An Interview with Malcolm Arnold by Christopher Ritchie
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.7/Nos.27/1988
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
While on a 10-day visit to Scotland as Composer-in-residence at the Perth Festival of the Arts, Malcolm Arnold talked to me about his work as a composer of film music. Between 1948 and 1969 he wrote the music for over 70 feature films as well as many short documentaries and some television programs. One must not forget that he has written extensively for the concert hall (this includes 9 symphonies) as well as music for ballet and the theatre. The conversation took place at the Royal George Hotel, Perth, on 27 May 1987.
You were barn in Northampton, the youngest of five children. Did you grow up in a musical environment?
Yes, my father was an amateur pianist and my mother was a very fine pianist and accompanist, quite well known.
You studied the violin at 4, piano at 5. Then you moved on to the trumpet. Was there any particular reason for this?
I liked jazz and I liked Louis Armstrong, like most people of my age did. When I got to learn more about music, I understood music better and liked more serious music, but I always kept my interest in jazz.
Did you have a problem combining school and music?
No, because I had a governess and aunt from the age of 12, I refused to go to school because I didn’t like the discipline.
Did you need any encouragement to study at the Royal college of Music?
Encouragement… If you get a scholarship before the age you’re allowed to enter, surely that’s encouragement. When I left the College I had to try and earn a living.
When did you first start to compose?
I started to compose seriously at the age of 10. It was serious to me but obviously composition depends on other people. If you do any work of a social nature you depend more on other people than you do yourself, but every individual is like that.
As a member of the London Philharmonic between 1942 and 1948 did you come into contact with film music, did you take part in the recording of film scores?
Yes, many times. We recorded music by Georges Auric who wrote very badly for the trumpet, Sir William Walton who wrote very well for the trumpet, and many others – Lord Berners for example. I played the trumpet with Ernest Irving as conductor who did more for film music than Muir Mathieson. I was a film fan at the age of 5 and one knows how music can harm or enhance a film from a very early age.
In 1948 you won a Mendelssohn scholarship and went to Italy to study for a year. What kind of experience was it?
Very nice. It was the first time I had ever been to Italy. I didn’t study. I did what Sir George Dyson said, “You’ve done enough studying in your time, you do what I did, go out and sit in the sun”. I was married with a child and had to come back and do a film for Anglo-Scottish. Not “had to”, l wanted to.
Did jour visit come just before your entry into films?
Yes, it was a lucky thing.
In 1948 you got the chance to write your first film score. Was it a nerve-wracking experience?
BADGERS GREEN was my first feature film, a ‘B’ picture made at Rank’s Highbury Studios. John Hollingsworth gave me that assignment and Muir Mathieson conducted my score and was very impressed.
You then averaged three or four films a year.
Yes, which is too much.
Most of the “serious” composers who worked in films in the 1940s – Bax, Ireland, Walton, Vaughan-Williams – had quite a bit of trouble adjusting to the demands of film scoring. For you, this didn’t seem to be the case.
Arnold Bax took a long time to state an idea and when he did, it was quite beautiful. He had an awful time with OLIVER TWIST when they cut his music up. It was a dreadful experience for the “Master of the King’s Music” as he was at this time.
What was your experience of working with David Lean?
David Lean knew exactly what he wanted, dramatically, and he was very refreshing to work with. Most composers found him terrifying but I didn’t. He had tremendous integrity and was one of the few lasting friendships I had.
Has any particular actor or actress, through their personality, acting style, even the way they looked, given you inspiration when writing a score? For example Max Steiner wrote some of his best music for Bette Davis, Korngold for Errol Flynn, Henry Mancini for Audrey Hepburn.
I’m glad you mentioned Max Steiner. He was one of my all-time favorites. When he wrote a tune you knew it – simple, schmaltzy, really Hollywood. I always remember the piece he wrote for Jane Wyman as the young girl in JOHNNY BELINDA.
Were there any actors that inspired you?
Hayley Mills. One of the best scores I ever wrote was for a Hayley Mills film, WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND. John Trevelyan who was on the Board of British Film Censors thought the title music the finest thing he had ever heard in the cinema, so I gave him the autographed score.
What about the score to NO HIGHWAY?
I said if you’re going to have music here, you’re going to ruin a good script and a good film. What you need is title music and that’s all I will write.
There is no music credit on the film.
Yes, it’s a disgrace. I’m glad you pointed that out.
You provided scores for several films based on stage plays where it seemed little music were needed – HOLLY AND TIIE IVY, HOME AT SEVEN, THE DEEP BLUE SEA.
There was a lot in DEEP BLUE SEA. Anatole Litvak liked my music, and George Chisholm recorded a tune called ‘Deep Sea Blues’ with Kenny Baker and his Dixieland crowd.
THE SOUND BARRIER in 1952 was your first film for David Lean. In it you combine sound effects with music, such as in the sequence when the Spitfire is just about to hit the sound barrier.
I always had that in mind. The sound department which included the music got an Oscar for that and it’s down at Shepperton Studios, if it still exists.
You turned your music for SOUND BARRIER into a ‘Rhapsody for Orchestra’ based on the main themes. Why did you give this particular score a life of its own outside the film, for you haven’t done this with any of your other film scores?
Because I thought it was worthwhile. I was getting fed up with orchestral suites so I did a connected piece; hence it’s called a ‘Rhapsody’ which is what it means.
Your second collaboration with David Lean was HOBSON’S CHOICE in 1953. You used a fairly small orchestra of about 25 players.
Yes, I usually do. When I worked for large American companies, in order to create employment amongst fine musicians (when they came to Britain to record music because it was cheaper), I used to get the largest possible orchestra I couId. The excellent British musicians play from the heart. The sound for romantic music which Bruce Montgomery and I used to call “kiss music”, for this you would have a large orchestra with a large string section.
In HOBSON’S CHOICE there’s a memorable opening sequence showing the interior of Hobson’s shop and the different shapes and sizes of shoes, all of which you highlight musically. Was the sequence cut to the music?
No, the music was cut to the film. It was beautifully put together and I wrote the music to it including the lap dissolves. The drunken scene is the best thing in the film.
Did inspiration come easily on HOBSON’S CHOICE?
Always, especially if I liked the film. If I didn’t like the film as happened later in my career, I looked at the script and decided whether I wanted to do it.
You were obviously the natural choice for BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. I believe you had only 10 days in which to write and record the score. Why so little time on such a big production?
Sam Spiegel wanted to send it in for the Royal Command Performance. When the film was completed on time, it was found to be too long, so some piece of American trash was chosen instead. It gave all the people working on it a very great headache indeed.
It must have been a nightmare experience.
Yes, I’m lucky to be alive, the way I had to work on the film, but I did it because I liked the picture. The sequence when the soldiers first arrive at the camp was quite difficult to record. I had 17 Irish Guards and a piccolo player whistling, and they had to march in sand to get the sound of the footsteps; I recorded the orchestra afterwards. It was quite complicated.
Can you tell me what happened on the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA score?
I was to do all the dramatic music and conduct and coordinate everything. Sir William Walton was to write the patriotic British music and Khachaturian to write the Arabian music, on which he was an expert. I went to see the film with William Walton and we both thought it was terrible and turned it down. It was something like 5 hours long and a lot of that film ended up on the cutting room floor.
On the St Trinians’ films you used an even smaller ensemble than on HOBSON’S CHOICE. How did the St Trinian’s assignment come about?
I was asked to do it by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat and they asked me to do every one. They were very funny. In the first one we had Alistair Sim as Miss Fritton the headmistress.
Did Frank Launder ask permission to use your music for the 1980 production WILDCATS OF ST TRINIAN’S?
Yes, he did. He asked the Court of Protection in Great Britain for permission, and l gave my permission because I had to.
In 1956 you wrote the music for THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET, but it was ultimately rejected and replaced by a score by Bronislau Kaper. Were you ever given any reasons why they did this?
John Green wrote me a long letter about it, but I knew it was not a good score. He wrote a letter of apology. He’s a very old friend. It was not a good film and it got another bad score that was changed for an even worse score and it made a lot of money. They made it because they had a director on their payroll who made the original, Sidney Frankin, and he was up for retiraI and they wanted to give him something to do before he retired and that’s what they gave him.
In 1956 you worked with Carol Reed, a contemporary of David Lean, on TRAPEZE. Was he quite different to work with?
Ye. He approached it more from the actor’s point of view, which for the actor is better, for the composer it’s very trying. The theme from TRAPEZE (Lola’s Theme) became quite popular in the United States.
One of your best-known scores was for WISTLE DOWN THE WIND.
Yes, the music made it. When we saw it on a Sunday morning at Pinewood Studios, we thought it was a dead duck.
In 1960 you worked on NO LOVE FOR JOHNNIE.
I used a brass band for the title music. It was called ‘To the Hustings’. I had a large orchestra for that score, because the director, Ralph Thomas, always liked important-sounding scores in his films.
In 1959 you became involved with SOLOMON AND SHEBA. I believe you wrote music for the funeral sequence.
King Vidor was in a terrible jam and phoned me one day; he said that the score he had (by Mario Nascimbene, Ed,) was not the one he wanted. 150 Italian musicians had been used on that score and I re-scored a lot of it for 10 players, including the most dramatic sequence ‘The Sacrifice’. I didn’t want any credit or any fee; I did it out of homage to the great King Vidor,
How much music did you write for SOLOMON AND SHERA?
Twenty, twenty-five minutes of music. It was done very quickly.
You also worked that same year on SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.
A great friend of mine had died and I just couldn’t write music for this depressing picture. I wrote some of the music and Buxtan Orr did the rest.
Did you ever have to study ethnic music when working on films set in exotic, far-off places?
On ISLAND IN THE SUN I studied West Indian music on the island of Grenada and on NINE HOURS TO RAMA it necessitated going to India, where I worked with Indian musicians. In 1947 I’d been the first person to write down the Indian National Anthem which is fairly well-known, but it helped me with NINE HOURS TO RAMA, which was a surprisingly good film. I worked a lot with Mark Robson and this was always a great joy. Do you remember that wonderful title music for NINE HOURS TO RAMA shot against the interior of the assassin’s watch? That percussion music was only 5 Indian percussion players. You can’t mix Indian music with European, because they’re at a different pitch, so I imitated it with guitars and harps when I recorded the train journey sequence in London.
My own personal favorite among your many film scores is the one you wrote for THE HEROES OF TELEMARK. Was the German military band music and the German singing of ‘Silent Night’ recorded in the studio?
No, they were both recorded in Norway on the set. It was quite a difficult score to do, but I enjoyed doing it. I wrote that in Cornwall, and recorded it in London.
You used some music from THE RECKONING in your 8th Symphony.
Yes, l did it for a very special reason. It was going to be and has been the last film I did, and I used it to commemorate that in the 8th Symphony. To me it’s not an Irish tune but somehow it sounds like it.
You seemed the natural choice for DAVID COPPERFIELD.
Yes, L knew the area around Broadstairs so well. For Delbert Mann, the American director, every bit of scenery was exotic. The score has some very good stuff in it. It was certainly a subject close to my heart.
Most people won’t realise just how much you were involved in William Walton’s score for THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN…
Well, I conducted and did the orchestration, and when William Walton was stuck I helped him along. He was a very slow worker and he was heartbroken at the treatment he received from the film company. I orchestrated Walton’s BATTLE OF BRITAIN March and there was a coda and I put in lots of percussion. William always used to say, “You use too much percussion, my boy,” and I said, “No, I don’t, I use it in the right places”. I put in a lot of percussion and quickened it up to give it a finish. We decided to record music in Germany with the correct German bands, but the publishers wanted music that they could get a rake off and so they got Ron Goodwin to write in a similar style, whereas the original would have done just as well.
Were there any composers in Hollywood that you particularly admired?
Yes, I’ve already mentioned Max Steiner. The greatest musician in films was Alfred Newman, who stands high above them all. As a melodic man for films you couldn’t beat Max Steiner. Dimitri Tiomkin’s greatest score was HIGH NOON. He was a man who had the most wonderful sense of the dramatic. Henry Mancini wrote ‘Moon River’ and anybody who did that, you take your hat off to.
In British films there were many wonderful composers.
Yes, there was William Alwyn. Richard Addinsell was one of the best of the lot. His PASSIONATE FRIENDS for David Lean was a most beautiful score. Alan Rawsthorne with THE CRUEL SEA and THE CAPTIVE HEART, they were both very good. However he didn’t adapt too well to films. He didn’t have the technique or the discipline.
Why did Muir Mathieson conduct so many of your early scores?
He was one of the first conductors who could really read a score and took the trouble to know his actors and directors, but unfortunately he tried to make a monopoly of it. He was a little too forceful. He expected everybody to be a puppet on a string. I had the same agent as he and that was a tremendous racket that l fought and got out of.
Which of your scores would you most like to be remembered for?
WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND and THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS.
Where did you write most of your music?
In Richmond, Cornwall, Ireland.
Did you ever write at the studios?
When I did re-takes with Gene Kelly, I had an office at MGM Studios.
You wrote in collaboration with Jacques Ibert on Gene Kelly’s INVITATION TO THE DANCE.
With Jacques Ibert and Robert Farnon. I wrote the whole of ‘Ring around the Rosies’, which was too advanced in its jazz idiom. It was Stan Kenton type jazz with the Ted Heath Band and the Royal Philharmonic. It was considered too advanced, so they got a young arranger at MGM to re-do it called André Previn.
Is there a possibility of your recording an album of your film music with the National Philharmonic or the Royal Philharmonic?
I’d like to. It’s a question of getting hold of the material. Some of the scores were left with the studios and some I collected. I also gave some to the Royal College of Music. I think Columbia Pictures Music should have the RIVER KWAI score,
Does your style of writing change when writing symphonies as opposed to film scores?
I’ve always said that any music I write, whether film, concert hall, ballet, or chamber music, I just write what I would like to hear. John Addison once said to me, “You’re very lucky Malcolm; you don’t have to think about what style you write in”. I said, “Good God, if you think about that, you’ll never get started, you’ve just got to write and make it your own”.
If my film music brings my music to a larger audience, thank God for that.