When Malcolm Arnold died in September, the obituaries in several of England's leading newspapers referred to him in the headline as a “film composer.” The Guardian summed up his life's work as follows:

The tormented but irrepressible career of Sir Malcolm Arnold, the most recorded British composer of all time and the first to win an Oscar, ended last night with his death at the age of eighty-four.

Not until the fourth paragraph did readers of the Guardian learn that in addition to scoring The Bridge on the River Kwai (for which he won his Oscar in 1958) and 131 other movies, Arnold also found time to write nine symphonies, two dozen concertos, and numerous other orchestral and chamber works.

While the critical “appreciations” that ran the next day were better informed, few did more than sketch the outlines of this composer's controversial career, and they did so at times evasively. The BBC, for instance, declared that “while some regarded [Arnold] as one of the preeminent composers of his generation, others saw him as superficial and flippant.” The BBC failed to mention that its own music controllers had long made no secret of their disdain for his music.

Meanwhile, in American newspapers, Arnold's death went largely unmentioned—for the good reason that his compositions are virtually unknown to American audiences. To the extent that he has a following in this country, it is mainly through the recordings that have been made of his symphonies in recent years.
1 Indeed, until a few months ago Malcolm Arnold was little more than a name to me, too. In a lifetime of concert-going, I had never heard a public performance of any of his works. All I knew was that he was widely regarded as a lightweight—a judgment reinforced by his bluff, breezy personal manner and the self-deprecating statements he made about his own music. (“If you can say it in words of one syllable, musically speaking, it's your duty to do so.”)

It was only after learning that he suffered from a lifelong case of manic depression so malignant it had brought his career to a premature end that it occurred to me to question the received wisdom about Arnold. Intrigued that he had nonetheless managed to produce a substantial body of work, I procured a copy of Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius (2004), a biography by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris that has yet to be published in this country.
2 What I read there was so fascinating that I decided to listen to Arnold's Fifth Symphony, composed in 1961.

Most of the British critics who covered the premiere of this piece did so in a brutally dismissive fashion. The London Observer's Peter Heyworth, for instance, called it the work of a “tub-thumper” who had “thrown the last shreds of discretion to the winds,” while the anonymous critic for the London Times claimed that it suggested “a creative personality in an advanced stage of disintegration.” To my amazement, Arnold's Fifth turned out to be not a shoddy piece of crowd-pleasing yard goods but a compelling, fully realized example of mid-century modernism that was worthy of comparison with the best symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. From the Fifth, I went on to listen to the rest of his symphonies and a considerable number of his other works. By the time I was done, it was clear to me that Arnold, far from being a lightweight, was in fact a major composer.

Why, then, had he been written off by the critics? Thereby, I was to learn, hangs a tale of snobbery, provincialism, and aesthetic ideology run rampant—as well as a chronicle of self-destructive behavior that is, in the fullest sense of an oft-misused word, tragic.


Much of Arnold's remarkable individuality can be explained by taking a close look at his musical training and early professional life. Born in 1921, he discovered jazz at the age of nine and taught himself the trumpet in order “to play like Louis Armstrong.” He would remain interested in jazz for the rest of his life—the slow movement of his Guitar Concerto (1957), for instance, is an elegy for the great guitarist Django Reinhardt—and though its influence rarely finds literal expression in his own works, the pronounced streak of populism that became his trademark no doubt stemmed from this early encounter.

In 1941, Arnold joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming its principal trumpet player shortly thereafter. During his tenure with the LPO, he performed a wide variety of orchestral literature under such distinguished conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Bruno Walter, all of whom were impressed by his playing, as was everyone else who heard him. (“Why do you want to be a composer?” Ralph Vaughan Williams asked him, apparently in genuine bewilderment. “You're the best trumpet player in England.”)

Arnold was, indeed, one of only a handful of important composers to have been a professional orchestral player, as well as the only one to have played a brass instrument, and the impact of these experiences on his composing career cannot be understated. As he would explain to an interviewer:

I have tried to treat definite, straightforward, understandable material with the utmost simplicity in what I hope is an interesting manner, treating every single orchestral sound and note as meaning something and not to be wasted. When you sit in the orchestra, as I have, you can't help seeing and being disgusted with the waste of players' energies and talents on mountains of useless padding.

Arnold also studied conducting with Constant Lambert, the composer-critic who doubled as music director of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet). Unlike most British composers of his generation, Lambert was decidedly Franco-Russian in musical orientation; he was also closely familiar with early jazz, whose rhythms and timbres he wove into The Rio Grande (1929) and his Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments (1931). It cannot be coincidental that when Arnold started writing music of his own, it was just as far removed as Lambert's from the prevailing tendencies of English modernism. Though Gustav Holst's The Planets left its mark on his style, Arnold's other musical models were not Edward Elgar or Vaughan Williams but Berlioz, Mahler, Sibelius, and (later) Shostakovich.


To this volatile brew of seemingly irreconcilable sources, Arnold added an enlivening dash of the populism he had picked up from Lambert and the jazzmen who inspired him in childhood. The result was Beckus the Dandipratt (1943), a concert overture that became the twenty-one-year-old composer's calling card. A comic scherzo whose galumphing triple-time rhythms are reminiscent of the “Uranus” section of The Planets, Beckus is in every other way a wholly personal utterance, and its pawky wit and luminous orchestration signaled the emergence of an arrestingly fresh new voice in British music.

Like all such voices, Arnold's was initially viewed with suspicion. In 1943 and for many years afterward, the British musical establishment—including the BBC, which already played a key role in the dissemination of new music in England—was both conservative and provincial. Its bureaucrats, appalled by the extrovert vigor and proliferating imagination of Arnold's early compositions, did their best to keep them from being broadcast. As late as 1951, a BBC apparatchik dismissed his First Symphony in an internal memo as “blatant and vulgar . . . not the product of an adult musical mind.” But audiences responded with excitement to his engaging blend of sophistication and the common touch, and eventually even the BBC was forced to come around—for a time.

It helped that, by 1948, Arnold was earning enough money from his film scores to leave the LPO and set up shop as a full-time composer. A technician of near-Mozartean facility, he was capable of turning out a half-dozen movie scores each year, and this highly paid work made it unnecessary for him to curry favor elsewhere. In the long run, however, it served him poorly, not only because it diverted his energies from more substantial efforts but because his film scores, while never less than professional, were rarely inspired or memorable. In addition, Arnold's work in films provoked resentment among critics—and colleagues—who viewed him as a bumptious, unserious upstart with no right to be popular, much less rich and famous.


With the public, however, it seemed throughout the 50's that Malcolm Arnold could do no wrong. As a classical composer, he continued to turn out a steady stream of large-scale orchestral and chamber pieces, all of them received warmly. Aside from his first five symphonies, composed between 1951 and 1961, he wrote a series of concise, elegantly crafted concertos, most of them neoclassical in style, for such noted soloists as the horn player Dennis Brain, the guitarist Julian Bream, and the oboist Léon Goossens.

At the same time, and with equal ease, Arnold moved in the sphere of light music, producing such ingratiatingly tuneful orchestral miniatures as the two sets of English Dances (1950-51). A natural comedian, he collaborated with the cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung on a festival of musical parodies for which he wrote A Grand, Grand Overture (1956), scored for three vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher, and a large symphony orchestra complete with organ.

It is in the symphonies, however, that Arnold can be heard at his best and most characteristic. All of them are broadly but never rigidly traditional in form, and, though their flavor is unambiguously contemporary, all maneuver fluently and naturally within the parameters of functional tonality. Indeed, Arnold's harmonic vocabulary, which juxtaposes prickly bi-tonal polychords with sweet-sounding major-seventh cadences, is one of the most immediately recognizable features of his style.

“So few composers have a distinctive sound—with air and light,” Arnold observed in 1951. In common with Berlioz and Mahler, his wind-dominated orchestral palette is unusually light-textured, with brass and percussion held in reserve for fiery bursts of primary color. Like Berlioz, he favors violent contrasts—one is never far from catastrophe in an Arnold symphony—and like Mahler, he loves to slip marches into his slow movements and finales, some funereal and others explosively martial. Mahler is also the obvious reference point for his use of quasi-popular tunes, some of which are purposefully vulgar in effect.

Arnold was a passionate believer in the expressive power of melody, and though he never pandered to audiences, he liked to please them when he could. Revealingly, he once observed with admiration that the novels of Somerset Maugham could be “read with pleasure by one and all.” That was his goal as well.

Above all, Arnold's symphonies are reflections of his complex, frequently stormy emotional life. He once stated that “my symphonies . . . are autobiographical, but I prefer them to be approached as pure music,” explaining the apparent paradox in this way:

I like music because it is not connected with any time, place, or particular thing. It is abstract emotion. As soon as you get words, you're tied to a particular object or situation, inevitably, by the use of words, which to me limits the vast horizons that music has from an emotional point of view.

For this reason Arnold rarely spoke in public (or in private) about the programmatic content of his symphonies, though he admitted that the three movements of his Seventh Symphony (1973) were “in the very loosest way . . . musical portraits” of his three children. It is now thought that many of his other symphonies were based in whole or in part on secret programs of a similarly autobiographical nature. If true, this would shed light on such seemingly inexplicable departures from conventional form as the startling moment at the end of the Fifth Symphony when, immediately after the full orchestra presents a resplendently triumphant D-major version of the lyrical main theme of the slow movement. Arnold swerves without warning into Eminor, the austere key in which the symphony begins, and brings the finale to a close with a stark coda that trails off into dead silence.


Arnold was enraged by the contempt with which critics savaged his Fifth Symphony. Asked by a reporter whether such notices embittered him, he replied:

I'll tell you how bitter I am—only as bitter as a man who wants to stand up and walk down the street and doesn't want people shouting offensive, patronizing remarks after him. The critics have got to live, but for Christ's sake why don't they let me live too?

Needless to say, Arnold was not the only composer to be raked over the coals in the 60's by critics who wrongly believed tonality to be obsolete. As much as anything else, their consistent refusal to take him seriously stemmed from their long-simmering rage at the provincialism of British musical life, and it was his bad luck to be caught in the crossfire. But by then he had something far more serious to worry about: the likelihood that he was going mad.

Mental illness ran in Arnold's family, and from adolescence onward he showed signs of an underlying instability that went far beyond the “eccentricity” on which the English pride themselves. As a student he was notorious for his heavy drinking and sexual excesses. In 1943 he appears to have been hospitalized for what was then thought to be schizophrenia; in 1945 he enlisted in the army even though he had previously claimed to be a pacifist, and a month later shot himself in the foot in order to return to civilian life. Thereafter, his life would be marked by recurrent psychotic episodes, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations.

For a quarter-century, Arnold nonetheless managed to function as a composer and conductor, though his bizarre behavior, exacerbated by what in time developed into full-blown alcoholism, became steadily more difficult to ignore or paper over. Naturally enough, many of those unaware that he was mentally ill found his conduct shocking—a fact that also helps to explain the distaste with which he came to be regarded by a growing number of his fellow musicians.

It is impossible to speak definitively of the extent to which Arnold's music was affected by his mental illness, though it is tempting to attribute some of its more extreme contrasts of mood, as well as the explicit anguish of such later works as the dark, tonally ambiguous Symphony for Brass Instruments (1978), to the effects of manic depression.
11 What is clear, however, is that he found it increasingly difficult to compose as his periods of mania grew more frequent and intense, and after completing the Symphony for Brass Instruments and the tempestuous Eighth Symphony (which he wrote in a mental hospital), he seemed close to stopping altogether. Between 1978 and 1982 he produced only one work, a flimsy trumpet concerto, after which he fell silent once more.

In 1986, Arnold, who by that time was being cared for around the clock by a nurse-companion, pulled himself together sufficiently to write a four-movement symphony, his ninth and last. It is an unsettling work whose paper-thin textures (most of it is written in two parts) leave no doubt that his brain had been irreparably damaged by decades of chronic alcoholism. Yet even with the modest technical means remaining at his disposal, Arnold miraculously contrived to spin out a (mostly) convincing musical argument, though the symphony's bare simplicity led his publishers to reject it, and it was not played in public until 1996.


The Ninth Symphony was not Arnold's last composition; he eked out a dozen more pieces, none of them memorable and some only marginally competent. But its finale, a 25-minute-long elegy that recalls the last movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, was universally taken to be his swan song. Arnold himself spoke of it as “an amalgam of all my knowledge of life.” He wrote no more music after 1990, slowly withdrawing into the haze of dementia in the years that remained to him.

By then, though, the collapse of the avant-garde monopoly and the restoration of tonality that followed had led to a revaluation of Arnold's music that continues to this day. A new generation of musicians began to record his symphonies and other works, and these recordings were praised by critics for whom the war against the modernism-hating provincials of the 40's was no more than a half-remembered episode in the history of British music. For the first time since 1961, it was all right to like Malcolm Arnold.

Will it remain so? To second-guess posterity is the chanciest of undertakings, but it certainly appears that his time has come at last. For my part, I cannot recall the last time I have responded so powerfully to the music of a classical composer with whom I was hitherto unfamiliar. It filled me with chagrin to realize that the creator of works like the Second and Fifth Symphonies, the Symphony for Brass Instruments, and the concertos for guitar and two violins (to name only a handful of Arnold's finest efforts) had been active for the better part of my adult life. How, I wondered, could I have overlooked a master who was hiding in plain sight all along?

Such, alas, is the anaesthetizing power of an unexamined consensus. For, of all the many composers to whose careers the postwar avant-garde laid waste, Arnold may well be the one whose posthumous reputation is destined to soar the highest. Though it was only months ago that I heard his music for the first time, I already feel confident in ranking him with Elgar, Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Benjamin Britten as one of the greatest English composers of the 20th century. I am no less confident that music lovers of the 21st century will feel the same way.


1 The most readily available (and least expensive) complete set of Arnold's symphonies is by Andrew Penny and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. They are coupled as follows: Nos. 1 and 2 (Naxos 8.553406), Nos. 3 and 4 (8.553739), Nos. 5 and 6 (8.552000), Nos. 7 and 8 (8.552001) and No. 9 (8.553540). These CD's, and the others referred to below, can be purchased by viewing this article at COMMENTARY's website, www.commentarymagazine.com, during the month of November.

In addition, Vernon Handley's recordings of the symphonies are included in the first volume of The Malcolm Arnold Edition, a newly released series of three boxed sets available from amazon.co.uk. These sets contain most of Arnold's major compositions, including all of the works mentioned in this article (Decca 476 533-7, 476 534-3, and 476-534-8, 13 CD's).

2 It can, however, be ordered from Amazon.com.

3 The British Music Collection: Malcolm Arnold (Decca 468 302-2) contains a performance of the concerto by Eduardo Fernandez, Barry Wordsworth, and the English Chamber Orchestra.

4 A typical example of Arnold's eclectic taste is the list of pieces he cited as personal favorites on a 1960 edition of the BBC series Desert Island Discs: Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, a part-song by Holst, Purcell's Fantasia Upon One Note, Sibelius' Fourth Symphony, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Tom Lehrer's comic song “Fight Fiercely Harvard,” and a 1939 recording of “Dipper Mouth Blues” by Muggsy Spanier's Ragtime Band.

5 Rumon Gamba has recorded Beckus the Dandipratt and nine other Arnold overtures with the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN 1029). The 1947 premiere recording of Beckus by Eduard van Beinum and the London Philharmonic, on which Arnold can be heard playing trumpet, has been reissued for the first time since its original release (on 78's) as part of the third volume of The Malcolm Arnold Edition.

6 Because Arnold worked almost exclusively on English films, few of which were seen outside the British Isles, his music for The Bridge on the River Kwai (which he wrote in ten days) is the only one of his scores with which American moviegoers are familiar.

7 Seventeen of Arnold's concertos are included in the second volume of The Malcolm Arnold Edition.

8 The English Dances have been recorded by Bryden Thomson and the Philharmonia (Chandos CHAN 8867). A Grand, Grand Overture is on Rumon Gamba's Chandos CD.

9 He would later explain that the Fifth Symphony is “filled with memories of friends of mine who died young.” The authors of Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius identify one of the “friends” in question as his older brother Aubrey, who committed suicide shortly before Arnold began writing the symphony.

10 Even Arnold's closest friends were stunned by some of his wilder escapades. The critic and broadcaster John Amis described a particularly notorious incident to the authors of Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius: “On one occasion, and it was typical, he got through an enormous meal—three or four dozen oysters, a couple of carpetbag steaks, puddings, cheese, and with it all several bottles of wine—before ending up on the floor having sex with a waitress.”

11 The British Music Collection: Malcolm Arnold contains a spectacularly virtuosic performance of the Symphony for Brass Instruments by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, for which the work was written.


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