TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.
9. Malcolm Arnold's
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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