Richard Anthony Sayer Arnell was born in London on 15th September 1917, during an air-raid. It is a remarkably sad irony that his mother actually died in an air-raid during the Blitz of WWII, while Arnell was in America.
Having been educated at the Hall School, Hampstead, and University College School, Arnell entered the Royal College of Music in 1935, where he studied composition with John Ireland and piano with St. John Dykes. Vaughan Williams was chair of the panel that awarded him the Farrar Prize for Composition in 1938.
He still speaks in glowing terms of Ireland's humanistic approach, providing a solid grounding in harmony and counterpoint before helping a young composer find his own, true voice rather than imposing personal preferences and influences upon them. A factor in Arnell's continued clarity of thought was Ireland's rule that his students should not work in pencil, but in pen. Erasing was not an option, and alternative's should be thought through and worked out fully in the mind before the music was actually committed to paper.
He left England, as a newly-married man, in 1939 and headed for New York, where he was to reside until 1947. On a rented piano in a small apartment, while helping to raise his infant daughter, he set about producing a substantial body of work, and Opp. 1-47 date from this period. Important compositions completed during this period include the first 3 official symphonies, as well as the Sinfonia-Quasi Variazione, which is, in fact, his first symphony. Arnell has spoken about Brahms syndrome - that fear of taking that initial step to declare oneself a symphonist. Unlike Brahms, however, he overcame this fear in his early-twenties, rather than waiting till middle-age.
It is remarkable, for a young composer in a foreign land, that the majority of these works were performed, and by some of the most prominent conductors and soloists of the day, Leopold Stokowski, Bernard Hermann, Leon Barzin, Dean Dixon, Vera Brodsky, Moura Lympany, et al.
In 1941 Arnell came to the attention of Sir Thomas Beecham, first meeting him, through an introduction from the critic-composer Virgil Thomson, in the green room of Carnegie Hall after one of the great conductor's concerts, and despaired of ever hearing from him again after his tongue-tied performance at that first meeting. When he received - out of the blue - a telegram asking him to telephone. Arnell was ecstatic, as he knew that Sir Thomas, as a rule, kept his private number just that: private. What an honour this was!
Beecham with Arnell discussing 'Landscapes and Figures' at a rehearsal for a performance at the 1956 Edinburgh Festival. In the background is the pianist Dennis Vaughan.
Elation turned to disappointment when, upon calling, Arnell was informed that Sir Thomas was out of town. Arnell was not to know that this was in no way intended as a slight, but that a crisis (as so often happened with Sir Thomas) had blown up and all else had been forgotten.
When Arnell finally got a score to Sir Thomas it was of the Sinfonia-Quasi Variazione, which he duly performed with the New York City Orchestra in 1942. Arnell was 24 at the time, and it meant all the world to him. Beecham continued his support of Arnell on both sides of the Atlantic right up until the great conductor's death. In many ways his support for and promotion of Arnell's work was reminiscent of what he had done for Delius during the previous three decades.
During this American sojourn, from 1943-1946, Arnell acted as Music Consultant to the BBC's North American Service. Among the many prestigious commissions Arnell received during these years was one to compose a Ceremonial and Flourish for brass to mark the occasion of Sir Winston Churchill's visit to Columbia University, in 1946.
Upon Arnell's return to England, he became a teacher of composition at Trinity College, London, and he remained a member of staff there until his retirement in the 1980s. He was made an Honorary Fellow and Principal Lecturer of the College in acknowledgement of his long-term commitment to the institution and its students.
Just as had happened in America, the most prominent conductors and soloists in England took up Arnell's music, among them Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Charles Groves, Norman Del Mar, Rudolf Schwarz, Tibor Paul and John Ogden. A later generation of conductors, including Richard Hickox, James Carewe, Howard Snell, James Blair, Bernard Keefe, Colman Pearce, Edward Downes, Adrian Leaper, Martin Yates and Joseph Horowitz, ensured that British audiences continued to hear Arnell's works through the 70s and 80s.
Having encountered Arnell's music during his stay in England in the early 90s, Warren Cohen, the conductor of Musica Nova, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA, has been in the vanguard of a renewed impetus in the performing of the works of this grand old man of British music.
Arnell died on April 10, 2009, Aged 91.