From Colonel Bogey to Cornish bliss

IAN COLLINS Sir Malcolm Arnold, who died on Saturday, was one of the towering figures of 20th century British music and an adopted son of Norfolk. Ian Collins pays tribute to a tortured genius.


Sir Malcolm Arnold, who died on Saturday, was one of the towering figures of 20th century British music and an adopted son of Norfolk. Ian Collins pays tribute to a tortured genius.

To the very end composer Sir Malcolm Arnold was nothing if not dramatic. As he lay dying in the Norwich & Norwich University Hospital on Saturday afternoon, his ballet of The Three Musketeers was about to be premiered in Bradford. The curtain came down on an astonishing life.

To some, this one-man music festival was a musketeer for culture. To others an anarchic life had more to do with The Belles of St Trinians - one of the most memorable of his 131 film scores.

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He won an Oscar for The Bridge On the River Kwai in 1958 - a grand effort which, with its reworking of Colonel Bogey, took this most prolific composer all of ten days to complete. Then there were the haunting scores to Inn of the Sixth Happiness (for which he gained an Ivor Novello award), Hobson's Choice and Whistle Down the Wind.

He was as solidly English in his creativity as his cinematic collaborators in the Mills family, like whom - through Belton-born Sir John Mills - he shared Norfolk links.

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Music just poured out of him (just as alcohol poured in). His 500-piece catalogue includes compositions for every genre - and commissions for amateurs and professionals alike. But he concentrated most fully on orchestral works, with nine symphonies, seven ballets, two operas, one musical and numerous overtures, dances and suites.

He wrote concertos for flute, guitar, harmonica, French horn, oboe, organ, piano duet, recorder, trumpet, viola and two violins for everyone from Julian Bream to James Galway and Larry Adler. He composed for Benny Goodman and collaborated with the rock group Deep Purple.

Biographer Donald Mitchell wisely compared him to Dickens, for both were great entertainers with an awareness of the human predicament. If the private life of the Victorian novelist had a darker side, Arnold was the image of tortured genius - who might torment others in the tumultuous process.

Julian Lloyd Webber rightly dubbed it a disgrace that Sir Malcolm, who died a month short of his 85th birthday, was not celebrated in this year's proms, with the humour and inevitable unevenness of his work not to the liking of many in the classical establishment.

The cellist added: “He was a total genius but a very badly-behaved genius, but then so was Mozart. He was treated appallingly by people who could not live with his bad behaviour. He could be extremely rude to people but you should be able to get beyond that and get to the music.”

At the same time he was generous to the point of wild extravagance, and ever-keen to encourage musicality in young people. Living mostly in Attleborough for the last 23 years, though increasingly incapacitated, he remained president of the West Norfolk Jubilee Youth Orchestra and Concert Band, as well as a vice-president of the King's Lynn Festival.

Born in Northampton, into a well-to-do shoe manufacturing family, he was educated at home with a curriculum big on music - one musical forebear having been Master of the Chapel Royal. At 12 he fell for jazz and Louis Armstrong, and went on to win a scholarship to study the trumpet at the Royal College of Music. Soon he was playing this instrument in the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

A conscientious objector like many other musicians when world war two broke out, Arnold enlisted in 1943 but was swiftly discharged after shooting himself in the foot. He went back to blowing his own trumpet, so to speak, and then thrived as a composer from 1948.

The 1950s and 1960s saw his creative heyday and also the seeds of his breakdown. Moving from Cornwall to Dublin he became a chronic alcoholic and manic depressive, attempting suicide several times and receiving electro-shock therapy during a five-year spell in a mental hospital. But when he fell into a certain Cornish harbour after a long session in a pub alongside it was wholly accidental.

Married with three children, his chaotic life changed finally and forever when he came to Norfolk in 1983 to make a film for the BBC because he had family links to Burgh Castle.

Here he met former valet Anthony Day and the two men became inseparable, with the companion being given power of attorney a year later and becoming a full-time manager and carer.

In 2004 a touching two-part South Bank Show film by Tony Palmer recorded a portrait of a former fire-raiser in his rather glowing dotage.

But there had been an acrimonious row, ending in a court battle, after Sir Malcolm's elder daughter, Katherine, asked Norfolk police to investigate her allegations that royalties estimated at £200,000 a year were being “frittered away” and that family members were being frozen out as Mr Day gave his own name as next of kin.

The court found in Mr Day's favour and Sir Malcolm continued in his care until taken to hospital on Saturday.

When the death was announced Mr Day said: “He had developed a chest infection and went into hospital this morning and he slowly slipped away.

“He was a wonderful musician. I hope he is remembered as one of the last great Elgar-style composers.”

Sir Malcolm Arnold will be a Radio 3 Composer of the Week next month, with works aired from midday October 16-20 and midnight October 22-26.

There will be a festival in his native Northampton and, in Truro, his birthday will see the world premiere of Four Cornish Dances in a transcription for two pianos.

But no need to wait or travel. I warmly recommend the £5.99 Naxos CD (8.553526) of all the Arnold Dances - English, Scottish, Cornish, Irish and Welsh.

Select the third Cornish dance and turn up the volume for two minutes and 36 seconds of brass band bliss. I hope this will feature at Sir Malcolm's funeral - I certainly want it played at mine.

The piece opens as a dirge, before moving briskly to a march and then bursting into a dance. That's the note to leave on.

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