English composer and conductor Malcolm Arnold (1921 - 2006), 11th August 1961. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master (Resonus)

The BBC thought Malcolm Arnold’s opera was not serious enough and a bit bawdy

Lebrecht's Album of the Week

★★★★☆

The most popular and prolific composer of his time, Malcolm Arnold was shunned by the British music establishment for being, mostly, too popular and prolific, and therefore a potent threat to the nonentities who were not. Arnold (1921-2006) had other crosses against his name. He was a former orchestral player (working class), an Oscar winner (disgraceful), a tonal symphonist (non-BBC-pc), an alcoholic and a philanderer who suffered repeated bouts of mental illness. In short, he was everything the suits hated.

Proof of their power is attested by this one-act opera which, written in 1952, was rejected by a panel of BBC executives who had commissioned it for the new television service and never staged. Not serious enough, they said, and a bit bawdy. The composer reminded them that they’d asked for was a comedy. He might as well have talked to the wall.

I knew Malcolm slightly in his later years, a stooped, tragic figure under heavy medication. His nine symphonies have never been programmed as a cycle, a major omission by BBC pen-pushers and their under-employed orchestras.

The Dancing Master, in what appears to be its premiere recording, has better music than Britten’s village comedy Albert Herring, and much better jokes. To quote one of the early lines: ‘Huh! House of gluttony, house of venery! License! Debauchery! Lechery! Harlotry! Shut the window! Shut the window! We’ll have no stench of sin in here!’ Doesn’t that make you want to see the opera as soon as it can be staged?

Eleanor Dennis sings the love-interest Miranda, Catherine Carby is the scheming Prue and Ed Lyon is a suitor who gets into her chambers in the guise of a dance teacher. John Andrews sparks a lively performance from the BBc Concert Orchestra. It has brightened a Covid week for me. I’m off now in pursuit of safe venery.

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