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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

9. Malcolm Arnold's
Requiem for
Olivier Messiaen


When Malcolm Arnold was approached to write a Requiem for his old friend Olivier Messiaen, his main problem was time. Even for so fecund a composer, the two days given to complete the commission placed a strain on his technique. Being unfamiliar with the Requiem text, and having no service-book to hand, he was forced to improvise the words in places. And as he did not have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to descend, he resorted - like Handel and other distinguished composers before him - to plundering earlier works. Thus, when listening to the music, we continually experience the feeling of déjà vu: 'Where have I heard that tune before?'

The work is scored for 4-part choir accompanied by a symphony orchestra with a large percussion section including vacuum cleaners, a floor-polisher and four rifles. Arnold begins in unorthodox fashion with an overture, which cunningly combines ideas from Tam O'Shanter and one of the Irish Dances. The most striking part of the work is the Gloria - not a section often included in a requiem setting - which shows Arnold at his most outgoing and exuberant. Here floor-polisher and vacuum cleaners come into play, and the movement ends excitingly with a volley of rifle shots. The Agnus Dei finds Arnold in more thoughtful mood. The Tam O'Shanter theme heard earlier is treated imitatively, building up to an impressive coda. The call of the Alpine Chough at the end of this section is a poignant moment. (It will be remembered that Arnold once wrote, 'Le chocard des alpes is of all Olivier's works my very favourite'.)

Other highlights include the Libera Me - here the quotation from The Padstow Lifeboat is particularly comforting - and the Pie Jesus, which Arnold adapts to the tune of one of his English Dances (Set 2 No. 4). The chorus intones this with hymn-like simplicity, whilst high above a semi-chorus of boys's voices whistles the 'Colonel Bogey' theme from Bridge on the River Kwai: a simple yet utterly satisfying moment. Wilfrid Mellers, in a seminal article on Arnold in The Musical Times, has questioned whether the music is always appropriate to the text. This seems to us to be critical nitpicking; the audiences certainly love it.


Copyright © 20 January 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


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