Few composers have truly excelled in writing music both for the concert hall and for films: among them are Walton, Britten (in his early cinema documentary scores), Korngold, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But in terms of quality combined with quantity, Malcolm Arnold’s achievement is more remarkable even than theirs.
While a concert-hall score needs its own self-contained structure and pacing to stand on its own feet, those qualities on the screen are down to the film-editing. This means that besides the music’s main purpose of bringing out drama and atmosphere, it also needs to slot into a wider agenda without dominating. And since the score can only be finished and recorded after the film-editing is done, the composer needs to be able to work with exceptional speed and sureness.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Malcolm Arnold’s skills in all these areas had him producing some of the finest film scores ever written. The most famous is his Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai, the third of a David Lean trilogy (the others are The Sound Barrier and Hobson’s Choice). A celebrated tour de force moment here is the combination of Kenneth Alford’s borrowed ‘Colonel Bogey’ theme with Arnold’s own ‘River Kwai March’, timed to fit with the on-screen marching of the British prisoners.
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Nine Hours to Rama
Nine Hours to Rama (about the life and assassination of Gandhi), for which Malcolm Arnold researched and deployed Indian music and instruments, is another exceptional creation.
Whistle Down the Wind
For unerring conjuring of atmosphere, Malcolm Arnold never surpassed his score for Whistle Down the Wind, a story about three children deciding that an escaped convict hiding out at their Lancashire farm must really be Jesus; the main theme was whistled onto the soundtrack by the producer Richard Attenborough (and transfers happily to the piccolo in Christopher Palmer’s concert suite version). Arnold always felt that his knowledge of the composers he admired was an asset to his film work. As he put it: ‘If a film score comes out uninfluenced by Berlioz, it’s no damn good!’