The symphonist the English cannot stomach

The symphonist the English cannot stomach

Album Of The Week

norman lebrecht

January 01, 2022

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

The hundredth anniversary of a composer’s birth is usually marked by a respectful revival. Not in Malcolm Arnold’s case. The English establishment has always held this remarkable composer at arm’s length, in part because he had the effrontery to win an Oscar (for Bridge on the River Kwai) and in part because of erratic conduct that once landed him in a mental hospital. Musically, there was nothing mad about Malcolm (I knew him a little and liked him a lot)…

Read on here.

And here.

En francais ici.

In Czech here.

In The Critic here.


  • christopher storey says:

    Another sad figure in British Music . I do wonder whether the avoidance of his symphonies comes from their not infrequently disturbing character , in complete contrast to his shorter orchestral pieces, the dances in particular . But then, George Lloyd’s serious works are sadly and badly neglected, as are those of Rubbra

  • George Kennaway says:

    Sorry, but no. He was a sort of suburban version of Sibelius.

  • J Barcelo says:

    Ever since Andrew Penny’s survey of the symphonies came out on Naxos, I’ve been a huge fan, only knowing his music previously from the Scottish and English dances, and then in arrangements for brass band. But don’t blame orchestras for not playing his music. Blame can be laid at the feet of audiences, who are generally uninterested in the unfamiliar and would rather hear the Beethoven 9th or Tchaikovsky 6th for the 100th time than give something new a chance. And orchestra management knows that they must sell tickets and fill those seats to avoid financial ruin. Mahler will do that; Malcolm Arnold won’t. I don’t know what the concert repertoire looks like in London with so many professional orchestras, but I doubt that the symphonies of Arnold, Alwyn, Arnell, Bax, Rubbra, Simpson, Searle, Stanford, Parry, or even Vaughan Williams are all that often played. How often are the Elgar symphonies played these days? Arnold’s music will continue to be known mostly by people like me who buy CDs and are tired of the worn-out, over-played European repertoire. And Happy New Year!

    • Dirk says:

      I’ve tried on several occassions in a serious and concerted way to explore the larger “serious” works of some of those English composers you mention, and too often been left completely bored and tired. Elgar is a fantastic example of an English composer who wrote just a few absolutely superb works and ALOT of dross.

      Yet – some of the smaller works can be delicious and beautiful; as though it is more manageable for them tyo complete the painting if they can see the whole thing all the time.

    • Anthony Sanderson says:

      You might be interested to know that the Oxford University Orchestra put on a concert with Malcom Arnold’s Second Symphony and his Variations on a Theme of Ruth Gipps, together with her Second Symphony at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. It was a sell-out!

    • La plus belle voix says:

      You mean I take it “the [other] worn-out, over-played European repertoire”?

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    He had the misfortune to be of the same generation as the avant-gardists thus not the flavour of the day, especially for critics and pundits. My friend, the composer Gordon Sherwood who earned a living as a beggar, had the same problem; writing tonal music when Boulez was the one that decided who got the money. Yet there was nothing conservative about Malcolm Arnold: bout his music or his ideas.

  • MacroV says:

    I don’t know Malcolm Arnold nearly well enough but I’ve always liked the works I’ve heard or played. And he’s pretty decently represented on disc, if Amazon listings are any indication. But he doesn’t seem to have spread much beyond the UK. Maybe some U.S. orchestras could take up his symphonies; in American English music rarely goes beyond Enigma and the Planets.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    A very harsh and sad headline. Malcolm Arnold was one of our greatest composers and the neglect of his music is unforgivable, in my opinion. Establishment bias and ignorance lie at the heart of this situation. As a young horn player I had the good fortune to have met Malcolm years ago and found him to be very kind and supportive. It’s high time his music received a thorough re-evaluation.
    The same could be said about many of our composers of the past, however: Arnold Bax, William Alwyn, Edmund Rubbra, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney, to name but a few. For me the BBC Proms should champion such music. After all, Arnold was a one time principal trumpet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and knew how to write exciting and original orchestral music, including much film music, of course. The snobbery that existed during his lifetime because of his success in composing for the big screen was just pathetic. The same did not happen in the case of Walton. Such music should be celebrated.
    I’ll be very interested to see how much attention Vaughan Williams receives in his celebratory year.
    The third-rate music we hear by contemporary composers should be ditched and more concert and radio time given to the greats of the past.

  • Steve says:

    This is a somewhat exaggerated piece. As well as the 5th Symphony at the Proms, the BBC had a week of programmes dedicated to Arnold in October (to coincide with his birthday). He was featured at the Presteigne and Buxton Festivals as well as at the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton. Naxos released a box of his complete symphonies (admittedly recordings which had been released individually earlier). Given that this was during a year when live concerts and recordings were disrupted by Covid, he wasn’t exactly shunned.

  • Akutagawa says:

    I went to the prom in question last year where they performed the 5th. It was a well constructed, cleverly orchestrated piece with one cracking tune that I was glad to have heard once in my life, in the same way that ornithologists like ticking off rare wading birds. However, even allowing for Covid restrictions, the hall was around 15% full at most. I don’t think that the British musical establishment is banning performances of Arnold as much as the British music-going public isn’t buying tickets to hear him. Perhaps, as you might argue, that’s their loss. But you can’t expect orchestras to keep on programming works that nobody comes to listen to.

    • Dave says:

      The concert-going public isn’t going to buy tickets for non-existent concerts; how many times in a normal year do our major orchestras programme Arnold? And it’s not really fair to extrapolate sales during covid to what they might be at other times. In any case, Proms audiences have been brainwashed into favouring gigs by glamour bands, often with mundane content, over much more interesting programmes by less glitzy outfits.

  • Paul Johnson says:

    Then the “establishment” should be thoroughly ashamed. What did the “establishment” ever create?

  • John Borstlap says:

    The relative neglect by the establishment is explained by Arnold’s aesthetic: it’s decidedly tonal and closer to Shostakovich and Sibelius than to the British modernism of the sixties and later.

    Here is his 9th:

    Such type of music is entirely normal and legitimate, although I think there is much in this 9th to complain about – but that is another matter.

    Tonal music has never completely been pushed away in the UK, today there is, for example, David Matthews (brother of Colin), and younger composers exploring this territory, as so many younger composers in the USA and France.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    It is very true to note that the BBC honoured Malcolm Arnold’s centenary week with featuring him as Composer of the Week at the time and Sakari Oramo’s performance of the fifth symphony at the 2021 Proms was a welcome addition. There was also a very interesting programme called ‘The Tortured Composer’ aired on Radio as well. It must also be a contributory factor that the conductors who championed the music of our forgotten composers like Boult, Handley, Groves, and Hickox, are all no longer with us and the modern British conductors, who are thin on the ground anyway, just don’t seem interested. Even Mark Elder has a few serious holes in his British music repertoire CV.
    As for the Establishment, they are, it would appear, solely occupied with preserving themselves. Nothing new there.
    Arnold’s symphonies are well worth investing time to listen them thoroughly. As mentioned already, Andrew Penny’s Naxos set is excellent way to start. One of the good things about the Lockdown was having the time to dig out such recordings and play them. There is still much to discover if you can be bothered.

  • Una says:

    At least the Proms this summer, relying on talented and often overlooked British performers and composers, suddenly woke up to him being a fine yet underestimated and undervalued English composer. I certainly enjoyed songs of his I did in recitals. If only he and we were all perfect in this life, but we’re not!

  • Lindsay Wallace says:

    As Sir Thomas Beecham said in 1928 “English music today is in that extraordinary state of perpetual promise. It is perhaps the nearest approach to perpetual motion we have, for it goes on promising & promising & has done so for three hundred years. In fact, it might be said to be one gigantic promissory note.” Seriously though, if it wasn’t for complaining that his national music is neglected, which it patently isn’t, what would your average English music lover find to say about it!

  • Miv Tucker says:

    Older readers may remember that in the days before R3 broadcast round the clock, they would play some introductory music just before the 7am time signal and the start of programmes, and for a while in the 70s they used one of Arnold’s English Dances (can’t remember which one), a very nostalgic, elegiac piece.
    And even older readers might remember that another of his English Dances was used as the theme for Granada’s long-running What the Papers Say.

  • msc says:

    The attention to his symphonies should not distract people from his concertos, excellent chamber music (I don’t know when I last heard any that I was not playing), and band music. All need more attention.
    As everyone else is saying, neglect of Arnold is simply because of fashion and snobbery.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    I can remember a time not too long ago relatively speaking when Mahler struggled, posthumously, to get a hearing. The ‘Establishment’ has turned a deaf ear to more than just Malcolm Arnold.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In the orchestral world, the ‘establishment’ consists of management types, much more concerned with budgets and audience attendance than program content. They are hired for these things, so it is understandable that it is so conservative. The input of conductors into programming is, contrary to what you would expect, quite limited.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    Tommy Beecham also said that the british don’t really understand music but they love the noise it makes. Somehow, I think that’s still the case.
    We have to educate more and when you look at the current crop of conductors (although Sakari Oramo is clearly a fan of Arnold’s music), not to mention the Radio 3 presenters who fall short of any real knowledge about music, in general, and Classic FMs reliance on playing the same old, same old, things will never improve. The BBC constantly sells classical music short when you compare what was broadcast regularly in the 1960s and 1970s. There were, at its inception, high hopes that BBC 4 would fill a gap. However all you get on that are endless repeats of Top of the Pops from decades ago who nobody is interested in anymore. I was hoping that Tony Palmer’s excellent film on Malcolm Arnold would be repeated, only to be sadly disappointed again. I would recommend finding a YouTube clip of Andrew Davis conducting the BBCSO in Arnold’s music from the film The Sound Barrier. It’s played superbly, and the smile on Malcolm Arnold’s face – quite obviously moved to tears – and the reception from the audience is extremely moving. This man’s music deserves to be heard.

  • Ian Cole says:

    The institutions that do support Malcolm Arnold are our various Music Colleges which hopefully will ensure he is not forgotten by future generations. In November I had the pleasure of attending a Gala Celebration concert at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire which was a combination of works performed by students, including the Fantasy for Band, Ukrainian Variations and the Clarinet And Oboe Sonatinas. The concert closed with Margaret Fingerhut and Peter Fisher playing items from their recent disc, including the first Violin Sonata. Norman has, quite rightly in my view, chosen it as his Album of the Week and I for one would thoroughly endorse his recommendation.

  • Robert Roy says:

    ‘Mental Hospital?!’

    Maybe it’s a bit much to expect 21st Century attitudes but at least get out of the 19thC!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, all that awful music, with all of those so-called classics which are mainly boring, as if we still live around 1800 and the whole age that followed it. When I’m forced again to attend a classical concert, you sit there in a beautiful modern hall and what do they play? Totally uninteresting stuff from 100 years ago or older like Mahler, Beethoven, even Mozart, a guy form even longer ago. How often do you get Boulez, or other 20C classics like Xenakis?! Or Berio, or (my particular treat) Lachenmann? The latter one is also very funny, what you cannot get with those old farts!


  • christopher storey says:

    What is wrong with the description Mental Hospital ? They were not called that in the 19th century, but had far less savoury terms applied to them . Are we to leave those who have the misfortune to suffer mental illness to fend for themselves? It is thanks to the courage of people like Malcolm Arnold that we are now able to discuss this very important issue openly

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Arnold’s “Carnival of Animals” is much, much funnier than Saint-Saens’.