sir Malcolm’s chauffeur-companion, and he fulfilled that role until the composer's death in 2006. Anthony Day, who died of cancer in 2019, is known because of his involvement in the long and bitter battle over the inheritance of the Arnold Estate. However, the Malcolm Arnold Society offers a refreshingly balanced overview of his role, saying that "Anthony was responsible for the not-always-easy Malcolm... Anthony’s life was not without its controversies, but through his long administrations, the distressing infirmities of Malcolm’s old age were at least tempered by the recognition and many honours Malcolm received as the grand old man of British music".

The scene in the photo is familiar to me. In 2005 I decided to write a modest appreciation of Sir Malcolm's final Ninth Symphony, which I title 'A neglected 20th century masterpiece'. However I felt that writing about this masterful but elusive work stretched me to the limits, or quite possibly beyond the limits, of my meagre talents. So I contacted Sir Malcolm, who was living in Attleborough a few miles from my home, for help and approval. 

My visit to Sir Malcolm's home to discuss the article brought me into contact with Anthony Day. Because at that point Sir Malcolm was largely out of it - his mind ravaged by a life well or foolishly lived, depending on your viewpoint. My contact with Anthony led to me becoming editor of Sir Malcom's official website. Anthony certainly had his quirks, his playing Arnold compositions at full volume all day from a CD multi-changer, his insistence that Sir Malcom's music was greater than Bach's, his chain smoking, his chauffering Sir Malcom around in a Lexus emblazoned with the newly-minted Arnold coat of arms, and his unashamedly flamboyant lifestyle. But I can only concur with the Malcom Arnold Society's appraisal that Anthony considerably eased the final years of the not-always-easy Malcom. 

The Ninth Symphony was composed in just eighteen days in 1986 as a birthday present for Anthony Day, and is dedicated to him. Paul Jackson takes up the story in his admirable The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, which is appropriately subtitled The Brilliant and the Dark:

'When the score was sent to the publishers and the BBC, everyone concerned was stunned. Word quickly spread that 'the old man had lost it'. What shocked most people who saw the score was its sparseness. Although scored for full symphony orchestra there were pages when only one or two instruments would be playing, which to some who should have known better, looked as though Arnold had forgotten how to write harmony. However the major problem that most of the score readers had was with the fourth and final movement.'  

In the final movement, which is long as the other three movements combined, the writing is almost entirely in two parts, and the two themes of the movement are so similar they are virtually indistinguishable. Many instruments are silent throughout the twenty-three minutes of the last movement, only to play in the final D major chord. To the conditioned eye of many 'experts', the score looked unfinished; but Sir Malcolm considered it to be "the highest form of musical composition". 

That Lento final movement takes us beyond the late romanticism of the Ninth Symphony of Sir Malcolm's beloved Mahler, into a new and at first puzzling musical landscape, and it even takes us beyond the sparesness of Valentin Silvestrov and other existential post-Romaticists. Naxos' recommended recording of the Ninth includes an interview with conductor Andrew Penny and Sir Malcolm. In it Andrew Penny asks "It is a huge, bleak, finale isn't it?", to which Sir Malcolm replies after a long pause "....Yes...I wanted it to die away into infinity....." It certainly is a huge emotionally laden finale, but the description 'bleak' is misleading. Yes, it is empty, but empty of superfluous notes and empty of rhetoric and bombast. In fact the finale of Malcom Arnold's Ninth Symphony demonstrates the true meaning of emptiness, as defined in the Buddhist Dzogchen path**:

'Emptiness does not mean the absence of apparent existence. Emptiness is not like a black hole or darkness, or like an empty house or bottle. Emptiness is fullness and openness and flexibility,. Because of emptiness it is possible for phenomena to function, for beings to see and hear, and for things to move and change. It is called emptiness because when we examine things we cannot find anything that substantially and solidly exists. There is nothing that has a truly existent nature. Everything we perceive appears through ever-changing causes and conditions, without an independent, solid basis. Although from a relative perspective things appear, they arise from emptiness and dissolve into emptiness.'

* The photo comes via the Daily Mail
** Coincidentally and reportedly Sir Malcolm's son Robert is Buddhist.
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Comments

Marsyas said…
It's funny that people would complain about his 9th being sparsely scored when most of them probably didn't have the ear to dictate more than two parts at the same time, even if their life depended on it. The thing I respect about Sir Malcolm's music is that he never overscores, even in his 'serious' works. It's something you see all the time in other people's work: far too many parts — even in works by well respected composers. The fact is, most human brains are just not capable of processing and understanding very much simultaneous difference (consciously, at least). Arnold was writing for normal people, not those freaks who can hear everything.
Pliable said…
It is worth noting that Tony Palmers documentary portrait' Toward the Unknown Region ; Malcolm Arnold - a story of survival' is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.
Just want to "like" that comment by Marsyas. Fully textured Bach overwhelms me, becoming just a wall of sound, but I've played the Goldberg Aria many, many times with deep enjoyment.
Pliable said…
A propos Goldberg Variations - 'Because of emptiness it is possible for phenomena to function, for beings to see and hear, and for things to move and change.....'

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