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Richard Arnell: Unjustly neglected composer who has found a new audience through recent recordings

Lewis Foreman
Saturday 09 May 2009 00:00 BST

The music of the British composer Richard Arnell made a considerable impact in the 1940s and 1950s, but was subsequently eclipsed by more avant-garde trends.

Yet Arnell, who was professor of composition at London's Trinity College of Music for many years, was notably sympathetic to the new, encouraging film, mixed media and electronic music. Recent recordings of his orchestral music, neglected for decades, is bringing it to a new audience thanks to the championship of his former pupils, notably the conductor Martin Yates.

Richard Anthony Sayer Arnell, always known as "Tony", was born the only child of a well-off Hampstead family in London in 1918 during – he always claimed – a Zeppelin raid. He attended University College School, and, from 1935-1938, the Royal College of Music. There, his teachers included the organist John Dykes Bower and the composer John Ireland, and Arnell was awarded the Farrar composition prize.

In 1938 he married Charlotte Augusta Cronin-Lowe, the daughter of Edward Cronin-Lowe, a notable homeopathic surgeon, and the inventor of the concept of the bloodbank. The couple travelled to New York for the World's Fair of 1939, and were there when war broke out. On the advice of the British Consul General they remained in the US, where their daughter was born in 1940.

Arnell quickly found himself part of the New York musical scene, and became friends with the composer Virgil Thomson, the conductor Bernard Herrmann, and Greenwich Village figures such as Mark Rothko. He worked for the BBC North American service while continuing to compose many works; his overture The New Age was performed at Carnegie Hall by the National Orchestral Association conducted by Leon Barzin. He gave the designation "Opus 1" to a set of Classical Variations in C for strings, which was broadcast from the station WQXR, New York, in 1941. Other orchestral works included the Sinfonia quasi Variazione, Op 13, the First Symphony, and The War God, set to a text by Stephen Spender (first conducted by Bernard Herrmann). When Sir Winston Churchill visited Columbia University in 1946, Arnell wrote the Ceremonial and Flourish, for brass that marked the occasion. There were also various chamber and instrumental works including three string quartets. All this was crowned by the ballet Punch and the Child, commissioned for the New York City Ballet in 1947.

Arnell's first marriage ended in divorce in 1946. At CBS he met his second wife, Lois Ross, who was studying drama at the Neighborhood Playhouse and dance with Martha Graham, and they were married in 1947. He wrote his Second and Third Symphonies while still in New York – the former ostensibly for Beecham, who never played it, and it remained unperformed until a BBC broadcast in 1988.

The Third Symphony was written in the closing years of the war, and the score, dated August 1945, is dedicated "to the political courage of the British people". The composer's mother had died in the Blitz in 1942, a fact it is impossible to forget while listening to the symphony, though how far that event engendered the music is difficult to say.

After Arnell's return to the UK in 1947 he submitted the work to the BBC where a panel of three distinguished symphonists, Edmund Rubbra, William Alwyn and Benjamin Frankel, approved it, though not without criticism. It was broadcast in 1952, but its stature was not apparent until Martin Yates's 2005 recording. Yates remarked: "What is so incomprehensible is that we should be, in 2005, recording the most important works of his huge output for the first time. Since first looking at the score of the mighty Third Symphony I have wanted to conduct it, more importantly I just wanted to hear it. Recording it was a total joy."

From 1948-1981 Arnell taught composition at Trinity College of Music, becoming Principal Lecturer there from 1981-87. He continued to compose in the 1940s and 1950s, and was regularly performed at the Cheltenham and other festivals; he was a leading name on the new music scene, and also appeared frequently as a conductor. During this period he inherited a substantial sum from his father, and was sufficiently well-off to loan Beecham £2,000 to help fund the 1953 production of Delius's opera Irmelin. He jokingly remarked that it must have been one of the few occasions when Beecham actually repaid a loan.

Sir Thomas Beecham was one of his champions, and gave five Arnell premieres in London between 1951 and 1956. Notable, too, was a succession of ballets for Sadler's Wells including Harlequin in April (1951), which was widely toured including to the US, The Great Detective (1953) featuring Sherlock Holmes, and The Angels (1957). Arnell was briefly close to the Royal Ballet School, and lectured there in 1958-59. Beecham died in 1961 and in 1986 Arnell was the narrator in his own Ode to Beecham at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon.

After Beecham's death, Arnell never found another champion in that class, even though he went on to write six symphonies, concertos, orchestral works, chamber music and two television operas. He faded from prominence with the rise of the avant-garde, and the musical directorship of William Glock at the BBC, and received an ever-decreasing number of performances.

Arnell composed several film scores, the first for the celebrated American director Robert J. Flaherty, to whom he was introduced by Virgil Thomson. He scored The Land, a 1941 documentary about the Tennessee Valley that the US Department of Agriculture had commissioned and from which Arnell extracted a suite in the late 1940s. Arnell later celebrated his association with Flaherty in the orchestral Impressions – Robert Flaherty written in 1958.

In 1952 he wrote the score for the Gerald Holdsworth production Dagenham Story, where the film was set to a pre-existing Arnell score, Opus 65, loosely referred to as the Dagenham Symphony but actually an orchestral suite. In the film Arnell appeared as conductor, an urbane champion of the music in elegant double-breasted suit.

He was a notable influence on the teaching of film-scoring, first at the London School of Film Technique, later the London Film School – where he started the music department as music consultant. He became Music Director in 1975, while maintaining a pioneering link to the teaching of film-scoring at Trinity.

"He did like club life," remarked Gavin Henderson, for many years principal of the Trinity College of Music, pointing out that Arnell was an habitué of the Savile Club at a time when Malcolm Arnold was also a member. "He was the wittiest musician alive", remarked Arnold. Arnell later switched to the Savage Club, and was also a frequenter of Mount Pleasant at Reigate, an artistic refuge for writers and composers needing quiet to complete a current job.

A visiting Fulbright Professorship enabled him to spend 1967-70 in the US where he taught at Bowdoin College in Maine, and Hofstra University on Long Island, for one and two years respectively. There, he was exposed to the possibilities of the synthesiser (Herbert Deutsch in his music department had worked with Moog on a prototype), and he wrote in 1984: "The machine has changed my life. In these years from 1968, I have only written two concert works." One wonders whether the fact that he no longer produced works for the conventional concert hall had a bearing on his subsequent complete neglect by orchestras and record companies.

He was associated with many musicians' and composers' organisations, including the Composers' Guild of Great Britain. He was the Editor of their journal, The Composer, from 1961-64; and was much involved with the Guild, serving as its chairman and vice president. He was also on the Arts Council Music Panel.

At Trinity College of Music he promoted a pioneering interest in film scores and electronic music, and was one of the first to take jazz seriously. One of his pupils was the electronic composer David Hewson, who worked with him on films including Dilemma (1981), Doctor in the Sky (1984), Toulouse Lautrec (1986), and The Light of the World (1989). He remembered him as "a fantastic teacher in every way". With his sixth wife, the painter Charlotte Jennings, he collaborated on film projects and mixed-media works.

During his long life Arnell married eight times, retiring to the south of France with his last wife, Joan Heycock, who died in 2004. After that he returned to the UK and was accommodated in the Musicians Benevolent Fund Home at Bromley until its closure shortly before he died.

Arnell was particularly warmly remembered by his students, one of whom, Yates, has been the architect of his re-evaluation in the light of his well-received Dutton Epoch CD recordings of the symphonies, concertos and ballets. Gramophone magazine selected the most recent volume as "Editor's Choice", to Arnell's evident satisfaction.

Richard Anthony Sayer Arnell, composer and teacher: born London 15 September 1917; Music Consultant, BBC North American Service, 1943-46; Professor of Composition, Trinity College of Music 1948-1987; Lecturer, Royal Ballet School, 1958-59; Editor, 'The Composer', 1961-64; Chairman, Composers Guild of Great Britain, 1964, 1974-75, Vice President, 1992-; Visiting Fulbright Professor, Bowdoin College, Maine, 1967-68, Hofstra University, New York, 1968-70; Music Director, London International Film School, 1975-88; married firstly Charlotte Cronin-Lowe (one daughter, marriage dissolved), secondly Lois Ross (one daughter, marriage dissolved), thirdly Colette Bradley (one daughter, marriage dissolved), fourthly Ann Georgina Tillotson (one son, marriage dissolved), fifthly Maxine Leah (de Sellice) (marriage dissolved), sixthly Charlotte Jennings (marriage dissolved), seventhly Audrey Millar Paul (marriage dissolved), eighthly Joan Cynthia Nita Heycock (died 2004); died 10 April 2009.

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