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Brief Biographical details.
Fuller biography by Vincent Budd

Born in Northampton on 21st October 1921, Malcolm Arnold studied composition with Gordon Jacob and trumpet with Ernest Hall at the Royal College of Music. In 1941 he joined the trumpet section of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming principal by 1943. After two years of war service and one season with the BBC Symphony Orchestra he returned to the LPO in 1946; but composition was already becoming his priority and he had already produced a catalogue of attractive works, an early example being the comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt, Op.5 (1943), recorded in 1948 by the LPO under their principal conductor Eduard van Beinum. That same year Arnold won the Mendelssohn Scholarship which enabled him to spend a year in Italy; on his return he decided to concentrate entirely upon composition. His experience as an orchestral player stood him in good stead as a composer. He quickly built up a reputation as a fluent and versatile composer and a brilliant orchestrator, many commissions were to come his way.

Arnold has written works in almost every genre for amateur and professional alike, including nine symphonies, five ballets, two operas, 20 concertos, overtures and orchestral dances, two string quartets and other chamber music, choral music, song cycles and works for wind and brass band. Somehow, in the midst of this prolific creativity, Arnold has found time to score over 80 films including the Academy Award-winning score for Bridge on the River Kwai, written in only ten days and Inn of the Sixth Happiness which brought an Ivor Novello Award.

In 1969 Malcolm Arnold was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth, he was awarded the C.B.E. in 1970 and received honorary doctorates from the universities of Exeter (1969), Durham (1982) and Leicester (1984). He was made a fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1983 and is an Honorary R.A.M. In 1986 he received the Ivor Novello Award for outstanding services to British music. He was Knighted in 1993.

Arnold's music springs directly from roots in dance and song. Typically it is lucid in texture, clear in draftsmanship. His lighter entertainment pieces are easy to listen to and rewarding to perform. As an inventor of tunes, his powers seem to be inexaustible, and he is prodigal with his gifts; the 'big tune' in the modest little Toy Symphony, for example, is just as much a winner as the many memorable themes in many concert works. Many of these are firmly established in the concert repertory. Yet for those who have ears to hear, his works frequently give more than a hint of a complex musical personality and of dramatic tensions not far below the surface. In fact there is scope in Arnold's music which reflects his profound concern with the human predicament and also in his belief that music is "a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is."

A Short Introduction to the Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold  by Vincent Budd

This is a slightly expanded version of an article written for a local newspaper published in the Outer Hebrides. Amendments and additions have been made to the original text, and a brief biographical sketch has also now here been included. For those new to Arnold and wishing to find out more about the composer and listen further to his music, a brief bibliography and a short discographical note have also been appended. Those who have already caught the Arnold bug, may be interested to know that there is a Society devoted to his music:

Sir Malcolm Arnold at his home in Attleborough, Suffolk with the author in unfortunate jacket disaster. The composer has in recent years suffered from periods of ill-health and has stopped composing but is now looked after by Anthony Day.


Sir Malcolm Arnold rightly now stands as one of Britain's most pre-eminent and cherished musical figures. Fellow composer William Alwyn, also from Northampton, once described Arnold as having walked into his life like a 'genial tornado'. The simile is spot on - as the man, so the music. Arnold's works have their serious and cerebral priorities and contain deeply moving moments of elevating mindfulness and heart-felt emotion, not least in his major swansong, the 9th Symphony: yet they are also filled with such teeming tunefulness, such ebullient vitality, and such a positiveness of spirit that they constitute not simply an oeuvre of uncandid charm, but one of the most endearing contributions to the music of these Isles this century. His scores always possess, as becoming a brilliant orchestral trumpeter, a masterly understanding of orchestral effect. Warmly expressive yet devoid of superfluity, they contain a consummate sense of structure and an acuity and conciseness of expression that make an undeniably immediate impact: they are intelligent and clever, sometimes stunningly wrought and intricate, but often full of humour, characteristically open-hearted and unpretentious, occasionally brilliantly anarchic and riotous. Indeed, his music contains some of the brightest all-conquering tunes any music lover is likely to hear in one lifetime on planet earth and his gift for attractive and shapely melodic invention is seemingly almost boundless.

Arnold has over the years been the butt of some worthless critical abuse and undergone periods of unfashionableness, not least for his contumacious eclecticism - a characteristic invariably a bit scary for the more insecure and blinkered critic who must make verdict. The composer once wrote: 'One of the great curses of the present day is our apparent need to be regimented, and I would suggest that we could use the freedom that the arts give for a wide variety of expression in a wide variety of styles, as an antidote to our narrow lives'. Arnold's muse reveals a humanitarian and democratic spirit eager to transcend our sometimes all-too myopic musical landscape and ready to embrace rather than exclude the contrasting and multi-faceted temperaments of the human soul; and his compositions are filled with an ever-flowing musical invention that has a far-ranging emotional appeal. Like any self-respecting free-spirit, he retained a worthy respect for the time-honoured forms and techniques of orchestral expression: but he was unconcerned with academic respectability and was never afraid to flout convention, juxtaposing diverse and contrasting musical modes in his work; a radical spirit always willing to look forward and beyond, impassioned, unblinkered, and unhindered to incorporate other musical cultures; unashamedly happy to employ a whole variety of idioms into a single piece - jazz, folk, and popular music could all be plundered with marvellous result. An Arnold piece can jump from musical profundity to extravagant trifling, quiet sobriety to vibrant raciness, deep seriousness to buffoonish self-mockery in a bar - often to scintillating effect. He was quite unafraid to use a cliché when appropriate and he sometimes engagingly wore his loves and influences (e.g. Mahler, Berlioz, Sibelius, and Shostakovitch) on his compositional short sleeves: but his works were marked by a clear, undeniable, and abiding individuality. Sibelius once famously remarked in a conversation with Mahler that what he admired about the symphony was its severity of form and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs. Mahler countered: 'No, no. The symphony must be like the world - it must contain everything'. Arnold would have assented to both - for him there was no stylistic dilemma to resolve.


Malcolm Henry Arnold was born in 1921. A handsome set of silver knives, forks, and spoons lay ready on his plate. He was the youngest of five children from a well-to-do Methodist Northampton family involved in - you've guessed it - the footwear business, but also with a worthy lineage of involvement in music especially on his mother's side: his mother was herself a fine pianist and obviously a dominant figure in his life; his father also played the piano and organ. Arnold was educated privately and at home, and this included tuition in violin, piano, violin, and later, the trumpet, the instrument with which he was to make his first real mark on the musical world. He was by his own admission thoroughly spoilt as a child: unlike many an aspiring musician or composer, he certainly appears to have been given every encouragement to pursue his obvious precocious musical talents. He was soon too showing strong streaks of rebelliousness and emotional impulsiveness, volatile tendencies which were to have both comic and more serious consequences during his life - the words 'roller' and 'coaster' sometimes spring to mind. (According to his friend, the flautist Richard Adeney, he intended to commit suicide at the age of thirty as he did not want to become 'a boring old man'.) As a young man he became besotted with jazz and at the age of twelve he saw Louis Armstrong play in Bournemouth. This had a catalytic and lasting effect, and by the age of fifteen he was having trumpet lessons from Ernest Hall. Hall was Professor at the Royal College of Music and it was there that Arnold entered in 1938 ostensibly to pursue his musical education in real earnest: composition and trumpet were his principal subjects, though he also took courses in piano and conducting. In the end, having already gone AWOL on at least one occasion, he never took his final examinations and instead towards the end of the second year of his course joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra as second trumpet (becoming principle in 1943), an appointment that perhaps proved to be more vital to his musical education than his short stay at RCM.

In 1941 Arnold married Sheila Nicholson, who gave birth to two children, Katherine and Robert. However, the war years were not the happiest of times for the trumpeter and then still part-time composer. He was at first a conscientious objector, but 1944 saw a change of heart. The army predictably did little for his emotional well-being and it proved a frustrating and regretful experience, and after accidentally-on-purpose shooting himself in the foot (potentially a very serious offence) he was discharged on medical grounds. There was then a brief stint with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, until he returned to the LPO where he stayed until 1948. He had of course been writing all this time and a number of scores had been played in the concert hall: but it was a score from 1943, the overture Beckus the Dandipratt, which saw the first real recognition of his talents as a composer. In 1948, he was awarded the Mendelsshon Scholarship by the RCM, and following a period in Italy, he returned to Blighty to take up composing as a full time profession. Symphony No.1 was completed the following year, and he was soon at work on a second. In 1947 Arnold had also written his first film music: it of course provided an important source of well-needed income, but it also proved an important outlet for his prodigious muse and masterly skills, with his soundtracks for David Lean being of particular note; and it was not until 1969, with nearly 120 scores to his name, that he decided to discontinue this line work. Given all his other activities during this period, it is a wonder where Arnold found all the time and energy.

Over the next decades Arnold produced some of the finest music of any British composer working during this period, even though his critical standing with the nation's critics (compared say to Britten and Tippett) failed to match it much of the time, especially in the '70s. His life has been rich in friendships and he has written concertos and instrumental music for, inter alia, Richard Adeney, Larry Adler, Julian Bream, Dennis Brain, James Galway, Benny Goodman, Leon Goossens, Yehudi Menuhin, and Julian Lloyd Webber. Overtures such as Tam O'Shanter, The Smoke, Curtain Up, the Sussex, Festival, and Grand, Grand, and the ballets Homage to the Queen, Rinalda and Armida, Sweeney Todd, Electra, and Ierusalemme Liberatat all helped to add to his reputation. A wondrous and engaging set of chamber and instrumental music too figured large in his output. All this was set alongside numerous other 'incidental' works (sinfoniettas, suites, music for children, piano, brass, and vocal pieces, small-scale operas, etc.). However, it was in the symphonies that Arnold reserved some of his more serious and most substantial musical statements; yet they always remain to the point, unstuffy, still often marked by his abidingly incandescent voice even at their most serious. By 1978 he had completed eight symphonies, but there was to also to be a ninth, a deep-felt and intense musical statement, completed nine years later in Norfolk.

Indeed, the history of Arnold's life and music has been marked by a distinctive cultual geography which has often made a particular import into the form and character of his work. During the sixties, following the failure of his first partnership, he married Isobel Gray and the couple left London to live in Cornwall, where he soon began to make a more than telling contribution to the musical life of the West Country. It was here that Isobel gave birth to the third of Arnold's children, Edward, who, after much trauma, was eventually diagnosed autistic. Then in 1972 he moved to Ireland, and Isobel and Edward joined him soon after. Sadly, his personal life began to deteriorate and there was an attempt at suicide: this was followed by divorce, enforced estrangement from his young son, and a return to the mainland, and an almost complete breakdown. Arnold's life had always been full, replete with extremes of both high emotion and social honour and depressions and personal tragedy, but the end of the seventies and early eighties saw Arnold at possibly the lowest ebb of his life. Although at first he still managed to produce work of outstanding quality, including the 8th Symphony and the Philharmonic Concerto, it did lead to a period of compositional silence. Not only was he eventually left in a very precarious position pecuniarily, but he also became very ill, and indeed close to premature death; a situation obviously not helped by his propensity and capacity for alcohol which had always been an important part of his adult life. Nor was it to be aided by the seemingly uncaring attitude of his new-found 'guardians' back in his home town of Northampton. It is a tragic episode in Arnold's life from which, though much improved, he has never fully recovered: but it was to have a happy ending. 1984 saw the arrival of Anthony Day into Arnold's existence, and it was he who literally saved his life and provided a passage-way out of his personal 'hell'. The pair moved to Norfolk, Day's home county but also, coincidentally, an area important in Arnold's family history. Anthony has been his constant carer and 'personal assistant' ever since and has not only helped restore the composer's health and rectified his financial situation, but also been active in the promotion of Arnold's music. Just as importantly he encouraged Arnold to begin composing once more, and not surprisingly it is him to whom Arnold's 9th and final symphony is gratefully dedicated. Arnold began work on his Op. 128 on 12th August 1986, Anthony Day's birthday, and it was apparently completed just eighteen days later. Sir Malcolm Arnold has now ceased to compose, but he does not, he says, miss it.


If you think you have never heard any of Arnold's music, you are probably mistaken. TV viewers are probably familiar with the theme to What the Paper's Say (from his English Dances), most men at least have enjoyed a St. Trinian's film at one time or other, and Bridge on River Kwai is undoubtedly a screen classic. Arnold wrote the music for all three. In recent years, after a period of comparative neglect, the appreciation of the composer's music has undergone something of a renaissance, and though a good amount of material (especially his film music and small-scale operas) remains to be recorded, he is at present quite well served in the catalogue. Space here permits the selection of just three CD releases which perhaps give a particular and special insight into the compositional life of this outstanding musical spirit and provide worthy points at which to begin an exploration of his life's work: few music lovers could not be captivated by the sheer magical brilliance of this marvel of British music.

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