Malcolm Arnold: Peterloo Overture


Malcolm Arnold was born in Northampton, England in October 1921. He took up playing the trumpet at age 12, and after studying and practising intensely for five years, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. Whilst at RCM, Arnold studied both composition, with Gordon Jacob, and trumpet studies with Ernest Hall. Although primarily remembered as a composer, for the first part of his musical career, Arnold focused on being a trumpeter. He was principal trumpet for the London Philharmonic Orchestra as well as other London-based ensembles.

By age 30, Arnold devoted most of his time to composition. Known for his ‘light British music’, Arnold’s composition style is heavily influenced by folk melodies, which resonate in his English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Cornish dance suites. As well as concert overtures and dances, Arnold is also remembered for his film music and more “serious” symphonic works. He has penned over one hundred film scores including: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Hobson’s Choice (1954), The Key (1958), Africa Texas Style (1967) and David Copperfield (1969). Arnold also won an Ivor Novello Award for his score for the 1958 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. 

He often took influence from jazz, folk and composers such as Hector Berlioz and Gustav Mahler. Throughout his musical career, Arnold worked with a variety of well-renowned musicians such as Benny Goodman, Julian Lloyd Webber and Larry Adler. As well as this, he also won a plethora of honours and awards for his services to music, including a CBE in 1993. In October of each year there is an annual Malcolm Arnold festival held in Northampton, which celebrates Arnold’s life and music.

All was not always well throughout his life, however. Around the middle of his life, Arnold had built a negative reputation of himself due to his general unpleasantness. He was often drunk and “highly promiscuous” and in 1961 he divorced his first wife, with his second also taking a court order out against him after their divorce. After the second divorce, Arnold became depressive and attempted suicide twice. 

In 1978 he was an in-patient in the psychiatric ward at the Royal Free Hospital, London. After being treated on and off for alcoholism and depression, Arnold overcame them and lived until  2006, with Anthony Day being his carer from the 1980s. Arnold died in Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital on 23rd September 2006, after a fatal chest infection. That same day, his final work, The Three Musketeers, was premiered in Bradford by the Northern Ballet.


The Music

Completed in 1968, Arnold’s Peterloo Overture is the composer’s response to that terrible day in 1819:


“Peterloo is the derisive name given to an incident that happened on August 16th, 1819 in St Peter’s Fields Manchester, when an orderly crowd of some 80,000 people met to hear a speech on political reform. On the orders of the magistrates they were interrupted by the yeomanry attempting to seize the banners they carried, and to arrest their speaker, Henry Hunt. Cavalry were sent in, and eleven people were killed and four hundred injured in the ensuing panic.

This overture attempts to portray these happenings musically, but after a lament for the killed and injured, it ends in triumph, in the firm belief that all those who have suffered and died in the cause of unity amongst mankind, will not have died so in vain.”


The overture opens with a drawn out, regal-like theme. Small harp flourishes add colour to the timbre as Arnold begins to build up the intensity within the music. The classic British style at the start hones in on the stylings of Edward Elgar and Hubert Parry – perhaps a stretch for Arnold’s bold style. Just as the music becomes comfortable in the opening theme, the snare drum appears and builds up the panic within the music. 

The music then turns very dissonant, with the brass and percussion adding to the dramatic turn of events. Squealing woodwinds sit at the top of the texture, with the brass laying the foundation for the downfall of the massacre. The violent way in which Arnold writes these themes creates a vivid account of what went on in St Peter’s Field. Arnold’s signature dissonant style is at the forefront of this section, with his clever orchestrations telling a thousand stories within one overture.

All of a sudden emptiness takes over and the full horrors of the massacre are revealed. The music throughout is a moving response to what happened and gives the listener a descriptive account of what went down. An elongated oboe solo laments what has happened and adds a new character to the mix. The silence speaks volumes here, with Arnold using his space wisely. Small tensions are built with dissonant chords as the strings play a new theme. The opening regal theme is played once more by the strings, which shows the dignity of the piece. The final pages of the overture are triumphant, with Arnold bringing together the orchestra for the final coming together in the face of adversity. As bells ring out, the orchestra play the final chords of this courageous and descriptive work. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns 

Happy Reading!

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