Malcolm Arnold, Prolific British Composer, Is Dead at 84
By ANNE MIDGETTE
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.
Sir 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]
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.
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.