See also: Homage to the Queen Suite, Op.42a
Malcolm Arnold is probably best known for his numerous film scores, which include Whistle Down the Wind, the St. Trinians movies and The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he won an Oscar. His composing spanned over 50 years and his impressive output consists of over 140 works.
In 1954 Arnold wrote incidental music for The Tempest at the Old Vic, with Michael Hordern and Claire Bloom as Prospero and Miranda, and Richard Burton as Caliban, directed by Robert Helpmann. Nine years later he composed the savage score for Helpmann’s sensational ballet Electra for The Royal Ballet, with Nadia Nerina as the avenging heroine. Arnold’s other ballet scores are the romantic Rinaldo and Armida (1955), which Frederick Ashton made for Svetlana Beriosova and Michael Somes, and the darkly comic Sweeny Todd (1959), which John Cranko choreographed for the touring section of the Royal Ballet. When Kenneth MacMillan created Solitaire for the company three years earlier Arnold wrote a sarabande and polka in two days to go with his Four English Dances. David Bintley used the Four Scottish Dances, plus music by Benjamin Britten, for his Flowers of the Forest in 1985, again for the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.
When Arnold was a student at the Royal College of Music he became friendly with Constant Lambert, conductor of the College’s second orchestra. Lambert used to go off to the Queen’s Elm with his students, and Arnold would play Lambert’s scores, including the ballets, on the pub piano. In 1951 Arnold wrote an intermezzo for Lambert’s last, ill-fated ballet Tiresias, which Ashton created for Margot Fonteyn.
Two years later Ashton, Fonteyn and Arnold came together again for the Coronation ballet Homage to the Queen. At Humphrey Searle’s suggestion, Arnold was introduced to Ninette de Valois, and the project got underway. Arnold had only ten weeks before the premiere on Coronation night, 2 June 1953, to compose his first ballet. Ashton gave him a breakdown of the ballet with timings (much as Petipa had done for Tchaikovsky). As the Company had four ballerinas at the time, Ashton thought of casting them as four queens: Elizabeth I, Anne, Victoria and Elizabeth II. But the designer, Oliver Messel, could find no way of differentiating sufficiently between the characters, so Ashton changed them to become queens of the four elements. Arnold had already composed some of the score, but he was able to incorporate that material into the new scheme.
The ballet opened with a majestic theme before the ceremonial march accompanied the entrée for the four queens with their consorts and attendants. There followed four miniature ballets for each of the elements. First, the Queen of the Earth, Nadia Nerina, and her Consort, Alexis Rassine, with an all-female pas de six. Next, the Queen of Waters, Violetta Elvin, with her partner, John Hart, plus naiads and a pas de trois for Julia Farron, Rowena Jackson and Brian Shaw. (This water section with the dancers’ undulating movements was effectively Ashton’s trial run for Ondine five years later). The Queen of Fire was Beryl Grey, partnered by John Field, with Alexander Grant as the Spirit of Fire. Finally, the Queen of the Air, Margot Fonteyn, entered, borne aloft on Michael Somes’s shoulder; the later pas de deux ended with her carried high in the air supported under the arms by Somes’s raised hands.