Composer  Sir  Malcolm  Arnold

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Without actually checking, it is safe to assume that few (if any) other concert music composers wrote scores for over a hundred films and won an Oscar.  Similarly, we can guess that no other significant film-composer wrote nine symphonies, seven ballets, at least twenty concertos, as well as many chamber pieces and solo works.  Thus, Malcolm Arnold stands alone in sharing both camps within one career.  He was also diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man.  All of this gives us something extra to ponder while we enjoy his music.

More photos and other information can be found on his website, and a general overview of his interesting and troubled life is included in the obituary reproduced at the end of this interview.

It was in 1991 that Arnold was touring the United States, and we arranged to talk on the telephone.  He was in New York City for performances of his music, and earlier in the day he had watched a bit of the St. Patrick
’s Day Parade from his hotel window. . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Do you manage to get to the U.S. often?

Malcolm Arnold:    I haven’t been for some time.  Last time I was in the States, I was in Los Angeles, but New York is a favorite city of mine.

BD:    Why is that?

MA:    Well, you’ve got everything!  You’ve got Chinatown, you’ve got Italy, you’ve got German quarter — you’ve got everything.  I always used to call it a microcosm of the whole world; every nationality, race, and creed.

BD:    So you like a generous mixture of all kinds of things?

MA:    That’s right.  And the food is unbelievable!  When I used to come over, people would say, “How did you find the food?  How did you find the food?”  And I used to say, “It’s absolutely marvelous!”

BD:    I assume you like the diversity?

MA:    That’s right.

BD:    Let me ask you this, then:  do you put that same kind of diversity into the music that you write?

arnoldMA:    Yeah.  When I’m here, there’s an influence of New York.  I like big cities, you see.  It’s not an original remark, but somebody said you can lose yourself in a big city.

BD:    So my question now is: do you put that same diversity into the music that you write?

MA:    I try to, in everything I write. Yeah, I try to, because is an expression of one’s own individuality; it can’t be more than that.

BD:    And you don’t try to make it more than it is?

MA:    Oh, no, you can’t!  You are what you are, whatever anybody says!  That’s right, isn’t it?

BD:    Well, of course, of course. [Both laugh]  You’ve spent many years writing music that is quite tonal, and quite palatable.  Is this music that you wanted to write?

MA:    Yeah.  When I was twelve and thirteen, all the British composers and a lot of the Americans were writing serial, atonic music, and I knew that wasn’t going to stay.  I have the greatest admiration for Schoenberg, Webern, and particularly Berg, who did a great deal to enhance our musical language.  But I used to say to a man who studied Webern, — a very great friend of mine, Humphrey Searle — “You sing me a tune from Schoenberg!”  And the strange thing was, he had such a perceptive ear and admired the man so much, he could!  Of course, there are tunes if you take the trouble to pick them out.  But who the hell has got that time?  That’s my theory.  I’m not criticizing composers who do that sort of work, because I’ve done experimental works myself in the business of growing up.

BD:    Are you saying that your music takes less effort to enjoy?

MA:    I always hope that.

BD:    I see, so you’re really conscious of the public as you’re sitting there with your pen?

MA:    Oh, yeah!  You always have to think of an audience, always.

BD:    Do you have any special expectations of the audience that will hear your music?

MA:    I hope to, yes.  We had a full house last night, and I’m still recovering from that success.  Don’t think I’m big-headed, [laughs] but it was a fantastic success, the whole program.

BD:    Was yours the only new piece on the program?

MA:    Mine was the only commissioned work, and Michala Petri very generously played the second and fourth movement again as an encore.  She got a round of applause and she did an encore!  I had told her, “If you play that correctly, you’ll get an encore.”  She said, “Do you think so?  I’m much too nervous after I played that in front of you to do an encore.”  She did three! [Both laugh] Two of my movements and a piece that her father told her she should always play to end a concert, because it was a final encore and nothing could follow it.  [See my interview with Michala Petri.]

BD:    What was that piece?

MA:    She says it in Danish.  I can’t translate; I don’t speak Danski, but Michala announces it in her own inimitable way.  “As a final encore I will play this,” and it
s a lovely piece!  It’s a great encore piece, and I think it was possibly arranged, or written for her, by her father.  I’ve never delved into it, but I think it’s true.

BD:    Is it an arrangement of a folk song?

MA:    Yeah.  It’s an arrangement of a Danski folk song.

BD:    And she also played two of your movements?

MA:    There are five movements.  She played the second and fourth.

BD:    Is it good to take a little piece out of a larger work just to play as a gem?

MA:    Well, it’s her work.  She asked me to write it, and as far as I’m concerned, she is the most perfect recorder player I’ve ever heard in my life.  I was amazed she played one movement, let alone two.  But she played these two, and I think it was delightful!

arnoldBD:    Would you rather she had played the whole work, so that the people could hear once again the entire structure?

MA:    I asked her why she didn’t do that and she said she was too tired and too nervous.  So it was a great compliment she played only two!  I don’t really approve of people playing snippets of five or three movement works.  To do the last movement of a symphony, or something like that, to give a big finish, I think is in terrible taste.  I know they do it in the States.  The programs are very intelligent, usually:  a concerto, not even an overture, interval, and a symphony.  Sometimes there is an overture, but in the U.K. our programs are much too long!  I’ve always appreciated, particularly in New York, the brevity of the programs.

BD:    You don’t feel the public is getting cheated, and should get more for their money?

MA:    Oh, no!  No, it
’s the nervous strain!  This morning I was talking to an American colleague of mine about the nervous strain of trumpet playing, and it is too much to do long programs!  Much too much!

BD:    So then it’s really on the part of the performers that you’re concerned, rather than the audience?

MA:    Both.  Whenever I have a work being performed, I’m so nervous myself that I feel the deepest sympathy for the audience.  I feel trepidation for the players.  And I know by the construction of the work that it’s all right.  I have no idea how long any of my pieces will last, but I hope the ballet music does, the chamber music, and the symphonies.  That’s the most any human being can hope.

BD:    I take it, though, that you have basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works over the years?

MA:    Oh, absolutely delighted!  Any young composer
or old composerwho is not pleased with the performances of his works is a conceited ass!  I mean, anybody who takes the trouble to learn and perform your workslet alone commission, which is an added treat — is tremendous!

BD:    So there’s nothing to be said, then, if a performer does not play it the way the composer wants it?

MA:    Well, the composer should take the trouble.  Performers today are much more moral in observing the composer’s directions.  Fifty or sixty years ago, people used to take very little notice of what the composer marked, and they used to do what they considered their own interpretations, which would have made people like Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn turn in their grave. . . and particularly Bach!  We’re only recently very good to Bach’s things.

BD:    If you’re saying that fifty years ago people were taking liberties with it, what about a hundred and fifty years ago when some of these works were written?  Were they not taking liberties?

MA:    Well, nobody knows.  There is the question of pitch, you see.  Pitch, a hundred and fifty years ago, was a third lower than it is today.  The U.K. was one of the last to take what has now become international pitch.  Henry Wood insisted, in the Promenade Concerts, that they use the American or International pitch.  He did it for his singers, and not only for his singers, but his string players, his woodwind players, and his brass players, and also, the audience, you see.  His versions of our national anthem were always in D.  I know “The Star Spangled Banner” is always in B flat, and it should be, because everybody can sing it!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back now to your music...  If you write music with tunes and perhaps more palatable harmonies than others, is it not a question that perhaps performers can find it easier to do your music accurately than things that are much more complex, say Schoenberg or one of his followers?

MA:    Yes, it is.  Having been a player myself, I always make it as simple as I possibly can for the performers.  Not necessarily children’s music, but I know when I write a piece for a person, I want to know their personality; I want to know them well and I want to put their whole character, through me, in my music, to the public.  Most people on the platform have a good personality, and they can lead.  Michala Petri has a particularly good personality, and this commission was for the opening of Weill Hall, which is very, very beautiful indeed.  Well, it really opened, you see, last night.  It’s very, very beautiful indeed, with chandeliers.  It is in the style that the Carnegie Hall was, but Carnegie Hall now has, instead of that brown veneer, it has pastel shades.  It’s also very beautiful, too.  But it was a great, great honor!

BD:    It sounds lovely.  How are the acoustics? 

MA:    For a chamber music hall it is superb.   It
s very terrifying for the players, but there is a very good American string quartet who played the Tchaikovsky, and it sounded absolutely magnificent in that hall!  It was terrifying for them, because it’s one of those halls where every squeak or string note can be heard — which is good, you see!

BD:    You could hear all the details?

MA:    All the details, absolutely!  What could be better for a chamber music hall?  It was a great honor to be asked by the United States to be a representative of their opening.

BD:    Does it surprise you that you are a composer of international reputation?

arnoldMA:    Not really, no! [Laughs] I think I’m mostly known by my symphonies which have been performed all over the world. . . some of them, not the later ones.  And the chamber music — some of it has been performed and recorded.  But it’s nice to know.  You encourage me, you see.  I should be very a swollen-headed British person in the United States if you talk to me like that, because it’s very, very complimentary to what I feel.  A composer is as young as he feels.  And at seventy, really, you feel as though you’re ready to start!

BD:    Are there any big surprises now that you’re about to approach your seventieth birthday?

MA:    Oh, yeah.  Lots of wonderful things are in store.  Right now, as you know, I
’m in the United States where I shall meet many old friends, and a thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable time I’ve had so far!

BD:    I assume that you are constantly writing new material?

MA:    Oh, yeah, I never stop.  I never stop.

BD:    Are the new ideas always going around in your head, or do you let them go from time to time, like when you’re listening to a performance or when you’re taking a vacation?

MA:    I’m always thinking of other works.  When I hear a first performance, I’m so nervous for the performers’ sake.

BD:    You’re not nervous for your own sake?

MA:    No.  No.  I’m nervous for the performers’ sake.  I always have confidence.  It’s always such hard work, writing music.  You have no idea!  I would say it’s one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.  Writing music is a science as well as an art.

BD:    Where is that balance between the science and the art?

MA:    Ah!  Well, one of my greatest friends was C.P. Snow, and I used to say to him, “There is no difference.”  We used to argue all night long!  I don’t know whether I was a young bore, but he used to say, “You know, you’ve got something.  I don’t think there is any difference between science and art!”  The art of music is mostly science, therefore there is no difference.  But in some arts there are differences.  Cubism strains a bit too far into the scientific grading of cubes, but some people could do it magnificently, like Paul Klee, who wasn’t necessarily a cubist.

BD:    Coming back to our original discussion, would you think that perhaps the atonal style is perhaps too much science and not enough art?

MA:    It is!  It is.  Not degrading Schoenberg, who is a very great and tortured man, I once said that he didn
’t come on his invention of the serial twelve note bit by chance.  That was no more important than the striking of the cymbal with a soft stick.  When I was very young, I was taken to task by many critics in London for saying it, but I still believe it, which is no disparagement of a great man.  Schoenberg was a great and tortured man.

BD:    Then you feel the striking of the cymbal with a soft stick is a new technique, an advancement?

MA:    It’s a new technique and advancement.  It wasn’t used ad nauseum by, shall we say, post-impressionist French composers.  Think of Debussy’s La Mer, with this cymbal with a soft stick, cymbal with a hard stick, and even the cymbal struck with a triangle.  I said it disparagingly because it’s an instance where over-intellectualism in music ruins it.  Music is a lyric art.  It’s an art of tunes, things that people can sing — not necessarily with words.  It’s often a good thing to do a whole thing bouche ferme, isn’t it?  Then you don’t get into trouble.  [Both laugh]  You see, if you use words, they’re either religious or political, or they’re over-romantic.  In any case, I don’t think you hear them half the time.  I’ve never set really good poetry to music.  I’ve set lyrics to music, but I think a lyric is not necessarily great poetry.  That’s where I disagreed with Ben Britten, who set some of the most wonderful poetry to music... which is wrong, because everybody has their conception of that poem!  Nobody should pin it down.

BD:    So great poetry doesn’t need anything else?

MA:    Exactly!  Exactly.

BD:    Do you feel that the business of the twelve tone music is, perhaps, like a side road, but that tonality is the main thoroughfare?

MA:    Tonality is the main thoroughfare.  When you lose tonality, you lose music altogether.  And you’ll never get past one of the great international things, which is jazz.  I’m a great admirer of Charlie Parker and his Bird flying, who was almost atonal in some of his things.  But I think a great thing of music is tonality.  Jazz is going to see us through the pretensions of the over-serious, over-intellectual, European musicians.  That is my very firm, but humble opinion.  I use it because you ask me these questions, to put forth my point of view, which, of course, is what you want to hear.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I assume that you are literally swamped with commissions and offers, and requests for music.  How do you decide which ones you will accept and which ones you will postpone or turn aside?

MA:    In the past I used to have too many commissions, far too many commissions.  But I was little paid.  I used to earn living from films.  I’m the oldest film fan ever.  I started going to films when I was three, and I’m the oldest film fan probably around!  [Both laugh]  I used to call myself Ye Olde Filme Fanne, you know the way they say it in Elizabethan tea rooms.  So when I write music for the cinema, it’s a thing I didn’t just do for money!  I did it because I had so many ideas, naturally, from my senior film composers, Oscar winners, and all that.  I had so many ideas that I wanted to put in practice, that I continually advanced on the backs of my predecessors.  But I hope it was in my own style.

BD:    Was there any major effect upon you of winning the Oscar?

1948MA:    Well, when I came to New York first, which is when I had won my first Oscar — my only Oscar, I should say — I was swamped!  Even at Customs, people met me.  I was on the Steve Allen Show many years ago. 

BD:    Do you still continue to write the film scores?

MA:    No.  I gave up writing film scores seventeen years ago.

BD:    Purposely?

MA:    Yes, because I thought I was reproducing; I was plagiarizing myself which you can if you do too many films.  You get into a habit of using the same chord progressions, the same tonal progressions, and you never get any further tonally, or anything else.

BD:    Perhaps now that you’ve been away from it for nearly a score of years, might you go back to it?

MA:    Years ago I used to say, “I want to see the script first,” and I would be bombarded with scripts.  I can read a script in about a day.  I used to say to my assistant, “Who is it?” and she’d tell me.  I’d always worked for Anatole Litvak, Mark Roberson, and my dear friend Alfred Newman at Fox, and Darryl F. Zanuck, who was my greatest friend in films.  I always did everything for him, regardless.  One of the best scores I did was for him, Island in the Sun, a magnificent story by the brother of Evelyn Waugh, Alec Waugh.  It had a wonderful cast:  Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and James Mason.

BD:    When you were writing the score for that or any other film, did you get involved with the picture?

MA:    Oh, I was very much involved with that because it was the first time I had a steel band, a Trinidad steel band.  Guess where?  It was in Archway, Highgate, London!  A Trinidad steel band.  I recorded all that steel band music in London.  They came over and made a day of it.  They used to bring their sandwiches and I’d rehearse with them in their club!  It was a great day out for them.  For me it was an education because they made their own instruments out of tin dustbin lids!  I’d try to figure out how they played with such virtuosity, and they couldn’t tell me how they did it.  They played this with amazing virtuosity!  I mean, it’s absolutely astounding!

BD:    It just evolves for them?

MA:    Well, it’s traditional Trinidadian music, isn’t it, the steel band?  I don’t think they have it anywhere else except in Trinidad.

BD:    I don’t know of it anywhere else.  Of course, with the recordings and the films it would travel all over the world.

MA:    Oh, yes, yes.  That is a great advantage.  There also is a great advantage of the very excellent telephone service you have in the U.S.A., which is cross-country, and very, very fine.

BD:    You and I are talking, even though we’re a thousand miles apart!

MA:    That’s right!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you feel that the music you write is for everyone?

arnoldMA:    I hope so.  I hope so.  Certain works — the two string quartets — are for a limited public, but all the concert music is meant for the largest possible audience that can be had.  I say always, when I write music, the loneliest thing is to sit at a desk with a piece of manuscript paper in front of you, and no thought of an audience.  I’m always being asked this by young people,
What do you think of when you write a piece of music?  When I go into a theater or a cinema, I sit down, and I think, “Well, what would I like to hear?”  And I’m thinking about my own music before I’ve seen the film, the story, or anything.  I often think of a tune on top of a bus, or anywhere; in an elevator, or an ascensor as we call them in Italy.  Lifts, we call them, as you know.

BD:    What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

MA:    Well, I’ll tell you the advice.  If you feel you’re a composer, go on with it, because there are very, very few people who have the tenacity, or can live that long, to be any good and communicate internationally.  There are very, very few in this world, in this day and age, and some of the best are American.  One of my greatest friends was dear Aaron Copland, who I used to entertain.  I used to take him round in my car in London.  I’d say, “Anything you wanted to see today?”  And he’d say the most extraordinary things!  He’d say, “Yes, I’d like to just look around Buckingham Palace, and drive me down the mall.”  And I used to take him.  I’d take him to a Chinese restaurant in Limehouse called The Good Friends, which he adored!  It was real Chinese, you see.  He was at home; he was a New Yorker, wasn’t he?

BD:    Yes.

MA:    A Brooklyn man, he lived in apartments overlooking Hudson River not very far from the Juilliard.  When he invited me to a meal, I used to say, “Come, I’ll meet you in the lobby at the Saint Regis, and we’ll decide where to go.”  “Oh,” he’d say, “It’s my treat.  You’re coming to the Yale Club.”  And so we used to walk, sometimes in the snow, but he always had an umbrella, so it was all right!  [Laughs]  We used to walk to the Yale Club and I would spend a marvelous day.  He’d say, “I’ve just got a few things to do in the library.  If you’re unhappy sitting there having coffee, and waiting for me...”  And I
d say, “I’m delighted to be in your club, Aaron!”  We had marvelous times!  Those are my memories, happy memories — every one a happy memory — of New York.

BD:    That’s marvelous!

MA:    But I do love the United States.

BD:    Well fortunately, the United States loves the music of Malcolm Arnold!

MA:    Oh, you couldn’t have said anything nicer, sir. 
The proudest honor I have ever had was bestowed on me by Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, in 1990, which is a Doctor of Arts and Humane Letters.  I’ve got three Doctors of Music and all that sort of thing, but that, to be a Doctor of Arts and Humane Letters, touches me from the bottom of my heart!  It really does because it’s the epitome of all my work in music, for color, race, or creed.  [Note:  This interview was held two years before Arnold was Knighted.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve conducted a number of your works.  Are you the ideal conductor of your music?

cdMA:    I always like to think so, but when I hear it played or conducted in a way that reflects my feeling and I don’t have the strain of doing it, I’m very pleased.  The other evening in the Festival Hall — no it was the Albert Hall, I think
Yehudi Menuhin conducted my Tam O’Shanter.  After, when he gave the baton to me and said, “Encore?”  I said, “No, I couldn’t possibly do it better.”  He has started a new career as a very fine conductor and he did a wonderful performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, which for a man at that age was no inconsiderable feat!  Of course, I have the greatest admiration for him.  [See my interview with Yehudi Menuhin.]  I knew his teacher, George Enescu.  Enescu corrected the proofs of my First Violin Sonata.  I have a copy with his corrections.  I was a very bad proofreader, and still am.  I don’t think aged composers should have that set on them! [Both laugh]

BD:    Leave it to someone with younger eyes?

MA:    Yeah!  That’s very nice of you!  That’s a lovely statement.

BD:    You talk about the ideal performance.  Is there only one way to play a piece of your music?

MA:    Oh, no!  No, it’s best if it sounds as I’ve marked it, because I am meticulous with my marking.  Sometimes, if the performers have courage, some of the movements can be taken as marked — like slow movements.  It always takes courage to do a slow movement as slowly as it’s marked.  But when it’s done, my music comes off.  And sometimes the quick movements I’ve marked so quickly that the players think they’re impossible until they’ve practiced.  And if they’re done after a slow movement, with a big pause — there are no segues in my music, or very seldom — it works.  I like to conduct my music, but I never discouraged anybody else from doing it, because that would be very foolish, wouldn’t it?  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

MA:    Oh, yes.  Music will go on.  It can’t go on if there are no people to perform it.  Music is a social art and you have to have orchestras, string quartets, etc.  You have to have buildings.  When I was here once, they were talking of pulling the Carnegie Hall down; that was some twenty or thirty years ago.  Do you remember that?

BD:    Yes, I remember that.

MA:    Well, it’s still there, and now look at it.  They’re building onto it now.  Isn’t that great?

BD:    Yes, but it took a tremendous amount of effort.

MA:    Oh, it must have taken a tremendous amount of effort, and a tremendous amount of money!

BD:    Right.  Isaac Stern spearheaded the whole thing.

MA:    Isaac Stern?

BD:    Yes.

MA:    He’s a great friend of mine.  If you ever see him, please give him my love.

BD:    I certainly will.  He’ll be back in Chicago later this season.  [See my Interview with Isaac Stern which was done at that time.]

MA:    Oh, he will?  He’s one of the all-time greats, isn’t he?  He can play anything.

BD:    I want to thank you for all of the music that you have given the world.  It’s been a great pleasure chatting with you and I appreciate your taking the time.

MA:    Oh, thank you very much.

BD:     I understand from your secretary that you’re going to get a little bit of vacation in Florida soon.

MA:    That’s right.  We’re going to Florida, which is of course where Delius inherited an orange plantation.  Bradford Plan in Florida, in an orange plantation, must have been something!

BD:    Well hopefully Florida will inspire some new thoughts from you.

MA:    Oh, it will.  I shall love to go to Florida.

BD:    And I wish you all the best for your seventieth anniversary.

MA:    Thank you very much indeed!  Thank you very much for phoning me.  You make it very easy for me on the telephone, for which I am, as they say in Ireland, a terrible man on the phone! [Laughs]

BD:    You’ve done wonderfully!

MA:    Thank you very much.

Malcolm Arnold, Prolific British Composer, Is Dead at 84

Published in the New York Times: September 25, 2006

Sir Malcolm Arnold, one of the best-known British composers of the 20th century, who wrote nine symphonies, composed 132 film scores and won an Oscar for the soundtrack to “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” died Saturday in Norwich, England. He was 84 and lived in Attleborough, near Norwich.

Sir Malcolm’s death, confirmed by a spokesman at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, came on the night of the premiere of “The Three Musketeers,” a new ballet based on his music, in Bradford, England. The cause was widely reported as a chest infection. Sir Malcolm had suffered from mild dementia for several years.

CBESir Malcolm was one of the most popular British composers and was widely referred to as a neglected genius in his waning years, yet his works are seldom played in concert halls. His music is deliberately tonal, melodic and sometimes witty. He wrote it at a remarkable rate: at the height of his powers he composed six film scores a year in addition to other instrumental works, and he was said to have written “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in a matter of days (6 or 10, depending on the source).

He is associated with the English musical tradition of Elgar and Holst, yet his brand of tonality was already unfashionable, even bizarrely so, when he was writing it. And today, critical opinion remains divided as to whether his works show lasting genius or simply remarkable facility.

His association with supposedly lighter forms of music also rendered him suspect to the classical establishment in his lifetime. His soundtracks included “Hobson’s Choice” (1954), “Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958) and “Whistle Down the Wind” (1961), and he reproved himself for turning down “Lawrence of Arabia.”

He wrote humorous pieces like “A Grand, Grand Overture,” which featured three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher, and made gestures unconventional at the time, like working African and West Indian percussion instruments into his Fourth Symphony in sympathetic reaction to the 1958 race riots in the Notting Hill section of London. In 1969 he conducted the Concerto for Group and Orchestra, which Jon Lord wrote for his band, Deep Purple. None of this helped him gain acceptance in the classical mainstream, though as a crossover artist he was ahead of his time.

He was also known as a “difficult man,” words that reflected a life of extremes: a diagnosis of schizophrenia in his early 20’s; heavy living, heavy drinking; and mental breakdowns so devastating he was institutionalized several times and had a range of treatments that may or may not have included a lobotomy.

Malcolm Arnold was born in Northampton, England. He began studying composition as a child, but his first musical love was the trumpet, which he took up after hearing Louis Armstrong play when he was 12. He played so well that he began appearing with professional orchestras while still a student at the Royal College of Music.

He volunteered for military service in 1944 but hated it so much that he shot himself in the foot to get out of it, returning to civilian life and the first trumpet chair of the London Philharmonic. In 1948 he won the Mendelssohn Scholarship, which gave him the impetus to compose full time. He wrote his first symphony in 1949, but the second, from 1953, brought him the most recognition of his serious works.

Maintaining a frenetic level of compositional activity for two decades — in addition to the symphonies and film scores, he wrote seven ballets, more than 20 concertos, and a huge range of music for chamber ensembles, chorus, brass band and more — took a toll.

Sir Malcolm’s first marriage, to Sheila Nicholson in 1941, foundered in part as a result of the death of an infant daughter; his second, to Isobel Gray in the 1960’s, produced an autistic son and ended with a court order forbidding the increasingly dangerous, and alcoholic, composer to have any contact with wife or child. In the 1970’s and 80’s, there were suicide attempts, hospital stays and a range of treatments and therapies, and his musical output fell to nearly nothing.

In 1984, Sir Malcolm was deemed unfit to live alone and placed by court order in the care of Anthony Day, who remained his full-time caregiver and personal assistant for the rest of his life. The Ninth Symphony, finished in 1986, is dedicated to Mr. Day, but Sir Malcolm virtually ceased composing in the 1990’s. He was knighted in 1993.

He is survived by his children, Katherine, Robert and Edward.

[Obituary from the New York Times]

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on March 16, 1991.  Portions were used on WNIB (along with musical examples) later that year and again in 1995.  The transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this website in November of that year. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.