Malcolm Arnold, 84; First British Composer to Win Academy Award

Times Staff Writer

Malcolm Arnold, the prolific British composer who won an Academy Award for his musical score for David Lean’s World War II prisoner-of-war epic “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” has died. He was 84.

Arnold, who had been suffering from a chest infection, died Saturday at a hospital in Norfolk, England, said Anthony Day, Arnold’s longtime personal assistant and caregiver.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 27, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Arnold obituary: The obituary of composer Malcolm Arnold in Tuesday’s California section incorrectly said he was the first British composer to win an Academy Award. British composer Brian Easdale won an Oscar for his work on the 1948 film “The Red Shoes.”

Arnold, who has been described as “one of the towering musical figures of the 20th century” and “Britain’s most recorded and most prolific composer,” composed nine symphonies, seven ballets, two operas, one musical, more than 20 concertos, two string quartets and music for brass and wind bands.

But he was best known for his film scores -- more than 100 for feature films, documentaries and television from the late ‘40s to 1970, including “Whistle Down the Wind,” “Hobson’s Choice” and “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” and a television adaptation of “David Copperfield.”


“He was one of the most prolific of all the English film composers,” Jon Burlingame, who teaches film music history at USC, told The Times on Monday.

“One of the things that’s significant about Arnold is that he understood the dramatic needs of film and seemed to be right for it in the sense that he could write complex music to a deadline. He was a master of mood and color.”

Arnold had 10 days to write the score for “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Lean’s 1957 film starring William Holden and Alec Guinness about British POWs whose Japanese captors force them to build a railroad bridge.

“That’s an extraordinary accomplishment,” Burlingame said. “The music is not simple, and it is undeniably right for the movie. He evoked the feeling of the jungles in Burma, and he managed to underscore the emotion of the situations.”


Arnold, who became the first British composer to win an Oscar, used the preexisting “Colonel Bogey March,” a catchy 1914 tune by Kenneth Alford, which the prisoners memorably whistle in the movie.

“Arnold uses that theme as part of the score, but he wrote a counter-melody to it, which is its own march and yet helps give the ‘Colonel Bogey’ tune depth as part of the score,” Burlingame said. “There’s something ingenious about that.”

Arnold, who is said to have written a symphony, two chamber works, a ballet and nine film scores in 1953 alone, described “The Bridge on the River Kwai” as “the hardest job I ever had to do.”

He had a 10-day deadline, he told the Independent of London in 1996, because “the producer wanted to present [the film] for a Royal Command Performance.”

“The ‘Colonel Bogey’ whistling sequence was difficult to record,” he said. “I had 17 members of the Irish Guards, plus a piccolo player, whistling while marching in sand to sound like the footsteps in the film. The orchestra was dubbed on afterward.”

Despite Arnold’s prolific output of film scores, the Independent’s Ian Pillow reported, it was his nine symphonies “that lie at the heart of Arnold’s output and where his deepest thoughts are expressed. They reveal a powerful musical voice of infinite complexity and subtlety, often reflecting the troubled, contradictory personalities of their composer.”

Arnold agreed.

“Yes, my symphonies and string quartets are autobiographical, but I prefer them to be approached as pure music,” he told Pillow. “I have always liked the symphony. To me, it is the ultimate art form in music. My favorite is my Fifth. It contains more ups and downs and emotion than any other.”


Although he had been described as being down-to-earth, generous and good-humored, Arnold led a turbulent life that included two failed marriages, the death of an infant daughter, alcoholism, depression and attempted suicide.

“I know of no other artist, with the possible exception of Maria Callas, who has suffered so much in order to inspire us, entertain us and make us laugh,” Tony Palmer, director of a documentary on Arnold, “Toward the Unknown Region,” told the Independent in 2004.

The son of a shoe manufacturer, Arnold was born in Northampton on Oct. 21, 1921. He studied piano and, after hearing and meeting Louis Armstrong at a tea dance while on a family vacation, began playing the trumpet at age 12. Four years later, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied trumpet and composition.

Arnold, who married for the first time in 1941, began playing with professional orchestras while still at the Royal College of Music.

By 1943, he was first trumpet for the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Although he initially sought conscientious objector status during World War II, a combination of mental breakdowns, the diagnosis of schizophrenia and the death of two relatives reportedly helped spur him to enlist for combat in 1944. Assigned to an Army band, he shot himself in the foot and was discharged in 1945.

After returning home, Arnold played with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and then rejoined the London Philharmonic. He began composing full time after winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1948.

By the time he wrote the first of his nine symphonies in 1949, he already was working successfully as a film composer.


“Malcolm Arnold,” fellow composer Alan Rawsthorne once said, “writes music quicker than it takes the ink to dry.”

Arnold, who was at the peak of his popularity in the 1950s, saw his first marriage end in the early ‘60s. His second marriage, which produced an autistic son, ended in 1975, in the wake of his drinking, depression and a suicide attempt.

A drug overdose led Arnold to begin undergoing psychoanalysis.

He was institutionalized in 1979, beginning a period of his life that he described as “hell.”

By the mid 1980s -- after being put under the care of Day for a period of rehabilitation -- Arnold was able to begin composing again; he dedicated his Ninth Symphony to Day.

Arnold, who suffered from mild dementia in recent years, died on the day of the premiere of “The Three Musketeers,” a new ballet based on his music, at the Alhambra Theatre in the northern English city of Bradford. The performance that night was dedicated to him.

Arnold, who was knighted in 1993, is survived by his children, Katherine, Robert and Edward.