Sir Malcolm Arnold was an English composer, and one of British music’s best-known figures of the 20th century. He wrote prolifically across an eclectic variety of musical genres: orchestral works including nine symphonies and over 20 concertos, pieces for brass band and wind band, ballets, operas, chamber music, songs and choral works, and 130-plus film scores, including the one for The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he won an Oscar in 1958. Arnold’s music is distinguished for its strikingly bold and colourful orchestration (Sibelius, Mahler, and Berlioz were cited by him as major influences), the use of conventional tonal harmony inflected with modernisms, and inventive melodies. The interplay of sounds in his scores serve highly dramatic purposes that are notable for their direct emotional appeal.
Born in Northampton on October 21, 1921, Arnold had his musical talent nurtured early through private composition lessons; at age 12, he began to play the trumpet. He won a scholarship to study trumpet and composition at the Royal College of Music, and before graduating, was already playing in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1941, he became the orchestra’s second trumpet, eventually rising to principal trumpet two years later. He played in the LPO until 1948 (save for two years when he served in the war), during which he continued to compose. Although an exceptional trumpet player, Arnold turned to composing full-time in 1948, after he was awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship.
For the next 20 years, Arnold had a phenomenally busy career as a composer; he became highly sought after for his concert works—he wrote his third, fourth, and fifth symphonies during this period as well as many concertos for star performers he admired—and was producing up to six film scores a year. He was also active in conducting his own compositions, whether in the concert hall or in the film studio.
Inevitably, this intense schedule took a toll on his increasingly troubled mental and physical health; he stopped writing for film by 1970 and ceased composing all together from the late 70s to the early 80s. A return to health enabled him to resume his creative activities in the mid-1980s, but after completing his ninth symphony, he retired from composition in 1991. Arnold’s musical achievements were widely recognized during his lifetime with numerous honours and awards, including a knighthood in 1993. He died in Norwich, on September 23, 2006.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley