Arnold: Larch Trees

New Orleans and Northampton may seem worlds apart in more than geographical terms, but for one moment in 1933 they came together. The occasion was a concert in Bournemouth. The representative of New Orleans was Louis Armstrong, while the Midlands town was represented by a 12-year old boy called Malcolm Arnold. Five years later the spark lit by hearing Satchmo bore fruit when Arnold won a scholarship to study trumpet at the Royal College of Music. In 1941 he joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra as second trumpet. At the same time he registered as a conscientious objector, intending to do his duty in the National Fire Service, but instead was allowed to continue to play with the LPO. In 1943 he was promoted to principal trumpet, aged only 22.

Trumpet playing was not the only musical interest Arnold had: by now he was working hard
to establish himself as a composer too (inspired, he would claim later in life, by a chance
childhood meeting in a Bournemouth tea-room with another jazz great, Duke Ellington). Taking
full advantage of having a professional orchestra at his disposal, Arnold persuaded the LPO to
rehearse a tone poem he had recently written, Larch Trees, in 1943. This was as far as he got with it. By the following year the death of his brother in the R.A.F. had stung him into joining up. He loathed army life, and eventually negotiated a discharge by the rather drastic means of shooting himself in the foot. Larch Trees remained unheard in public until 1984, when the composer Ruth Gipps conducted it at the Guildhall School of Music.

Arnold was a vocal admirer of Sibelius throughout his life, and the Finn’s influence is clearly
audible in Larch Trees, which seems to occupy a similarly bleak landscape to Tapiola. Even at the age of 22 Arnold’s gift for melody was well developed, but here that aspect of his style is conspicuous by its apparent absence. Rather, a theme can be heard struggling to emerge from darkness: a glimpse of humanity and warmth in cold, sinister shadow.

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