written by Ben Hogwood
Today marks 100 years since the birthday of English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold.
Arnold has always had a chequered relationship with the concert-going and record-buying public. He was too often seen as a vulgar composer, or someone who couldn’t resist a musical prank, which his work with Deep Purple, in the Concerto for Group and Orchestra of 1969, and his involvement in the Gerard Hoffnung concerts did little to dispel. Writing a piece that included parts for three vacuum cleaners (A Grand, Grand Overture) was a bridge too far for some. His personality is often cited too, for Arnold – who suffered consistently from poor mental health – gained a bad reputation amid his struggles with alcohol and financial problems.
Yet beneath the humour beat a deeply caring musical heart that revealed itself in a myriad of different compositions. The nine symphonies speak with power and concentrated thought of his struggles, and though many still lie dormant the success of the Fifth at the BBC Proms this year said much for the musical quality in the mind behind it.
Arnold mastered many forms, writing concertos for most of the principal orchestral instruments, chamber music that is still all too rarely heard, and stage works that are only just being properly discovered. The Dancing Master, winner of a BBC Music Magazine award this year thanks to a recent recording on Resonus, is testament to that, while the film music has started to get its due reward. The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Hobson’s Choice are all fine scores.
Since I am writing this from holiday in Cornwall, I have chosen to focus on some of the pieces Arnold wrote in his time living at St Merryn. The first one is a light-hearted treasure, The Padstow Lifeboat – with a striking written-out part intended to include the foghorn.
The piece was written in 1967 to commemorate the lifeboat’s inauguration, with Arnold still discovering more local musical appeal having not long moved from London. Due in part to the success of the piece, it was not long before he was made Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1968. It is a lively, humourous march that can’t help but raise a smile!
A remarkable output including 132 film scores. I hope BBC Radio 3’s focus on Arnold as composer of the week draws attention to his many other works, nine symphonies which deserve a wider audience. We do not consider Shostakovich or Schnittke as film composers, let’s not do the same to Malcolm Arnold. Don’t forget also that he was principal trumpet of the London Philharmonic Orchestra aged 19.
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Hi Robin, thank you for this – I completely agree, and appreciate the reminder of Arnold’s achievements as a trumpet player. I read Piers Burton-Page’s excellent biography of him a while back, and I think it’s due a re-visit!
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Tony Palmer’s documentary film “Toward the Unknown Region” must be available online … I’m looking today.