Malcolm Arnold (from Walton and his Friends)


It was following the passing of my intermediate solicitors’ examination in 1955 that I first saw and heard Malcolm Arnold. My father had rewarded me by buying for me a half season (four weeks) for the proms then in their Malcolm Sargent era. It was in August that I went one evening with my brother to a prom which contained the first performance of a concert overture, Tam o’ Shanter composed and conducted that evening by the composer. I knew not what to expect but the second half opened with a roly poly figure bounding on to the rostrum and conducting with arms flailing like windmill sails. The work was based on the poem of that name by Burns with the drunken Tam and his mare, Meg, being chased by the cutty sarks as Tam tried to reach the old bridge crossing the Doon but poor Meg losing her tail in the process. The music started quietly and then drunken bassoons intoned Coming Through The Rye before the music gained momentum, a bit like Shostakovich perhaps. An even drunker trombone slithered all over the place. Already we were laughing at conductor and music but not nearly as much as when the orchestra launched into a reproduction of the sound of bagpipes, no resemblance to Shostakovich, and the horns whooping as in a Scottish country dance. My brother was literally rolling on the floor of the arena, the audience was hysterical at the site of this arm waving mad conductor and at the music which brought the house down. Just over a year later, I was sent to South Wales to gather evidence on a divorce case. On a very wet December Saturday in Swansea I saw in the window of a record shop a Phillips LP of Tam o’Shanter coupled with Beckus the Dandipratt and Arnold’s second symphony conducted by the talented assistant prom conductor, John Hollingsworth, who died tragically young. I bought that disc there and then. Thus did I begin my recording acquaintance of a great multi faceted composer. Not known but definitely heard. That is, if you were a keen cinema goer of the 1950’s and 60’s. Whilst one watched intently The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Sound Barrier, the Inn of the Sixth Happiness, and about another 112 or so, one heard the distinctive sounds of Malcolm Arnold, turning it out, never churning it out, with the ease of Mozart and with a brilliance not always recognized.
Malcolm Henry Arnold was born in 1921 at Northampton into a family of prosperous shoe manufacturers. Northampton boasts many of the world’s finest shoemakers, leather merchants, designers, tanneries and other related businesses. His parents were musical. Malcolm did not go to school but had lessons from an aunt who also taught him the violin. Another aunt taught him the piano and he learned counterpoint from the organist of St Matthew’s church, Northampton. Co-incidentally, St Matthews was the church of Father Walter Hussey, a great patron of the arts who later commissioned works from both Walton and Britten. Malcolm was also one of a threesome of Northampton composers, Edmund Rubbra, William Alwyn and Malcolm following a generation behind.
The next we know is that by the age of 12 – we are now in 1933 – Malcolm had developed a passion for jazz. He started teaching himself to play the trumpet and when his family stayed in Bournemouth he heard the king of jazz himself, Louis Armstrong which inspired him further. When he was 15 he came to London for lessons with Ernest Hall, the leading trumpeter of the day and principal trumpet with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. That same year he won an open scholarship to the
Royal College of Music where he continued tuition with Hall and studied composition with Gordon Jacob and William Lloyd Webber. He did not however complete these studies despite winning second prize with a composition of a string quartet. After some contretemps with the authorities he eloped with a Welsh redhead and was “discovered” playing in a dance band in Plymouth. He then left to join the London Philharmonic as second trumpet in 1942. Just think about it. At some time before he was fifteen he only then first began learning the trumpet, took lessons, went to the RCM but did not finish and by 21 is good enough to become chosen as a regular with the LPO. He could be said to have been to the trumpet what James Galway would later become to the flute. We also know that he was soon to be promoted to be first trumpet in the orchestra.
In January 1942, following a courtship of only a few months, Malcolm married Sheila Nicholson, a gifted violinist in the final year of her studies at the Royal Academy of Music. The marriage was stormy and lasted 21 years. Many other close and important friendships were forged during this period of his life, notably with William Walton, twenty years his senior, whom he first met in 1941. Despite their age difference the two composers had much in common and shared an irreverent, even anarchic, sense of humour that remained with them throughout their lives. They also shared their homophobic dislike towards Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten.
During these exceptionally exhausting and demanding early years as an orchestral musician, Malcolm had composed prolifically, often maniacally. The orchestra was frequently playing away, as was Malcolm for that matter. In 1943, the year he wrote Beckus, he suffered the first of many breakdowns that were to dog him later in life. In January 1944, Malcolm and Sheila Arnold’s first baby died soon after birth. Yet only days later, Malcolm was back once again on yet another frantic touring schedule with the LPO.
At the beginning of the war Malcolm registered as a conscientious objector and was directed into the National Fire Service as an alternative to call up although, once he had joined the LPO, this itself exempted him from other war work. Then in 1943 he changed his mind and volunteered to join the Army. I should imagine that his outlook might have changed over three years and with the blitz, his brother, a pilot, shot down, and seeing his contemporaries die he felt perhaps he should be doing his bit. He might as it turned out have stayed with the LPO as he was posted to the band of the East Kent Regiment (the Buffs). He loathed the army and at the end of the war his demob got held up and in order to obtain his discharge, he shot himself in the foot resulting in his spending four weeks in hospital. Early signs perhaps of the bizarre behaviour he was later to exhibit.
It could be said that his orchestral skills were learned whilst on the job and honed whilst watching from within the orchestra. He played under many famous conductors and learned the orchestral repertory. He wrote a tone-poem, Larch Trees, played by the orchestra in June 1943, but better known was his comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt written the same year although not performed until 1947. Overture, yes but also a wonderful scherzo with such an enticing name. The newly married Arnolds had been on holiday in Cornwall and were befriended by a beach urchin who cadged a lift on Matthew’s shoulders. He called Malcolm “Beckus”, the name for a grey
mare. Dandipratt was an obsolete English name both for an old coin and also an urchin. It is represented here not by a trumpet but by a cornet.
On leaving the army in 1945 he joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra as second trumpet to Ernest Hall but leaving four months later to rejoin his friends at the LPO as principal. He remained there until 1948 when he won the Mendelssohn Scholarship for composition. In those five years he had composed nearly 20 works.
His first symphony was completed the following year and his second in 1952 in Bournemouth conducted by Charles Groves, who went on to champion his music. In 1953 he received a commission from Sadler’s Wells Ballet to write a ballet for the Coronation season. Entitled “Homage to the Queen” it was first performed at Covent Garden at a gala on the night of the Queen’s coronation. Margot Fonteyn was among the dancers, choreography was by Frederick Ashton and designs by Oliver Messel. Dame Ninette de Valois described it as “the best ballet music since Tchaikovsky”. He followed this up with other ballet scores which include Rinaldo and Armida (Frederick Ashton, 1954), Solitaire (Kenneth MacMillan, 1956) and Sweeney Todd (John Cranko, 1959). Later, in 1963, there was Elektra (Robert Helpman)
The postwar – post LPO period was a time of new beginnings for Malcolm, 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. He clearly made a big choice after winning the Mendelssohn Prize between that of orchestral musician and that of composing. He embarked on a course of study in Italy, which resulted the following year in the start of a full-time composing career and abandoning his orchestral career. During his time with the LPO, Malcolm had been encouraged by Eduard van Beinum, the orchestra’s principal conductor, who also held the same post with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. In 1948, van Beinum included the first performance of Beckus the Dandipratt in a concert programme and, then, following a recording session and there being a little spare time left over, also made a 78 recording of it, the first recording of a Malcolm Arnold work.
It was during this period that Malcolm participated in setting up of the National Youth Orchestra and was present at the 1948 Bath Festival for its inaugural concert. A close friend of its founder, Ruth Railton, he helped establish the orchestra by fundraising, conducting, composing, and teaching. Music and youth was always important to him throughout his life and his orchestral suite Little Suite No. 1, was one of the earliest works to be written for the NYO and remains a staple repertoire piece with youth orchestras around the world.
If there was anybody who appreciated the ability of Malcolm Arnold it was his fellow members of the orchestra. They could see that his music took them into account in how he scored. They also observed the speed at which he composed . It was said he could complete a score whilst the ink was still wet. This led to a suggestion that he contact the film studios. Not only did he do so but in the five years between 1951 and 1956 alone he wrote scores for over eighty films. In 1957, he won an oscar for the film music for Bridge on the River Kwai. He didn’t actually write the Colonel Bogey tune and I am not sure if it was his idea or that of the director of having the soldiers whistling it. Malcolm would probably have preferred the army refrain, “B- – – -cks, and the same to you”. Other film score successes from that period
included The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Hobson’s Choice and Whistle Down the Wind. Eventually, his total was over 130 films and television series – an enormous number. And that was his sideline. On top of this, he also conducted the recording sessions.
During the 1950s, Malcolm found a perfect musical soul-mate in the cartoonist, Gerard Hoffnung who had become riotously famous with his drawings of conductors and players, the prisoner behind the bars of the tubular bells; the flautist with his washing hanging from his flute. He was also on the original panel of “Just A Minute”. In 1956 the first Hoffnung Music Festival brought the cartoon world alive audibly. Malcolm wrote an overture to begin the concert. Grand, Grand Overture was scored for orchestra, organ, three rifles, three vacuum cleaners and electric floor polisher. He dedicated it to President Hoover. It was a great success with the audience and the tele viewers. Other features were a concerto for hosepipe and orchestra played by Dennis Brain, Concerto to End All Concertos by Franz Reisentstein when the orchestra started off with the orchestral opening of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto No 1 interrupted by the soloist, the actress, Yvonne Arnaud, who entered playing the piano concerto by Grieg. William Walton was present at that first concert which had advertised his conducting “an excerpt” from Belshazzar’s Feast. The “excerpt” turned out to be just one note from the work, by the chorus, “SLAIN”. Hoffnung and Malcolm were temperamentally suited to each other and quickly became friends.
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. One social theme was his “Peterloo Overture commissioned by the TUC for its centenary in 1968. It commemorated the workers’ protest in 1819 at St Peters Fields in Manchester at which the Hussars were called out to quell the riot and people were shot. The last previous time the Hussars had fired a shot in anger had been at Waterloo. Hence the event being called the Peterloo Massacre.
The Arnold first symphony would be followed in fairly rapid succession by another four. The third, fourth and fifth Symphonies, all commissions, were composed between 1957 and 1961. The tragic tone of the fifth, especially in the elegiac slow movement has been ascribed as a memorial for several friends who had died, all of them young, among them the great horn player Dennis Brain – (Dennis the Menace), the clarinettist Frederick Thurston, and Gerard Hoffnung himself. This was a prolific period. There were other orchestral pieces, including Tam o’ Shanter, the two sets of English Dances, chamber works for wind instruments, string quartets, four books of piano pieces and especially concertos. In addition to the ballets there was also a one-act opera, The Dancing Master.
There also has to be a special place however for his concertos, not just the number of them but the variety of instruments for which they had been written. They were nearly always written for specific soloists who happened to be special friends. From 1945 to 1954 alone there were eight concertos: Clarinet Concerto No. 1 (for Frederick Thurston 1948); the first Horn Concerto (for Charles Gregory in 1945 and and No 2 for Dennis Brain (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). By the end, Malcolm had written 20 concertos. This last one stood out as it had not been written for a friend as most of the others had. Larry Adler was an American, a world renowned virtuoso of the harmonica, better known as the mouth organ, a name claimed to be invented by Adler. His reputation had grown in the music halls and I remember seeing him at the London Palladium some time in the early fifties. Following his becoming one of the prime victims of the McCarthy Un-American Activities Committee he slipped away to England in 1951 where he remained till his death in 2001. In 1954, he was booked to appear in the Proms and the BBC commissioned Malcolm to write a concerto. Vaughan Williams had written one for him two years earlier. Malcolm set to work and quickly adapted himself to the unusual limitations of the solo instrument. Perhaps the most memorable legacy of Larry Adler was the accompanying music he himself wrote and played for the film Genevieve.
Back to Malcolm, his reputation with the public was that of musical humourist par excellence. He loved jokes in real life, verbal jokes, practical jokes, musical jokes. There is the jocular wittiness in his arrangements of sea-shanties. There are the boisterous rhythms of some of his orchestral dances. There are the affectionate take-offs of other styles, such as jazz, as in the ragtime finale of his Second Clarinet Concerto written for Benny Goodman. There are the sounds he had no difficulty in reproducing, the bagpipes in Tam o’Shanter or the calypso effect coupled with oil drums in his Commonwealth Christmas Overture which Prince Harry and Meghan Markel should get to know.
Every year the composer would devise some new piece for the Hoffnung concert such as “The United Nations” which involved amongst other things a number of military bands marching back and forth up and down the aisles of the Festival Hall playing the national anthems of the world, simultaneously. Then there is the Grand Concerto Gastronomique, opus 76 and written “for eater, waiter, food, and large orchestra”.
Jazz influenced Malcolm Arnold’s music in many guises, an enthusiasm he shared with Julian Bream who commissioned from Malcolm a guitar concerto and gave its first performance at the 1959 Aldeburgh Festival. It has become an Arnold classic. The two are to be seen on a photograph improvising jazz. Julian is playing his guitar, a wicked grin on his face whilst Malcolm sits at a clavichord, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. A unique combination.
Against the background of his achievement there were alarm bells being rung. Malcolm was successful and wealthy but began to feel his popularity and film writing might detract from his compositional gift. Alongside his success came alcoholism, various embarrassing affairs and mental breakdown on more than one occasion. His wife, Sheila, had to call the police when he brandished a knife and Malcolm underwent electro therapy in hospital. A trip to conduct at a musical summer school in Austria, attended by his daughter Katherine, resulted in the sight of him falling off the podium drunk, while conducting a rehearsal. All of this took place on and off over several years during which there were clear signs of instability and his mental health questionable.
The 1960’s might have been swinging for some but for many a British composer they brought a black cloud with the arrival at the BBC of William Glock as Controller of Music. He set out to rid the BBC of its traditionalist school of English music which saw many a talented English composer not ready to undertake an oath of fealty to serialism become black listed. If Glock was the commander in chief and the ultra modernist composer, Pierre Boulez, was the field general put in charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. With his natural populist style, Malcolm Arnold seemed ripe for the chop but somehow he obtained a stay of execution. In fact his fourth symphony was commissioned by Glock. In 1962, Malcolm was still at the top of the tree professionally whilst at the same time domestically his marriage to Sheila had after 21 years fallen apart. From there his life became a succession of downward spirals, too frequent to detail in this short account.
Following the failure of his first marriage, he met Isobel Gray and the couple were married in 1963. In 1966, Malcolm decided he had had enough and needed to get away from London. The pressure of his career as a composer, endless films, work for radio and television, rehearsals and also as a conductor, were beginning to prove too much to cope with. Needing to escape, he chose to live in Cornwall. It was here that Isobel gave birth to his third child, Edward, who, to add to their problems, was eventually diagnosed autistic. Malcolm loved Cornwall and mixing with the local community in the local pub, raising money in writing for the Padstow lifeboat and adding his Cornish Dances to his repertoire of English and Scottish dances. A happy relaxed life but mixed with bouts of more alcoholism, depression and behavioural disorder. His income was equalled by his generosity that he had to be stopped from giving his money away as he did and steps were taken by his family to have his finances put under the control of the Court of Protection.
In 1972 the family moved to Dublin, a safe haven from the taxman at any rate. His daughter Kathryn lived there and applied her therapeutic skills to Edward’s problems. Sadly, Malcolm’s personal life began to deteriorate and there was an attempt at suicide. Isobel eventually had to get a plane to get away from Ireland and this was followed by enforced estrangement from his young son and his second divorce on his return to the UK and an almost complete breakdown.
Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Musick from 1963 died in 1975 and was succeeded by Malcolm Williamson. “The Wrong Malcolm” William Walton wrote. Our Malcolm was hurt. He could have written goodness knows how many “Welcome the Queens” in less time than it would take H.M to disembark from Britannia. His musical credentials were indisputable, but it must have been clear, except to William Walton, that Malcolm was a risk too far. This was a man who once played a piano in the lounge of a Bournemouth hotel and appeared one afternoon completely nude. Master of the Queen’s Music or not, he would have been dropping bricks all over the place and they would not have been purple ones,.
The end of the 1970s was a difficult time for Malcolm. Somehow he found his way back to Northampton and was confined to hospital for three months and at one time sectioned. Against the background of his difficulties he began to write a new series of late symphonies and his state of mind undoubtedly penetrates into his music of this period. We have come a long way from Beckus. It poses its difficulties but it
retains the fingerprints of the Malcolm Arnold of yore. Four years of silence would pass between his seventh symphony dedicated to his three children and his eighth.
His language had subtly changed. His music becomes more elusive, more compressed and at times more angry. No sign of Colonel Bogey here. The music is often for a solo instrument, pared to its essentials and austere. In the 1980’s the medics had given up on him, reckoning he would not live for more than two years. He lived for twenty more years, thanks to Anthony Day.
Family relationships were not easy. As a public figure, he had the reputation of the gregarious extrovert but to those closest to him he could seem cruel and distant. He then met Anthony Day, a former cruise ship hair dresser who had acted as a carer for a stock broker who died. Day was then asked if he would take on Malcolm and did so dutifully and lovingly over 20 years. They were just carer and cared, friends. Day was gay. Malcolm was straight. They eventually settled in Attleborough in Norfolk where they would visit Dunston Hall, a local hotel. Here Malcolm could often be found in the foyer playing the piano with his left hand and the trumpet with the right hand, much to the fascination of the guests, who had no idea who he was.
As to his music, I can leave this aspect to Matthew. Earlier he had been dubbed “one of the great hopes of British music”. Unconventional as he was, he produced music that was tonal, melodic, witty, high-spirited and always superbly crafted. He claimed Berlioz to be the greatest influence upon him and that, like Berlioz, “all of my music is biographical”.
He was commissioned to write a ninth symphony by the BBC but, with a change of Music controller, it was not played. Charles Groves eventually found an amateur orchestra to give its first performance. It was bleak and a swansong which is only now being understood. In 1985 he received a second Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Services to British Music; in 1993 his knighthood; and in 2001 a Fellowship of the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, bestowed at his 80th birthday concert.
Towards the end he no longer wrote or played, by then suffering from mild dementia and also wheelchair-bound. He expressed regret at having been ignored by the BBC Proms that year. “Doesn’t my 85th birthday justify something of mine being performed?” he asked. He died just before reaching that birthday in 2006.
I started off this sketch with my first seeing Malcolm Arnold conduct the premiere of his Tam o’Shanter overture. I will therefore end when I saw him once more at a concert, about 1995. I had gone to the Barbican to hear the LSO under Richard Hickox in which the programme included Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No 5. I saw Malcolm led to a seat in the stalls by another man. He was not the burly figure of 40 years earlier but now thin, emaciated, with a heavily lined face. Everyone cheered vociferously at the end and his carer led him by the hand on to the stage. Malcolm seemed happy if not seeming to know quite where he was. Instead of leaving the stage when beckoned, he instead stepped up on to the rostrum and seized the baton and started swishing it at the orchestra who appeared bemused and uncertain what to do. Eventually he was very gently led back to his seat. It had been but one brief moment but one when Malcolm Arnold had at any rate found happiness.