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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Malcolm and Malcolm: your time will come

By Norman Lebrecht / July 25, 2001

THERE are two notable ghosts at this summer's Proms feast. Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen's Musick, will turn 70 in November. Sir Malcolm Arnold, our foremost living symphonist, will see 80 a month sooner. Neither will have a note of his music played at any of the 73 orchestral concerts and eight chamber lunchtimes that constitute the "greatest music festival on earth".

Their exclusion is unastonishing. Although the Proms have a self-proclaimed mission to promote British music, there has always been a handful of unmentionables who were shut out of the showcase.

Twenty years ago, the composer Robert Simpson, no mean symphonist himself, resigned from the BBC to publish a scathing polemic, The Proms & Natural Justice, attacking the corporation's abuse of its powers of musical patronage.

He had been outraged to find many of the country's most accomplished composers - John McCabe, Matyas Seiber, Herbert Howells, Kenneth Leighton, Berthold Goldschmidt - ruled out of consideration by the authoritarian Proms controller, William Glock. Simpson called for greater participation in the programming of the Proms, arguing that the season should reflect the best of the most, rather than the narrow preferences of an overweening individual.

He was right at the time, but much has since changed. The BBC is no longer monolithic. Nicholas Kenyon, the present Proms controller, may have overlooked Arnold during his six years - with the exception of an eight-minute Last Night piece in 1996 - but others within the corporation have taken up his cause. This September, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra will give the first ever cycle of Arnold's nine symphonies, in Manchester. They will be broadcast on Radio 3, where the composer's biographer, Piers Burton-Page, is an influential producer. Arnold will also be composer of the week.

There is no reason for Kenyon to pay false homage to composers in whom he evidently has little faith. Better to have a controller who knows his mind than one who sniffs the wind. Kenyon can be blamed only for failing to show courtesy towards two eminences in their celebratory year.

The Proms, though, are the least of the obstacles facing the two Malcolms, who find themselves unwillingly at war with what remains of a British music establishment, a frayed colloquium of commercial and academic interests that advances certain composers and shuns the rest.

Williamson was once an establishment darling, with seven symphonies and operas to his name by the age of 53. He queered his pitch by failing to finish a piece in time for the Queen's Silver Jubilee. When royal displeasure leaked out, he found himself virtually friendless in the obsequious musical community.

Arnold was always more of an outsider. A former orchestral trumpeter who won an Oscar for the soundtrack to The Bridge on the River Kwai, he staked a claim to be the next Vaughan Williams with a rich and varied symphonic oeuvre, the seventh as cosmopolitan as Mahler's, the ninth as bleak as late Shostakovich.

Rough and ready on his best behaviour, Arnold suffered bouts of severe mental illness. He lost his publisher and affronted many pomposities. The cover of the concluding disc of his new symphonic cycle on Chandos displays a man standing on a cracked and disused railway bridge - an apt metaphor. He approaches 80 uncelebrated by his profession at large. The Malcolm Arnold Society has had to organise a whip-round of members to finance a birthday chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall. No London orchestra was prepared to sound a fanfare. The London Philharmonic, where he blew his heart out from 1942 to 1948, writing concertos for its key players and one for the entire orchestra, declined the opportunity to display his achievement. Its ingratitude is orchestrally endemic. Nielsen, Martinu and Franz Schmidt were comparably ignored by the bands in which they once played.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic will stage a concert at Arnold's birthplace, Northampton, on the actual anniversary, the only orchestra to mark the date. Whether anyone will serenade Williamson has yet to be determined. He has sunk so far from public favour that no publisher has bothered to build him a website.

The only consolation for the two Malcolms is that the forces that excluded them are in an advanced state of disintegration. Music publishing is in disarray, university departments are under threat, music critics are powerless and the BBC is struggling to appear inclusive. Punitive discrimination against unruly composers has become mercifully unsustainable. Arnold and Williamson can rest assured that their time will come. Posterity, more often than not, belongs to the lifetime losers.

3 May 2000: Heard but no longer seen [Norman Lebrecht on the lack of classical music on television]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




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