Alcoholism, insanity, abuse: the dark side of composer Sir Malcolm Arnold

Malcolm Arnold, composer who won an Oscar for his score for the film 'The Bridge on the River Kwai',

Malcolm Arnold, composer who won an Oscar for his score for the film 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', at Elstree Studios - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The conflicting shades of the musician’s life are to be explored in an upcoming Hampstead concert, writes Michael White.

Sir Malcolm Arnold was one of the truly tragic figures of British music. Famous for film scores like Bridge on the River Kwai and for some of the most the most popular English concert works of the mid-20th Century (the Cornish Dances, Little Suites and Peterloo Overture) but with a life dogged by alcoholism and insanity.

He was abusive to his family, who tried to cope but found it impossible. He was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and confined to the Royal Free hospital (from which he escaped, running around the streets of Belsize Park in a dressing gown). And after a series of violent escapades, he ended up in the Court of Protection - generating years of litigation over ownership of his music before his death in 2006.

The chief burden of all this fell on his daughter Katherine who, perhaps significantly, now works as a psychotherapist. But she devotes part of her life to keeping the better parts of her father’s memory alive. And she’ll be introducing a concert of his chamber works as part of the Hampstead Arts Festival – performed by principals from the leading London orchestras with pianist Reiko Fujisawa.

Much of the repertoire will be lesser-known early work from the 1940s/50s which Katherine thinks will surprise anyone who only knows the popular pieces. “For a long while”, she says, “my father’s music was thought of as light. But I’m struck by how often these days it gets written up as dark, especially the symphonies. And the truth is, it encompasses both extremes, like the work of any great artist”.

Katherine is sure her father does deserve the label “great”, and says that as she’s got to know his music better she feels “more sympathy with him than I once had.

“It was difficult being his daughter, but I realise now that when you’re a real artist the rest of your life takes a back seat. If I’d understood that at the time, things might have been less messy for us all than they were.

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“In retrospect I can honestly say I’m glad he had children - glad he found the time, given everything else that was going on in his life. He wrote so much, and with such brilliant technical facility. I just want people now to hear it and enjoy it”.

Malcolm Arnold chamber music: 4pm, Sat 14th, St John’s Downshire Hill.