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Why did Malcolm Arnold write his Fourth Symphony in response to the Notting Hill Race Riots?

The story of Malcolm Arnold's Fourth Symphony and how it was inspired by the composer's desire for racial equality

Why did Malcolm Arnold write his Fourth Symphony in response to the Notting Hill Race Riots?

Malcolm Arnold did not hold back on the percussion when writing his Fourth Symphony – alongside the usual symphonic forces, the orchestra includes bongos, tom-toms and maracas – and, as the composer himself explained in 1971, the 1960 work’s distinctive Afro-Caribbean flavour had been prompted by recent events and their aftermath.

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‘I was appalled that such a thing could happen in this country,’ wrote Arnold about the 1958 Notting Hill race riots. ‘The fact that racial ideas have become increasingly strong in this country dismays me even more. In my Fourth Symphony I have used very obvious West Indian and African percussion instruments and rhythms, in the hope, first, that it sounds well, and second, that it might help to spread the idea of racial integration.’

Breaking out in late August, the riots saw gangs largely consisting of white youths converge on west London, where they beat up West Indian residents and attacked their houses. Resistance by locals – both black and white – soon brought an end to the attacks and 140 arrests were made in total, with nine men receiving five-year prison sentences.

The following year, Claudia Jones, founder and editor of the West Indian Gazette, organised a Caribbean Carnival at St Pancras Town Hall to both highlight and bridge London’s racial divide. This, along with a Notting Hill Fayre organised by community activist Rhaune Laslett in 1966, would prove the forerunner of today’s annual Notting Hill Carnival.

Julian Haylock

Recommended recording: Arnold: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 Royal Liverpool P.OHandley

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