It was his own orchestra, the London Philharmonic, which gave him his first big break as a composer, recording his overture Beckus the Dadipratt in 1946. Arnold had already been composing for years and had won the Cobbett Composition Prize as a student at the Royal College of Music. However, it was not until one of his colleagues in the orchestra started to badger him that he really considered making his career as a composer. His colleague had been reading a book about the shortage of film composers and every day at rehearsal he would say to Arnold, “Have you sent a score to Denham yet?” At last Arnold sent one and he was immediately asked to do a film. This was to be the first of countless film scores, including The Bridge Over the River Kwai, which won him an Oscar, and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness which brought an Ivor Novello Award.
In his film writing, Arnold developed an uncommonly keen sense of music’s evocative power. His two sets of English Dances, composed in the early 1950’s when he was still earning acclaim as a young composer, use this skill to the full. He created miniature mood pieces with all of the vitality of dance, each one highlighting some aspect of English folk idiom. Though written as two pieces, each is comprised of four movements with the movements numbered through. Thus, Set II, heard tonight, begins with movement five. The fifth dance recalls the sound of the pipe and tabor played here by the piccolo and side drum. The sixth dance is in 6/8 meter, and its mood is lively; like all these dances, it never tires of repeating a good tune. The seventh is graceful, its wistfulness enhanced by the flat leading-note of its modal scale. The final dance is clearly a celebration, its melody strengthened by prominent use of the tonic and dominant as pivotal points. Thus, each dance has its own clearly defined character yet each has also a timeless quality, as if Arnold has created a pageant of the English people in which each movement encapsulates a span of centuries. Deliberately evocative melodies and instrumental timbres are set in a harmonic style which is often acerbic in an uncompromisingly twentieth-century way, giving the music a tension which lends depth to the simple melodies that form the basis of each movement.
Note adapted from Margaret Archibald