Malcolm Arnold: Four Scottish Dances


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

Arnold composed his Four Scottish Dances in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival, where the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Arnold, premiered the work. Notably lighter in style than many of his other orchestral works, Four Scottish Dances has also been arranged for a number of other ensembles such as brass band and wind orchestra. Although each movement is not named, the tempo markings reveal the inspired style. Not exclusively based on Scottish rhythms, the suite as a collective is intended to evoke Scotland. Arnold uses a number of Scottish folk tunes and dances as the basis of each movement.


Movement I – Pesante

The heavy opening movement is marked ‘Pesante’, and has been described as “in the style of a strathspey” (Novello & Co). The trudging string theme is accentuated by the brass and percussion, with the shrieking woodwind adding to the timbre. Shrill glissandi dominate the central section as the chaotic theme is reigned back in to the bold opening theme. The movement concludes with a short reprise of the theme before a quick surge of tempo ends the movement with a brass theme. 


Movement II – Vivace

The quick second movement is based on a traditional Reel. Arnold utilises the woodwind during this movement, with their fast finger work and shrill timbre adding a lot of value to the movement. Arnold also uses muted brass throughout to create a bitter sound that pierces through the rich string sound. A slow interlude breaks the theme down into smaller pieces and concludes the movement gracefully. 


Movement III – Allegretto

The sensitive third movement, also the longest of the four, opens with a sparkling harp and solo flute. Novello & Co describe this movement in the published score as “evoking a calm summer’s day in the Hebrides.” Once again, Arnold utilises the woodwind as soloists to create a pastoral sound. The brass play a chorale theme before the strings take over the melody and beautifully develop this light theme. Arnold’s sensitive side is portrayed throughout this movement, making it one of the most special. 


Movement IV – Con Brio

Based on a lively Fling, the finale is the shortest of the four movements, but also the most energetic. Full of buzz and drive from within the orchestra, each section plays a very different, but very important part. The whirling woodwinds go against the brash brass theme, whereas the strings support and add drama to the writing. Arnold uses lots of dissonance in this movement to create crunchy harmony before concluding the suite with a huge crash from the cymbals. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns 

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