Sir Malcolm Arnold

Composer of wit, zest and energy - winner of an Oscar for his score of 'The Bridge on the River Kwai'

Thursday 22 September 2011 05:03

Malcolm Henry Arnold, composer and trumpeter: born Northampton 21 October 1921; Principal Trumpet, London Philharmonic Orchestra 1941-44, 1945-48; CBE 1970; Kt 1993; married 1941 Sheila Nicholson (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1962), 1963 Isobel Grey (one son; marriage dissolved 1975); died Norwich 23 September 2006.

The death of Malcolm Arnold will strike sadness into the hearts of musicians everywhere, and of wind-players in particular. There can scarcely be a single one who has not encountered at some time or another that quintessential Arnold work, his Three Shanties, and rejoiced over it. Charming, melodious, graceful, witty; cheeky, even. But it takes skill, hard work, a fine ear and lots of practice to write pieces even as innocent-sounding as these shanties - and they date from the very earliest years of his long composing career.

Arnold would have been 85 next month; a big celebration was planned for his home town of Northampton. The day he died, a ballet based on an old project of his called The Three Musketeers and using several older scores opened in Bradford. He had long retired as a composer; many years of illness had forced an increasing withdrawal from public life. He received many musical honours, however; in 1970 he was appointed CBE and (after a campaign led by David Mellor) he was knighted in 1993. He wrote all sorts and conditions of music, everything from full-scale symphonies, nine of them, surely his lasting memorial, right down to television advertisement jingles.

Malcolm Arnold was born in 1921, in Northampton, a town that produced two other well-known composers in the 20th century, Edmund Rubbra and William Alwyn. It is also a centre of the shoe-making industry, in which Arnold's father held a responsible position. So the family was comfortably off - his was not a rags-to-riches story. And there was music in this family of five children, too - Arnold's mother was musical, encouraged him to have violin lessons when he was very young, and recognised his exceptional talent - even when that talent went off in unexpected directions: jazz, for instance.

He first heard Louis Armstrong's band in the flesh in a hotel in Brighton; he collected their records and became an addict. The results of that addiction were many, and recur time and again: they include a love of the blues that surfaces in his own serious music, a belief that rigid demarcations between different sorts of music are pointless, a desire to bring something of the collaborative, free-for-all spirit of jazz into classical music - and an obsession with the trumpet.

The trumpet became his instrument. He was so good at it that at the age of 16 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London to pursue his studies there. He had also been bitten by the composing bug from the age of 10; and so composition clearly had to be the other subject he took.

Sooner or later, of course, these two strings to his bow were bound to come together, which they did in only the second orchestral work that he composed. It was an overture written in the same year as the Three Shanties, and called rather strangely Beckus the Dandipratt - Beckus is an evocative name, and a dandipratt is an old word for an urchin, so this is a kind of musical picture of a cheeky, high-spirited, rather grubby but cheerful little boy, represented not by a trumpet, but by its slightly coarser cousin the cornet. It might almost be autobiographical.

There is an old record of Arnold playing in the work with his own orchestra, the London Philharmonic. It was something of a historic recording; it represented a great breakthrough for a young musician at the start of his career, and it was a useful visiting-card, as it showed the enormous potential he had as an orchestral composer. And Beckus is still a repertoire piece.

Arnold was so outstanding at the trumpet that he could easily have done that for life and made a good living. Orchestras were falling over themselves to employ him even before he had finished his studies with that great teacher Ernest Hall. But he was also lured by jazz; he even ran away from the Royal College once and played in a dance band in Plymouth. And there was the Second World War; Arnold was torn between his music or joining up or becoming a conscientious objector. He ended up with what was for him the worst of all possible worlds, playing the cornet in a military band. He felt so useless in that role that he inflicted a wound on himself in order to be discharged. That surely offers a clue to a more turbulent character underneath the cheerful façade.

The end of the war found him back in the London Philharmonic, but more determined than ever to compose; to order if possible, but, if no one asked, he still wrote music. There was a serious composer waiting to get out, and looking for his true voice. We can hear that in a work written early in 1947, the First Violin Sonata, which had to wait four years before it was first performed.

His strongest asset was immediately apparent: melody. Arnold was a profoundly original melodist, both in the sense that he wrote tunes which really do stick in the mind long after the event, and also in the sense that he had an unerring instinct for knowing just what to do with them.

With a big work from a few years later, his Second Symphony, already opus 40 in Arnold's rapidly growing catalogue, a word like "tunes" will not quite do. We need to turn to the more sophisticated concept of "lyricism", and to Arnold's underestimated gifts as a lyric symphonist. Time will surely prove Arnold's nine symphonies the solid and volcanic core of his achievement, erupting periodically in his output as if no longer containable.

It was this Second Symphony, first performed in 1953, that put Arnold seriously on the musical map, because within a short time it had been performed not just widely in England, but abroad as well. And it was obvious that this was a composer for whom - contrary to what a lot of people had been saying around that time - the symphony was by no means dead as a form.

One of the things about the canonical nine is their extraordinary variety. None of them resembles any of its predecessors; the composer does not repeat himself at all. And, because they are so different one from another, it is difficult to have any favourite. I love the pastoral lyricism of number 2; I admire the harsh, Stravinsky-like energy and the sheer defiance of number 7; I relish the mixture of irony and optimism in number 8. Number 9, written in a final burst of creative energy before the silence of the last years, is a poignant farewell, with conscious echoes of the symphonic farewells of Tchaikovsky and Mahler.

In retrospect, one of the most significant moments in Arnold's career came way back in 1947, when a musical colleague suggested that the young composer should send off some of his music to the film studios outside London and see if they could offer him any work as a composer for the cinema. Little did either of them realise that this would result in a career as a film composer that threatened at times to swamp his career as a serious composer, and which always imposed enormous demands and pressures of its own - purely because the music was always the last stage in the making of a film before its release, and therefore had to be written not only to the very precise requirements of the film itself, but also against even tighter time deadlines. But it paid well, and, anyway, Arnold himself never cared for separating music into respectable and not-so-respectable categories.

Eventually he was forced to give up writing film music; but not before he had written something like 130 scores though, ranging from his first. Avalanche Patrol, in 1947, to David Copperfield in 1969. Along the way, he collected a Hollywood Oscar, for his score for David Lean's film of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Other films on which he collaborated were I Am a Camera (1955), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), The Angry Silence (1960), Tunes of Glory (1960) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961). Lean, Carol Reed, John Huston, to name but three directors, would ask for him. Richard Attenborough became a loyal friend. It was typical of the seriousness of Arnold's approach that when he worked on the film Nine Hours to Rama (1963), about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, he should have visited India to undertake research, and that his score should have achieved a happy blend of Eastern and Western musical traditions.

Apart from his huge output of film music during the 1950s, another strand that went all through this period was his continued willingness to write music to oblige friends. At the start of his career, this took the form of chamber pieces for small groups of instruments; now, with his confidence growing and his success increasing, he started writing concertos for them whenever there was an orchestra available. By the end, Arnold had written 17 concertos and a handful of other works involving a solo instrument.

In the late 1980s, inspired by performers half his age, he produced a Recorder Concerto for the Danish virtuoso Michala Petri, and a Cello Concerto for Julian Lloyd Webber, each as always perfectly tailored to the style and personality of its dedicatee. Arnold was a proud champion of youth.

Back in 1954, though, he received a commission from the BBC that must have made even him pause for thought. After all, the harmonica or, to give it its vulgar name, the mouth-organ wasn't generally thought of as a serious instrument. But a virtuoso called Larry Adler was at the height of his fame, and he wanted a piece for the Proms; so, true to his non-snobbish instincts, Arnold set to work. Not only did he produce a work expertly crafted to the unusual limitations of the solo instrument, he also paid instrument and soloist the great compliment of writing them real music.

But, then, Malcolm Arnold was always, in the public mind, the musical humorist par excellence. He loved jokes in real life, verbal jokes, practical jokes. Laughter was part of his character. And it was there in his music too, in many forms. There is the dry wit of his arrangements of sea-shanties. There are the rumbustious rhythms of some of his orchestral dances. There are the affectionate take-offs of other styles, such as jazz, as in the ragtime finale of his Second Clarinet Concerto. He loved bizarre effects, as in the Toy Symphony of 1957, which includes parts for instruments imitating two birds, the quail and the cuckoo.

Perhaps the most famous examples of Arnold's humour are his collaborations with Gerard Hoffnung. Hoffnung was among other achievements no mean tuba-player; he once made an arrangement of a Chopin mazurka for a quartet of tubas. He was also an impresario of sorts, and once a year he used to arrange in the Royal Festival Hall a whole concert of musical jokes. Hoffnung and Arnold were temperamentally very similar, and quickly became friends.

Every year the composer would devise some new piece for the occasion: people still recall in slightly dazed fashion a piece called The United Nations, which involved amongst other things a number of military bands marching back and forth playing the national anthems of the world, simultaneously. Then there is the Grand Concerto Gastronomique, opus 76. Described as being "for eater, waiter, food, and large orchestra'', it typically includes a movement called "Oysters", and another called "Peach Melba".

Jazz influenced Malcolm Arnold's music on many occasions and in many forms. It was no coincidence that one of the composer's closest musical friends over many years should have shared his obsession with jazz. Enter Julian Bream. Actually he entered Malcolm Arnold's life a long time ago, in the early 1950s, at a time when the guitar (thanks to people like Andrés Segovia, and Julian Bream himself) was just beginning to become an accepted classical instrument. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was that the guitar isn't an easy instrument to write music for.

Arnold uncharacteristically hesitated before plunging straight into the full-scale guitar piece commissioned by his new-found friend. First of all he wrote one of his radiant miniatures, a Serenade for guitar and strings not much more than five minutes long. Only then did he feel ready to take on the challenge of writing a concerto. But he duly completed one, and Julian Bream gave the first performance at the 1959 Aldeburgh Festival. It has become an Arnold classic. There exists a wonderful photograph of guitarist and composer together. Bream is playing his guitar, with a wicked grin on his face. Arnold sits, improbably, at an Elizabethan keyboard instrument called a clavichord, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The pair of them are, so the caption tells us, "improvising jazz!" On that particular combination of instruments it must have sounded bizarre in the extreme.

In 1966, Arnold decided he had had enough of the hurly-burly of musical life in the capital. The pressure of a composing career that embraced serious music, endless films, and work for radio and television, together with attending rehearsals of his pieces and even some success as a conductor, was beginning to prove too much to cope with. Escape seemed the only answer. Drawn by his love of the Celtic fringe, he chose to go and live in Cornwall.

Cornwall has always exerted a spell over the artistic fraternity - painters in particular, but literary artists and musicians too. Sir John Betjeman loved Cornwall, and celebrated the county often in his verse. Arnold wrote a march for brass band specially for the launching of a new lifeboat at Trevose Head, a spot much beloved of Betjeman, and the printed score contains a typical comment:

The Padstow Lifeboat has a long and distinguished record. The new lifeboat station is near Trevose lighthouse, whose foghorn varies in pitch between middle C and D. For the sake of musical unity it remains D throughout this march.

So: a nice touch of humour; an unsnobbish willingness to write for local, amateur musicians; a piece of music actually serving a defined purpose; and a response to place, to landscape and seascape, all in that one piece. There were to be several other specifically Cornish works in Arnold's output, including the popular Cornish Dances, that wonderfully evoke the contrasted moods of this most remote of counties. Several of them were written for local groups to perform. He even once took over the vast spaces of Truro Cathedral for a concert to revive the works of a forgotten Cornish composer, Thomas Merritt.

This willingness to identify with the community in which he found himself was something of a recurring theme in Malcolm Arnold's story. I am inclined to see it as part of his wider concern with humanitarian, sometimes even political issues. These occasionally surfaced in his music too. As in a work from 1972, his Song of Freedom. This involved a girls' choir and a youth band; and, for the words, the composer chose some poems submitted by children as part of a national competition, on the theme of freedom: an idea that clearly appealed to him most powerfully.

The end of the 1970s was a difficult time for Arnold personally; and some of this gets into his music of this period, the Seventh Symphony in particular, a masterpiece of irony but also compassion. The magnificent Symphony for Brass of 1978 holds the twin poles of light and dark in perfectly poised equilibrium. After that brass symphony, Arnold's next work was another piece in that same form, his Eighth Symphony. After that, for nearly four years, silence. This was a time of self-doubt, depression, even breakdown; certainly not a time of creativity.

When he began to pick up the pieces and to start musical activity again, his language had subtly changed. His music was more elusive, more compressed than before, with bare textures and long, angular melodic lines often unsupported by accompaniment. And he returned to a form that much preoccupied him in the Fifties and Sixties: the solo instrumental fantasy. As the name implies, the free fantasy imposes almost no restrictions except those of the instrument in question. As for the mood of the music generated in this way, one of Arnold's last Fantasies, that for solo cello, is characteristic. The word for the music is surely "austere"; it is music pared to its essentials. The single melodic line bears the whole weight of the expression. Even larger-scale works such as the Cello Concerto or the song-cycle for Robert Tear conformed to this pattern of fragmentation and compression.

It would be out of keeping, though, with the zest and energy of Arnold at his mature best to end on a dark note. Even music shot through with tragedy and darkness has the capacity to uplift and inspire; of Malcolm Arnold is this especially true. His last decade was clouded with illness and suffering, his pleasures severely limited: his many friends felt deeply on his behalf. His devoted carer Anthony Day, who took on Arnold in the mid-1980s, looked after him in their house in Norfolk where they lived in relative obscurity until the late flowering of his reputation, supporting his charge through thick and thin. He deserves a medal.

Family relationships for Arnold were never easy: the gregarious extrovert, the public figure, could seem cruel and even selfish to those closest to him. The evidence, though, is that he was much loved. By the end, Arnold was able to look back on a lifetime of music notable for its variety, its richness, its frequent good-humour, and often, too, its high spirits. He will surely be remembered as one of music's great optimists, and pieces such as Tam O'Shanter, the Cornish Dances, A Grand Grand Overture or the Fifth Symphony will always be there to recall his unquenchable spirit.

Piers Burton-Page

Malcolm Arnold, as a trumpeter, was once described by the music critic John Amis as resembling a Disney creature, writes Brian Willey.

When he played a solo he would change colour, turning from pink to all shades of red, through purple to puce then, when finished, he would regard his instrument with disgust, as though it had pooped on the carpet.

As a composer, he was early dubbed "one of the great hopes of British music" and although, at times, he tended to break with convention he produced music that was tonal, attractive, witty, high-spirited and, above all, superbly crafted - he claimed that Hector Berlioz was the greatest influence on his writing. In person he was an affable chubby chap, but could suddenly switch to darker moods, as if at odds with the world. His turbulent life emotionally affected his writing so greatly that, in his own words, "all of my music is biographical".

When his reputation dipped, he became withdrawn and an alcoholic, suffering periods of depression, nervous breakdowns and attempted suicide. But he continued to write whenever possible and eventually the wheel turned full circle, back to acceptance and reverence. In 1985 he received a second Ivor Novello Award (he had received the first for the film score for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness 27 years before), this time for Outstanding Services to British Music; in 1993 his knighthood; and in 2001 a Fellowship of the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, bestowed on the occasion of an 80th birthday concert in the Wigmore Hall. In 1962 Yehudi Menuhin had commissioned a double violin concerto which, in 1991, formed part of his 70th birthday celebration concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Malcolm Arnold finally settled in Attleborough in Norfolk in the care of his companion Anthony Day and, when first there, used to visit Dunston Hall, a local hotel, where he could often be found in the foyer playing the piano with his left hand and the trumpet with the right hand, much to the fascination of the guests, who had no idea who he was. Upon entering his ninth decade he no longer wrote or played, by then suffering from mild dementia and also wheelchair-bound. He expressed regret at having been ignored by the BBC Proms this year. "Doesn't my 85th birthday justify something of mine being performed?" he asked.

There are many concert and broadcast tributes planned for the occasion of his 85th birthday next month. They will serve as a reminder that Malcolm Arnold was one of Britain's great 20th-century composers.

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