Obituary: Sir Malcolm Arnold

October 16, 2006

By all accounts Arnold was a musical genius who never received the recognition he was due, either from the BBC or from the music-loving public, possibly because he was unable to write ‘serious’ music without including light-hearted references and snatches as well. Strange this, as many of the great composers were fond of inserting jokes into their music. His life contained quite a few odd moments, too.
‘In 1940 Arnold won second prize in the Cobbett competition for composition with a string quartet. Rebelling against discipline, he eloped with a Welsh redhead and ran away to Plymouth. He was found by detectives playing in a dance band and was persuaded to return to the college.’ A conscientious objector, he was directed into the National Fire Service but was exempted from other war work when he joined the LPO. When he played a solo he would change colour, turning from pink to all shades of red, through purple to puce then, when finished, he would regard his instrument with disgust, as though it had pooped on the carpet. In 1943 he changed his mind and volunteered to join the Army; he was directed into the Buffs’ band. To obtain his discharge when the war ended, he shot himself in the foot and spent four weeks in hospital.Arnold led a troubled and often stormy life which veered into alcoholism and depression. “He had a heart attack in 1988 and attempted suicide a few years later (“took every pill in the house and washed them down with a bottle of brandy”). Schizophrenia and manic depression led to a period in a mental institution.” In 1984 he was given two years to live and in 1992 two months.It was Arnold’s fate to be described as too populist. A critic once wrote of the Fifth Symphony, “the less said about it the better”. I can remember hearing the still freshly composed Grand Grand Overture for organ, three vacuum cleaners, floor polisher, four rifles and orchestra (1956), written for Gerard Hoffnung’s music festival.
One player remembers him thus: “His writing is so idiomatic, always voicing the instruments in a way that exploits their character and makes the player feel good. The clustered seventh chords in the horns, the radiant brass writing, the mellifluous woodwind solos and the huge, arching string tunes are like slipping into a warm bath for those playing them. Perhaps because of his concern for the forgotten or neglected, he wrote more piccolo and tuba solos than everyone else put together.”


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