To hell and back

Sir Malcolm Arnold had the whole nation whistling, but couldn't keep his own life in tune. That he's reached 75 is a cause for wonder.
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As the cheers from the flag-waving masses at The Last Night of the Proms rang round the Royal Albert Hall this summer, a sprightly gentleman in a smart blue suit leapt to his feet and triumphantly acknowledged the ovation, arms aloft, beaming proudly. Sir Malcolm Arnold was clearly enjoying his moment of glory.

I had met him the day before at his Kensington hotel while he was in town attending the latest round of tributes to mark his 75th birthday, which falls on Monday.

"This is my 75th year and there are over 250 celebration concerts," noted the composer. "I intend to go to most of them."

This in itself is extraordinary, as was his Albert Hall display of gymnastics. Only a few years ago I had been shocked by his appearance on television. I had heard that he had died and felt there could be some truth in the rumour. He looked gaunt, drawn and pale. In 1984 he had been given two years to live. Even a few years later, his philosophy betrayed a bleak finality when he said of his Ninth Symphony, "I rather hoped it was the last thing I would write." Yet now here he was in fine fettle, rosy cheeked, well-upholstered.

Behind his remarkable recovery lies a remarkable story. Arnold is the quintessential misunderstood composer. To me he was the man who wrote all that jolly music I used to smash through in my youth orchestra; my chums used to tootle out the wind pieces at school concerts - happy hornpipes and merry marches, guaranteed to send giggles round the gym.

I first met him in Bournemouth in 1967, when he came to conduct the orchestra with whom I was playing. The image was not dispelled. He exuded good nature and humour as his rotund form boogied its way through the programme, as one commentator put it, "like an agitated tic-tac man at a racecourse".

And yet we knew there were problems. He was drinking. Twelve years later the situation had got worse. Recording his first symphony was a harrowing experience as a barely coherent Arnold tried to grapple with the complexities of conducting. Around the same time another recording project had to be shelved after he stripped naked in the tea lounge of a stuffy Bournemouth hotel, and danced on the lid of the grand piano. (Good for him. Anarchy at a blue-rinse tea time deserves a medal.) Was this the composer of the marvellously entertaining concerto for piano, three hands, we had recently played?

The reasons seemed obvious. His prolific versatility and punishing workload were taking their toll. Whether he was writing "serious" music or film scores - more than 120 - from blockbusters to documentaries, he lavished equal professional care. It is one thing to find inspiration for a symphony, but turning up trumps for "The Metropolitan Water Board" shows devotion beyond the call of duty.

He still speaks of his film music with obvious pride. Far from being a chore, he says he found it "an immensely liberating experience". Even so, how was he able in 1953, for example, to write a symphony, two chamber works, a ballet and nine film scores?

"I worked bloody hard - 15 hours a day." Just how "bloody hard" he gave me an example. "The Bridge on the River Kwai was the hardest job I ever had to do. I had 10 days to write it in. The producer wanted to present it for a Royal Command Performance. The 'Colonel Bogey' whistling sequence was difficult to record. I had 17 members of the Irish Guards, plus a piccolo player, whistling while marching in sand to sound like the footsteps in the film. The orchestra was dubbed on afterwards." For his efforts he was awarded an Oscar.

It is the nine symphonies, though, that lie at the heart of Arnold's output, and where his deepest thoughts are expressed. They reveal a powerful musical voice of infinite complexity and subtlety, often reflecting the troubled, contradictory personality of their composer. I asked Sir Malcolm for some biographical clues. "Yes, my symphonies and string quartets are autobiographical," he agreed, "but I prefer them to be approached as pure music. I have always liked the symphony. To me, it is the ultimate art form in music. My favourite is my Fifth. It contains more ups and downs and emotion than any other." Which pieces by other composers did he wish he had written? "Sibelius's Fifth Symphony and Beethoven's Opus 131 string quartet. My own second string quartet is a personal favourite." This is a fine, uncompromising work of characteristic austerity.

When I quizzed him more closely about the autobiographical content of the Sixth Symphony's slow movement, his answer was as enigmatic as the music itself. Nightmarish screams, bleak sinister motives, Mahlerian funeral drums, and a big-band jazz reference in head-on confrontation with traditional classical devices - all make for compelling listening. "It was an exercise in modulation and an aspect of a contented time in my life."

The only other clue to extra-musical connotations in his symphonies was a reference to the Ninth. "It is the story of my life. I had been through hell."

"Hell" had been a grim procession of doctors, pills, ECT, lawyers and demeaning personal experiences. His first marriage cracked under the weight of his workload and domestic lack of sympathy for his music, his second marriage was put under strain by the birth of an autistic son. Despite a move to Ireland, where attitudes to autism are more enlightened, his second marriage faltered after a nervous breakdown and an attempted suicide. This was in no small measure provoked by extreme hostile critical reaction to his music: "lightweight neo-Romantic confection", "ivory-tower conservatism" and so on. "I felt angry and misunderstood," he recalls. A court order was then placed upon him denying access to his autistic son, as well as a Court of Protection order claiming jurisdiction over his professional affairs. His supportive social worker died, and after a failed attempt by his subsequent guardian to gain control of the future rights to his music, he was physically assaulted and thrown out on the streets with hardly a stitch of clothing to his name.

A sympathetic Norfolk TV reporter heard of Arnold's plight and suggested that the "pitiful, timorous, totally helpless creature" be put into the care of a friend, Anthony Day, for a period of rehabilitation. That was in 1984. The alliance, not surprisingly, was for the first two years an uneasy one. Arnold's trust in human nature was not exactly in generous supply. Patience, in Day's case, was.

He succeeded in getting the Court of Protection order lifted, and crucially, on 26 April 1987, Arnold gave up alcohol.

There are now signs of a tranquil evening to his life. The real Arnold still awaits discovery, but he has powerful advocacy in such conductors as Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox ("Without doubt he is a major British symphonist"). Both Chandos and Naxos have embarked upon recorded cycles of his works (see below). As Sir Malcolm said to me, "I feel things are moving in the right direction."

He continues to be on medication, and his slurred speech, unlike his music, still rambles off into the byways of inconsequentiality. But the bleak presentiments of the past are being replaced by a resilient optimism. As he says, "There's life in the old dog yet"n

A Grand, Grand Celebration: Sir Malcolm Arnold's 75th Birthday Concert. 7.30pm tomorrow, RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

Sir Malcolm Arnold's music on CD

BBC Radio Classics 75th Birthday Tribute:

Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Composer, The Conductor: including Peterloo Overture, Concerto for Two Pianos, Song of Simeon (premiere recording), Viola Concerto, Four Cornish Dances, Fairfield Overture, Concerto for Two Violins, Fantasy for Solo Harp, Sinfonietta No 1, Horn Concerto No 2, Five Blake Songs; all conducted by the composer (Carlton 15656 91817)

Chandos Edition:

Symphonies Nos 1 and 2; London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (CHAN 9335). Symphonies Nos 3 and 4; LSO / Hickox (CHAN 9290). Symphonies Nos 5 and 6; LSO / Hickox (CHAN 9385). Film music from The Bridge on the River Kwai, Whistle Down the Wind, The Sound Barrier, Hobson's Choice, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; LSO / Hickox (CHAN 9100). English, Scottish, Cornish and Irish Dances, Sarabande and Polka from Solitaire; Philharmonia / Bryden Thomson (CHAN 9290). String Quartets Nos 1 and 2; McCapra Quartet (CHAN 9112). For November release: Concerto for 28 Players; Variations for Orchestra on a Theme of Ruth Gibbs; Little Suites Nos 1 and 2; A Manx Suite; City of London Sinfonia / Hickox (CHAN 9509)

Naxos Edition:

English, Scottish, Cornish, Irish and Welsh Dances; Queensland SO / Andrew Penny (8.553526). Symphonies Nos 1 and 2; National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland / Andrew Penny (8.553406). Symphony No 9 (premiere recording); National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland / Andrew Penny (8.553540)