The Kennedy Center

A Grand Grand Overture

About the Work

Malcom Arnold Composer: Malcom Arnold
© Richard Freed

Malcolm Arnold was the very model of a professional musician. As a 17-year-old interested in jazz and inspired by Louis Armstrong, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music to study the trumpet. He served a principal trumpet in the London Philharmonic Orchestra while beginning his long and productive career as a composer, and became a respected conductor in order to introduce his own works. Among those are nine substantial symphonies, twenty concertos for various instruments and a number of tone poems in the form of concert overtures (among these the brilliantly scored Tam o' Shanter and Beckus the Dandipratt) as well as a good deal of chamber music. In addition to his two operas and several self-standing ballets, he composed the ballet music for the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd, and he turned out more than eighty film scores; his score for The Bridge on the River Kwai, which he composed in ten days, brought him an Academy Award in 1958. Arnold was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1970, and was knighted in 1993.

The work that opens this week's celebration of humorous music was created in 1956 for the first Hoffnung Music Festival, which took place on November 13 of that year. While its title clearly enough signals an attempt to outdo the "grand overtures" of earlier times, the specification "for three vacuum cleaners, one floor polisher and full orchestra" gives no hint of the emotional depths Arnold would probe in his symphonies. The unrestrained humor of the piece, though, is fully in accord with the character of the overtures cited above. The program note for the work's premiere observed that Arnold had called freely on the familiar yet unique lyrical gifts of Hoover Cleaners and Floor Polishers. Their accompaniment to the second subject of the overture is, indeed, a sublime moment of functional art. With a series of brilliant glissandi, this Hoover Quartet makes a remarkable contribution to orchestral texture. And their farewell, as each of these ingenious instruments in turn becomes silent, is one of the most moving experiences in modern music.