2008 All England Masters International - Sir Malcolm Arnold

22-May-2008

Sir Malcolm Arnold had a rich and varied musical life - as The Guardian remembered on his death in 2006.


ArnoldThis article appeared in the Guardian on Monday September 25 2006 on p.32 of the Obituaries section.

The composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, who has died aged 84, held a remarkable position in British musical life. The stability of his reputation for more than half a century and the enduring affection of his extensive audience were both achieved without compromise. As a figure in wider national life he never attained great eminence, though this had the compensation that he could not then be "dropped". 

First works

From his first published works in 1943 to his retirement from composition in 1990, his independence of mind and individual voice won him respect from all sides of the musical world, even if from some it stopped at grudging admiration. 

Against the background of the postwar trend towards the ascetic, the cerebral and the experimental, his music gave immediate and unconditional enjoyment to performers and listeners alike. It was full of tunes, technically brilliant, extravert, unselfconscious and fun. Occasionally, a darker side to his personality would surface, sometimes in his music or, sadly during several periods, in his mental wellbeing. 

Huge output

His output was huge: symphonies, concertos, ballets, chamber music, orchestral suites, choral music, solo songs, and works for wind and brass bands - as well as more than 100 film scores. Only in opera was his contribution small. 

The Northampton shoe-making family to whom Arnold was born was interested in music and prosperous enough to nurture his early talents. His obsession with jazz - and hearing Louis Armstrong play in Bournemouth - had, by the age of 15, led him to take lessons from Ernest Hall, the leading trumpeter of the time, and after incomplete studies at the Royal College of Music, London, he joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1940. He remained an orchestral trumpeter until 1948, apart from a period in the army, which he loathed. The bullet wound in his foot which led to his discharge was apparently not from enemy action, nor seemingly from a third party of any sort. 

Craft

With the award of a Mendelssohn scholarship he left the LPO, studied in Italy for a year and took up composing full time. He had spent just a few years among orchestral musicians, yet they always claimed him as their own: an in-house composer who learned his craft in the ranks and never forgot it. 

His writing is so idiomatic, always voicing the instruments in a way that exploits their character and makes the player feel good. The clustered seventh chords in the horns, the radiant brass writing, the mellifluous woodwind solos and the huge, arching string tunes are like slipping into a warm bath for those playing them. Perhaps because of his concern for the forgotten or neglected, he wrote more piccolo and tuba solos than everyone else put together. 

Gift

As a trombonist, I found the solo in his most popular overture, Tam O' Shanter (1955), to be a gift; not easy, but so well suited to the instrument that after a little practice one could enjoy the moment of glory, and be grateful to someone who really understood. His habit of deflating his music with something corny if it seems to be getting over-serious resonates with orchestral musicians, although sometimes it is so unsettling as to suggest a certain self- destructiveness, another well-known orchestral trait. 

After giving up playing, Arnold was prodigious in his compositional output in the 1950s and 60s. The tally of film scores would have exhausted most composers, but alongside these came a cascade of concert music, including his most popular orchestral works: in addition to Tam O'Shanter, there were two sets of English Dances (1950 and 1951 - the second set providing the signature tune to television's What the Papers Say), the Scottish Dances (1957), and the first six of nine symphonies (1949-67). 

Quick and confident

He wrote quickly and confidently, straight into full score with very little revision, a talent which, combined with his clarity of texture and luminous orchestration, made him the perfect film composer, and the three he worked on with David Lean - The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson's Choice (1954) and The Bridge 0n The River Kwai (1957) - gained him some prominence. He won an Oscar for Kwai, although the music was mainly popular for his adaptation of Kenneth Alford's Colonel Bogey march. Whistle Down the Wind (1961), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) and the five St Trinian's films (1954-66 and 1980) have also survived well. 

Arnold occupied a unique position in the genre of the concerto, of which he wrote more than 20. These were mainly commissions from household names of the day: Yehudi Menuhin, Dennis Brain, Benny Goodman, Julian Bream, Larry Adler, James Galway and many more. Often friends of his who had grown to trust his work, they knew that his priorities were the listener, the performer and lastly himself. Almost all these works were pitched at just that point in instrumental technique where there are real challenges, but none so unreasonable as to limit performance to just a handful of virtuosi. 

Concertos

These concertos, and the numerous chamber works that were conceived alongside them, have become standard works for conservatoire students and players of instruments with little mainstream repertoire. The Brass Quintet No 1 (1961) and the Three Shanties for wind quintet (1943) are works that absolutely every member of such ensembles will know. 

Arnold readily acknowledged those who influenced his music. Sometimes his reverence for Sibelius, Mahler and Berlioz stretched to very obvious pastiche, inserted simply because he liked the sound it made. I remember him jokingly saying that he loved the Dvorak symphony he was conducting so much that he was going home to rewrite it under his own name. 

Creative

During this great creative period, he still managed to squeeze in a number of occasional pieces, like the notorious Grand Grand Overture for organ, three vacuum cleaners, floor polisher, four rifles and orchestra (1956), written for Gerard Hoffnung's music festival. Arnold believed that music had to embrace all human experience, including the plain daft. 

His fluency and versatility should have made him a natural choice for Master of the Queen's Music, but when the moment came following the death of Sir Arthur Bliss in 1975, the post went to the Australian Malcolm Williamson. Arnold had not canvassed for the job, but was disappointed not to get it: Sir William Walton had urged his cause, and regretted the choice of "the wrong Malcolm". 

However, those who decide such matters must have realised that, with his leftish tendencies and unpredictable sense of humour, Arnold could not be relied on to maintain the necessary level of imperial bombast without doing something silly. In a concert in Manchester in the late 1960s, I boldly led the trombone section of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic) into the chords at the end of Tchaikovsky's Hamlet four bars too late, so that as Arnold finished conducting the piece, we carried on. 

Great fun

He thought this was great fun, raised his baton again and continued to conduct with exaggerated gestures until we were done, finishing with as tragic an expression as he could manage through his stifled laughter. A record of Arnold as typically enterprising conductor comes on the DVD of Jon Lord's Concerto for Group and Orchestra, in which he directed the rock band Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969. 

Arnold married his first wife, Sheila, in 1941; they divorced in 1963. Two years later, he and his second wife, Isobel, settled in St Merryn, near Padstow, Cornwall, where he entered fully into local musical life, becoming a bard of the Cornish Gorseth. His compositions of this period included the Cornish Dances (1968) and the Padstow Lifeboat march (1967), the latter introducing the lifeboat's claxon as a jarring dissonance. Though anyone could do this once, with a characteristic stroke of Arnold brilliance he does it dozens of times, without trying the listener's patience. 

Ireland

In 1972, he moved to Ireland, and although at first he maintained his fecundity of invention, he was drinking too heavily. The setback over the Queen's Music, a suicide attempt and the end of his second marriage in divorce, all in 1975, drained him creatively, and in 1978 he moved back to England, where he became compositionally almost silent. 

In 1979, he sought refuge from psychosis and alcohol by entering St Andrew's hospital, near Northampton. His tendencies toward schizophrenia and manic depression had become more acute, and, feeling isolated, he was often hostile to visitors.When he left St Andrew's in 1983, his social worker, Sally Charlton, gave him a room in the pub where she lived: this made drink all too available, but at least there was a piano. 

After she died and her husband remarried in 1984, Arnold found that he was outstaying his welcome and soon left to walk the streets. He was fortunate to be recognised by a passer-by, and his plight became known to Mike Purton, a BBC television producer who had made a film about him earlier that year. Purton encouraged a neighbour, Anthony Day, to look after Arnold, and Day eventually became his permanent carer and manager, sharing homes with him in rural Norfolk. They became very close, though as Paul RW Jackson's 2003 biography recounts, Day stated unmistakably, "I'm gay and Malcolm isn't." 

Knighted

Only two works appeared between the Eighth Symphony of 1978 and the Ninth of 1986. This latter, by Arnold's own admission, was meant to be his swansong, though he added another dozen pieces to his catalogue - notably Fantasies for the recorder player Michala Petri (1986) and the cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber (1987) - before he retired completely. He was knighted in 1993. 

Arnold could have easily been labelled just a fluent film composer who wrote attractive concert items and concertos on demand if it were not for his nine symphonies. Composed at regular intervals during his career, these are truly symphonic in scale, replete with inspired musical invention, and speak of a complex and uneasy mind not even glimpsed in his lighter works. The last movement of the Ninth Symphony, written when he knew his fluency and spontaneous brilliance had been exhausted, and after a long period of depression, is one of the most desolate and resigned pieces one could ever hear. It nevertheless makes compulsive listening. 

Best work

Arnold considered the symphonies to be his best work and must have been disappointed that they did not achieve many concert-hall performances. In the 1990s, three complete recorded cycles were received with affection, respect and the inevitable puzzlement. Arnold claimed no interest in baring his soul in music, although one cannot listen to these pieces without being party to a painful exposure of his vulnerability. 

He was the subject of little critical analysis because he stayed so resolutely unattached to any school of composition. This, and the fact that he did not write "clever" music, meant that he was critically sidelined from the start, lurking in the background, almost as a reproach to analysts and charters of musical "progress". The BBC would not now acknowledge any neglect of him (his resilience prompting them to some late recognition, particularly around his 80th birthday), but he was given few of the commissions or Prom performances that were afforded to many who are now seen as flashes in the pan. 

85th birthday

None the less, Radio 3 is marking his 85th birthday, which would have fallen in a month's time, by making him Composer of the Week; other events include an Arnold festival and concerto competition in Northampton, and Northern Ballet Theatre's tour of the The Three Musketeers, combining material from an unfinished approach to the subject of 30 years ago with extracts from other works. The project sprang from research for a second recent biography (2004), by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. 

With Arnold's death, we lose another of the great individualists who helped make 20th-century British music so gloriously untidy. We also lose, as Tony Palmer's film Toward the Unknown Region (2004) brought home to South Bank Show viewers, a remarkable survivor of mental illness during a period when it was only gradually coming to be acknowledged, treated and discussed without stigma. He leaves his children Robert and Catherine by his first marriage, and son Edward by his second. 

Malcolm Henry Arnold, composer, born October 21 1921; died September 23 2006

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