Looking Back Sir Malcolm Arnold's reminiscences of Bernard Herrmann

Günther Kögebehn
May 2001


Sir Malcolm Arnold is one of the most respected classical composers of the 20th Century. He was born in Northampton in 1921, studied playing the trumpet under Ernest Hall and composition under Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music. He came from a musical family and his first compositions he made at the age of four. The young Arnold was very impressed by hearing the music of Louis Armstrong, whom he also met at an early age. Unlike many of his contemporaries he was not afraid of using the jazz idiom or using melodies in his compositions. Naturally this made him an ideal candidate for scoring films. Arnold had his first exposure as an orchestral player on sessions for films like WENT THE DAY WELL. In 1948 he was asked to score a short documentary called AVALANCHE PATROL. His first British film was a comedy called BADGER’S GREEN later that year. In 1949 he had the chance to score his first American production, a British set costume drama called FORBIDDEN STREET (a.k.a. “Britannia Mews”). This film was originally to be scored by one of the major classical composers of the time: Sir Arnold Bax, but unfortunately the finished score was lost in the mail. The production company needed someone who could write a full score in a short period of time, so someone recommended Malcolm Arnold. Around the time Arnold composed also his first major works like the overture ‘Beckus the Dandipratt’ and his first Symphony.

Malcolm Arnold, David Lean and Muir Mathieson at the recording session of ‘The Sound Barrier’ Photograph courtesy of Sir Malcolm Arnold

In the 1940ies and 50ies it was quite common in Britain for serious classical composers to earn a living from film assignments without being thought of slumming. Arnold scored dozens of documentaries and feature films like TRAPEZE, THE CAPTAIN’S PARADISE, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN, THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIANS, THE KEY, WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, TUNES OF GLORY, THE HEROES OF TELEMARK, THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS (Ivor Novello Award winner) and of course his three films for David Lean: THE SOUND BARRIER, HOBSON’S CHOICE and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. The latter written under enormous pressure in just 10 days is an orchestral tour-de-force. It won him a much deserved Oscar in 1957. After he rejected scoring LAWRENCE OF ARABIA the partnership with Lean sadly broke up. Arnold reduced his film assignments in the 60ies to spend more time for his serious music and after scoring DAVID COPPERFIELD he retired from film scoring in 1970 at the relatively young age of 48.

Certainly his ultimate fame will not lie in the film music. With the exception of Shostakovich he is the only major composer to have written a huge body of film music. But ultimately all his work in the medium will pale against his much more important “serious” output, although Arnold would be the first to say: “There is no such thing as ‘serious classical music’. In the end there is just music – good or bad.” *

He wrote Nine symphonies, countless concertos, dozens of overtures, the dances, several ballets and a few choral pieces. All in all countless hours of music in extreme high quality. But in the 70s he was regarded by some critics as an “old fashion” composer, or worse a musical clown, by those who didn’t comprehend his musical idiom. The constant neglect in the 70s took its toll on the once indestructible person. After his Eighth Symphony, the first to have its premiere outside the UK, Arnold suffered a breakdown and he went “thru hell”, as he himself called it. The last movement of his Ninth Symphony reflects this. “You get to the last D major chord,” Arnold said of it in a BBC interview, “and you know . . . you’ve won through.” *

The neglect of the 70ies has changed considerably over the last 15 years. Now some regard him “the major British symphonist” and his support is growing across almost all classical borders. He always belonged to the rare group of best selling 20th Century classical composers, a fact ignored far too long by the record companies. He was knighted in 1993 for his services to British music.

In October 2001 Sir Malcolm will celebrate his 80th Birthday. Numerous concerts are planned all over the globe with the composer often in attendance. The record companies and broadcasters are also joining in with several new items. Amongst the most prestigious: Rumon Gamba recording a complete circle of the Symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic for a week of celebration on BBC Radio 3; Andrew Penny finishing his symphonic cycle on Naxos; Douglas Bostock continuing his on Classico and not to forget Bill Stromberg and John Morgan’s recording of two brilliant nearly complete film scores THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN and DAVID COPPERFIELD that was just released on Marco Polo.



Sir Malcolm Arnold at his 79th Birthday celebration Photograph courtesy of Günther Kögebehn

I was able to meet Sir Malcolm on several occasions and spoke to him about various composers and musicians. I’d like to share his reminiscences about just one of his many fellow composers – A certain Bernard Herrmann.

Arnold sponsored Herrmann to become a member of the Savile Club in 1960, he did the same favour to André Previn some time later. The Savile Club is an exclusive London men’s club founded in 1868. Sir Malcolm was “the life and the soul of the club”, as John Scott remembered. Sir Malcolm is no longer visiting the club regularly, but he was awarded a Honorary Membership some years ago.

“He [Herrmann] was a very valued member [of the club]“, remembered Sir Malcolm. Other composers members at the time were Sir William Walton, William Alwyn, Muir Mathieson, John Scott, André Previn etc. “Trouble was, there were so many members that were composers, everybody wanted to discuss music!”

When Herrmann settled in England they shared the same agent, who represented many of the great composers of the day. So meetings where quite common. One day Herrmann invited Arnold to come over to lunch at his flat to meet an old friend of his. “He said to me: I have an old friend of mine from Hollywood visiting me. But you must listen to him carefully as his English has a very thick accent … he’s from Hungary. – Nonsense, it’s perfectly good Hungarian English!” Herrmann hadn’t realized that Arnold had known Miklós Rósza since the 1950s.-

“Bennie wanted to pass as an English gentlemen so I often made fun of his New York accent, but he didn’t mind that.” **

I asked Sir Malcolm if he also was treated with an Herrmann singing his opera Wuthering Heights“No! Thank God. Herrmann once told me: Malcolm, I’ve made an opera out of Wuthering Heights! Which part?, I asked. You know, there are a lot of stories in the novel.” “He then showed me the full score, very large it was. Marvellous.” I asked if he had heard the recording, but Arnold “just” read the full paper score.

“He was always made a thing about oversized orchestras… He constantly reminded me about the fact, that he used 9 harps on a film score. I asked him: ‘Bennie is there any difference sound wise if you just use two harps?’ – ‘No, but I do it anyway’.” (laughter)

“I visited Herrmann once in Hollywood. He always claimed he didn’t live in Hollywood. But he did: 5119 Bluebell Avenue – Hollywood, if you ask me.” Sir Malcolm was rarely in Hollywood, rather scoring his films in London or Cornwall, despite many offers from US studios after the success of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

He and Herrmann shared a mutual admiration for the music director of 20th Century Fox at the time: Alfred Newman. Newman also held Herrmann and Arnold in high regard, many British or international productions of Fox/Zanuck were scored by Arnold, like THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN or ISLAND IN THE SUN. “Alfred Newman was one of the few men in the studio system I respected. I used to visit him at his wonderful home… He had a lovely family… the boy, Tommy Newman was just four then…”“But, I hate Hollywood, awful place.”

A bit of Anglo-American rivalry also comes thru. “You know Hitchcock was British, but he always used an American to score his [Hollywood] films… Herrmann was Hitchcock’s man.”“Later he used a Brit… John Addison for TORN CURTAIN.” Sir Malcolm reminded me that he studied with Addison at the Royal College of Music. Later Hitchcock also used the services of Ron Goodwin, but Arnold retired from film scoring before that. “I didn’t want to write the awful songs”, the studios wanted to attach to most movies at the time.

The “Americans”, as Arnold calls them, Bernard Herrmann and Leonard Bernstein urged him always to perform the work of Charles Ives, whom both thought to be Americas finest composer. When Arnold finally conducted Ives, “… it was in New Jersey. I played an Ives piece based on God Save the King!”. ***

I gave Sir Malcolm a copy of Herrmann’s 1972 recording of Ives 2nd Symphony with the LSO. “I am aware Herrmann conducted the 2nd Ives Symphony… I wish he had conducted my 2nd Symphony! (laughter) … He was a brilliant conductor!”. On hearing the Symphony Sir Malcolm comments: “This is excellent … I can’t remember to have heard that version before!”. I told Sir Malcolm that Herrmann used a different manuscript. “He loved doing that.”

Finally Sir Malcolm shared with me a funny short banter between the two of them… “Out of the blue Herrmann once said to me: ‘Malcolm you are a bogus composer!’ – ‘Perhaps I am, but are you any different?’- ‘No!’” (lots of laughter)

Fade out…


Special thanks to James Cox, Anthony Day and Sir Malcolm Arnold

* Kriss Rusmanis: “Omnibus: Arnold at 70″, BBC 1991
** James Cox: “An Interview with Sir Malcolm Arnold”, AMC 2000
*** Charles Ives: “Variations on America”

For more information about Sir Malcolm contact:
The Malcolm Arnold Society
Looking Back – Sir Malcolm Arnold’s reminiscences of Bernard Herrmann
Günther Kögebehn • May 2001