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It's a quiet room in a leafy street in Bromley but Richard Arnell is talking about a kaleidoscope of experience that is simply dazzling. Richard Arnell, 88 in September 2005, joined residents at the Musiciansí Benevolent Fundís Ivor Newton House at the start of the year. He has been described as Britain's greatest living symphonist and his output has been prolific: as well as his seven symphonies, his work includes ballet scores, violin concertos, works for piano, organ and harpsichord, six string quartets and extensive film music. .

Born in Hampstead, he studied composition at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland from 1935 until 1939 when he moved to New York.

WQXR, the first radio station in the US to specialise in classical music, broadcast his Classical Variations for strings on New Year's Eve, 1939. This was followed by a performance of his Overture: New Age at the Carnegie Hall in 1941. "That was the beginning," he says.

He remembers how Sir Thomas Beecham took him up after Virgil Thomson, the composer and revered New York Herald Tribune critic, told him about Arnell. Sir Thomas became an ardent admirer of his work and gave him eight premieres in New York and London including the ballet suite, Punch and the Child which was commissioned by the Ballet Society of New York.

Arnell recalls life in the US with affection. He worked as an air raid warden in Jackson Heights, New York, during the war where he forged a close friendship with the then emerging artist Mark Rothko. He was music consultant to the BBC's North American Service from 1943 to 1945.

"I've met all sorts of people," he says. "Charlie Chaplin in Los Angeles at the performance of my ballet Harlequin. I conducted the performance and afterwards he came on to the stage and congratulated me."

Arnell started to write for film with the score for.The Land, the film produced for the US Dept of Agriculture in 1941 by the pioneering documentary film maker Robert Flaherty, famous for Nanouk of the North. Arnell has subsequently become a noted authority on film music.

He moved back to England in 1947 and taught composition for many years at Trinity College of Music. He has lectured at the Royal Ballet School, edited The Composer, chaired the Composers' Guild of Great Britain and been Musical Director and a board member of the London International Film School.

But he retains a strong attachment to the States and fittingly this October, Warren Cohen's Musica Nova Orchestra in southern Arizona will embark on a plan to play all of his Symphonies to create the first commercial recordings of them for the new UK-based Toccata Classics label.

"We will be performing the Third Symphony all 62 minutes of it - in our season opening concert on 8 October," he told the key. An excerpt from Arnell's Fifth Symphony plays on visiting

Toccata Classics was launched this autumn and is distributed through Naxos. "The whole idea behind the new label is to concentrate on music that deserves to be on CD but hasn't got there yet." says founder and Managing Director Martin Anderson. "The first CD of Arnell's Symphonies will be available next year. It's just the sort of thing we started the label to do."

Back in Bromley, Arnell describes himself as a poet as well as a composer. He wrote all of his own libretti and published a book of poetry, Not Wanted on Voyage, in 2001. He's still composing and has a variety of future projects in mind.

Mark Rothko, he points out, once asked him to compose a brass quintet for him.

"One of these days," he says, "one of these days."

© Susan Roberts

With thanks for permission to reproduce this article to the Musiciansí Benevolent Fund which was originally published in The Key Summer 2005.
(Photograph © Avril Curzon 1997)

see also David Wright's profile


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