A popular composer silenced by the BBC

A popular composer silenced by the BBC


norman lebrecht

October 09, 2020

The Lebrecht Album of the Week has a premiere recording of an opera by Malcolm Arnold:

The most popular and prolific composer of his time, Malcolm Arnold was shunned by the British music establishment for being, mostly, too popular and prolific, and therefore a potent threat to the nonentities who were not. Arnold (1921-2006) had other crosses against his name. He was a former orchestral player (working class), an Oscar winner (disgraceful), a tonal symphonist (non-BBC-pc), an alcoholic and a philanderer who suffered repeated bouts of mental illness. In short, he was everything the suits hated….

Read on here.

And here.

In The Critic here.

In Spanish here.

In Portuguese here.

In Czech here.

In French here.


  • Tribonian says:

    I don’t suppose the suits had a problem with the drinking or the philandering as such. The suits probably saw them as mitigating factors.
    I don’t know what the far more accomplished musicians on this site will think, but when I was still playing as an amateur, I found his orchestral writing to be very enjoyable and rewarding, despite his music not really being my thing.

  • Allen says:

    I remember a recording of his ‘Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril’ being quite popular in the UK in the 1970s.

  • Damian Penfold says:

    A minor correction to your piece – The Ealing Symphony Orchestra has performed all the Arnold symphonies in sequence I believe.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    The late Ruggiero Ricci had works by Malcolm Arnold in his (huge) repertoire, and years ago the difficult-to-find Hong Kong label “One-Eleven” (largely devoted to live performances by Ricci) included his Five Pieces for Violin and Piano op. 84 (with Rebecca Penneys on piano) one One-Eleven URS-93040. Arnold’s Sonata No. 2 op. 43 is on One-Eleven URS 91060, which also contains the Five Pieces – same performance I think, because it is also with Penneys, but a better tape, and here is the kicker: “read and performed AT SIGHT with the composer’s presence in the audience.” (Mr. Ricci was one of a kind.) Both works are enjoyable for an audience and good workouts for the musicians. We can’t blame the BBC for other violinists not picking them up.

  • Jack says:

    Sir Malcolm’s 2nd quartet is one of the most underrated quartets.

  • violin accordion says:

    The Andante-Adagio from his 5th symphony is sublime

    • John Borstlap says:

      Here it is:


      Sublime? In spite of some fine moments, I don’t think so, it sounds a bit like film music and the passionate gestures sound rather hollow. Why? Because you can compare them with Mahler, who did these things as well, but differently and more effectively.

      • violin accordion says:

        That’s a rather big curmudgeonly analytical comparison to make, and as we know, comparisons are odious .
        Let people enjoy it, without preemption, especially as NL has highlighted it, without prejudice

  • Couperin says:

    Always loved Arnold Symphony 5. Sure it’s tonal but so whaaaat? It has a wonderful structure, great pacing, drama, wit, excitement, anger.. just a great piece of orchestral music. Check it out!

  • Peter San Diego says:

    The BBC’s modernist bias is well known, but I wonder which of the modernists William Glock supported count among the “nonentities” — and which of them NL accepts as “entities” despite their enjoying BBC patronage.

    I enjoy some of Malcolm Arnold’s music; my comment above should not be taken as countenancing Glock’s anti-tonalism or as disparaging Arnold and the other tonalists ignored by the Beeb.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Glock was an ideologist trying to get progressiveness off the ground in an overal traditional country. That is why he rejected Goldschmidt, for instance, ignoring his talent and sending him back into isolation.

  • Peter Owen says:

    Go onto BBC Genome and enter Malcolm Arnold. I would imagine that most composers would exult in such neglect.

  • Vance Koven says:

    I think Arnold’s guitar concerto is one of the very best of its genre.

  • Alexander T says:

    He also wrote some unbelievably banal music.

  • Appleby says:

    I don’t dispute that Arnold deserves far, far better from posterity – his career problems in his lifetime stemmed from a complex mixture of personal issues.

    But William Glock actually commissioned him; and in the sleevenotes of this recording you’ll learn that the only prior performance of this opera was actually by a BBC orchestra.

  • Joseph says:

    Malcolm Arnold was also a very accomplished composer of film scores, including one of my favorites, The Chalk Garden, a classic mid-1960s film with Deborah Karr, Dame Edith Evans, Haley Mills, and John Mills, based on a play by Enid Bagnold.

    • V. Lind says:

      I was amazed to see how many of the films I had loved as a child — The Chalk Garden, Whistle Down the Wind, Sky West ad Crooked (did the Mills family have shares in Arnold?) — had been scored by him.

      He always seemed to be on the radio when I was a child.

  • William Safford says:

    I’ve always liked Malcolm Arnold’s music, at least what little I know of it. I’ve never had the opportunity to perform one of his symphonies or other major works, but I like playing his Three Shanties for wind quintet, and his Fantasy for bassoon.

    And, of course, I love his association with Jon Lord and the Concerto for Group and Orchestra.

  • Jason Lewis says:

    Malcolm Arnold’s music deserves to be championed. Jolly good! However, he was far from being working class.

  • John Borstlap says:

    After WW II the British isles got, quite late in comparison with the continent, infected with modernist thought from Vienna, in an attempt to leave tradition behind (of which Benjamin Britten was the figurehead). Not only British composers (who innocently thought that something precious better not be thrown away) but also immigrant great talents like Berthold Goldschmidt and Hans Gal became something that the ‘forward-looking elite’ became ashamed of, as if it were a symbol of the Great Empire’s backwardness.

  • RobK says:

    Malcolm Arnold is a wonderful composer – perhaps the English Shostakovich – but it’s worth remembering that his 4th Symphony (1959-60) was commissioned by that arch-modernist (Sir William Glock.) What’s unforgiveable is his continued absence of his symphonies from the Proms long after the Continental modern tide had turned.

  • christopher storey says:

    Is there such a thing as safe venery, NL ? If you don’t catch something, someone may catch you !!

  • Patrick says:

    What a fabulous work! Thank you so much!

  • msc says:

    I have never understood the relative neglect of his works. In my forty years of concert going I think I have heard only some of his Cornish dances, but my memory is a bit blurry that far back. I would like to see the excellent set of his symphonies conducted by him (and the Penny set) augmented by some from a conductor like Vanska or Brabbins (are you reading this, Robert von Bahr?). His film music also needs more exposure. I am glad to see from Wikipedia that he accumulated a good number of honorary degrees.

  • Shunned enough to get a CBE.

    How much could the BBC have been shunning him when they were commissioning and premiering music from him?

    The classic “Four Scottish Dances” and “Four Cornish Dances” were such and probably a number of others.

  • PaulRandall says:

    Over the years, I’ve heard many performances of Arnold’s music, a few in the concert hall and most on BBC radio 2 and 3. And here was me thinking that the reason his music isn’t much played is because not many people want to listen to it. But no, it’s all the fault of the BBC.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    He may not have fitted the BBC template of the time but, while they didn’t exactly promote his music, neither did they wholly ignore it as a BBC double cd shows.

  • Really really interesting. Will try to buy it on Apple Music. But where to find its vocal score?

  • fflambeau says:

    Far too tonal and too much like Sibelius who is hugely popular with people, but critics, not so much.

  • Nijinsky says:

    I’m listening to his 3rd symphony, on youtube, someone was kind enough to share it.

    I also read somewhere (wiki) that he was a “rather conservative” composer who wrote tonal music. That’s quite amazing, when someone hasn’t done something akin to taking a knife to a painting like Dorian Gray at the end of his lifetime, a painting reducing art to an artifice of effect, then they are “rather conservative.”

    No insult to Webern or Schoenberg, but I wonder what they would have thought was anyone still doing their own thing called “conservative” rather than following said method, I don’t think they would have liked it.

    Like The interview with Gelsey Kirkland where she actually exposes that Balanchine not only had a nice pill for her, when she was not feeling up to dancing, but said that she actually got plastic surgeon to look more like Balanchine’s ideal dancer Suzanne Farrell. Someone not going along with such is “conservative.”


  • You did a good thing, Norman. Thanks.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    So what’s the difference between the treatment of him then from the ‘establishment’ and the ostracism and cancel culture of the Woke brigade today. Answer: none. The establishment has just changed its livery, that’s all. Now they’re all Woke and they will not tolerate non-conformity. One thing that both cohorts have in common; the establishment then and now – they’re all rabid conformists who’ve merely changed their uniforms.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Malcolm Arnold was the principal trumpet for the LPO in this recording of Mahler’s Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen


    under Edward van Beinum. The disc also features the world premiere recording of Arnold’s first major compositional success, his overture “Beckus the Dandipratt”.

    His biography records that as he was practising for this concert, a voice cried up to his window, “my father wrote that”. The lady was, of course, invited in.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Another Malcolm Arnold story in his biography. Arnold visited Shostakovich. They went into the bathroom and ran the taps full on, so they couldn’t be overheard by the KGB. I would have to read this again, because as I write, I wonder how good Shostakovich’s English was or Arnold’s Russian. But the story is in “Malcolm Arnold – Rogue Genius: The Life and Music of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Composer”

  • fflambeau says:

    I actually took one whole morning to listen to music of his and can see why BBC did this. He’s not very good.

  • fflambeau says:

    Go over to Youtube and type in Malcolm Arnold. I would guess that 50% of the recordings of his music were with BBC symphony orchestras, including his symphonies 1, 5 & 9. Is that “silencing” him?

  • Gerald Martin says:

    Critic David Hurwitz is an Arnold enthusiast:


  • Ralph Fisher says:

    He was not the only Malcolm silenced by the BBC.