Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Malcolm Arnold: Popular Birthday (for William Walton)

I was listening to the three Façade Suites on the Chandos recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig. What I had not noticed on this CD was the very short, but impressive Popular Birthday. Of course this piece is not by Walton, but was especially composed for his 70th birthday celebration concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 28th March 1972. Apparently a number of composers had combined to produce a ‘present’ for Walton. It was dedicated to him with ‘homage and every expression of friendship. Naturally each composed tried to get the ‘Happy Birthday to You’ tune in somehow. I was unable to find a complete list of the six composers but Peter Maxwell Davies, Richard Rodney Bennett, Robert Simpson and Malcolm Arnold are four of them. Any further advances on this tally will be welcome.
The only one I believe to be recorded is the Arnold – it is a triumph of pastiche crammed into a tiny aural space. The opening gesture is ‘grandioso’ as if it about to announce the opening titles of a Hollywood blockbuster. However this soon collapses leaving a quotation from the Popular Song from Façade. The programme notes suggest that “…Arnold's view of the latter is one such as Alice might have seen through her Looking Glass — hardly any beginning or middle but an ending that is twice as long as Walton's own!

The Guardian noted that the concert started ‘riotously’ and that “what more can a former enfant-terrible expect-with six musical telegrams form comparative youngsters like Richard Rodney Bennett and Peter Maxwell Davies.” The reviewer suggested that “to have six Waltonish settings of “Happy Birthday to You” was stretching a joke....” However he concludes by admitting that “each one lived up to an astonishingly brilliant standard – a tribute to the pervading influence of a composer whose every bar is recognisable.

Christopher Palmer writing in the Musical Times noted the “unannounced bonus [which] came in the form of six mini- variations on 'Happy Birthday' by six contemporary British composers, most of whom somehow managed to amalgamate their theme with various tongue-in- cheek references to Walton's own compositions. I especially liked the first and last-Richard Rodney Bennett's, punchy but unpretentious in an entirely Waltonian way, and Peter Maxwell Davies's in which Crown Imperial and what was surely a riotous aftermath of his work in The Boy Friend made strange but entertaining bedfellows”.

The only place that this appears to have been recorded is on Chandos and their ‘complete works of William Walton.


Can Bass 1 said...

Good old Dr Arnold! Why didn't they make him Master of the Queen's Music?

Anonymous said...

The other two composers are Thea Musgrave and Nicholas Maw. According to the British Library's /Explore/ catalogue, the variations ran in the following order in the première: Bennett; Arnold; Musgrave; Maw; Simpson; Max.

Relevant British Library catalogue records are as follows:

BLLSA7618979 (for the work as a whole)

BLLSA7611622 (for the specific recording)

(typing either into a keyword search should give you the relevant records)