Malcolm Arnold 100 | Centenary in 2021

Malcolm Arnold 100 | Centenary in 2021

For well over 50 years Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) was a huge presence in British musical life. In a time of austere post-war music, he composed works against the grain of fashion – works which were immediate, often full of enjoyment, but by no means less technically accomplished. Many works, including his Tam O'Shanter Overture, Scottish Dances, suites to The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, and his Symphony No 5 now live in the canon of classical music.

On October 21 2021, one hundred years will have passed since his birth.

Arnold was a man of many guises: a major British symphonist, a master orchestrator, an Oscar-winning film composer, a jazz man, and an accomplished trumpeter. So too is his music fascinating for the way in which it juxtaposes apparently incompatible material – darting one way and another from tonal simplicity to crunching clashes, long biting rhythmic lines to the sounds of the Cornish pier and brass bands. It delights and spurs, tricks and moves.

But, inextricably tangled deep within the music is the troubled man behind it; after all, Arnold was a composer whose very being permeated every note of his compositions. Sir Malcolm surmounted so many serious crises of health throughout his life.

Nevertheless, he soldiered on, writing music of quintessentially British levity and wit. And whilst at a passing glance his pieces seem carefree, spend just a moment scratching beneath the surface and sometimes you’ll find music of unnerving obsessiveness, melancholy and even loneliness. No more so is this evident than in the symphonies, every one of his nine a snapshot of his story at that time.

At his core Arnold was a subversive artist, refusing to conform to tastes of the few music-intellectuals, and wrote music that spoke directly to the ‘real’ people – making sure to land a few coded jibes to his critics on the way, of course. ‘I have absolutely no interest in my music being played after my death’ said Arnold to the BBC in 1970. We (respectfully) urge you to ignore that!

We’ve listed ten works below that display the very best of Arnold in the hope that you will be inspired to revive them or indeed discover them for the first time:

Ten Key Works

1) Symphony No 2 (1953) 30 minsOrchestration: 2+pic.2.2.2+cbn/4331/timp.2perc/hp/strView Score | Listen on Spotify

Arnold gave very little away when it came to his symphonies. Whilst others like the fifth and the seventh contain well-known programmatic details, the second is a completely abstract work. It’s packed with Arnold’s love and respect for the directness of Mahler and Sibelius’ music and, with its moments of violently driven passage of seemingly banal music and an inescapable feeling of irony, this work more than any other gives credence to the notion of Arnold as ‘The English Shostakovich’.

2) The Dancing Master (1952), 55 minsSoloists: soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, 2 tenors, bass-baritone
Orchestration: 1+pic.2.2.2/4331/timp.perc/hp.cel/str
View Score

Arnold’s laugh-out-loud one-act opera only received its stage world premiere in 2015, eight year’s after the composer’s death but features some of his best orchestral writing. Based on Wycherley’s bawdy Restoration comedy, the plot follows the heroine, Miranda, and her two suitors, while the score fizzes with Arnold’s customary wit and flamboyance.

3) Little Suite No 1 (1955) 10 minsOrchestration: 2222/4331/timp.2perc/str
View Score | Listen on Spotify

Arnold was an absolute champion for youth music making. Originally entitled ‘To Youth’, the Little Suite No 1 was written for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain – a organisation which he had a significant role in setting up. Stylistically, this bright concert opener, with its central pastoral waltz, shares a lot of ground with Arnold’s good friend William Walton.

4) Electra (1963) 15 mins
Orchestration: 3(2pic,afl)223(cbn)/4331/timp/4perc/hp/str
View Score | Listen on Spotify

Malcolm Arnold’s one-act ballet score Electra, Op 79, to a scenario based on a much-compressed version of Sophocles’ play, was commissioned by the Royal Ballet and first performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on March 26 1963. The choreographer was Robert Helpmann.

5) Symphony No 5 (1961) 33 mins
Orchestration: 3222/4331/timp.2perc/hp.cel/str
View Score | Listen on Spotify

A masterpiece. Symphony No 5 was written in memory of four of Arnold’s friends who passed away before their time: tuba player, cartoonist and raconteur Gerard Hoffnung; the clarinettist Frederick Thurston, the horn player Dennis Brain and ballet choreographer David Paltenghi. Prominent roles for these instruments, serialist codes and dramatic twists punctuate this almost-requiem, which features a gut-wrenching Mahlerian adagio as its second movement.

BBC Radio: Charles Hazlewood and the BBC Concert Orchestra's lecture recital on Symphony No 5

6) A Grand, Grand Festival Overture (1956) 8 mins
Soloist: 3 Vacuum Cleaners, 1 Floor Polisher, 4 Rifles
Orchestration: 2(pic)222/4331/timp.2perc/org/str
View Score | Listen on Spotify

The tubular bells, the timpani, the organ weren’t enough – Arnold wants more. One floor cleaner, two riflemen, three vacuums and four deaths are the only way to open your concert. The work is also larded with many horrendous juxtapositions of key, and with an insanely prolonged coda – and as if all this were not enough, the main theme of the overture is among Arnold’s most inspired tunes ever. One of music world’s most celebrated practical jokes.

7) Flute Concerto No 1
(1954) 13 mins
Soloist: flute | Orchestration: string orchestra
View Score on nkoda | Listen on Spotify

The Concerto for Flute and Strings bears the hallmarks of a younger, brasher style. The dissonances are sardonic rather than melancholy, sarcastic rather than despairing, and although the first movement is tinged with the melancholy of G minor, the clear optimism of G Major lends vigour to the ebullient rhythms of the finale.

8) Five Pieces for Violin and Piano
(1964) 9 mins
Instrumentation: violin, piano
also available for violin and string orchestra
View Score on nkoda | Purchase Score | Listen on Spotify

The Five Pieces were written in 1964 for Yehudi Menuhin to play as encores on an American tour, and reflect both his musical character and the breadth of his musical interests: A soaring Prelude, an Aubade based upon an Indian raga, an over-the-top Waltz, a simple Ballad, all closed with a crackling Moto Perpetuo.

9) Piano Trio
(1956) 13 mins
Instrumentation: piano, violin, cello
Purchase Score | Listen on Spotify

The main themes of the first movement of the Piano Trio are grave and songlike: but first violin and cello demand attention with a rhetorical unison. In the central movement, violin follows cello in a two-part canon, piano responding with a consoling sequential phrase. The emotional temperature rises in a more richly scored middle section, falling again as the canon is resumed. The seven-bar opening unison of the last movement establishes the harmonic basis for the eleven variations which follow.

10) Concerto No 2 for Horn and Strings (1956) 14 mins
Soloist: horn | Orchestration: sting orchestra
View Score on nkoda | Listen on Spotify

Composed for his good friend Dennis Brain, this lively concerto is direct and punchy. Arnold was always keen to explore the strict confines of classical forms and this concerto is no different. The first movement is in a sonata form; the second is very simple, being A. B. A. It is designed solely to exploit the superb cantabile playing of the soloist, which Arnold believed to be the most difficult aspect of all wind playing. The last movement is in rondo form with a very lively coda.

Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Complete Catalogue of Works | Click above to view online


From many of the notable recordings, we would like to highlight recent releases of The Dancing Master, which was winner of BBC Music Magazine Awards 2021 Opera Award and was released on Resonus Classics label on September 25, 2020. The recording features a fine cast of British singers who are accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Andrews.

The first commercial recording of Sir Malcolm’s Toy Symphony was released on February 7, 2020 from Orchid Classics performed by Orchestra of the Swan and conductor Tom Hammond.


The week of the centenary, BBC Radio 3 highlight Arnold as Composer of the Week, taking a closer look at the life and music of the composer. All episodes will be available on BBC Sounds
18-22 Oct - Composer of the Week: Malcolm Arnold
BBC Radio 3 - Composer of the Week, Malcolm Arnold (1921- 2006), Arnold's Many Personalities

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