Malcolm Arnold: Beckus the Dandipratt

Context

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’s career really took off when his comedy overture, Beckus the Dandipratt was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943. At this time, Arnold was the orchestra’s principal trumpet, so he had a close hand in how the work was to be performed. The unusual name derives from the old term ‘dandipratt’, meaning a small boy, and is inspired by a young boy whom Arnold and his wife met whilst they were holidaying in Cornwall. The overture is playful and cheeky, just like the character of this young dandipratt. 

The overture is highly melodic, as with many of Arnold’s other earlier works, and is draped in clever orchestrations. The playful main theme is woven throughout the overture, with Arnold utilising the full range of the orchestra. The interjections of the brass are bold and dramatic, adding a bombastic nature to the music. Arnold also uses the woodwinds to create interesting decoration and flair. The power of the orchestrations see a young Arnold using the timpani to create big sounds before cutting them off completely and focusing on a small quiet theme in the upper winds. 

Throughout the overture you can really get a sense of what this young boy was like. From the playfulness of the string melodies to the bouncy brass themes, the cheekiness of this music is infectious and joyful at every turn. Arnold concludes the Beckus the Dandipratt with a quiet chamber interlude before a full flourish played loudly by all concludes this comedic overture.

 

Ⓒ Alex Burns 

Happy Reading!

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