Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Malcolm Arnold: Carnival of Animals Op.727

Surely everyone who is interested in music knows Camille Saint-Saens’s ubiquitous Carnival of the Animals: few days can pass when some extract from this fine work is not heard on the radio or in concert hall. Yet how many listeners have come across a similarly titled work by the British composer Malcolm Arnold?
This attractive work was composed in 1960, around the time of the film music to the comedy film Pure Hell at St. Trinian’s, the superb Quintet for Brass and the masterly, if somewhat quirky Symphony No. 4. This latter work was, in fact, premiered just two days after the Carnival.
In the late nineteen-fifties the comedian Gerald Hoffnung had organised a series of three concerts on the South Bank in London. Wikipedia gives a good thumbnail sketch of the kind of antics that went on at these events: - “[They] featured contributions from distinguished "serious" musicians. Compositions specially commissioned for the Festivals included Malcolm Arnold's A Grand, Grand Overture, Op. 57 which was dedicated to U.S. President Herbert Hoover and was scored for several vacuum cleaners and other domestic appliances. Franz Reizenstein's Concerto Popolare was described as the ‘The Piano Concerto to end all Piano Concertos’: William Walton conducted a one-note excerpt from his oratorio Belshazzar's Feast: the word, "Slain!" shouted by the chorus.”
Other contributions from Malcolm Arnold included the United Nations Overture, the Grand Concerto Gastronomique, which was scored for Eater, Waiter, food and orchestra and finally the Leonora No.4 which was an unexpected ‘find’ in the Beethoven archive!

The comedian died on 25th September 1959. The Carnival of Animals was written for the Hoffnung Memorial Concert. Quite simply this work is a ‘supplement’ to the better known work from the Frenchman. What Arnold had in mind was to add six animals to the list: those that had somehow been forgotten or left behind when the others boarded the Ark. These included:-
Giraffe (Allegretto)
Sheep (Poco Lento)
Cows (Moderato)
Mice (Vivace)
Jumbo (Andante)
Chiroptera [Bats]

Hugo Cole notes that two of these numbers are ‘straightforward joke pieces.’ Jumbo gives the well-known pizzicato from Delibes Sylvia to the trombones and the cellos, the tuba features in the trio section. But surely there is an Elephant in Saint Saens’s score?? The last movement, Chiroptera, is even zanier, with the orchestra silently miming supersonic sounds, although with huge energy! The 75 second long movement does have the good grace to close, or it is open, with a ‘bell stroke…’ The recorded version of this movement is truncated.
The Giraffe is a rather strange piece of music – with the balance falling to awkwardness rather than grace. The Sheep are represented with a canon, which is interrupted by loud sfzorando chords: the animals quite naturally follow each other around aimlessly. The movement just dies away to nothing.
The Cows according to Meredith and Harris (Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius 2004) ‘cavorted un-cow-like to a striptease number.’ It was the same tune that the composer had used in the as-yet unreleased St Trinian’s score. It is a good, sleazy tune with Arnoldian glissando brass fingerprints. The mice are rather cute. The music squeaks along, like something written for a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
The work was written for a large orchestra and lasts for just over 15 minutes. The first performance was given in the Royal Festival Hall on 31st October 1960 with the Morley College Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. The concert also included Arnolds Fanfare for Thirty-Six Trumpets. Carnival of Animals is published by Novello.

John Amis writing in The Musical Times (December 1960) notes that 'there were two new pieces, both by Malcolm Arnold: a fanfare to end all fanfares and a new set of Carnival of Animals. The latter does not supersede old Camille, but there was a tense picture of mouse-drama in the treble clef, a vigorously conducted 75-second G.P. for 'Bats', and a canon for 'Sheep' that refused to be interrupted by whip-crack or cannon…’ Interestingly The Times reviewer does not mention the work in his critique of the memorial concert.

I find the Carnival of Animals an immediately engaging and attractive work. It is both fun and rather clever. Interestingly Paul R.W Jackson (The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold 2003) does not agree. He feels (p.98) that ‘the composer’s heart does not seem to be in this piece. It is as if he was still too emotionally drained from the death of his closest ally, both musically and personally.
I feel that Gerald Hoffnung would have enjoyed every bar of this amusing piece

The Carnival of Animals can be heard on the Conifer Disc 75605 51240 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the late Vernon Handley.

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