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ClassicsOnline Home » ARNOLD, M.: Chamber Music for Winds
Those who think of Malcolm Arnold as the composer of sparkling orchestral music and
highly successful film scores will be delighted and perhaps surprised at the feast of
smaller-scale treasures on this recording, several of them recorded here for the first time.
They span virtually his entire composing life from the early Constant Lambert-inspired
Overture for Wind Octet to the enigmatic Duo (Divertimento) for Two Clarinets written
after serious mental illness and a number of years of compositional silence.
By Steve Schwartz
By Edward Greenfield
Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921–2006)
Wind Chamber Music
Those who think of Malcolm Arnold as the composer of sparkling orchestral music and highly successful film scores will be delighted and perhaps surprised at the feast of smaller-scale treasures on this disc, many of them recorded here for the first time. They span virtually his entire composing life from the early Constant Lambert-inspired Overture for Wind Octet to the enigmatic Divertimento for Two Clarinets written after serious mental illness and a number of years of compositional silence.
The Wind Quintet, Op. 2, was written in 1942, just a few months before the ever-popular Three Shanties, for his friends in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. After a couple of performances it disappeared for over sixty years. It was re-discovered after the death of clarinettist Stephen Waters, who played in the first performance and then took the score and parts home for safe-keeping. There they remained until unearthed, at the bottom of a box of his music, just a couple of years ago, after his death in 1999. The tuneful first movement is full of those little surprises "to keep my audiences awake", the composer once said. There is no shortage of jazz-inspired ideas, coloured always by that unmistakeable Arnold wit. The second movement is a fiendish scherzo, full of elaborate cross-rhythms and of immense energy. The final movement is a March and the most emotionally charged of the three. Clearly very strongly anti-war (other examples of Arnold 's political views occur in the First Symphony and Piano Sonata ) it offers severe and angry dissonances, mocking fanfares, with angular and brutal melodic and rhythmic figures. It is surely a work that will soon take its place as a classic in the wind quintet repertoire.
The arcane Divertimento for Two Clarinets, which forms a series of interludes on this disc, was composed in 1988 soon after the dark and introspective Mahlerian Ninth Symphony. It bears many resemblances. Though both the Arnold wit and lyricism lurk, the work is laced with moments of strange, other-worldly writing. Dream City was composed on 24 December 1938, originally for piano and, like many of his early piano pieces, as a present for his piano-playing mother, Annie. The seventeen-year-old had just finished his first term as a scholar at the Royal College of Music. He fell, virtually straight away, under the spell of one of his teachers, the composer Constant Lambert, a larger-than-life character who was to become a great influence. Lambert's own fusion of jazz and 'light' music into his own style much appealed to the young student and can be heard clearly here. This arrangement, for wind quintet, was sanctioned by the composer, who was delighted by the extra colour brought to his delightful miniature.
Arnold 's instinct for musical colour, in addition to his ability to write wonderful tunes and a capacity for hard work, are all part responsible for his major success as a film music composer. 1953 saw him at the height of his film career. No less than seven film scores, in addition to his Second Symphony and Coronation ballet Homage to the Queen, appeared that year. Among them was Hobson's Choice, starring Charles Laughton and John Mills and directed by David Lean. It was to become Arnold 's favourite score. The Overture, arranged here for wind octet, allows Arnold to indulge in music ranging from low comedy to high romance. The principal character, played by Laughton, is a shoe manufacturer – just as Arnold 's father was – another reason why the composer had a special place for this score.
The Arnold shoe factory was in fact based, as were so many others, in Northampton, where the exuberant Grand Fantasia, composed in the summer of 1940, was first performed, a piece of unashamed escapism at the time of the Battle of Britain. The three instruments are handled with panache as Arnold takes the listener on a European tour with stops in Italy, Hungary and Austria. The Fantasia however, is not purely geographical, for in this gloriously catholic work he manages to salute the idioms of opera, musical comedy and jazz. It is a helter-skelter affair, full of the joys of a youthful artist who knows he is at ease with his medium. It is no surprise to find the manuscript telling us that it was not composed by Arnold at all, but by 'A. Youngman'.
The Overture for Wind Octet, written earlier in 1940, was probably intended as the first movement of a larger work. Alas, Arnold was sidetracked into other projects – only this one tantalising movement remains. Three influences are clear: ragtime rhythms, his hatred of war (in the aggressive chords and heavily accented melodic lines of the middle section) and, once again, the music of Lambert. "There is no man in this world whom I admire more", Arnold once said of his mentor.
Another war-time work is the charming and insouciant Suite Bourgeoise, a five-movement work beginning with a serious contrapuntal prelude and then followed by a tango, a hard-rock number originally – and rather scurrilously – entitled 'Whorehouse', the most amorous of ballads that would happily accompany any 1940's silver-screen romance, and a jazz-waltz. It is truly a musical treasure.
The Scherzetto for clarinet and piano began life as part of the score to Arnold's 1954 film You Know What Sailors Are, a comedy involving a fake secret weapon and featuring Donald Sinden and Michael Hordern. Arnold would always invite his friends to play for him in his film sessions and there is an extended scene for which he wrote this bubbling showpiece for the great clarinettist Jack Thurston. The Fantasy for unaccompanied clarinet was composed as a test piece for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra 's International Wind Competition in 1966. Arnold 's instinctive understanding of the instrument is clear as he explores both the lyrical and robust sides of the clarinet's character.
The miniature Fantasy for Flute and Clarinet was composed in the early 1960s as a present for his children, Katherine and Robert, to play together. Even as a miniature, it has many of the hallmarks of the Arnold style: the evocative melodic writing, together with the occasional dark dissonance. It was written during his most prolific period in films; two years earlier he won his Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai. Indeed the gorgeous title music to the contemporary Whistle Down The Wind (famously whistled by Richard Attenborough) bears a distinct family resemblance.
The Divertimento for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet, like so much of Arnold 's music, was written for particular friends. Richard Adeney, Sidney Sutcliffe and Stephen Waters gave the work its first performance in 1952 at a time when Arnold was at the height of his powers. 1952 also saw the composition of an opera, the Oboe Concerto, numerous smaller works and, among eleven films, his acclaimed score for The Sound Barrier, his first David Lean film. The six concise movements of the Divertimento are by turns humorous, lyrical, boisterous, nostalgic and tongue-in-cheek, quintessential Arnold. The famous music critic, Felix Aprahamian, was openly chuckling out loud at each new musical joke at an early performance.
Perhaps Arnold 's most popular work for wind instruments is the Three Shanties for wind quintet. Completed late in 1942, just months after the Quintet, Op. 2, they were first performed in an aircraft hangar near Bristol in August 1943 by his friends in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Three traditional songs: 'What shall we do with the drunken sailor? ', ' Boney was a warrior ' and ' Johnny come down to Hilo ' receive Arnold 's wonderfully inventive treatment. He parades them roguishly in any manner of adroit disguises. There is that rich, skilful blending of sound which is so distinctly his, stemming from that exceptional understanding of the instruments and his friends playing them. It is a work of wit and sophistication, full of fun, light of touch, always hurrying on to the next witticism, labouring no point, however clever.
© Paul Harris 2007
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ARNOLD, M.: Chamber Music for Winds