Malcolm Arnold

Sir Malcolm Arnold’s long career had been fraught with many difficulties. That he overcame and triumphed over much adversity in his life, made his survival until only a few weeks short of his 85th birthday all the more remarkable.  Below is an account of his life and career, adapted with kind permission from an article by Rodney Newton which appeared in British Bandsman magazine.



Malcolm Henry Arnold was born in Northampton on 21 October 1921 with music on both sides of his family. His great-grandfather was William Hawes, director of music for the Chapels Royal and St. Paul's Cathedral, whilst his mother (Annie) was a fine amateur pianist. His father, William Arnold, owned a prosperous shoe business, part of a thriving industry in Northampton that reached its zenith immediately after the First World War.

A close-knit family, Malcolm Arnold was the youngest of five children. He had three brothers, Aubrey, Clifford, and Philip, and one sister, Ruth. Most especially it was Ruth, the brilliant, poetry and jazz-loving elder sister, in whom he found a kindred spirit.

There was always music in the Arnold home and Malcolm had great fun improvising jazz, then new and considered rather shocking, along with his siblings. As a child he had taught himself the trumpet and, in 1933, a defining moment occurred when, during a family holiday at the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth, the twelve-year-old Malcolm encountered one of his musical heroes, the great jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong. In later years he recalled how he and his wife sat at the Arnolds’ table and how Armstrong consented to provide an autograph for his young admirer, writing 'Louis' across a menu. The young Arnold’s enthusiasm was fired.

In 1936, at the age of 15, another seminal meeting took place in Malcolm Arnold’s life when he was introduced to the young, newly appointed organist at St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton, Philip Pfaff.  It was he who gave Malcolm his first formal lessons in harmony and theory and introduced him to twentieth-century developments in music. Until then, Malcolm had taught himself a certain amount on orchestration and counterpoint, but the young organist gave him the grounding in music theory that he needed. Soon to become a friend and mentor to the teenager - they would often play in concerts together - Philip Pfaff marveled at the brilliance and speed with which Malcolm grasped his lesson, recalling, “He just absorbed it all, like a sponge.”

Education and Early Career

Malcolm won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music at the age of just sixteen to study the trumpet with the legendary Ernest Hall and composition with Dr. Gordon Jacob.  During his second year at the RCM, having already entered the Cobbett Prize competition for composition and gained second place, the young Arnold was offered the second trumpet chair in the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  Despite his relative lack of experience, he quickly rose to become principal trumpet.  His mischievous sense of humor endeared him to his orchestral colleagues, although it may have caused some exasperation at times.  One of his colleagues regularly on the receiving end of his pranks was fellow trumpeter and cornet player, the late Denis Egan.  During a rehearsal with Sir Malcolm Sargent, a brief dispute about the trumpet part arose between Denis Egan and Sargent.  When the conductor turned away to address another section of the orchestra, Malcom Arnold called out an insult using an accurate imitation of Egan's distinctive voice.   Denis collapsed laughing, but Malcolm maintained a straight face, which resulted in poor Denis being on the receiving end of Sargent's fury.  To his great credit, Denis Egan took all this merciless ribbing on the chin and they remained firm friends until Denis’s death.

Many other close and important friendships were forged during this period of Arnold’s life, notably with William Walton, who he first met in 1941.  Despite their age difference – Walton was twenty years older than Arnold – the two composers had much in common and shared an irreverent, even anarchic, sense of humor that remained with them throughout their lives.

In January 1942, following a courtship of only a few months, Malcolm Arnold married Sheila Nicholson, a gifted violinist in the final year of her studies at the Royal Academy of Music.

During his exceptionally exhausting and demanding early years as an orchestral musician, Malcolm Arnold had composed prolifically, often maniacally.  In 1943 he suffered the first of many breakdowns that were to dog him later in life.  In January 1944, tragically Malcolm and Sheila Arnold’s first baby died soon after birth, but only days later, Malcolm was back once again on a frantic touring schedule with the LPO.

During the war, Arnold had volunteered for military service, but to his great dismay was considered unfit for service.  To his disgust he was consigned to a military band and, as a last resort after a period of two years, shot himself through the foot, which resulted in his being discharged from the army. He returned to orchestral playing, joining the BBC Symphony Orchestra for four months and playing alongside the celebrated duo of Ernest Hall and Jack Mackintosh, before eventually returning to the LPO in 1946.

As a trumpet player of the first rank, Malcolm Arnold played under many of the greatest conductors of the age including, among others Ernest Ansermet, Eduard van Beinum, Sir Adrian Boult, Sergiu Celebidache, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Erich Kleiber.  Arnold held Bruno Walter in high regard – a feeling which was reciprocated by the renowned conductor  – and also, most especially, Sir Thomas Beecham.  In later years he was to say of Beecham, “He was marvelous to work for. He made the orchestra feel you [sic] were all part of the same act, the same joke as it were, a serious joke. You were all one. He had a fantastic personality …”

After the War

The postwar period was a time of new beginnings for Malcolm Arnold, in both his personal and his professional life.  In 1948 Sheila gave birth to their daughter Katherine, and then, in 1950, their son Robert was born.  Possibly the single most important event in Arnold’s professional life occurred when he won the 1948 Mendelssohn Scholarship.  This award enabled him to quit his position in the orchestra and embark on a course of study in Italy, which resulted the following year in the start of a full-time composing career.  During his time with the LPO, Arnold had enjoyed much encouragement from Eduard van Beinum, the orchestra's gifted principal conductor, who also held the same post with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.  In 1948, van Beinum consented to conduct the first performance of Arnold's overture, Beckus the Dandipratt; the piece was well received.

It was during this period that Malcolm Arnold helped set up the National Youth Orchestra.  A close friend of the NYO’s founder, Ruth Railton, he helped establish the orchestra through fundraising, conducting, composing, and teaching.  Music and youth was always important to him throughout his life and his orchestral suite, To Youth (now re-titled Little Suite No. 1), was one of the earliest works to be written for and first performed by the NYO. To this day, the work remains a staple repertoire piece with youth orchestras around the world.

In 1949, Arnold produced his first symphony, to be followed in fairly rapid succession by another four. There were other orchestral pieces dating from this period, including Tam o' Shanter, the two sets of English Dances, chamber works for wind instruments, string quartets, four books of piano pieces and concertos. Arnold long held that music was “a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is,” and his concertos were nearly always written for specific soloists who also happened to be his personal friends. From 1945 to 1954, Malcolm Arnold wrote eight concertos: Clarinet Concerto No. 1 (for Frederick Thurston 1948); Horn Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (for Charles Gregory in 1945 and for Dennis Brain in 1956); Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings (for Helen Pyke and Paul Hamburger, 1951); Concerto for Oboe and Strings (for Leon Goossens, 1952); Concerto for Flute and Strings (for Richard Adeney, 1954); Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (for Dennis Vaughan, 1954) and Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (for Larry Adler, 1954).

As if this were not enough, between 1951 and 1956 he wrote scores for over eighty films.  In 1957, he won an Oscar for his famous score for Bridge on the River Kwai and the following years brought further film score successes with Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Whistle Down the Wind.  In total, including a brief foray into television, Malcolm Arnold scored over 130 films - an enormous number even by Hollywood standards.  In the vast majority of cases, Arnold also conducted the recording sessions himself.

Malcolm Arnold loved the world of the ballet and, in 1953, accepted a prestigious commission from Sadlers’ Wells Ballet to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  Homage to the Queen – with choreography by Sir Fredrick Ashton - was first performed on June 5, 1953, the eve of the Queen’s Coronation. With a cast of dancers led by Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, the world premiere of Homage to the Queen was a spectacular success and the ballet’s American premiere was given, to great acclaim, three months later at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

Other ballet scores dating from this period in Arnold’s life include Rinaldo and Armida (choreographer Frederick Ashton, 1954), Solitaire (choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, 1956) and Sweeney Todd (choreographer John Cranko, 1959). Later, in 1963, he was to add Elektra (with choreography by Robert Helpman) to his catalogue of stage works.

During the 1950s, Arnold found a soul-mate in the  tuba-playing humorist, Gerard Hoffnung.  In 1956 the first Hoffnung Music Festival exploded onto the scene and Arnold wrote an overture to begin the concert, directly following an over-the-top fanfare by Francis Baineswhich was preceded by an announcement from the manager of the Royal Festival Hall that, due to circumstances beyond the control of the London County Council, the concert would proceed as advertised!  Arnold's Grand, Grand Overture was scored for a orchestra, organ, three rifles, three vacuum cleaners and electric floor polisher; it was a great success with the audience.

Throughout his life, Malcolm Arnold maintained a strong social conscience.  In May 1957, as a guest of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers, he represented the British Musicians Union at the Prague Spring Festival.  It was at this time that Arnold first met, and was befriended by, Dimitri Shostakovich.

Personal Difficulties

The second half of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s was a time which brought a series of devastating blows to Malcolm Arnold’s personal life.  His beloved mother died in 1955, by 1961 his marriage had faltered and failed, and then that same year, came the deaths of his two adored brothers, Aubrey and Clifford, within ten months of each other, which left him shocked and bereft.  Yet his heavy work schedule still continued.

In November 1963, Malcolm Arnold married Isobel Gray, and their son, Edward, was born in July 1964.  In January 1965 the family made their home in Cornwall - a period described by Arnold as the happiest of his life.  Here he was made a Bard of the Gorsedd and was awarded the CBE.
However, despite his outward content, a photograph taken of Arnold during this period reveals a distinctly brooding countenance.  His four symphonies from this period all contain a certain amount of  darkness and unease, qualities also present in the Concerto for Two Violins and Strings of 1962 (written for Yehudi Menuhin and Robert Masters) and his Symphony No. 5 pushed this quality even further.  Arnold was deeply affected by the deaths of several of his friends, including the horn player, Denis Brain, the clarinetist, Frederick Thurston, and Gerard Hoffnung, who had died suddenly in 1959.  At the very end of the Fifth Symphony, a great melody from the slow movement is abruptly truncated, the work ending with the kind of numbness, which often results from profound grief and loss.

During this period, a change had begun to manifest itself in British music and the “establishment” found it increasingly more difficult to take Malcolm Arnold, with the accessibility and directness of his music, at all seriously.  Gradually his music, along with the works of other composers of his generation such as William Alwyn and Richard Arnell (both involved in the film industry), disappeared from broadcasting schedules and concert programs and music critics began to write of these figures as anachronisms.  Even the latest works of Sir William Walton came in for censure from some quarters.  With the appointment in 1959 of William Glock as Controller of Music at the BBC, the avant-garde was the order of the day and music which did not reflect this style was largely ignored, despite the efforts of more open-minded producers such as Robert Simpson (a distinguished composer himself).  Arnold's Sixth Symphony, with its homage to the 'bebop' jazz of Charlie Parker, was broadcast in 1967, but failed to establish a place for itself in the repertoire at that time.

The effects of a heavy work schedule, together with the apparent critical disdain of his serious works, caused Arnold to suffer a mental collapse.  Like Elgar before him, he entered into deep depression and began to drink heavily.  Several breakdowns and suicide attempts followed and, although he managed to continue writing substantial works, many of them, such as the deeply disturbing Seventh Symphony (1973), reveal a troubled inner world.
Malcolm Arnold moved to Ireland in 1972, where he reveled in the lush scenery and lively Celtic music. Here, however, his behavior became increasingly erratic and, in 1977, his second marriage collapsed and he returned to England, exhausted and unable to work for several years. Significant works eventually emerged during this unhappy period, such as the Trumpet Concerto, Symphony for Brass and the Eighth Symphony.

Later Years

Eventually, fate took a merciful hand as, in 1984, Anthony Day was assigned to care for the troubled composer.  It is no exaggeration to say that, from that time forward, things began to improve dramatically.  The pair moved to a modest property in Attleborough, Norfolk and Malcolm Arnold gradually returned to life.  New music began to emerge, including a set of Irish Dances, the Attleborough Suite, the Cello Concerto for Julian Lloyd Webber, a Fantasy for virtuoso recorder player, Michaela Petrie and, above all, the Ninth Symphony. The latter was originally commissioned by the BBC for European Music Year in 1985, but due to Arnold's ill-health, was not written until 1986, when the entire work emerged in just three weeks. Dedicated to Anthony Day, it was not performed for several years until the late Sir Charles Groves played it through with the orchestra of the National Centre for Orchestral Studies, before a small invited audience that included Arnold's old friend, Denis Egan. A broadcast followed in 1992 with the BBC Philharmonic under Groves and three commercial recordings were eventually issued.

In 1991, a young BBC producer called Kriss Rusmanis, himself a former professional horn player, produced a 70th birthday tribute to Malcolm Arnold in the form of a documentary which, many believe, resulted in the conferring of a knighthood in 1993.  Many other honors have been given to Sir Malcolm, including an honorary doctorate from the universities of Oxford, Miami and Ohio, and Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Services to British Music and, most recently, a Fellowship from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters.

Malcolm Arnold always loved to attend performances of his own music, and the frailties associated with old age were to prove no barrier during his latter years.  In 2000 he attended the U.S. premiere of his Ninth Symphony, given by the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Sheldon Bair. Then, in 2003, at the age of eighty-two, Arnold attended a special Arnold Festival, given by Texas University (Austin) and Trinity University (San Antonio).  This series of concerts and events in honor of Arnold was held over a three-month period, from January through to March, and included performances of works from his entire concert repertoire.

Sir Malcolm continued to live happily in Attleborough until his death in 2006 and, although the urge to compose seemed to have left him, he remained in close touch with the world of music, listening incessantly, day and night, to recordings of his own works and music programs on the radio.