Lost and found, the remarkable story of Malcolm Arnold's Wind Quintet

In the Summer of 2000 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Gillespie, editor of The Clarinet Journal, during the International Clarinet Association (ICA) convention in Oklahoma. James asked me if I would like to contribute a regular column. These personal reflections are now reprinted with his permission. The following ‘Letter from the UK’ was first published in March 2003 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

When flipping through the Malcolm Arnold catalogue for some purpose of information gathering, my eye has often alighted on the following: 1942 Wind Quintet – Manuscript lost. Like most wind players, I love the Three Shanties and have played them many times. I’ve long wondered what this tantalising quintet, written just a few months before the Shanties, might be like. Therefore I could hardly contain my excitement when, in early October 2002, I had a phone call from Malcolm’s carer Anthony Day, who told me the quintet had been found and asked me to prepare it for publication. Having brought the manuscript home from Attleborough, I then embarked on some detective work in an attempt to piece together the story of the quintet since its composition, almost exactly 60 years ago. This is what I discovered...

Arnold completed the manuscript on December 20th 1942, when the Second World War was at its height. (Malcolm was fiercely anti-war: indeed he had shot himself in the foot to escape war service.) The quintet was written for the five principal wind players in the London Philharmonic Orchestra (the LPO, in which Malcolm himself was principal trumpet): Richard Adeney (flute); Michael Dobson (oboe); Stephen Waters (clarinet); Charles Gregory (horn) and George Alexandra (bassoon). It had been thought that they gave the first performance on June 7th 1943 at Trinity College of Music in London, but this cannot be confirmed. However on 8th August 1944, the LPO’s chairman Charles Gregory arranged to have the work broadcast by the BBC from their Bristol Overseas Service studios. The players settled down to a full day’s rehearsing when, quite unexpectedly, they were told that the broadcast was in fact to be that very day! Their plans for a long leisurely rehearsal became closer to ten minutes! A quick read-through, a few minutes practising the tricky bits – and then the red light went on. When it went off some fifteen minutes later, the players were unusually stressed, but relieved that the performance had not actually broken down. 

And now the plot thickens … The manuscript score and parts (written out by the composer himself) were then lent to the Dennis Brain Quintet – Gareth Morris, Leonard Brain, Stephen Waters, Dennis Brain and Cecil James. (Stephen Waters was the link between the two groups and had presumerably alerted the Brain Quintet to this new piece.) Then all went silent – no sight nor sound of the quintet until Jonathan Wortley – Stephen Waters’ executor, came across an interesting handwritten manuscript about two years after the death of the clarinettist. Nestling among some inconsequential music was the Arnold Quintet, minus the horn part. My friend, the clarinettist, teacher and biographer Pamela Weston not only knew about Stephen Waters, but also had coincidentally received some lessons from him during the war years. She remembers him as being a fine teacher and player but also as rather nervous, scatter-brained and slightly absent-minded. She recalls a bus journey they took together on one of those old red London buses with the pole on to which passengers can grasp as they got on and off. She recalls Stephen getting quite tangled up on this – his clarinet, clothes and indeed self, requiring the young Pamela to attempt to disentangle her teacher! I can only assume that, as librarian to the quintet (after perhaps Dennis had taken his part) Stephen put the work in a box for safe-keeping, and then completely forgot about it!

Typesetting the work – much of which I did myself – was tremendously exciting; gradually seeing the three movements come to life again. Many sonorities and musical ideas appear again in the Shanties and, although this is early Arnold, it will certainly be seen as a very important and significant work. The first movement is tuneful and full of those surprises Arnold loves to introduce in his music – to keep his audiences awake, as he once told me! Those of you who don’t know the early piano sonata (written a couple of months before this quintet) will learn much about his style from that fine work. There is no shortage of jazz-inspired ideas but they are always coloured by that Arnold edge. The second movement is a fiendish scherzo – full of amazing cross rhythms and of immense energy. The final movement is a March and the most emotionally charged. It is clearly very strongly anti-war, with severe and angry dissonances, mocking fanfares, angular and brutal melodic and rhythmic shapes.

As it happened, I had a quintet concert arranged for November 6th at Hartwell House, Oxford, so hastily altered the programme to include the first ‘revival’ performance of the quintet. After a few phone calls I was excited to discover that Richard Adeney, the flute player at that first performance and for whom Arnold wrote all his main flute works, was still very much alive and well. At the age of eighty-two the dapper and sprightly Richard was delighted to attend the performance and spoke to the audience with his memories of Malcolm and the work. Interestingly enough, he had no recollection of the Trinity College performance; but he did remember well that manic broadcast from Bristol! We will never be really sure whether that initial performance at Trinity ever did take place, which makes ours the first live performance – 60 years after the completion of the work.

Malcolm Arnold’s Wind Quintet is now available from Queen’s Temple Publications. It’s without doubt a major addition to the wind quintet repertoire and a very important musical re-discovery of recent times.