Thursday, 11 October 2012

Malcolm Arnold "Too bawdy for family audiences"

"Too bawdy for family audiences" the BBC said about Malcolm Arnold's comic opera The Dancing Master, which will at last be premiered at this year's Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton next week.

Arnold is a composer whose work everyone knows - remember the whistling song in The Bridge on the River Kwai ? Or "Nick Nack Paddy Whack" the children's marching song from The Inn of the Sixth Happiness?  It would be logical for a man who wrote theme music for dozens of hit movies to write music for the stage. Indeed, his music for ballet is well appreciated, and his orchestral music is vivid. So much will be hanging on this performance of Arnold's opera. "Given that there aren't many British operas, it;'s very significant", says Paul Harris, Arnold's biographer, in this article by Dalya Alberge. "Harris praises Arnold's ensemble writing, particularly an "uplifting" sextet towards the end, the catchy melodies and the "transparency" that allows the voices to come through with both colour and support."

Arnold's The Dancing Master is based on a Restoration comedy from  1671, so perhaps it says something about social mores in 1952 that a comedy of manners  accepted 300 years before didn't go down well in Austerity Britain. Later, Granada turned the opera down because "it wasn't serious enough".

On the other hand, British audiences were hardly afraid of risqué, especially packaged for laughs. The operas of Elizabeth Maconchy, like The Sofa (1957), would be louche today. It's a scream. The libretto was written by Ursula Vaughan Williams. Many years ago, when I suggested that the Ursula/Ralph relationship might have been spicy, I was advised not to upset the legions of staid British music fans. Luckily Ursula was made of stronger stuff and was honest enough to tell the world in no uncertain terms that RVW was fun in bed. Hopefully the Arnold Festival performance will make it to broadcast or CD.

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