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MS 921

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MS 921


Malcolm Arnold archive



Administrative / Biographical history

Arnold, Malcolm (1921-2006)

Arnold, Sir Malcolm Henry (1921–2006), trumpeter and composer, was born at Fairview, Cliftonville, Northampton, on 21 October 1921, the fourth son and fifth and youngest child of William Arnold, shoe manufacturer, and his wife, Annie, née Hawes. Coincidentally, two other well-known British composers of the twentieth century, Edmund Rubbra and William Alwyn, were also born in Northampton. The town had long been a centre for shoe manufacture, and Arnold's father ran the family shoemaking firm. The family background was strict Methodist. His mother was musical, her ancestors including William Hawes, a master of the Chapel Royal in the early years of the nineteenth century. She both encouraged her son to take violin lessons when very young, and took pains to foster the musical talent that was soon apparent.

Arnold's youthful liking for music took a decisive turn when, during a family holiday in Bournemouth, aged twelve, he heard Louis Armstrong's band playing at the Royal Bath Hotel. Encouraged in particular by his sister Ruth, he began to collect Armstrong's records, and became a devotee. The results were to last a lifetime, and included a love of the blues that regularly surfaced in his music, a belief that rigid demarcations between different styles of music are artificial, a desire to bring something of the free-for-all and collaborative, even improvisatory, spirit of jazz into classical music, and a particular interest in the trumpet.

Arnold's first school was Eaglehurst College, near the family home; his later school career was turbulent and often short-lived. Meanwhile he devoted himself to mastering the trumpet, and began serious study with a local musician, Philip Pfaff. At the age of sixteen he won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in Kensington, London, which he entered in 1937 as a pupil of one of the leading trumpeters of the day, Ernest Hall. An interest in composition also being apparent (he had regularly written short pieces for his mother on her birthday), composition became his second study, under the composer and teacher Gordon Jacob. He also studied piano, but although he soon acquired some keyboard facility he never described himself as a pianist.

Arnold's expertise on the trumpet was such that he could easily have enjoyed a career as a professional performer on that instrument. Even before he had formally completed his studies, he was deputizing in the London orchestras, although the lure of jazz was still strong: he even once ran away from the Royal College of Music and played in a dance band in Plymouth, and was only persuaded to return by the open-mindedness of the director, Sir George Dyson. In 1941, owing to the absence of many professionals in the armed forces, he was appointed second trumpet in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the ensemble with which he remained associated until he finally decided to cease playing altogether to concentrate on composition. It was not long before he moved up to the position of first trumpet. On 3 January 1942 he married, at Hendon register office, Sheila Nicholson (1919–2009), a violinist (and daughter of Herbert Nicholson, insurance agent). They had three children, the first a stillborn daughter whose loss affected them deeply; then a daughter, Katherine (b. 1948), and a son, Robert (b. 1950).

The Second World War affected Arnold in many other ways too, including the loss of an admired elder brother, Philip (the closest in age to Malcolm), who was killed in 1941 during a bombing mission while serving in the RAF. On first being called up himself, Arnold registered as a conscientious objector, and appeared successfully before a tribunal. Later he changed his mind; but on volunteering in 1943 and going through a full infantry training he was subjected to what he felt was the humiliation, not to say irony, of being posted to a military band. He protested by shooting himself in the foot in order to be discharged, an action that could have resulted (but did not) in his being court-martialled. This would turn out not to be Arnold's last physical assault on himself. In later years he more than once attempted suicide.

At the end of the war, after a brief spell with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Arnold returned to his old orchestra, the London Philharmonic. Since his time at the Royal College of Music he had been composing more and more, usually chamber-sized works for colleagues and acquaintances to perform: he scored a particular success with the Three Shanties for wind quintet, first performed in an aircraft hangar near Bristol in 1943. In that same year an orchestral tone-poem, Larch Trees, was performed under the auspices of the Society for the Promotion of New Music. Eventually, and triggered in part by the award in 1948 of the Mendelssohn scholarship, which enabled him to give up performing for a year and go to Italy to study, he decided to compose full-time.

A symphony soon followed; it would become the first of nine, which after Beethoven, Dvořák, Bruckner, and Mahler had become a canonical number for symphonists. Written at various critical points in his career, Arnold's symphonies are the core of his extensive output, and although they are strongly subjective and it is often tempting to interpret them in autobiographical terms, they can also be seen as powerful musical statements capable of standing on their own without the kind of excessive hermeneutic zeal that results from unprovable speculation and a simplistic view of the creative process. It is also the case that the composer himself occasionally tended to write uncommunicative or misleading programme notes, in the firm belief that music should speak for itself.

Though completed in 1949, Arnold's first symphony had to wait a couple of years before its first performance, at the Cheltenham festival. The second followed in 1953, and was an immediate success; the third, begun about the time of his mother's death, was completed in 1957. Numbers four and five were written almost back-to-back, in 1960 and 1961, and to some extent represent opposite poles of the composer's musical personality. The sixth (1967) is in some ways the most compressed, the seventh (1973) both the most expansive and the most turbulent. The eighth (1978) is a powerful synthesis of the dark and light sides of the composer's personality; the valedictory ninth followed after a long period of illness and depression, and its brooding pessimism has led to comparisons with Tchaikovsky and Mahler. The variety of the canonical nine is both impressive and disturbing: the composer's ability not to repeat himself is striking. This seems to have disconcerted his critics: reviews were occasionally savage, and since the composer was abnormally sensitive his relations with the musical press could be abrasive. Musical correctness during this period, particularly in the music department at the BBC led by William Glock, required obeisance towards continental Europe, avant-garde serialism, atonality, and experimental thought-processes and sound-worlds; Arnold's radicalism often took a different form, involving surprises within a conservative language. His musical gods remained constant throughout his life: Berlioz, Sibelius, Mahler.

A further significant development in Arnold's career took place in 1947. A musical colleague suggested he send some of his early scores to the Denham film studios, outside London, in case they should be able to offer any work composing music for films. From initial assignments writing scores for short factual documentaries, he soon graduated to larger projects, and eventually feature films for international producers. His fluency, natural melodic gift, and responsiveness to the medium and to stories and plot-lines made him a natural for the screen: there is an argument for saying that film replaced opera as an outlet for his dramatic gifts (he never wrote a full-length opera, yet surely would have been capable of doing so successfully). His career as a composer for the cinema threatened at times to swamp his career as a composer for the concert hall, not least because it imposed enormous demands on him, of time and energy. The music was always the last stage in the making of a film before its release, and therefore had to be tailored not only to the very precise requirements of the nearly complete picture itself (a stopwatch was an essential tool), but also to be written to almost impossible deadlines: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), one of his most famous scores, for which he won an Oscar, was completed in ten days.

Eventually Arnold gave up writing film music, but not before he had completed nearly 130 scores, ranging from his first, Avalanche Patrol (1947), to David Copperfield (1969). Many others became classics, including I am a Camera (1955), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), The Angry Silence (1960), Tunes of Glory (1960), and Whistle Down the Wind (1961). Directors like David Lean, Carol Reed, and John Huston became regular collaborators, although after three masterpieces, in April 1962 Arnold turned down the chance to write the score for Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, feeling that it was unlikely to succeed, and never worked with the director again. Partly for his work in films, in 1970 he was appointed CBE and his public profile was at its zenith.

The 1960s saw not only the eventual decision to give up writing film music but various other changes in Arnold's life. His first marriage having ended in divorce in 1962, on 2 November 1963 he married Isobel Katharine Gray (d. 1992), a schoolteacher twelve years his junior (and daughter of David Inglis Wood Gray, farmer). They had a son, Edward, whose autism once diagnosed became a source of tension and pressure, as well as uncertainty as to how it should be treated. Determined on a different lifestyle, the family moved to Cornwall, and the composer readily and quickly identified with the local community, socially and even musically, as in the well-known Padstow Lifeboat March. But the marriage became subject to increasing strain, Arnold began drinking heavily again, and eventually there was a separation.

Yet Arnold's Cornish period was initially one of his happiest and most prolific. From the outset of his career he had always been willing to write music to commission, particularly if the request came from friends in the musical profession. In the 1950s he had begun to write concertos for them, if an orchestra was available. By the end of his life he had written seventeen instrumental concertos as well as a handful of other works involving a solo instrument. Among the various dedicatees were the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the horn-player Dennis Brain, the oboist Leon Goossens, and the guitarist Julian Bream. In the late 1980s, inspired by performers half his age, he produced a recorder concerto and two other pieces for the Danish virtuoso of the instrument Michala Petri, and a cello concerto and a solo fantasy for the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber.

Among other commissions, one from the BBC in 1954 was a particular challenge. The harmonica was not then taken seriously as a concert instrument. But the harmonica had a champion in the shape of Larry Adler, who wanted a piece to perform at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts; so, true to his non-snobbish instincts, Arnold accepted the challenge. The resulting piece was not only expertly tailored to the unusual capacities of the solo instrument, but also genuine music rather than the parody or pastiche or comedy that some had expected. For there was a pronounced humorous side to the composer, who could be a debunking musical joker if offered the opportunity: he loved jokes in real life, practical as well as verbal. His musical humour took many forms, from the dry wit of the Three Shanties to the drunken parody in one of his Four Scottish Dances to the aping of jazz and ragtime in the second clarinet concerto, written for the American virtuoso Benny Goodman. He incorporated bizarre effects, most extremely in the Toy Symphony (1957), which includes parts for instruments imitating a quail and a cuckoo. However, the most celebrated examples of his musical wit derived from his friendship, and collaboration, with the subversive German-born humorist Gerard Hoffnung. Hoffnung trained as a tuba player: among his bewildering range of achievements was an arrangement of a Chopin mazurka for a quartet of tubas. Hoffnung was also an impresario, for some years arranging an annual concert at the Royal Festival Hall devoted to musical pranks of all kinds. Arnold regularly devised new pieces for these occasions: they included a Concerto for Hosepipe, the Grand Grand Overture, which ends with a firing-squad of rifles assassinating a cohort of vacuum-cleaners and a floor-polisher, United Nations, in which a number of military bands march through the auditorium playing a variety of different national anthems, simultaneously, and the Grand Concerto Gastronomique, op. 76. Described as being ‘for eater, waiter, food, and large orchestra’, the music includes a movement called ‘Oysters’ and another called ‘Peach Melba’.

The year 1973 saw the start of a further effort to change course and even to rebuild his life, when Arnold, with Isobel and Edward, went to live in Dublin. It did not work. Physical, social, financial, and psychological troubles became compounded by isolation, and culminated in a failed suicide attempt. Eventually the marriage was dissolved, in 1975, and a court order prevented Arnold from approaching his former wife and his son. Yet from this relatively brief period dates some of his finest if darkest music, including the John Field Fantasy (1975), as well as the seventh and eighth symphonies, the masterly second string quartet (also 1975) and the Symphony for Brass Instruments (1978).

By the end of 1977 Arnold was back in England, being treated in the psychiatric department of the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead; a year later, he was admitted to St Andrew's Hospital in his home town of Northampton, to be treated for psychosis compounded by alcoholism and depression. He had become almost impossible to live with and had been deserted by many friends as a result. The resulting breakdown and creative silence lasted four years, and his health seemed permanently impaired: in 1984 he was given two years to live, and in 1988 suffered a minor heart attack. The fact that he survived into his mid-eighties was due entirely to the devotion offered by his long-term carer Anthony Day, for many more years than he can have expected at the outset when agreeing to assist the ailing composer. There was even a return to composition, in a leaner and more austere vein: the ninth symphony, dedicated to Day, is its most outstanding exemplar: a work shot through with tragedy, it nevertheless resolves on to a luminous chord of D major. In 1990, though, with inspiration at an end, Arnold gave up composition altogether, continuing to lead a quiet life in Norfolk. His last decade was increasingly clouded with mental and physical illness, but until shortly before his death he was often a visible presence at festivals, concerts, and award ceremonies: honours including a number of honorary doctorates began to accumulate, culminating in the award of a knighthood in 1993.

Arnold lived long enough to see a growing revival of interest in his music, including three biographies and many recordings; he died at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Norwich, on 23 September 2006, as a result of complications following a chest infection. His first wife and his children survived him.

It is almost traditional for British composers to experience partial eclipse for years after their death. Elgar and Britten may have been exempt but Holst, Delius, Tippett, and many others have shared this fate. Arnold suffered eclipse in his lifetime, although his many film scores contrived to keep his name in circulation outside the usual musical milieux. Oddly, his music also enjoyed considerable success in recorded form while struggling to maintain a hold on the concert platform (at the time of his death none of his symphonies had been played at the BBC Proms for many years). The sheer variety and quantity of his output means that there are many Arnolds, not one. But unquestionably, at his best, he deserves a place in the pantheon.

Piers Burton-Page, ‘Arnold, Sir Malcolm Henry (1921–2006)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2010; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/97392, accessed 30 Nov 2015]



Extent & medium

2 shelves (TBC)

Content description

The Malcolm Arnold archive consists predominantly of Arnold's autograph music scores, spanning the length of his lifetime and the breadth of his musical abilities. The manuscripts include scores written for orchestra, chamber, solo piano and film to name but a few. The majority of these are fair copy manuscripts but some are performance copies and/or have ms. markings and annotations on them. Accompanying the music scores are autograph letters to Malcolm Arnold from a number of his contemporaries, several scrapbooks, sheet music owned by Malcolm Arnold and photograph albums.


Archive is on loan to Eton College Library from Katherine Arnold. Part of the archive was also previously on loan to the Royal College of Music.

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The 5th tranche of papers containing court proceedings is restricted and access should not be given to researchers
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