Malcolm Arnold: A Life In Symphonies

A story of troubled brilliance told through nine symphonies.

Malcolm Arnold in Cornwall, unknown photographer.
Malcolm Arnold in Cornwall, unknown photographer (with thanks to Tom Hammond).
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

‘Why do you want to be a composer? You’re the best trumpet player in England.’

So asked the ageing composer Vaughan Williams to a 27-year-old Malcolm Arnold. The story is related in Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius, a superlative biography by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. Malcolm had played in the London Philharmonic when Vaughan Williams conducted the premiere of his fifth symphony. Three years on from that probing question, he would stand in the Festival Hall in London, newly opened in the 1951 Festival of Britain, and conduct his own first symphony.

On the tenth anniversary of Malcolm Arnold’s death, it is worth visiting Meredith and Harris’ superbly researched and beautifully written book, which provides a riveting account of a man whose life story is both little known and completely extraordinary.

Malcolm Arnold was born in 1921 in Northampton, the youngest of five children. His family were proudly upper-middle class, but behind the respectable front not all was well. Shoe manufacture was the family trade, but Malcolm’s father, an emotionally volatile man, had founded a rival firm to his grandfather after a falling out. The family also had a history of mental illness – two of Malcolm’s aunts had ended their lives in a mental hospital, another had committed suicide.

There were other tensions too. His sister Ruth was a rebel against the prevailing norms, a feminist and poet who was expelled from school and had her own mental health problems. It was through her record collection that the young Malcolm discovered jazz, inspiring him to take up the trumpet. Seeing Louis Armstrong perform in the flesh while on a holiday in Bournemouth would cement his desire to master the instrument.

The Arnolds were a well-off musical family, and with plenty of opportunities for joint music making Malcolm also took up piano and violin. But it was when a local organist gave him music theory lessons that his unusual talent became obvious. He showed an astonishing speed of absorption, and a voracious appetite to learn about all the latest musical developments.

Malcolm won a place at the Royal College of Music where, alongside trumpet, he studied composition and conducting. At the same time, the shy teenager came out of his shell. He developed something of a reputation for his extra-curricular hijinks and promiscuity – keenly encouraged, if not embellished, by Malcolm himself.

But it was not all fun and games. By this time, Britain was at war. Tragedy struck when his brother Philip, a pilot in the RAF, failed to return from a mission. It would be eight agonising months before the family received official confirmation of his death. Malcolm, sharing the progressive sympathies of his sister Ruth, registered as a conscientious objector.

Malcolm was meanwhile developing a flair for composition. A string quartet entry to a Cobbett Phantasy competition won him second prize, despite being written in just five days. But at the same time a streak of unpredictable behaviour emerged. After an argument with a tutor, he ran off to Plymouth with a young woman from a nearby art college. Scandalised, his parents had to hire private detectives to find them, before he could eventually be coaxed back to his studies – his bad-boy reputation no doubt greatly enhanced.

Eventually Malcolm left college without qualifications, and took on a trumpet vacancy in the London Philharmonic. He would travel the length of the country on tour, part of a wartime effort to boost public morale. It was relentless and repetitive work, but on a visit to Sheffield he met a young woman, Sheila, who would become his first wife.

Sheila was a steady, no-nonsense Yorkshire girl who was studying violin at the Royal Academy of Music. Despite her being previously engaged, within six months of intense courtship she and Malcolm were married. But while Sheila quickly fell under colourful young man’s spell, she would soon became aware that he had problems.

An early breakdown seems to have occurred in 1943, though details are sketchy. Shortly afterwards he composed his first orchestral work, the comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt. It was a vibrant score that would soon enable him to showcase his abilities and unlock the door into film music – and with it the vital income that could enable him to compose full-time.

A second sign of erratic behaviour occurred when, contradicting his pacifist views, Malcolm suddenly decided to enlist. His reasons were never clear, and the reality quickly turned to farce. Not long into his training in Canterbury, he shot himself in the foot to escape his ill-thought-out plan. It was just months before Germany surrendered.

After the war, composing for films soon become lucrative enough for him to give up orchestral playing. But if being a top trumpet player was not enough to satisfy his ambitions, neither was composing for documentary reels about tractors and factories. He wanted to make big artistic statements. Between films, Malcolm found time to compose his first symphony.

In 1948, now living in Twickenham, Sheila gave birth to a girl, Katherine. She was pregnant with their second child when, in 1950, Malcolm underwent a serious episode of mental disturbance. He was shouting and brandishing a knife, and Sheila managed to call the police. He was put into a mental hospital for three months, and underwent ‘Insulin Shock’ therapy – effectively inducing a coma, a form of treatment that has since been discredited.

Malcolm was released a few days before the birth of their son, Robert. Thankfully the treatments had not affected his musical abilities, and he soon composed his first set of English Dances for orchestra, a piece that would become one of his most popular.

Those long hours sat counting bars in orchestras had helped Malcolm develop a feeling for orchestration and clarity of colour. As he recalled, speaking about the first symphony:

When you sit in the orchestra, as I have, you can’t help seeing and being disgusted with the waste of players’ energies and talents on mountains of useless padding.

The symphony starts as if Malcolm is announcing his arrival as a serious composer – an insistent statement on brass and strings. The second movement shows touches of melodic charm, but is assaulted by outbursts of brass, while a grotesque military march in the final movement suggests his disillusionment with war. It’s a complex emotional landscape, from a mind in the run-up to a breakdown. But it also shows he was not setting out to easily win people over.

Some critics were hostile – terms like ‘disconcerting’, ‘wanton harshness’, and ‘self-consciously truculent’ were bandied about. Others were more positive, but it would only be the start of a fraught relationship with establishment opinion.

Meanwhile, Malcolm’s film career was blossoming. He was working hard, playing hard, and drinking hard. Sheila, trying her best to create a stable domestic environment, convinced him to take a break from film work and compose a second symphony. With a first movement of pastoral sunniness, a vibrant scherzo, and a roof-raising finale, it went on to be a huge hit. It shows Malcolm at his most charmingly extrovert, making a case that a symphony can be that rarest of things: fun.

Nevertheless, the slow movement is a lonely and desolate landscape, haunted by sinister bird-call figures on the piccolo. It betrays an underlying disquiet that cannot be totally forgotten. Nor would it be banished for long.

Malcolm’s professional reputation was now in the ascendency. He was popular with musicians, and known for the amazing speed of turning out film scores – often under huge time pressure. His ability to perfectly capture the mood and spirit of a commission was invaluable.

With all this success he was becoming wealthy, even famous. It may be hard to imagine today, but this was a time when classical music was regular prime-time television material, and in 1952 Malcolm was broadcast twice with the LPO. He was also growing rather fond of the high life, despite all his left-wing ideals. But in his spirited socialising he was becoming equally as careless with money as alcohol, dishing out enormously generous tips – much to Sheila’s chagrin.

An important friendship would come about when Malcolm met a young man called Gerard Hoffnung. Hoffnung, who played the tuba, was making a name for himself as a cartoonist and radio broadcaster. He shared Malcolm’s larger-than-life personality and sense of humour, and the two got along famously. Hoffnung interested Malcolm in his plans for a live music festival combining orchestral music and comedy. The resulting collaboration would produce one of the works that has most perpetuated Malcolm’s reputation as a ‘fun’ composer: the Grand, Grand Overture, featuring vacuum cleaners, floor polisher, and rifle – naturally dedicated to US President Hoover.

The festival was a huge success, with instant plans for a repeat. The Arnolds became close friends with Gerard and his wife Annetta.

Perhaps as an antidote to these comic pratfalls, the third symphony would be a work of deep seriousness. In 1957 Malcolm and Sheila attended the Prague Spring Festival, where they were sobered by the reality of life under communism, and met Shostakovich, a composer Malcolm much admired.

The symphony was written soon after their return, and shares some of the intensity of the Soviet composer. Malcolm was also processing the early death of his mother, who had died on his 34th birthday, and the result is a work of much darker tone and more rigorous argument than the second symphony. It is an impressive and powerful piece, and one that reveals a fascinating glimpse of the composer he might have become, if his natural curiosity had not taken him on a different path.

Critics, meanwhile, were mostly confused. How to square this with the vacuum cleaners, the tuneful film soundtracks? In fact, Malcolm was now at the top of his game in the cinema world – in 1958 he won an Oscar for his score to The Bridge on the River Kwai, and in the same year he composed for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The amount of work he was taking on was prodigious. For the second Hoffnung Festival he contributed a satirical piece called United Nations, which involved six bands playing across each other.

It all took its toll. When Malcolm was commissioned to write music for Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer, the realistic depictions of an asylum in the unscored footage greatly disturbed him. It must be a terrible thing, to fear for your own sanity out of lived experience. Soon enough Malcolm would have another breakdown, and another trip to hospital in a straightjacket. He underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) – a procedure that uses electricity to induce seizures. Mankiewicz’s score had to be completed by Buxton Orr.

In this period, his marriage was under enormous strain. Not only did Sheila have to contend with alcoholism and mental instability, but Malcolm had been having affairs too, and was often carelessly indiscreet about them. Then they were struck by further terrible news. Gerard Hoffnung had died of a brain haemorrhage, aged just 34.

In the fourth symphony, completed in 1960, Malcolm explored wider musical and political sympathies, augmenting the orchestra with exotic percussion. He was a huge fan of West Side Story, whose London run had begun in 1958 and which featured its own large percussion section. The tale of white and Puerto Rican gangs in New York had prescience, as in the same year West Indian immigrants were attacked by white gangs in the Notting Hill race riots – events which Malcolm later revealed had dismayed him.

In the first movement, outbursts from the percussion rub alongside a melody of twee banality, more like lush ‘Muzak’ than symphonic material. Malcolm, an early admirer of Mahler, shows us something of his idea that the symphony must ‘contain everything’, high-brow and low-brow, a cross-section of the conflicted world he finds himself in. It is an intriguing juxtaposition, and reveals the formation of a distinctive symphonic personality.

The premiere was enthusiastically received by the audience, but the critics did not shine to his musical tourism. Malcolm was now in no-mans-land: too wayward for conservative writers, but not avant-garde enough for the progressives. It also wasn’t hard to detect a snobbery at the cinema tunesmith: one sneered at ‘facile climaxes of routine film music’, another dismissed his ‘film music slush’. For all of his professional success, the lack of critical acceptance would hurt, and eventually harden into bitterness.

Fortunately, he still had admirers. A commission for another symphony arrived from the Cheltenham Festival. But in January 1961 came yet more shocking news. His eldest brother Aubrey had been found with his wife Wyn, both dead in their car, asphyxiated in a suicide pact. Aubrey had recently resigned from the family firm and was out of work.

At age 40, Malcolm had now experienced more than his fair share of bereavement. He would explicitly explore these feelings in the fifth symphony. In particular he chose to memorialise Gerard Hoffnung, using musical ciphers – a device where notes spell out letters. Gerard would be G and B (B denoting H in German notation), with A and B representing his widow Annetta. Furthermore, the opening theme is constructed from the notes signifying the home keys of all his symphonies up to this point, which seems to have been a kind of defiant statement to his critics.

The second movement forms the emotional heart of the work. Given Malcolm’s gift for melody, it is surprising that this is his only symphonic slow movement to centre around a big, romantic tune. But it is worth the wait. Growing out of Annetta’s initials on hushed strings, it is a meltingly gorgeous theme, full of tender compassion for those left grieving. Perhaps there was regret in there too. Annetta had lost a husband, but at this point Shiela was losing hers as well – their marriage was all but over.

The third movement treats us to another pop diversion; a bluesy interlude over glitzy string chords. Then, at the climax of the finale, comes a masterstroke. With a magnificently paced transition, Annetta’s theme suddenly returns in glory, sung out triumphantly on soaring strings. It is a genuinely spine-tingling reprise, and it overflows with emotion and goodwill. But just as we are set for a rousing finish, that erratic streak returns. The harmony slips, an unexpected minor chord blazes out instead. We suddenly lapse into a fade-out, with Gerard’s cipher softly chiming on tubular bells.

It was a stunningly audacious ending, but it worked. The audience at Cheltenham gave him a five-minute standing ovation. Meanwhile the critics, increasingly unsympathetic to melody and everything Malcolm stood for, would be ruthless. The composer had poured his heart out, and worst of all, won adulation for it. He was now a ‘tub-thumper’, who had ‘thrown the last shreds of discretion to the winds’.

Following his separation from Sheila, Malcolm met a young Scotswoman, Isobel Gray, twelve years his junior. They married in 1963, and Isobel gave birth to a son, Edward, the following year. By this point Malcolm was living in Surrey, but in 1965 the family decided to start a new life in Cornwall, where Malcolm had already spent happy summer holidays with Sheila and the children.

While Malcolm made plenty of new friends in the pubs around his new home near Padstow, his alcoholism and mood swings were getting worse. A trip to conduct at a musical summer school in Austria, attended by his daughter Katherine, resulted in the mortifying sight of him falling off the podium drunk, while conducting a rehearsal.

Then came more awful news. Ruth was dying of cancer. She was the sister who shared his artistic streak, his progressive ideals, the one who could understand his mental illness better than anyone. Malcolm later claimed that her death ‘nearly destroyed me. I nearly went mad. I didn’t know what to do’. Whatever his reasons, he would not visit her. There are many confounding moments in Malcolm’s life, but his failure to see Ruth before she died is one of the most difficult to swallow.

With all the critical barbs thrown his way, Malcolm felt increasingly insecure about his status as a composer, but he nonetheless began a sixth symphony without a commission. His relationship with Isobel was now stormy, and young Edward had been diagnosed autistic, which he found difficult to take. The ending of the fifth would become something of a turning point – it had climbed to an apex of passion, and then suddenly crashed to despair. It was almost a perfect encapsulation of his conflicted personality, but – in his symphonies at least – the mood would never fully recover.

In the first movement of the new symphony he credited the influence of the Charlie Parker, the jazz saxophonist who, like him, had struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. His homage to bebop takes the form of short phrases stabbing around against strange chords, while the eerie second movement includes a section imitating a 60s pop band. The galloping ebullience in the finale seems a defiant attempt to escape the stricken mood of the preceding music, but it continues to be haunted by it, and the bombastic close fails to convince that all is well.

Efforts to get the work performed proved that Malcolm was sliding further out of favour with establishment opinion. The appointment of arch-modernist Pierre Boulez at the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a sign of the times, and Malcolm could no longer hope for a premiere in London. The BBC Northern took it on in Manchester, but an internal BBC memo reveals the attitudes he was up against: ‘it’s better than his last symphony – though I still wouldn’t describe it as good’.

If Malcolm couldn’t win over the classical music establishment, he could still be a fearless champion of music for the people. In 1969 he conducted the premiere of a Concerto for Rock Group and Orchestra by Jon Lord, a founder member of Deep Purple. It turned out to be an ecstatically successful evening in the Albert Hall. Malcolm’s input was vital: assisting Lord with the scoring, and through sheer force of personality winning over the snootily sceptical orchestra. It cemented a lasting friendship.

All the while he was still drinking heavily, and spending heavily too. By the early 70s his finances, despite the significant film royalties, were in a mess. Eventually the family decided on a move to Ireland, where he would enjoy tax benefits, and where his daughter Katherine was now happily working. Here, in the village of Monkstown to the south of Dublin, Malcolm once again lost no time establishing himself in the local pubs, and made many friends, predictably including various younger women. One would prove a life-saver when, calling in on him by chance, she found him slumped over in the hallway, unconscious from an attempted overdose.

Malcolm’s seventh symphony would be one of his darkest, and perhaps the most disturbing. He claimed that its three movements depicted his children – Katherine, Robert and Edward respectively – and used ciphers for their names, along with Sheila and Isobel. But this is far from a loving family portrait – the music seems to be much more about his own mental turmoil. It is a powerful work with a tendency to violent outbursts, particularly in the menacing percussion of Robert’s second movement. The finale, however, takes a strangely upbeat turn with an episode mimicking Edward’s favourite Irish folk band, The Chieftains.

Malcolm’s alcoholism reached the stage where he was frequently drinking spirits at 8am, and he was not in a state for regular composition. Worse, his drunken mood swings were turning violent. Friends noticed Isobel had bruises, and they feared for her and Edward’s safety. Something had to give. One morning while Malcolm was out of the house, Isobel quickly packed bags with Edward and fled for the airport. They boarded a flight to London.

After further spells in hospital and another suicide attempt, Malcolm was coaxed back to London in 1977, where he could be supported and continue psychiatric treatment. A breakdown in 1978 saw him back in hospital, and he was given various anti-psychotic drugs. Later that year he would return and undergo more ECT. But by September he was on day release, and he began work on a surprise commission from America: his eighth symphony.

The eighth is a brighter work than the seventh, but its spring-like colouring is deceptive. Malcolm recycled a jolly marching tune he had composed for a film score of The Reckoning in 1969. It is pure Arnold: a highly whistleable, beautifully constructed melody. But he assaults it with stark dissonances, creating at times an uncomfortably bitter sarcasm. A strangely muted second movement is followed by a scampering, almost manic finale whose harmonies slip about in unexpected directions.

Malcolm’s final years in London turned into a slowly unfolding nightmare, with his mental illness spiralling out of control. Refusing to accept his marriage to Isobel was over, a campaign of harassment for access to Edward resulted in a restraining injunction taken out against him. A breakdown during a weekend of conducting a recording with EMI saw him once again arrested and sectioned. Clearly, there was a danger of irrevocably damaging professional relationships and setting back the case for his music. His family applied for his affairs to be put under the Court of Protection – meaning that he was deemed incapable of controlling his own money and it would be looked after for him. It was granted.

In October 1979 Malcolm was moved to a private psychiatric hospital, St Andrew’s, in his home town of Northampton. His first stay lasted four months, but he relapsed upon release. His second stay would last nearly two years, much of it under medication and with Malcolm deeply depressed.

This pattern could easily have repeated itself, with Malcolm probably drinking himself to death. But in 1984, now out of hospital, one of the most important relationships in his life would begin. His business manager called on Anthony Day, a 34-year-old who had worked as a carer to a retired stock broker. At this stage Malcolm had been given perhaps two years to live, with a brain scan that showed possibly significant damage. In fact he would live for another two decades, and what was originally intended as a short-term solution to look after him would see Anthony become Malcolm’s carer for the rest of the composer’s life.

If Malcolm was fortunate that the Court of Protection could afford a full-time carer, he positively struck gold with Anthony. Openly gay and openly fond of older men, his relationship to Malcolm became an incongruous partnership of incredible devotion to the (very much straight) composer. Living together in Norfolk, Anthony would bathe him, cook for him, take him to public engagements and even on foreign holidays. There were no days off. Such compassion, particularly from a non-family member, is difficult to comprehend.

Malcolm was still volatile, with a tendency for sudden flashes of nastiness, but it soon became noticed how Anthony developed an amazing knack for managing him. In 1986, on Anthony’s birthday, Malcolm began writing a symphony dedicated to his new companion. He told him it was the story of his recent life in Northampton and his move to Norfolk. It would also be his last.

When his publisher Faber were shown the completed score, however, alarm bells rang. There were so many empty staves. So much repetition. Was it unfinished? Had his musical abilities deteriorated from the years of alcoholism and ECT? Faber tried to convince Malcolm to look at it again. He refused. It was as intended.

Such was the unease around the symphony, it would not be given a concert performance for a full five years. When a premiere was eventually organised, it was conducted by Charles Groves. He understood there was something in the work, and argued that it needed to be performed ‘for Malcolm’s sake’.

The sceptics were well-intentioned, but they failed to see that Malcolm had created a piece that was distinctive and deeply moving. His diminished faculties, if anything, had resulted in enforced clarity. Gone are the ciphers and the ironic juxtapositions. The music is pared down and pure, with an unflinching gaze.

Unlike all this other symphonies, the ninth is dominated by a disproportionately long, slow finale, music of simple and eloquent bleakness worlds away from the furious energy of his early work. At times static strings chords gently hover, as if the music were wishing itself into non-existence. As if he were testing the patience of us all: conductor, orchestra and listeners.

Malcolm had spent a lifetime making a case that tonality and melody still had a role to play in classical music. It had won him both admiration and derision. Now, in parts of his last symphony, he would distill his music down to its very essences. The movement that haunts me the most is the second; a lilting allegretto in which a plaintive melody is repeated, over and over, in carefully varied colours and the barest two-part writing. This slowly circling pageant of sadness could not be better expressed by more sophisticated means – its very minimalism is its beautiful and painful truth.

Given Anthony’s undivided attention and care, Malcolm was able to enjoy much of his old age, including the honours accorded to elder statesmen of music. He attended celebratory concerts for this 75th and 80th birthdays, and in 1993 he received a knighthood. In remarkable defiance of his decades of heavy drinking, he was a month short of 85 when he died, on 23rd September 2006.

The highs and lows of Malcolm’s life are such that most of us cannot imagine. The issues his story throws up are difficult, and sensitive. But it is encouraging that in recent years progress has been made in lifting the stigma around mental illness. Celebrities such as Stephen Fry and James Rhodes have talked frankly about their own experiences, the latter also on the role music has played in helping him. Channel 4 produced a documentary looking at the significant problem of alcoholism among classical musicians. Malcolm’s story has a part to play in illustrating these issues.

Having said that, we must resist defining his life solely by these struggles. Perhaps we can never fully disentangle his mental illness and alcoholism from his character, which undoubtedly had its flaws. But we can acknowledge the enormous complexity of the man and the psychological richness of his music, which stands alone on its own merits but which, in many cases, his biography can illuminate further.

Further to all this, Malcolm’s symphonies are a fascinating document of the twentieth century. From the very first, which he stood up to conduct in the newly opened Festival Hall, they seem to be hewn from the landscape of post-war Britain, the thrusting angles of its architecture, the warm glow of its neon lights.

The symphonies also touch on key questions about what we value, and why – questions of tonality and atonality, of cinema and concert hall, of the often marginal role that contemporary classical music still plays today. His detractors perhaps did not understand that there are many different ways to make music that is meaningfully of its time. With his feet firmly planted in jazz and film – two of the century’s defining art forms – Malcolm’s music grew out of the vibrant, confusing world he saw and heard around him.

Today his legacy feels belittled by omission, too often typecast by the jolly-hockey-sticks film scores and japes with domestic appliances. The lighter music is a crucial part of his repertoire, but it is the symphonies that afford the more penetrating insight into the man. They are challenging works, riven with contradictions: extrovert and withdrawn, humorous and stark, tender and angry. But they reward our attention.

As for Rogue Genius, I find it hard to imagine giving a stronger recommendation for a composer biography. Meredith and Harris evoke a rich sense of time and place, with a wealth of fascinating and entertaining anecdotes from those caught up in this extraordinary life. Quite simply, it should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in twentieth-century classical music.

Malcolm’s most famous quote is about music itself: he said it is ‘a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is’. And at the very end of that bleak finale to the ninth, we finally come to rest on a quietly luminous major chord. It is, perhaps, a light at the end of the tunnel.

‘Why do you want to be a composer?’, Vaughan Williams had once asked him. Yes, he had been the best trumpet player in England. He had worked with the biggest names. He had run away for a carefree month in Plymouth. He had shot himself in the foot. The horrors of the straightjacket, the convulsions of electric shocks through his brain. He had won an Oscar. He had made Hoffnung’s audience roar with laughter. He had basked in a standing ovation in Cheltenham. He had failed two women who loved him.

The long, silent hours in a Northampton hospital. Across town, the young Ruth played him her jazz records, all those years ago.

‘Music is a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is’. At that final major chord, it feels like we have weathered a storm. But as we try to take it all in, we could be forgiven if a little doubt remains. How can such an exhausting journey just resolve itself like that? How can it bear the weight of everything that came before?

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.