Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921 - )

Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op.54 (1956)

The greatest musical influence in my life has been, and still is the music of Berlioz. His compositions always strike me as so fresh, and far more contemporary in spirit than so much of the music written only a few days ago. If he can express his idea by a melody only, he does so, and if it is a melody based on tonic and dominant harmonies (which would have been considered by some ‘old fashioned’ in his day) he is not afraid to do so. At times within a tonic and dominant context he will astonish by a harmonic change which is decidedly ‘not done’ – which goes to prove once again that so many of the things which are so well worth doing are ‘not done’.

Sir Malcolm Arnold, First published in Music and Musicians- July 1956

Listeners might unwittingly be familiar with the music of Sir Malcolm Arnold. He is the composer of the Oscar winning film score to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He is also responsible for over 80 other film scores, including Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the various "St.Trinians" comedies, The Sound Barrier, Suddenly Last Summer, Hoxsan’s Choice, and the Rose Tattoo. Arnold is as prolific in the fields of chamber music, symphonic, and brass music. He has been commissioned to compose a large number of instrumental concerti, which suggest that musicians like his work, even if he has been somewhat dismissed by "the critics" due to the accessibility of his musical language. His Grand Grand Overture op. 57 (1956) is scored for three electric vacuum cleaners, electric floor polisher, rifles and Orchestra. You can’t get more accessible than that.

Arnold began his musical career as a trumpet player, his earliest influence being Louis Armstrong. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, and two years later joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra as second trumpet. During the period of the Second World War Arnold, like some other prominent British composers (Britten, Bridge and Warlock), was a conscientious objector. In 1943 he became first trumpet in the London Philharmonic, yet that same year he volunteered for military service. However, he was discharged from the service after shooting himself in the foot. (The Malcolm Arnold Society Webpage does not mention this tidbit, which can be found in the program notes by Keith Anderson included in the Naxos CD of Sir Malcolm Arnold Chamber Music.) Arnold went on to garner many of those letters the British are fond of conferring on each other – C.B.E., R.A.M. He was Knighted in 1993 – at which time he shot himself in the foot………(just kidding).

Here is another quote from Sir Malcolm that you cannot help loving.

"If one is really honest in listening to the music of all periods there are times when one’s mind is inclined to wander. This will happen even when listening to accepted classical masterpieces, and to a greater extent when listening to contemporary works. To put it crudely, the mind wanders during the sections that occur in music between the recognisable themes – always assuming that the themes have said something to the listener.

Very, very roughly speaking, these parts of a composition are usually development sections; one cannot write a piece of music by just repeating one theme, unless it is a special effect one is after as in Ravel’s Bolero. A composer has to compose something that contrasts and will show his original thoughts in a new light, and the play between these two or three or even more thoughts goes to make up a composition.

To hold a listener’s attention throughout a whole work is a major problem. Composers during the whole short history of written music have used all kinds of devices to develop their music and give it formal continuity. One can use the first few notes of the original thought backwards, or as rhythmic pattern, making a new melody out of it; one can use its harmonic pattern and a new idea may spring from that.

The ways of continuing or developing music are legion, but an important point which we composers in our enthusiasm as specialists in music are apt to forget is that these ways in themselves are of no interest to anyone. The music must say more to the listener than "I am the first three notes of the original thought" or "I am the original thought backwards". What this something more is, is impossible to define in words; which will help to explain why I search after this elusive something only by writing music."

As you listen to today’s concert, as your mind wanders, that just might be a development section you’re not hearing! You now have a way to identify them.

The Piano Trio Op.54 is a vigorous work, unlike those English composers whose music Debussy liked to describe as " suitable for singing wealthy convalescents to sleep". At first hearing, one is reminded of the music of Shostakovich, possibly because of the unison passagework and galloping rhythm of the first movement Allegro con fuoco. The second movement Andante opens with a canon, the violin following the cello’s opening. The piano then enters with its own lovely melody. The movement then builds in intensity, followed shortly by the opening canon, and ending with the piano melody. The short last movement Vivace energico is a chaconne – of sorts. The seven measure "ground’ or bass line instead of being repeated literally each time, enters a semitone higher at each repeat until all of the twelve degrees of the chromatic scale are gone through – and its over.

1999-2000 Season, Program IV, Sunday December 12, 1999

Malcom Arnold Society web page.

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All original text on this page copyright 2000 by Joseph Way