Sir Malcolm Arnold: Life, Reputation and Centenary

John Andrews, Artistic Director of Red Squirrel Opera and Conductor of The Dancing Master at the 2021 Buxton International Festival, writes about Malcolm Arnold’s life, career and creative legacy.


It is no exaggeration to say that Sir Malcolm Arnold’s life, career, and reputation tracked the vicissitudes of twentieth century political and cultural life with a singular intimacy. Born in the year that saw the birth of the Irish Republic, the last gasps of Russia’s revolutionary war and the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party; he died in the year that both Twitter and Wikileaks first appeared online and Saddam Hussein dropped from the gallows. It was a life that saw whole cultural and political worlds come and go; empires rise, and regimes fall.

Early Life

Malcolm Henry Arnold was born in 1921, and alongside the tumultuous political events around the world, this was a time of profound cultural change. In the same year, the first birth control clinic opened, insulin was isolated, the Miss America competition appeared, and Chanel patented their new No. 5 fragrance. Perhaps most importantly for the life of this composer-to-be, the first full-length silent comedy, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid brought tears of laughter to audiences across America and Europe.

Arnold took up the trumpet aged twelve, in the year that the Nazis gained control of the Reichstag, and he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music as Hitler’s armies rolled into Austria. At the age of twenty, with Pearl Harbour bringing the United States into what was becoming a World War, he joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

A lifelong pacifist and deeply-committed conscientious objector, he was enrolled into the London Fire Service until his brother’s death in 1944 spurred him to enlist for active military service. Literally shooting himself in the foot when this turned out to mean playing in a military band, he returned to the LPO in 1946 as the newly-founded United Nations were meeting in New York, and in London, the Third Programme was first broadcast on the BBC.

Early Struggles and Successes

Arnold’s prodigious talent as a composer was immediately clear, and only two years later, as both the NHS and the State of Israel were born, Ghandi was assassinated and the MW Empire Windrush arrived in Britain, he left the LPO to pursue a full-time career in composition. 1948 was an exciting time to be writing, but the musical landscape was complicated. The growth of publishing and recording, spurred on by the cataclysm of war had fractured a once fairly common European musical language into a bewildering variety of styles: serialism, impressionism, expressionism, folkloric-nationalism to name but a few, and that year, as everything sonic was turbo-fuelled by the introduction of the first Long Playing records.

In Russia, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian were being denounced by the Communist Party for their anti-Soviet formalism, while in Suffolk, Britten and Pears were busy founding the Aldeburgh Festival. In New York, Kiss Me Kate was opening to huge acclaim as Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra broadcast the Italian and German classics to homes across America even as Jazz continued to sweep the continent.

Meanwhile, although questions of anti-Semitism would keep from the screens for three more years, 1948 was also the year that David Lean made his film of Oliver Twist, beginning a series of cinematic masterpieces into whose orbit the young composer would soon gravitate.

The influences of Berlioz, Mahler and Bartok could be heard quite clearly in Arnold’s work, and like them he combined a love of the brash and emotionally violent with a supreme lyrical gift. Combining this with his ability to change emotional register seemingly on a sixpence made him particularly brilliant as a composer for the screen, and his success in that world was both immediate and enduring. His ability to bounce back from the rejections of both Henri Christophe and The Dancing Master was surely rooted in quite how busy he was in those years. His catalogue lists sixty-two full-length films and many shorter, including  his famous collaborations with Lean: The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954 – using some of the Dancing Master material!) and Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The reputation paradox

And yet here we encounter the paradox of Arnold’s dual reputations as a composer for the concert platform and for the screen. Repeatedly through the late 1940s he was criticised for the violence and dissonance of his concert music. His First Symphony (1949) took a long time to become established, while Henri Christophe was rejected by the Festival of Britain for being too avant-garde.

The Dancing Master died its premature death in the year of Elizabeth II’s Coronation, the formation of the European Coal and Steel Committee, and the first performance of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. To a contemporary observer, the old world must have appeared terribly comfortable and stable. It was a world in which Arnold was still something of an enfant terrible. But it was also the year of John Cage’s 4’33”, and Arnold was about to find himself on the wrong side of critical opinion for the diametrically opposite reasons.

Because even as he powered through those hundreds of film scores, gaining an unmatched reputation in that field, his musical style was suddenly looking incredibly conservative as the musical establishment moved past him. Despite – or perhaps because of – the wide success of his English Dances (1951) he went from being perceived as too raucous and dissonant to too sentimental, Romantic and conservative in less than a decade, without ever quite falling in step with the prevailing musical fashion.

At the height of his powers

By 1961, the year of Arnold’s Fifth Symphony, now widely regarded as his greatest, the world had changed beyond recognition. Algeria has achieved independence after a bloody war, South Africa was leaving the commonwealth, The US and Cuba had broken off relations, and in America itself the Civil Rights movement was gathering pace. The first ICBM was being tested, whilst in Russia, Yuri Gagrin became the first man in Space.

The musical landscape was also shifting fast. As a young quartet from Liverpool returned from Hamburg to begin playing at The Cavern, William Glock had become controller of BBC Music, and then also head of The Proms. An admirer of Boulez and a passionate devotee of modernism, his influence pervaded BBC programming. Rumours persist to this day that he kept a ‘black book’ of excessively tonal composers who would never be played while he was in charge: Arnold was certainly in that category. On the radio and in the concert hall he was increasingly dismissed as lightweight.

It was in the glare of this Brave New World that Arnold felt the need to explain and justify his own choices in the Symphony, a work commemorating the premature deaths of four of his close friends. Responding to the brutal criticisms that the direct emotional language of its second movement was little more than cliché, he defended his approach explaining that “we all, in great emotional crises, express ourselves in the simplest of clichés, and from my study of music, this applies to music also.” What can appear commonplace here is in fact rooted in our shared ways of expressing those emotions that words are inadequate to encompass.

Yet despite the musical and intellectual confidence of the Symphony, the growth of his reputation as a serious composer for the concert platform had a little while to wait. Alongside the English Dances, overtures like Tam O’ Shanter and Peterloo became favourites for orchestra and concert bands alike, the perception that he was deplorably superficial persisted in spite of the dark depths of the symphonic works. Performance of his works was not helped of course by his continuing struggles with mental illness and alcoholism. Out of that dark period, in 1986, came his final symphony, the Ninth, echoing Mahler’s symphony of the same number in its uncompromising bleakness.


Fortunately, the world did not wait for the obligatory death-plus-fifteen-years to begin a serious reassessment of his reputation. That began in 1991 with his seventieth birthday celebration at the BBC Proms, and appropriately, given the world he had been born into and lived through, was also the year which saw the end of the Cold War and Apartheid in South Africa. He was knighted in 1993.

Perceptive observers (Hans Keller – not the most obvious ally) had always remarked that the apparent simplicity in Arnold’s music was utterly deceptive and masked a powerful emotional depth. Now that view came to be more widely shared. His death in 2006 coincided with Northen Ballet’s premiere of the The Three Musketeers, arranged from his scores. As his reputation continues to grow, so in 2010 The Malcolm Arnold Academy opened, followed in 2014 by the Malcolm Arnold Free School. The Malcolm Arnold Festival is now in its 14th year. This year the Fifth Symphony will appear at the Proms.

Speaking of that Symphony’s hostile reception, the composer and scholar Anthony Hopkins perfectly encapsulated the bizarre paradox of Arnold’s reputation, pointing out that “What is regarded as forgivable or even totally loveable in Mahler seems open to condemnation in Arnold’s music.” As we look back now from the vantage point of 2021, hopefully we can confidently say: no longer.

Buxton International Festival is featuring the music of Sir Malcolm Arnold at the following events in 2021: