Sir Malcolm

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 2001 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA. 

Last weekend I was privileged to have tea with the great composer Sir Malcolm Arnold. Without doubt he’s the elder statesman of British music and a composer whose stature seems to grow as the years pass. This particular meeting was to allow Sir Malcolm to hear my 14-year-old pupil, Jonathan Howse, play his wonderful Sonatina. Sir Malcolm was visibly moved by the performance and afterwards we had the opportunity to chat about the piece. I’ve played it, talked about it and taught it so many times yet didn’t know that the very first performance was given by the British conductor Sir Colin Davis (a clarinettist in his younger days!). Even at the age of 80, Sir Malcolm has a tremendous memory, and he spoke of thirty and forty year-old experiences with great clarity and enthusiasm.

Arnold’s contribution to the clarinet repertoire is of great significance. His clarinet writing is always idiomatic; the lyrical and reflective nature of the instrument is omnipresent alongside the energetic, robust and virtuosic. In addition to the Sonatina, there are the two concertos and the Fantasy for Unaccompanied Clarinet. The clarinet features in the exhilarating Three Shanties for Wind Quintet (a real favourite of mine) and the colourful Divertimento for Wind Trio. Also, we can sometimes forget that he wrote over 70 film scores, and often included intricate clarinet solos in many of them, knowing that they would be recorded by his great friend Frederick ‘Jack’ Thurston. In fact much of his music has been written for particular friends in mind. Often it is the character and nature of these friends that pervade and inspire the substance of particular works: again, Jack Thurston haunts both the First Concerto and the Sonatina; and Benny Goodman was clearly peering over the composer’s shoulder when Arnold was writing his Second Concerto! 

I am particularly happy that my own publishing company, Queen’s Temple Publications, publish the Divertimento for two clarinets Op. 135. It was written in July 1988 and, given that Arnold has not composed anything for a good number of years now, is one of his very last works. It’s a further important addition to Arnold’s championing of the instrument and is perhaps most akin to the Wind Divertimento. Both works are cast in six short, vividly defined movements. Both combine that unmistakable wit and sumptuous melodic writing with moments of darker and more serious writing. 

Sir Malcolm now lives in Norfolk, near the East coast, not far from the home of another of our great 20th-century composers, Benjamin Britten. The walls of Sir Malcolm’s main living room are covered in large portraits of himself at varying stages of his distinguished life, and it is quite easy to trip over one of his old trumpets, which are scattered informally about the floor! (He spent many years as principal trumpet in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and clearly likes to be constantly reminded of this!) And you can’t miss the very large television which resides in the corner, on which he loves watching his old films. My teacher, John Davies and Sir Malcolm had been good friends for many years (John had in fact given one of the earliest, if not the first broadcast performances of the Sonatina) and he spoke warmly of their shared experiences. We took a few pictures and Sir Malcolm signed Jonathan’s copy of the Sonatina before we finally bade our farewells. Being such an important anniversary year for Sir Malcolm, I suspect we shall be hearing a lot of the composer’s music over the next twelve months. And quite right too! Those who still regard Sir Malcolm Arnold as a composer of light music will have the chance to discover that his musical language has a deeper vein; and all will be able to celebrate the achievement of one of the greatest voices of our time.