Great tunesmith inspired the young

Sunday morning, 8.30am. BBC 24 is up and running. But it's not politics which catches my ear. It's news of the passing of a grand old man who devoted his entire life to making and writing music.

Sunday morning, 8.30am. BBC 24 is up and running. But it's not politics which catches my ear. It's news of the passing of a grand old man who devoted his entire life to making and writing music.

"His entire life" is usually an exaggeration. In the case of Sir Malcolm Arnold it means literally what it says. At the age of four he began to teach himself to play the trumpet and became a brilliant exponent of the instrument.

Early in his career he began to compose, and was to build himself a world-wide reputation.

At the age of 84, he died on Saturday in hospital, near his Norfolk home at Attleborough, leaving behind him a huge legacy of music. Most importantly, that catalogue of work has consistently appealed to young players. Indeed, he specifically aimed at encouraging young musicians.


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I got to know him fairly well, and interviewed him several times. But I confess that I was never wholly at ease with him. There was always the possibility that, in the passing of a moment, the picture could change dramatically.

Which is to say, the charm and anecdotes, and the passion for his work, might at any moment materialise into a thoroughly testy old Rottweiler.

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But there was, as I indicated, a warm and genial side. In his later years, he enjoyed trips out, often up to the North Norfolk coast, in his handsome limousine. The driver was his devoted cook, secretary, nurse and chauffeur, Anthony Day.

On one particular Saturday afternoon, I was intently at work on an article. The crunch of a car turning into the driveway alerted me to unexpected guests. Heads protruded from both doors, and backed by beaming smiles they enquired: "Have you got time to make us a cup of tea, Charles? We're gasping for one."

Well, the smiles were enough to warrant a "But of course". Anyway, who could say nay to fixing a cuppa for one of the most celebrated living composers in Britain?

But to return to the issue of encouraging young musicians, be they amateurs ("They have to be treated with just as much respect as if they are professionals") or would-be professional performers. The young, he once said to me, bring to their playing a special freshness. He recalled giving a lecture at St George's Hospital in London, and afterwards talking to the younger medical staff. "Suddenly they started asking me about Bartok. They had their own quartet at the hospital, and played Bartok when they could get together.

"These dedicated medics knew so much about music and the arts. I think that this happens internationally."

He shared his knowledge and experience much closer to home. The years passed, and birthdays too. Malcolm celebrated most of them in local schools and churches.

It was not unusual to see him conducting local orchestras, choirs and bands, or sitting in the audience to hear first performances of new works. He could just as easily have been in Egypt, Japan or Texas, receiving the red carpet treatment. The international appeal of his music was something very dear to him. His prolific output ranged through the years across the genres of serious music and Dixieland jazz, as well as films, broadcasting and theatre.

If one genre of music can reveal the immense public following which Malcolm enjoyed, it is his post-war film work.

In 1948, having won a Mendelssohn Scholarship and then spent a year studying in Italy, there began the illustrious list of film scores which included Tunes of Glory, The Angry Silence, Dunkirk, the St Trinian's series, Trapeze, Bridge on the River Kwai (for which he won an Oscar), The Sound Barrier, and his favourite, Whistle Down the Wind.

"After Kwai", he observed wryly, "I was asked to do every war film, which was very odd for a pacifist!"

Whatever he was writing, he insisted on "toons", about which he talked light-heartedly.

"You must have tunes," he said. "This is the lifeblood. Music without tunes is like religion without a god. If you haven't got a tune, don't start writing music. I have given (to posterity) music that can be sung and played easily, particularly by the performers for whom it was specially written."

If you had your time again, would you have done differently?

"Definitely not."

Any regrets?

"Thousands of them."

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