Modern music and the tale of two Ms

Malcolm Williamson (70 next week) and Malcolm Arnold (now 80) stood apart from their contemporaries, yet as composers they couldn't be more different. Both have made outstanding contributions to music, says Bayan Northcott, who believes proper recognition is long overdue
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The Independent Culture

In October 1975, Sir William Walton wrote consolingly to his younger friend Malcolm Arnold: "I, too, am disappointed that the wrong Malcolm should have been chosen as the new M of Q's M. I did my best, but nowadays cementing the cracks in the Commonwealth obviously takes precedence – for all I know, it may be a good appointment."

If the palace was, indeed, thinking "wider still and wider" in its search for a new Master of the Queen's Music to succeed Sir Arthur Bliss, then Malcolm Williamson's Australian citizenship was doubtless a plus, though it would seem that, behind the scenes and contra Walton, Britten also put in a word for him. Yet the salient question was why, at a time when such established figures as Tippett and Lennox Berkeley, Rubbra and Robert Simpson were still vigorously active, the two Malcolms should be deemed the clear front-runners. Was it simply a recognition of their exceptional versatility, or a more specific reckoning that, unlike some of the others, they could be relied upon to come up with the kind of festive vulgarity beloved of that old, old British Establishment?

Though born a decade apart and on opposite sides of the world, Arnold and Williamson did seem to share certain characteristics that distinguished them among their contemporaries. Both were outstandingly gifted as executants: Arnold as a precocious orchestral trumpeter, and later conductor; Williamson as a virtuoso concert pianist and organist. Both proved hugely, if unevenly, fertile as composers, refusing, rather exceptionally in a still-Modernist era, to submit their creative impetus to any restrictions of musical ideology, style or taste, whatever. And both, for public or private reasons, evolved from dazzling early promise into somewhat embattled middle years, blighted by critical cold-shouldering and personal turmoil.

Admittedly, certain of Arnold's more rumbustious scores, such as his sets of English Dances, always held their own in the lighter repertoire, while recordings of his more serious output have proliferated in recent years. Yet the extensive celebrations surrounding his recent 80th birthday on 21 October still came with an air of reparation to a long underrated master. As for the scant discography and modesty of events marking Williamson's forthcoming 70th on 21 November, these only go to show how his output and reputation continue to languish.

But then, behind their comparable gifts for memorable populist melody, it would be hard to think of two creative personalities more fundamentally distinct. Arnold was hailed at the outset as a "natural", totally immersed in music, for whom all other beliefs and interests were ultimately subsumed in the notes themselves. And a merest glance at his catalogue shows its vast predominance of instrumental forms: nine symphonies and 22 concertante works ("Arnold is the master of the 15-minute concerto," Paul Driver has written), plus a mass of smaller orchestral, ensemble, chamber and instrumental works (to say nothing of his 100-odd, mostly orchestral film scores). Beyond a handful of songs and cantatas, the idea of music serving something else – a text or a belief – seems to have interested him only in passing; there is little for the opera house, still less for the church.

While no less instinctive in his musicality, Williamson, by contrast, has pursued an almost bewildering variety of other interests, often at a high level of expertise; literature and languages, theatre and visual art, philosophy and psychology, and, not least, the complex ramifications of his religious faith. His musical personality seems correspondingly harder to grasp as a whole. It is not just that his extra-musical interests and beliefs have fed into a substantial output for the musical theatre and a vast catalogue of sacred music, but that these, together with his many song-cycles, concertos, organ works and so on, show such a diversity of format and style. Where Arnold's symphonies unfold as a kind of diary of his musical development, Williamson's eight to date seem more like a series of striking one-offs. The contrast already between the hieratic, Stravinskian manner of his First (1957) and the luxuriant, rainforest textures of his Second (1968) could hardly sound wider.

But perhaps the basic difference between the two lies in their approach to musical continuity. The sources of Arnold's style were evident relatively early, and despite some dabbling in 12-tonery, have not greatly expanded since: classical form-schemes, procedures out of Sibelius and Walton, idioms from British film and light music of the 1940s, touches of folk-song, military marches and jazz. What has developed over the years is his tendency to juxtapose such contrasting elements ever more starkly within the bounds of single pieces, in what seems to have been a prolonged struggle with his own complex psychology. As the recent celebrations reminded us, Arnold's ebullience and lyricism have rarely come unalloyed, and his increasingly cryptic procedures can prove surprisingly difficult to follow, while the extreme clashes of sentimentality and horror in later symphonies such as the Seventh (1973) suggest tensions on the edge of disintegration.

Though Williamson seems to have shared with Arnold a penchant for Caribbean rhythms, the more popular traits in his music have stemmed rather from cabaret, the musical and the kind of pop church music favoured in the 1960s. But these have also had to contend with a far richer range of "serious" sources, all the way from medieval polyphony to Boulez-style serialism, with strong infusions of Stravinskian neo-classicism and Messiaenic modality. By contrast with Arnold's disruptive risk-taking, Williamson's overriding drive has always been to unify his disparate materials as strongly as possible; an aim he has often achieved by elaborately interlocking cyclical and ostinato devices. Not that these have at all limited his expressive range. The second movement of his predominantly insouciant and celebratory Third Piano Concerto (l962), for instance, opens as a gently tripping moto perpetuo; by the end, its obsessive repetitions have acquired an almost unbearable menace.

Fuelled by alcoholism, Arnold's personal crisis came to a head around 1980, and much of the music he composed after his recovery has a simplified, even ghostly quality, culminating in the 20-minute slow finale of his Ninth Symphony (1986), with its page after page of starved textures and numbed solo lines – tensions not so much resolved as exhausted. It is over a decade since he published his last new score, but at least enough of his output is now readily available and widely performed to make for a juster estimate of his complex creative character and achievement: an English Shostakovich, perhaps, if without the politics.

Williamson, by contrast, remains astonishingly neglected for a figure of such creative individuality, substance and skill. Part of the problem is that his copious output since the early 1980s (including a whole string of pieces fulfilling his obligations to the Royals), has gone unpromoted by any major publisher. Nor has he always helped his own cause by his outspoken public remarks on the musical scene or fellow composers. Yet scattered through his vast and various catalogue, if performers and listeners only had more determination or opportunity to sort through it, are works to match the very best from his contemporaries. Why, then, have none of our major companies mounted any of his operas for decades? Why are none of the London orchestras this season offering a note of his music? At least the BBC Concert Orchestra under Christopher Austin has recorded a concert, including the Third Piano Concerto, for birthday broadcast, and the Wigmore Hall is mounting an evening of chamber music and song. It's a start. But there is, oh, so much more...

Malcolm Williamson 70th Birthday Concert, 21 Nov, Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141)