Malcolm Arnold was born into a musical family but it was Louis Armstrong who inspired him to take up the trumpet at the age of 12. Arnold studied with Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music, London, and in 1941 joined the LPO as a trumpeter, leaving in 1948 to devote himself to composition. His versatility led him to write for almost every medium, most notably for the cinema where his scores include Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Sound Barrier, Whistle Down the Wind, The Angry Silence, Tunes of Glory, The Heroes of Telemark and, most memorably, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The latter, which won him an Academy Award, revitalised Kenneth Alford’s 1914 march Colonel Bogey. Arnold had his personal problems – his unashamedly autobiographical Eighth Symphony depicts a suicide attempt – but the range of his work, its superb craftsmanship, coupled with his gift for melody and pungent rhythms, will ensure that more of his music survives than that of many of his contemporaries.
His most important works are orchestral (nine symphonies, 1951-82; numerous light and serious pieces). His language is diatonic, owing something to Walton and Sibelius, and the scoring is dramatically brilliant, Berlioz being his acknowledged model. A fluent, versatile composer, he wrote scores for nearly 100 films. Perhaps because of his long involvement in films, Arnold never wrote a full-length opera. He claimed never to have found the ideal subject or librettist. By all accounts, though, despite his lack of formal education, he was exceptionally well-read, and it is possible that far from being insensitive to words he was if anything over-responsive.