Back to index
Thöne, Raphael D

Zum symphonischen Schaffen Malcolm Arnolds

Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien/Universität Wien, 2007

Published in English as:
Thöne, Raphael D. (2007): Malcolm Arnold - A Composer of Real Music: Symphonic Writing, Style and Aesthetics. Milton Keynes: Edition Wissenschaft/Entercom Saurus Records.
ISBN 978-3937748061

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) was a Western European composer with deep roots in the classical models of Sibelius and Mahler who still integrated popular music tendencies (jazz, folk music) into his concertante symphonic oeuvre.

The current belief that he was a composer who worked without sketches and wrote full scores directly, however, can be disproved with direct evidence comparing his piano particells as well as his short drafts against his later full orchestrations. In fact, his approach was very similar to that of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, as well as those of Richard Wagner or even Alban Berg, two composers researched by Schwob in 2000 (Schwob 2000).
Arnold’s understanding of the concept of tradition versus modernism is marked by clear reference lines to his past. His compositional models were, in this respect, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), though he did not blindly copy them. In the end, he proved himself independent, as shown in his 2nd and 4th symphonies.

Chris Walton’s explanation (Walton 1994, 256-271) of why modern contemporary music did not develop in Britain is persuasive, but not applicable to the case of Arnold.  In fact, Arnold remained in an isolated position, particularly in the 1960s, because his symphonic music, at first glance more conservative than comparable music of younger British composers (mainly from the so-called Manchester School), could not be easily explained. Arnold was compositionally influenced by more conservative composers as well as those of the second Viennese school; Arnold felt free to choose the methods (compositional procedures, especially instrumentation) of his musical style, staying well away from the concept of divided hemispheres of serious and light music; Arnold’s deliberately planned compositional polystylistic style made it almost impossible to categorize him.

The discussion of a newly “discovered” ballet has shown that, instead of presenting a composite score of his famous popular pieces (e.g. the very well-known English Dances) in the Three Musketeers, today’s protagonists would be better off using the fragmentary but original sketches of this ballet. This material is suitable for reconstruction.

Within the British context of contemporary classical music, Arnold  is a unique and singular phenomenon. No case comparable to his exists. Indeed, there were always composers who apparently rejected tendencies towards progress, instead composing “as if nothing were happening”.  These composers are now either a mere reflection of history and have been generally forgotten or they are represented by a single work. However, neither situation applies to Arnold, even if Cole describes the composer as a "victim...of partial representation" (Cole 1989,vii). Arnold is now omnipresent in British music, represented by such varying works as The River Kwai March, English Dances, the Double Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra, the concert overture Beckus the Dandipratt, or his nine symphonies. His music has indeed gained a high level of acceptance, mainly in the Commonwealth countries.

However, this is equally true of a large number of modern Continental European composers, such as Wolfgang Rihm, Helmut Lachenmann, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose works are rarely performed in Great Britain.  An analysis of Arnold’s Sixth Symphony (1967/1968) showed remarkable development in his composition technique. His usual compositional means, such as a preference towards harmonic ostinato structures, the use of repetition and conservative traditional forms such as the sonata, the rondo or the fantasy, along with his skillful sense of transparent and colorful orchestration were here often used to their extremes. The work itself must be seen as a step towards independence from his compositional models.
Finally, Arnold’s symphonic music can be summarized by the musical constants of his style. Arnold’s works are authentic in and of themselves. His works show polystylistic influences, he pursues his own internal goals instead of adapting contemporary tendencies, and he possesses an unmistakable style that is expressed throughout his entire symphonic oeuvre and cannot be reduced to a minor selection of well-known popular opuses. Arnold’s extremely demanding oeuvre, in which he combines orchestral brilliance with his own sense of syntactic compositional unity, overcomes the prejudicial barriers between serious and light music.