Program highlight – Don’t miss Sunday Special celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Malcolm Arnold on Sunday 17 October, 3pm with presenter Anne-Louise Luccarini

Derek Parker remembers Malcolm Arnold

Malcolm Arnold – the centenary of whose birth we celebrate on 21 October – was subject throughout his life to severe depression and extreme mood swings which, with acute alcoholism, led to several suicide attempts. But the unbalanced nature of his emotional life undoubtedly played a part in fostering the emotional diversity and astonishing range of his music. He composed over 500 works, including nine symphonies, seven ballets, two operas, twenty concertos, chamber music, scores for brass and wind, and well over a hundred film scores; in all of this there is nothing less than interesting, much that is sparklingly inventive and original, and a great deal that is immediately attractive and memorable.

It was a live performance by Louis Armstrong that encouraged 12-year-old Malcolm to take up the trumpet. Four years later, he became a student at the Royal College, and by the time he was 22 he was principal trumpet of the London Philharmonic. Arnold had also studied composition, and this aspect of his musical interests became compulsive; by 1948 he was ready to leave his desk to become a full-time composer. In a remarkably short time, he rivalled Benjamin Britten as the young English composer to whom orchestras came for new works. Many of them were ‘popular’ in every sense: the unconventional overtures; the suites of regional dances; and his film music (for the St Trinian’s films among others, including the Oscar-winning score for The Bridge on the River Kwai which featured a countermarch to Kenneth Alford’s Colonel Bogey). The public found no difficulty in enjoying all this, but professional critics failed to appreciate even such beautiful work as the slow movement of Arnold’s Guitar Concerto, let alone his often unconventional symphonies.

Escape from London to Cornwall failed to alleviate Arnold’s emotional problems, but his deep love of the county was expressed in his Cornish Dances and in a march he wrote for the Padstow lifeboatmen. He moved to Ireland but was still pursued by depression; this deepened when, on the death of Arthur Bliss, the position of Master of the Queen’s Music went to Malcolm Williamson even though his friends had passionately argued for his appointment.

Arnold eventually alienated even his closest friends and descended to living on the streets. Placed into care in the 1980s, he was given only a year to live; but he survived, and continued to compose, even taking a bow at a Promenade concert after a performance of his Guitar Concerto. He received many honorary doctorates and fellowships from his fellow musicians, and was finally knighted in 1993, four years before his death.

If the personal life is tragic, the music triumphs, unlikely in future to be as neglected by critics and musicologists as it was in Arnold’s lifetime. As far as the musical public are concerned, he remains, simply, one of the most important of all 20th century English composers.