A Tribute to Sir Malcolm Arnold

Written by: Edward Clark

It was sad news to hear that Sir Malcolm had died (on 23 September 2006).

I love Malcolm Arnold’s music because he connects me to my feelings and he does this more than any other modern composer I know. Nothing is filtered in this music. It goes straight to the heart. We experience joy, pain, exhilaration and all the other human sensibilities in the most direct manner. I sometimes think people who reject Arnold’s music also reject their own feelings. He is, in fact, a great liberator and I always feel a better human being after listening to one of his works, be it a piece with intentional humour or a darker canvas, often full of ambiguity of meaning. He allows us to understand a little more of life’s absurdities and triumphs without insulting our intelligence – a rare gift in any age.

Born in 1921, Malcolm Arnold was one of the towering figures of the 20th-century. He wrote his first ‘hit’ piece, Beckus the Dandipratt, in 1943, a work that immediately established his special orchestral sound. Arnold was then a trumpeter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and remained a professional musician for only another five years before turning to fulltime composition. His subsequent output was huge in scope and variety, including nine symphonies, seven ballets, two operas, one musical, over twenty concertos, two string quartets, and music for brass-band and wind-band. He also wrote 132 film scores, among which are some of the finest works ever composed for the medium; they include “Bridge on the River Kwai” (for which, in 1958, he was the first British composer ever to win an Oscar), “Inn of the Sixth Happiness”, “Hobson’s Choice” and “Whistle Down the Wind”. It could be argued that no British post-war composer (indeed from any era) has written such a range of music.

In 1969 Arnold was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth and was awarded the CBE in 1970. He held Honorary Doctorates of Music from the Universities of Exeter, Durham, Leicester and Miami; he was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1983 and is an Honorary R.A.M. In 1986 Malcolm Arnold received the Ivor Novello Award for “Outstanding Services to British Music” and a knighthood in the 1993 New Years Honours List for his services to music. In 2001 he was made a Fellow of the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. In 2004 he was honoured with the Incorporated Society of Musician’s Distinguished Musician Award “for his lifetime’s achievements as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.”

Malcolm Arnold had been embedded in the British musical scene since the war, working with now iconic performers, many of whom commissioned and premiered works from him. Other commissions came from the BBC and international music festivals. His work in musical education was impressive and consistent; among his achievements was to help establish and support, through the writing of works and fundraising, the National Youth Orchestra and the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. In addition, his belief in contemporary music led him to be an influential advocate for Pierre Boulez’s entry into British musical life in the post-war period.

The outstanding quality of Malcolm Arnold’s music is its ease of communication: I have never met a musician, amateur or professional, who didn’t enjoy playing his music. Arnold wrote with the ear of a trained orchestral player and was sympathetic to the requirements of a full orchestra – by keeping everyone busy for most of the time! His music reflects his profound concern with the human predicament and also his belief that music is “a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is.” Many of Arnold’s compositions form the bedrock of our youth orchestras’ repertoire, including the various sets of national dances, Tam O’Shanter, The Padstow Lifeboat, Peterloo and many of the symphonies (which together form arguably his finest body of music and reflect Arnold’s assertion that “all my music is biographical”). Indeed, the support of our youth orchestras has been instrumental in keeping Arnold’s name alive with British audiences. And most professional players began their careers in such orchestras, including Sir Simon Rattle

Audiences have always been attracted to Arnold’s music, welcoming its accessibility and melodic richness. Writing at a time of radical change towards modernism demanded by post-war critics and factions within the BBC, Arnold stayed true to his own belief in diatonic music. His heroes were Berlioz and Sibelius, and something of the former’s brilliance and the latter’s depth can be heard in Arnold’s best compositions. This should not detract from Arnold’s originality, be it in his soundworld or in the often-strange mixture of musical thought which has an unnerving habit of taking us from places of emotional comfort to areas full of anxiety and stress without much warning. Perhaps Arnold learnt this skill from Sibelius, whose Fourth Symphony he regarded as the greatest work of the 20th-century.

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