I have to state here and now that I have never been what is called a great fan of the music of Malcolm Arnold, (There I said it). I find his music for film has that same familiar sound and style to it, yes of course there are exceptions, but I think these are very few and far between. I watched a programme on BBC four recently which explored the composer’s soundtrack for The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yes, an Oscar winning score for the composer, but is it an original soundtrack as in being an innovative score? Or maybe a compilation of tried and tested musical themes, practices, and passages that the composer had utilized before in his concert works and hinted at in films such as Hobsons Choice and to a degree The Sound Barrier.  

This is in no way meant to be disrespectful to the memory of Arnold or indeed his film music, but just merely stating my own observations. On listening to Kwai as re-recorded by the London Symphony under the baton of Richard Hickox in 1992 and then the original conducted by Arnold, there are a few differences, but maybe because of the deadline which Arnold had there was little time to refine his compositions, and when re-constructing the music for a re-recording there was, plus the performance is more polished on the re-recording, but is this a good or bad thing? I understand that the composer had just ten days to come up with the score, which is an amazing feat for any composer. Arnold said in interview for the BBC some years before his death that he found writing for film easier than writing for the concert hall. Which is something of a contradiction because I have asked many composers about this subject and each time been told that they found writing for film more difficult because of the timings, sound effects and other such things connected with movies and with a concert hall piece there was more freedom. Two years after he scored Kwai,

Arnold penned the soundtrack to The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, and right from the outset we can hear that there are elements or at least similarities to the central themes employed in Kwai within the score.It is certainly not unusual that every composer has his or her unique style that can be clearly heard within several of their works, and it is this sound and style that makes them who they are and identifiable to fans. James Horner for example and Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams have or had their own trademarks sounds and quirks of orchestration. And although Arnold was a gifted composer, orchestrator and an in-demand conductor working with the likes of Sir William Walton. Many of Arnold’s scores did have that familiar ring or tone to them but although he was at times criticized by the press for his concert works, he was at the same time often applauded by the same critics for his music for film.

There is no doubt that Arnold was a one off, he had a strong character and was also known to be difficult at times, but I suppose if you are able to construct an entire score in one’s head and then sit down and write it out straight to manuscript without the use of any instrument i.e. piano to guide you, you are allowed to be a little difficult. One of the most enduring things musically from the composers score for The Bridge on the River Kwai was the Colonel Bogey March, and it will be forever associated with the movie being vital to the entrance of Alec Guinness and his men into the prisoner of war camp.  But the tune was not actually the work of Malcolm Arnold, it was written by Lieutenant F. J. Ricketts in 1914, who composed it under the name of Kenneth J. Alford. The British army officer who was a bandmaster would later become the director of music for the Band of the Royal Marines in Plymouth in the West of England, and if you think his name is a familiar one then look at the credits for the soundtrack of Lawrence of Arabia because another composition by him The Voice of The Guns was used in David Lean’s epic movie, the main score being the work of French composer Maurice Jarre.

What Arnold did with the Colonel Bogey March was very clever, as he wrote The River Kwai March, which is in many ways similar to Alford’s march, but he used it as a counterpoint to the Colonel Bogey piece, combining the two giving the Colonel Bogey March even greater depth and effect, Arnold’s rousing theme complimenting accompanying and punctuating the Alford composition.  The Bridge on the River Kwai re-recording is in my opinion the best way to listen to Arnold’s score and was arranged by Christopher Palmer into a suite of five movements in which we hear all the principal themes from the soundtrack. These being Prelude and Prison Camp which is heard under rather than over the titles of the movie and sets the scene perfectly conveying a grueling and difficult existence that is being endured by prisoners of war. The Colonel Bogey March comes next and is a rousing arrangement of the theme minus the whistling, which is different but interesting. The Jungle Trek, is movement three, which is mysterious, radiating and purveying tension as well as the heat and humidity of the jungle, but also contains a luxurious and beautiful theme. The composer using percussive elements, Marimba, piccolo, and flute to create an exotic atmosphere, this introduction leads into the proud and anthem like theme that Arnold utilizes throughout the score based upon The River Kwai March, but here performed at a slower tempo by strings giving it a richer and more gracious sound.

The brief use of the theme in The Jungle Trek itself leads into a more sustained and tense section of the composition, the theme being arranged differently and taking on a driving and intense persona. Movement four on the re-recording is Sunset which opens in a celebratory fashion, with brass flourishes, strings and percussion combining to create a glorious and attention-grabbing introduction, then the opening segues into another arrangement of the central Kwai theme, performed on strings with faraway sounding horns embellishing and supporting. It is in this section more than any other we hear the romantic and thematic Arnold, with woodwinds, underlined by strings fashioning a pastoral type of composition, which I suppose could be described as having a quintessentially English sound similar to that of Walton and Vaughn Williams, it also has a style that would manifest itself in many of Arnold’s own concert pieces including Peterloo from 1968 and saying this Peterloo contains many of the dramatic attributes that we hear in The Bridge on the River Kwai score, brass and percussion combining with flyaway woods and dark strings.

 But Sunset has more of a delicate and subtle approach with a sense of fragility and vulnerability shining through. Movement five, on the re-recording is The River Kwai March and Finale, the march this time being more robust and having elements of The British Grenadiers March woven into it. With Arnold bringing the composition to a close with thundering percussion. The re-recording of Arnold’s score was released by Chandos Recordsunder the banner of The Film Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold Vol One, The Bridge on the River Kwai being presented alongside selections from other Malcolm Arnold scores that include Whistle Down the Wind, The Sound Barrier, Hobsons Choice, and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Whistle down the Wind was a charming movie, that starred child star Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee, Alan Bates, Norman Bird and so many others. Arnold penned a suitably fitting score which included a haunting theme with the composer incorporating the Christmas carol We Three Kings into the fabric of the score, using it at times in a martial fashion to accompany the children in the story. The melancholy and wistfully romantic central themes are haunting to say the least, and with this score we hear a softer side of the composer, and a more lighthearted and comedic approach, it is a gentle and hypnotic sounding work, filled with alluring tone poems. I think this must be my favourite Arnold score, it has a calming and settling persona and underlines wonderfully the action that is taking place on screen. One is aware of the music throughout, but it is never over the top nor does it get in the way of or swamp the story unfolding, instead it sensitively elevates and adds to it purveying innocence and naivety to the proceedings.

For this re-recording, the music from the movie has been arranged into three short suites, Prelude, The Three Kings and Finale. It is a score or at least a suite I could listen to over and over because it is different from anything else that I have by the composer, subtle and low key but at the same time powerful and effective. Although saying that, there are moments withing The Inn of the Sixth Happiness that also have to them a delicate and affecting style. The Sound Barrier is next, themes from the score being arranged into an eight-minute performance. Released in 1952 it is a film by David Lean which is a fictional account about pilots and airplane designers attempting to break the sound barrier. Arnold’s score is dramatic but also has to it some charming and even fragile sounding passages, the work also containing a waltz like composition. Whilst watching the movie I must admit that I totally lost track of the music because I was more focused on the movie itself, but that is a sign of the music doing its job effectively without becoming overpowering. Again, the composer conveys via his theme’s danger, drama and frustration and adds an ample helping of that patriotic sound which we associate with British movies from this period evoking the styles of Walton and Bax at times. Hobsons Choice is next in the running order, with an opening theme that is as clumsy, comedic, and entertaining as the films central character. Overture and Shoe Ballet, is a finely balanced piece that borders on chaotic slapstick and then melts into a more serious and melodic approach, with the composer providing us with another luxurious sounding theme complete with a music box effect. Performed as a suite of themes which are divided into four movements that runs for approx; thirteen minutes.

The luscious cue Willie and Maggie standing out on this, it is beautifully written and has to it a richness and a wonderfully lilting and romantic air. The Wedding Night too is a touching and tender piece but also has within it a style that could be construed as being comedic and slightly intoxicated. Then we have the initially riotous and raucous Finale which slides into what we think is going to be a melodic interlude but falls short as it returns to its more irreverent sounding beginnings which bring the section to its close. The last score to represented on this Chandos re-recording is The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, again presented as a suite in three movements this time, London Prelude opens the proceedings, with robust and vibrant flourishes from brass, percussion, and strings making a statement and setting the scene. Romantic Interlude follows on from this and is a tender and affecting piece for strings.

The final movement is not only dramatic with the familiar grand percussive and brass of Arnold, but it also features Nick Nack Paddiwack (This Ole Man) which was the song that the Chinese children sing in the movie, the re-recording by the LSO is fully orchestral. With Arnold weaving his central theme from the score into the song bringing the cue to a joyous and stirring climax.