The Hilarious, Heartbreaking Life and Music of Malcolm Arnold

Five years ago, an advertisement was placed on eBay by a small auction business in Northwest London called FlogIt4U. The listing was rather more highbrow than FlogIt4U’s usual fare; it was a handwritten score, still wrapped in its original tissue paper.

It turned out to be the manuscript of Malcolm Arnold’s Seventh Symphony, a work that had been thought lost for 30 years, with movements dedicated to each of its composer’s three children. It is probable that Arnold, during the period he suffered acutely from debilitating mental illness and was placed under the financial jurisdiction of the United Kingdom’s Court of Protection, bartered the score to help cover a debt.

That wouldn’t have been an unusual situation for a composer as troubled — and as productive — as Arnold. He wrote nine symphonies, seven ballets, more than 20 concertos and 132 film scores, winning an Academy Award for “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” before dying in 2006, at 84. But Alan Poulton, a composer, pianist and writer who is chairman of the Malcolm Arnold Society, has identified at least 18 more works that have simply vanished.

This year, the 100th anniversary of Arnold’s birth, a petition signed by Julian Lloyd Webber and other musical luminaries forced the British Ministry of Justice to reconsider a decision that threatened to destroy Arnold’s documents from the time he was under the care of the Court of Protection, in the late 1970s and early ’80s; those papers will be relocated to the National Archives. Another large chunk of Arnold’s archive also has a new home at Eton College — though what he, staunchly anti-establishment, might have made of that is anybody’s guess.

Despite Arnold’s being one of his country’s most prominent and popular composers during his lifetime, there have been few celebrations of his centenary. His work was stubbornly, unfashionably tonal, and frequently witty; he pursued neither the pastoral idioms that obsessed Vaughan Williams, nor the serial techniques that burst onto the scene in the 1960s.

Arnold’s hugely varied output included a crossover milestone: his Concerto for Group and Orchestra, for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the rock band Deep Purple.Credit…PA Images/Alamy

“I always write music that, if I were in the audience, I would like to hear,” Arnold said at the start of Tony Palmer’s 2004 documentary about him, “Toward the Unknown Region.” Though his music certainly possesses a hostile streak — listen to the striking volte-face in his “Peterloo Overture,”as he depicts armed yeomanry descending on amassed protesters — Arnold never gave up on the power of melody. His proclivity for tunefulness runs through his varied output, which fills most corners of the repertory. The symphonies, ballets and concertos sit alongside rambunctious concert works, many pieces for brass and wind band, and the film scores that are arguably his greatest achievement.

At his peak, Arnold wrote over 20 hours of music a year, including six films, demonstrating a maniacal creativity that, together with an unhealthy obsession with sex, periods of complete despondency and unabated alcoholism throughout his adult life, coalesced in a crippling manic-depressive tendency.

The “Bridge on the River Kwai” score won him an Oscar, but it’s elsewhere that his wit and vigor are most precisely realized: “The Belles of St. Trinian’s” (1954), the first in a popular comedy series set in a girls’ school; the gritty Lancashire tale “Whistle Down The Wind” (1961); and “Hobson’s Choice” (1954), one of many successful collaborations with the director David Lean. (To his later chagrin, though, he turned down work on Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”)

Charming though they are, these films do feel rather dated today, and their musical accompaniment, richly scored in a late Romantic idiom, does too. (“If a film score comes out uninfluenced by Berlioz, it’s no damn good,” Arnold once said.) The sense of Arnold’s being profoundly out of fashion extends beyond his cinema work, though. When his Fifth Symphony — as close to a canonical masterwork as Arnold wrote — was performed this summer at the BBC Proms, it was the first time an Arnold symphony had been done at the Proms since 1994.

Born in Northampton in 1921, Arnold’s future was certain after he saw a Louis Armstrong concert in Bournemouth at age 13, which fostered his fascination with both the trumpet and jazz, shaping his taste for lush harmonies and driving rhythms. A scholarship to the Royal College of Music meant a move to London, though he was a rebellious student, at one point discovered in the company of a young lady in Plymouth, having run away to play trumpet in a swing band. He left the Royal College at 19, for a trumpet seat in the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Initially a committed conscientious objector during World War II, Arnold signed up for the war effort following the death of his brother in action, and was eventually posted to a military staff band. Soon after, a sergeant found him in a pool of his own blood: Arnold had intentionally shot himself in the foot, forcing a move back to the orchestra.

Arnold playing music he had written for the 1958 film “The Key” for Carl Foreman, standing left, the film’s producer, and Carol Reed, its director.Credit…PA Images/Alamy

Shotguns featured in a decidedly more humorous setting after the war. In “A Grand, Grand Overture,” four gunners were cast as the nemeses of the piece’s star soloists: three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher. This and other tongue-in-cheek works were written for the cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung’s Hoffnung Festivals, musical celebrations of the bizarre and satirical. The two decades following the war were a boom time for Arnold, who worked, traveled and drank more than ever. Reams of music followed, regardless of his personal ups and downs.

His music is characterized by a kind of selflessness, a high-spirited generosity, whether he was writing celebratory music for a local brass band, a lush accompaniment for a film or pieces for his mates in the orchestra. Time spent in Cornwall following the end of his first marriage, in the early 1960s, cemented his belief in a composer’s duty to his community, and one of his proudest achievements was being made Bard of the Cornish Gorsedh in 1968.

“Music is the social act of communication, a gesture of friendship,” he said.

The other side of Arnold’s high spirits was never far away, though, and his life unraveled after a career peak in the 1960s. He was a notorious drinker. And in the first of a series of disturbing episodes, he went after his first wife, Sheila Nicholson, with a knife. She managed to call the police, and so began regular periods for Arnold in and out of mental hospitals. There were numerous infidelities, and the breakdown of that first marriage and then another; by the 1970s, he had tried to commit suicide twice. Arnold checked himself into a hospital on the verge of collapse, and was under the care of the Court of Protection from 1979 to 1986.

It was only because of the unwavering (and unrequited) support of his children, former lovers, friends of friends and caregivers such as Anthony Day, that he was not only brought back from the brink of mental breakdown, but eventually returned to writing music. He retired from composing in 1990 and died in Norwich, having outlived the most generous predictions.

Arnold’s music isn’t out of favor everywhere. His compositions for amateur and youth ensembles appear with deserved regularity. Pieces like the dance sets (Cornish, Scottish, English); the Little Suites for Orchestra; and the Fantasy for Brass Band blend lush orchestrations with lilting themes, balancing accessibility with challenge while never pandering to nonprofessional players. Conservatory students in trombone, recorder, guitar and tuba, lacking a rich standard repertoire, are also blessed with a collection of works by Arnold that include smaller fantasies, concertos (written for performers as varied as Benny Goodman, Julian Bream and Larry Adler) and other occasional works for instruments he felt deserved their moment in the sun.

After years spent in and out of mental hospitals, Arnold, thanks to devoted friends, family and caregivers, survived and was even able to return to writing music.Credit…ITV/Shutterstock

His orchestrations gleam, and one place his writing will always be welcome is among orchestral musicians. For the professionals, Arnold’s music carries the feeling that he was on their side. (He was a frequent presence on the podium, particularly leading events like his Concerto for Group and Orchestra, for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the rock band Deep Purple, a crossover milestone.) Before focusing on composition, he was a first-rate trumpeter, eventually gaining the principal chair in the London Philharmonic, and he knew exactly what worked and what didn’t from inside the orchestral organism.

His ability to traverse the sublime and ridiculous is captured on a recent recording by the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra of Latvia, led by John Gibbons, which pairs Arnold’s austere Ninth Symphony with a bizarre Hoffnung piece, the “Grand Concerto Gastronomique” for eater, waiter, food and orchestra.

“There’s a quality in how Arnold’s music reaches audiences,” Gibbons said in an interview. “Even in the Ninth Symphony, which explores a huge range of human emotions, it’s bare enough to fully understand on a first listen.”

The “Gastronomique” is an illuminating snapshot of Arnold the satirist. (The movement called “Roast Beef,” winking at Elgarian nobility, is particularly delicious.) But it’s the Ninth, completed in 1986 and Arnold’s last major compositional statement, that Gibbons wants to re-evaluate.

“It’s not all about grief,” he said — and, indeed, Gibbons’s sprightly tempos have caused consternation in some circles. “Symphonists after Mahler are expected to end in grief and existential angst, but this is more like the serene floating of a composer reflecting on life from his old age.”

The Ninth’s D Major conclusion is unexpectedly sunny, but is it the satisfying arrival we might hope for? The short answer is no — it’s a merely partial resolution, an apt quasi-ending to Arnold’s story, which continues to rumble on bumpily, well into death.

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