Although Arthur Leslie Benjamin was born in Sydney on the 18th of September 1893, he spent only the first three years of his life in that city. In 1896 he and his parents, Abraham Benjamin and his wife Amelia, moved to Brisbane where he was educated at Bowen House School and Brisbane Grammar School. Abraham was a commission agent and Amelia was a competent amateur pianist whose playing was often enjoyed from under the piano by the infant composer. At the age of six he made his first public appearance as a pianist and his formal musical training began three years later with George Sampson, the Brisbane city organist. In 1907 he accompanied his parents on a tour of the Continent, taking several lessons with Frederic Cliffe in London. In 1911, at the age of eighteen, he returned to England to begin his training at the Royal College of Music. According to Herbert Howells, the young Australian already
[...] appeared to be a cosmopolitan, widely travelled, confident, urbane, mature in conversation which, even so early, he could sustain in three languages, of which Australian was not one.
He studied harmony and counterpoint with Thomas Dunhill, whom he had earlier met in Brisbane, and piano with Frederic Cliffe, quickly gaining a reputation as one of the brightest young talents at the College. In 1912 he won an open scholarship to continue his studies, after being encouraged by Cliffe to resume his composing (Benjamin hadnt "written a note in years") and try out for one. The circumstances were later described in Benjamins sadly unfinished autobiography with a touch of the trademark embroidery
How I came to win an open scholarship in 1912 remains a mystery. Only one open scholarship was to be awarded for composition in that year, and it was then that an eighteen-year-old boy from Gloucestershire entered: Herbert Howells. I had sent in my infantile songs and piano pieces, composed in Australia, and the new Variations. One eventful morning I was ushered into a studio where were assembled Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Charles Stanford and Sir Walter Parratt. A formidable triumvirate!though Sir Hubert, with his bluff bonhomie, did his best to put me at my ease. [...] Then Sir Hubert thumped out these notes, fortissimo, and said: "Improvise on that!" I have never forgotten his theme:
Now this was right up my alley, so I sailed ahead and went on until the triumvirate called for respite. Then I retired into the adjoining room where the other candidates were seated, and it was Herbert Howells turn to be examined. The College rooms being far from sound-proof, we distinctly heard a violin sonata being played by the composer and a brilliant violin student who had been pressed into servicenone other [...] than Eugene Goossens.
Benjamin introduced himself and befriended the younger Howells, whose relatively modest finances meant that he very much needed the scholarship to be able to come up to London to study. In the afternoon the hopeful candidates sat the written papers, which consisted of a voice and piano setting and the completion of a scherzo for string quartet. Benjamins was one of three scholarships awarded, and he was sent to Stanford for composition and Sir Frederick Westminster Bridge for fugue.
Benjamin was an excellent and witty writer and, in an extract from the same autobiography, he brought to life the student world he inhabited and some of its notable characters
Hardly was I inside the room when Stanford pointed a finger at me and said: "And what dye think of Home Rule, me bhoy?" The callow Australian, turning red, had to stammer that he had no thoughts on the subjectdid not, indeed, rightly know what Home Rule was. Stanford [...] was a passionate Irish Unionist. My political blankness made a highly favourable impression. To have no notion of Home Rule was like having none of the solar system. "Well, go home and learn about it, and yell be a better composer," he said in a tone of biting scorn. And he dribbled down the pipe which never left his mouth while he was teaching, while I stood silent and distressed.
Stanford was, in Benjamins view, "without a shadow of a doubt, a great teacher", although he found the reasons hard to identify. Certainly the teacher and student seemed to suit each other, and Benjamins easy nature and quick talent sought and found out the best to be had from Sir Charles caustic and often bigoted instruction and frequent verbal bludgeoning. Witness the following diatribe, for instance, after he had written "for my own satisfaction" a Nocturne for small orchestra,
which contained a good deal of this sort of thing [....] which pleased me not a little. Stanford, however, came down on it heavily. I can hear his snorting: "Snippets, snippets!" And he went on: "You Jews cant write long tunes. Always two-bar and four-bar phrases, repeated! Look at Mendelssohn, look at Meyerbeer, look at Wagner!"Along with friends and fellow students Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney, Frederick Thurston and the Goossens family, he formed a côterie that revelled in each others developing artistry and the rich musical diet available to them at the College and in the concert halls of London before the war. The RCM orchestra in those days (in which Benjamin first played the bass drum and triangle, graduating to timpani) was led by Eugene Goossens, with his brothers Leon on first oboe and Adolph on horn. René Caprara played first clarinet. Caprara, who had been the third scholarship holder of 1912, struck Benjamin as "[...] a singularity as unique as Caruso [...]", and whose beautiful playing caused Benjamin to write the Scherzo in B minor for clarinet and piano and the early Clarinet Quintet. Caprara, born in a circus and who eventually gave up playing, later returned home to become head of South African Radio.
Michael Hurd's book The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (OUP 1978) contains a description of the three particular friends, Benjamin, Howells and Gurney
In 1912 Herbert Howells came to London and the Royal College, and the pair [Gurney and Howells] formed a particular friendship with a young Australian student, Arthur Benjamin, who was a year younger than Howells and three years younger than Gurney. He was also relatively wealthy, but seems never to have abused the fact. They make a strange trio: very different in character and talent, and marked out for very different destinies. Benjamin, a cheerful bachelor, extrovert and facile, directed his engaging talents with extraordinary skill and made money out of music. Howells, quiet, contemplative and soon to be happily married directed his deeper and more mystically inclined talents with an equal sense of purpose. Gurney, muddled, inhibited, enthusiastic, did not enjoy their talent but was caught up instead in the crueller demands of genius, and scarcely knew which way to turn.
Benjamin had met Gurney, three years his senior, in 1912. The extraordinarily gifted Gurney, who had won the same open scholarship to the RCM in 1911 as Benjamin and Howells, was described by his Gloucestershire friend as
[...] a strange, angular, awkward, untameable and unteachable young Gloucester manIvor Gurney, the antithesis of the cosmopolitanwho bore down upon him with a whole load of mysteriously begotten knowledge of English and French literature.
Hurd also recounts Marion Scotts recollection of meeting the student trio at the first London performance of Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony at the Queens Hall in February 1913 where she found them
[...] almost speechless from the shock of joy the music had given them, and all trying to talk at once in their excitement.
This had not been the only source of excitement. The close friends Benjamin, Howells, Bliss and Goossens also attended the Diaghilev ballets and operas at His Majestys and Drury Lane, drinking the many new sounds and sights. The greatest impact came with their attendance in 1911 at the Diaghilev-Ballet Russe performance of Stravinskys The Firebird at Covent Garden.
Ivor Gurneys horrific war experiences, poetic genius and tragic post-war traumas are well-documented. Soon after Gurneys committal to Barnwood House in Gloucester in September 1922, Benjamin wrote in alarm to Marion Scott, "I think that psychoanalysis is the only cure for him but that, of course, would mean entire confidence on Ivors part, which is doubtful. I used to know a great deal about Ivor and on that knowledge - the details of which it is impossible for me to discuss with you - I think that psychoanalysis is the only chance." It is an intriguing comment and is open to the interpretation that Benjamin, almost certainly homosexual, was convinced of Gurneys similar leanings.
The friendship of those years produced from Howells an orchestral suite in five movements, each celebrating a close friend. The work The Bs, first performed in 1914, ends with an heraldic march movement entitled Benjee, saluting Benjamin who the previous year had given the première of Howells Piano Concerto no.1. The orchestral piece, Procession (written for the 1922 Proms) is dedicated to Benjamin. At one stage the movement from Howells Clavichord, now known as Bliss Ballet was entitled Benjamins Brawl. Benjamin, in turn, later dedicated the three-page Saxophone Blues of 1929 to Howells.
In his student days he was much impressed by the music of Johannes Brahms, César Franck and Richard Strauss, although Brahms was frowned upon by some. Many years later he admitted: "Brahms had always been my favourite composer. I was just four years old when he died in 1897 [...] I had to keep my love of Brahms secret from my Royal College colleagues, though... Brahms was out of favour in the twenties and early thirties. It was the gipsy element they couldnt take... too light and popular for them, you see." He was also greatly taken with the early works of Igor Stravinsky and had a lasting admiration for Maurice Ravel, whose influence is most obvious in the Suite of 1926 for piano solo and the much later Tombeau de Ravel of 1958 for clarinet and piano.
Benjamin was swept along with the upheaval and tragedy of the Great War. He joined up eagerly, notwithstanding his mother's entreaties to his teacher Hubert Parry, begging him to persuade her son to stay at home. Parry, in his pompous way, tried
People who have special gifts may benefit the country and humanity at large in a higher way than those who offer themselves as mere un-specialised individuals in the fighting hosts.
By then, however, Benjamin was already in the forces along with George Butterworth, Geoffrey Toye, Fox, Dyson, Bliss, Farrar and Vaughan Williams.
In 1914 he joined the Officer Training Corps, receiving a temporary commission on the 29th of April 1915. He served initially in the infantry as 2nd Lieutenant with the 32nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and on the 4th of November 1917 he was attached to the Royal Flying Corps. Howells writes
I am glad to hear news of Benjy. But his occupation seems even superfluously dangerous. The last time I saw him he expressed a veritable ecstasy of delight in flying. I hope he wont be betrayed into over-rash ventures.
Whether there was anything rash about the sortie or not, his plane was shot down over Germany on the 31st of July 1918 and Benjamin was taken to Rühleben camp in Germany where he was interned until his repatriation on the 29th of November that year.
William Primrose recalls
One day I saw among his photographic mementoes a picture of him in his RAF tunic from World War I. He was wearing pyjamas, his officers blouse... and bedroom slippers and standing in the middle of a field with two other prisoners and a German officer. Arthur was a gunner and had been called out very early that morning to fight a German squadron, but without the baron. He had been killed earlier.
Air warfare during World War I was carried out in a much more chivalrous manner than we have known it to be since, and certain rules and courtesies were observed. One of the unwritten rules required that if a plane was crippled and on its way down it should not be shot at. Benjamins plane was hit and began to descend, but his foe did not conform to the chivalrous observance. Fortunately he and his crew survived the ensuing crash. The Germans followed them to earth, got out of their plane, and came forward, as they did in those days, to shake hands with their prisoners.
The leader of the squadron was, of course, at that time Goering - Herman Goering. I complained to Arthur, "Why didnt you shoot the bastard right then? You would have saved the world an awful lot of trouble!"
Also at the Rühleben camp since 1914 was the composer Edgar Bainton who was later to become Director of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Although both men suffered the expected privations of such a camp, they and the many other distinguished British musicians interned there were extremely fortunate in finding themselves in Rühleben and not one of the many other camps around Germany. The camp commander Baron von Taube appears to have been an enlightened and benevolent man who encouraged the formation of an orchestra, a madrigal society (Baintons Magpies) and various other intellectual pursuits. Arrangements were even made so that prisoners could continue studying for British university degrees and other qualifications. In such a situation, it is understandable that Benjamin was able to continue his musical development with some semblance of normality.
Soon after the armistice Benjamin returned to Sydney to take up an invitation from Henri Verbrugghen to become Professor of Piano at the Conservatorium. The Belgian-born conductor Verbrugghen was the first Director of the NSW State Conservatorium and greatly encouraged his protegés composing and conducting. It was during this period that Benjamin began his first mature works which began to be published soon after his permanent return to London in 1921.
Following his appointment in 1926 to a professorship which he held for the next thirteen years at the RCM, Benjamin developed a distinguished career as a piano teacher. A roll call of his better-known students from that era includes the conductor and film music composer Muir Mathieson, composers Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Miriam Hyde, Joan Trimble, Stanley Bate, Bernard Stevens and Benjamin Britten, whose Holiday Diary suite for solo piano is dedicated to Benjamin and mimics many of the teachers mannerisms. Britten otherwise made scant reference to the relationship, which may have been an uneasy one, judging by Benjamins comments to the composer Richard Stoker many years later
Benjamin Britten is enormously talented, but unfortunately he has had far too early success... its rather gone to his head. Hes been a trifle ungrateful to the many musicians whove helped him. What youll be like at 50 is what counts in the serious musical world. It was unfortunate that the Royal College gave him John Ireland as his composition professor, especially after studying privately with Frank Bridge. No, unfortunately Ben has gone down since Peter Grimes.
Much has been written about Brittens compositional connection to Bridge and the difficult relationship with Ireland, whose influence on the young composer has probably still not been fully acknowledged. Benjamins compositional influence, however, has received no attention whatsoever, perhaps because he never taught composition, believing like many before and since that it cannot be taught.
Im not a composition teacher... you cant teach it, you can only guide a young composer. Ive never taught composition. Im willing to give advice to you, but not to teach. A very talented Welsh composer keeps saying in his brochure that he studied with me - well, he didnt. I just gave him advice, as Ive done to one or two others. I hope youll never say that you studied with me. You can say I gave you advice... Id like that much better.
The inter-war years were a very productive, maturing and defining time for Benjamin. The manuscript of the unpublished Violin Sonata in E minor bears the date 1918, the only surviving work of that year and one of very few to be written by Benjamin during the war. Making up for lost time, perhaps, he continued writing chamber works for the next few yearsThree Pieces for violin & piano (1919-24); Three Impressions (voice & string quartet, 1919); Five Pieces for the Cello (1923); Pastoral Fantasy (string quartet, 1924), which won a Carnegie Award that year; Sonatina (vn/pf, 1924). Orchestral works became more common after 1927Rhapsody on Negro Themes (MS 1919); Concertino for piano and orchestra (1926/7); Light Music Suite (1928); Violin Concerto (1932); Overture to an Italian Comedy (1937); Cotillon (1938). There appeared over twenty meticulously crafted songs and choral settings which led, logically, to the first fruits of Benjamins great love, opera. The two one-act operas The Devil Take Her (1931) and Prima Donna (1933) met with critical success and were to lay the foundation for the later full works A Tale of Two Cities (1950) and Tartuffe (1960). Herbert Howells relates
Gurney it was who, with swifter perception even than Stanfords, first detected in the Australian youth a governing ambition to write opera. He fed that desire, beseeching Benjamin to "get hold of Yates and Synge"[...] Thus early was the obsession with opera. It became the constant, irresistible motive governing his career. In its pursuit and practice he laid under tribute every technical skill, every preference he had acquired even in his minor works. Composer of a world-wide "best seller" (the Jamaican Rumba), of the humble Scherzino and Siciliana, Mattie Rag and Cookie, Benjamin was more than ready to translate the elegance of this brief work [sic] into the terms of his first opera, The Devil take her. Their innate technical perfection so marked Prima Donna, his second, that... the etched clarity of the music raised the work to the level of Puccinis Gianni Schicchi'
In The Devil Take Her, a comic opera in a prologue and one act, a medieval London poet marries a beautiful woman born dumb. Refusing to accept his friends advice that a dumb wife is worth more than her weight in gold, the poet arranges to have her operated upon, as a result of which the girl, with speech restored, turns out to be a noisy shrew; the poet begs the devil to take her in... With a libretto by Alan Collard and John B. Gordon, it was first produced at the RCM on the 1st and 2nd of December 1931 when it was conducted by Thomas Beecham. Prima Donna had to wait until 1949 for its première, at the Fortune Theatre in London. The librettist Cedric Cliffe, son of Benjamins piano teacher at the RCM Frederic Cliffe, later supplied the libretti to the two full-scale operas A Tale of Two Cities and Tartuffe.
In between the two operas came the Violin Concerto of 1932, premièred by Antonio Brosa with Benjamin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, after which it was played again in a series of six BBC concerts at the Queens Hall between the 1st and 12th of January 1934. Ernest Newman was impressed
[...] (the Concerto) is really masterly in its concision... I find the ideas refreshingly vital.
Again, articles in Grove are more neutral (did either of the writers hear the music, one wonders?). The same work, according to F.S.H. in Grove V,
[...] reflects the fashion for crisp and dry writing: the slow movement is reflective but not very lyrical and the finale is a lively rondo full of quips and cleverness.
Peter Pirie, in his generally dismissive biographical entry in Grove VI, makes the following debatable claim
With the exception of a few late works his music is jovial in mood and uncomplicated in technique; a touc of neo-clacissicism in the Violin Concerto (1932) merely reflects the compatibility of the manner with Benjamins essential cheerfulness.
Another of Benjamins interests became apparent during this period. From 1934 onwards he began writing musical scores for major feature films and documentaries. Always the pragmatic professional, "film music", according toPirie, "was eminently fitted to his particular talents, and he contributed some successful examples, including scores for An Ideal Husband and for a documentary about the ascent of Everest." In his penetrating obituary, Herbert Howells notes very early on that
He wasat any rate in Britaina pioneer composer of film music: perishable and short-lived it had to be, by the rules of that art, even when produced at his own distinguished level.Joan Trimble playing the Minuet from the British Gaumont film of The Scarlet Pimpernel (private recording made in 1999)
Lastly, most of Benjamins solo piano music was produced during these years, both for concert purposes and for teaching. Like Bartók, Benjamin the pianist was presumably writing to some extent according to his own pianistic needs during the 1920s when he began what was a very promising performing career.
When in 1919 he had done with the trenches, peril in the air, and German war-prisons, almost at once he riveted attention by high-powered concerto performances at Queen's Hall and in the chief provincial centres. He seemed a man dedicated to the concert platform as a pianist at more than national level.
More ambivalent, Peter Pirie, in a curiously uninformative description, would have it that he "was a very good pianist, although not perhaps a virtuoso, and his playing affected both his style of composition and his musical career." Such a quotation serves to illustrate the mixed reception Benjamin and his music were to experience from here on and, to a great extent, the minor importance accorded his career by critics and musicians ever since. Nevertheless, Benjamin the pianist at this time was very active and gave a number of important premieres including the Piano Concerto by Constant Lambert (18th December 1931, Lambert conducting) and the suite Masks for solo piano by Arthur Bliss (2nd February 1926). Before the war he had also given the première of the first Piano Concerto by Herbert Howells (1913). Also in 1926, a few days later on the 6th of February, Benjamin partnered Harriet Cohen at the Queens Hall for a performance of Bachs Concerto for two Claviers. The same year, Benjamin wrote the solo piano Suite and dedicated the first movement Prelude to her.
He lived for many years at 66 Carlton Hill in St Johns Wood. In 1935 he accompanied the 10-year old Canadian cellist Lorne Munroe on a concert tour of Europe. Three years later he wrote the delightful Sonatina for Munroe, who later became the principal cellist with the Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic orchestras and recorded the piece. Soon afterwards he resigned from his post at the RCM and left to settle in Vancouver, Canada. It was also in 1938, on his last examining tour to the West Indies for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, that he brought back the folk tune that he was to transform into the famous Jamaican Rumba. After a series of radio talks and concerts in addition to music teaching, conducting and composing, he became an outstanding figure in Canadian musical life. He frequently visited the United States, broadcasting and arranging many performances of contemporary British music. listen to Jamaican Rumba played by Joan & Valerie Trimble (private recording)
Benjamin remained in Canada for the duration of the war. In 1941 he was appointed Conductor of the newly-formed CBC Symphony Orchestra, holding the post until 1946. He was also Resident Lecturer at Reed College, Portland, Oregon between 1944 and 1945. Of this time Benjamin spoke warmly
I have especially fond memories of Canada where I lived for many years. I wrote my first symphony while in Vancouver. Musically speaking Canada was quite dead, or should I say quiet, in those days, though I understand things are very different today. When I was with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation I gave literally hundreds of first performances. Practically anythingVivaldi or Delius or Sibeliuswas a first performance. More than anything I have felt the lack of the stage in the remoter parts of the Commonwealth. I wrote practically no works for the stage during my residence in Canada, and this is why I have persisted in returning to London. I am addicted to the stage.
Again tailoring his composing to his needs as a teacher and the opportunities arising from his conducting position, Benjamin during his Canadian sojourn produced a substantial body of educational pieces for the piano and, more importantly, a number of serious orchestral works. Chief among them is the Symphony of 1945, mentioned above, a large scale four-movement work embodying Benjamins stated aim to "mirror the feelingsthe despairs and hopesof the time in which I live". Speaking of his reluctance to write anything in symphonic form before this time, Benjamin reflected
That was that awful Brahms influence composers of my generation suffered fromI dont mean musically; but the fact that Brahms kept a symphony in his pocket until the age of forty-five made us feel that it would be impertinent of us if we wrote symphonies before we reached that age. It became traditional to tackle a symphony only when one had reached middle-age. Sibelius and Vaughan Williams were both late in writing symphonies. I dont mind admitting that, for me, the symphony poses the greatest musical problems, for in its construction both vision and memory are called on to do their utmost, and one never has resort to the aid of a text or stage-action to help one out of trouble.
Almost unknown today, the Symphony was given its British première at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1948 by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra. Further performances by the same artists took place in Manchester, Liverpool and the Royal Albert Hall in London the following year. After one more performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in August 1954, conducted by the composer, the work would appear to have been utterly neglected until it was recently recorded by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee.
The other major work of the period was the darkly impressive Sonata for viola and piano of 1942, also known as Elegy, Waltz and Toccata and bearing the dedication Written for and dedicated to William Primrose. It appears that Benjamin simultaneously prepared the work as a concerto, in which form (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra) it was given its première not by its dedicatee but by Frederick Riddle and the Hallé Orchestra on June the 30th 1948, again conducted by Barbirolli. Riddle later recorded the work in its sonata version with the pianist Wilfred Parry for the BBC. Both the Sonata and the Symphony reflect not just the sombre mood of the times but also the darker territory that Benjamin had begun to explore.
Other orchestral and concertante works written in Canada were the Sonatina (1940), Oboe Concerto on themes of Cimarosa (1942), Ballade (1944), Suite for Flute & Strings (1945), Prelude to Holiday (1941), Red River Jig (1945), 2 Jamaican Pieces (1942) (Jamaican Song and Jamaican Rumbathe orchestral setting of the Rumba), From San Domingo (1945), Caribbean Dance (1946) and two transcriptions: Præludium (Mendelssohn) (1941), Prelude & Fugue (Mendelssohn op.7) (1941).
The small amount of Benjamins music for children published at the timeBrumas Tunes (1945), Forest Peace (1945) and Haunted House (1945)was intended for very young players, unlike the series of Fantasies and Lets go Hiking sets of the previous decade. The Elegiac Mazurka of 1941 was commissioned as part of the memorial volume Homage to Paderewski in honour of the great Polish pianist who had died that year. In 1945 a shortened piano solo arrangement of the Jamaican Rumba was published.
Returning to England in 1946 at the request of his publishers, he quickly became an integral part of the British musical scene and resumed teaching at the RCM. Bernard Stevens recalled sessions in Benjamins apartments at 15 Ranulf Road Hampstead, where Edward Clark, Alan Rawsthorne, Constant Lambert, Benjamin Frankel and Benjamin himself, would read through and discuss new works. A number of film scores were written during the late 1940s, including The Cumberland Story (1947), Steps of the Ballet (British Council/Central Office of Information 1948) and The Crowthers of Bankdam (Holbein Films 1947).
Writing of Benjamin in his book A Distant Music John Mansfield Thomson describes him as
[...] much travelled and a connoisseur of wine and food. Arthur Benjamin was the doyen of Australian composers whose lifes work lay overseas where he identified completely with the English and European musical scene.
As he said himself, the main reason for returning to London was to write music for the stage, and it was to the field of opera that Benjamin now devoted most of his energy. His second opera, the one-act comedy Prima Donna, received its première at the Fortune Theatre in London on the 23rd of February 1949, the same year Benjamin wrote his piano concerto Concerto quasi una Fantasia. The concerto, written to a commission from the Australian Broadcasting Commission, served as the solo vehicle for Benjamins Australian concert tour of 1950 and was premiered by him on the 5th of September with Eugene Goossens and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Of the experience, Benjamin recalled
[...] a pièce doccasion, the occasion being when I was invited to Australia in 1950 by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to celebrate my fiftieth year of public appearance as a pianist, having started in Brisbane at a ridiculously young age. I played it under Sir Eugene Goossens eight times in the different Australian big cities. Since then, Jacques Abram, the American pianist, gave it its first English performance at the Cheltenham Festival in 1952 and the first American performance in San Antonio in 1953. Incidentally, my Australian appearances were my swan-song as a pianist. Now I devote myself to composition.
The other major original works written during the 1950s were the Harmonica Concerto (1953)written for Larry Adler, who performed and recorded the work with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameronthe ballet Orlandos Silver Wedding (1951), Tombeau de Ravel for clarinet and piano, the second string quartet (1959) and the Wind Quintet (1960). Film scores included Above Us the Waves (1956) and Fire Down Below (1957/60).
Benjamin must have been heartened by the favourable reception of Prima Donna. Again provided with a libretto by his friend Cedric Cliffe, Benjamin set to work on his first full-length opera on the story by Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. First produced by Dennis Arundell during the Festival of Britain in 1951, it won a gold medal and was later broadcast in a live performance by BBC Radio 3 (the Third Programme) on April the 17th 1953. After this performance, Benjamin revised the piece into its final version. The opera was successfully produced in this form in San Francisco in April 1960, days before Benjamins death on the 10th of that month.
Benjamin described A Tale of Two Cities as a romantic melodrama and was effusive in his praise of Cliffes work
The first thing to do is to get as perfect a libretto as possible. I am fortunate in having a remarkable librettist to work with. The libretti he provides me with determine the form of the work; the musical form is implicit in the dramatic properties of the text[...] The important thing is to be presented with a really good stage spectacle. So many operas have been destroyed by poor libretti. I assure you there has been some superb music wasted in English operas ever since the war, simply because the librettists did not have a sense of the theatre.
Cliffe certainly did possess this, as well as a sense of humour
In adapting any text for operatic purposes, the first essential is a good strong pair of scissors. Only at his peril can the librettist ignore the enormous slowing-down effect of a musical setting on the spoken word... Tagliare, sempre tagliare: Cut and cut again, said Puccini, that great master of operatic timing, and the maxim should stand written in letters of blood on any librettists desk.
Evidently both men were united in their admiration for Puccini, so that such a trouble-free collaboration is not hard to understand. Benjamin clearly held Puccini and his methods as a model
Theres someone who knew how to write for the stage. He saw the plays first, and if they worked dramatically he turned them into the most beautiful and successful operas... and what orchestration!
Benjamin was at his most engaging and enthusiastic when describing his working methods
For me, writing an opera is much easier than writing a symphony, for I am seized by the dramatic implications of the text. For this reason I am able to start at the first and work directly through to the end without too many serious difficulties. Its a wonderful experience to live through a drama from day to day, and to set it to music as you experience it.
F.R. Blanks, writing in The Canon, declared that it was "[...] one of the finest new melodramatic operas in many years [...] A stage performance must now be eagerly awaited and there is no reason why Australia should not be the first in the field." As so often, this was not to be the case and the work still awaits production in this country. Other critics were even more positive. Ernest Newman, writing in the Sunday Times (London), wrote of the BBC broadcast
All in all, A Tale of Two Cities is an event of major importance in the development of modern British opera [...] On the stage it should be tremendously impressive, and the sooner we are allowed to see and hear it the better.
Eric Blom was equally enthusiastic:
[...] musically always interesting, [it] is above all a masterpiece of dramatic composition [...] he [Arthur Benjamin] is in that line just as much of a genius as Puccini.
The next operatic project was more experimental. Mañana was a one-act opera commissioned in 1955 and produced the following year by BBC television on the 1st of February. In fact, it was the first television opera ever produced. Unfortunately, it was judged a flop at the time and never revived, along with Bliss Tobias and the Angel which shared the same unhappy fate. Nevertheless, Benjamin encouraged his former pupil Joan Trimble to accept a similar offer with the result that her opera Blind Raftery was produced with rather more success in 1957.
Benjamin, although by no means immune to such knocks, possessed a healthy sanguine disposition and presumably took the same attitude as Howells did in describing the episode
Any pioneer is in some degree a hostage to fortune. Benjamin was brave enough to chance his skilful hand. He accepted a challenge not easily met even by so astute a practitioner. It was an initiation. Processes, priorities and principles were still vague and indeterminate. The operas value will be gauged only in retrospect and from a point of time still comparatively distant.
It must have been some recompense to be honoured by the Worshipful Company of Musicians when they awarded him the Cobbett Medal later that year.
His last comic opera Tartuffe was never quite completed. Cliffe again provided the libretto based on the play by Molière. At Benjamins death the piece existed only in piano score with about 250 bars orchestrated. The rest of the orchestration was made by the composer Alan Boustead. The only performance ever mounted in this (or any other) version would appear to be that by the New Opera Company at Sadlers Wells on the 30th of November 1964, conducted by Boustead.
Until further performances and recordings of Tartuffe, it will be difficult to assess its merits, but one would have to take seriously Benjamin's own opinion
I feel I have accomplished a happy medium between sentimentality and horror by contrasting the two happy lovers and Tartuffe himself. I have also employed what might be considered mild dissonance throughout the entire score in an attempt to preserve the brilliant wit of Molière. I think I may have succeeded.
Arthur Benjamin died at the age of 66 at the Middlesex Hospital from a re-occurence of the cancer that had first attacked him three years earlier.
Herbert Howells might have been writing about a host of composers when he spoke of the almost generic epitaphs
Of all these circumstances the obituaries, following upon his death last April, took note. Expected judgments were delivered. Final assessment neatly and mechanically performed its pigeon-hole task. Status was fixed. There was more than a glance at his gifts as a first-rate amateur cook.
But in a touching tribute and an attempt to expose his friends greater depth of personality and genius, Howells made a plea for a more appreciative response and a wider view of the creative spirit that imperfectly lives in most of us
One may feel some uneasiness about the Benjamin case: about the evaluation and quality of musicianship as one came to know it in him. No one would challenge the consensus of critical opinion that gives him secondary status. But it would be well to reflect upon his general powers. By any criteria these were remarkable. No one who [...] really knew the span of his general gifts would contentedly measure Benjamin solely by his scope in composition. Even when emphasis is lain upon his five operas, his Symphony, the many works in concerto form, the Ballade for string orchestra and his other workseighty or so, in allone is aware of their common source. It is found in an exciting, immensely practical, wide-ranging musicianship.
More particularly, though, Howells reckoned that Benjamin
[...] endured two serious disabilities. He had conquered a large part of the listening world with an enchanting brevity (Jamaican Rumba). And he was an unashamed Romantic. By these two circumstances, rather than on evidence of greater validity, he was assessed. The first enormously extended his popular fame but reduced his stature in the view of high-powered criticism. The second appeared to make him an anchronistic figure.
Eclectic, yet possessing an integrity and intelligence that reveal his output from 1913-1960 as stylistically coherent yet dynamic
Howells sarcasm is again apt, as well as personally felt
And he seemed to be a man minus technical problems; assured; so much at ease in workmanship as to appear superficial. As a composer he lived and worked not in open defiance of the changed world of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Stravinsky but without active acknowledgement of their commanding influence.
Not long before his death, Benjamin was able in his characteristically amiable way to shed some light on his own response to some of the criticism levelled at him, in particular on these ubiquitous questions of style and reputation. Asked whether he minded being known almost exclusively as the composer of the Jamaican Rumba, he replied
It doesnt worry me at all [...] Sometimes the extreme popularity of one work can obscure the other works of a composer though it can hardly be said to injure them. It is only now that the public is becoming aware that Boccherini wrote much more music than the celebrated minuet. If the composer is really serious about his business this recognition of his other works is bound to come. The novelty of a miniature should serve to draw the public closer to his other works, not frighten it away.
F.S.H., writing in the influential Grove V, found that "Benjamin has evolved no personal idiom, but is content to use common chromatic parlance for the expression of ideas which are his own. If these ideas are not very profound nor strongly individualized, neither are they on the other hand derivative [...]".
The same writer wrote the Times obituary and commented that A Tale of Two Cities
[...] just fails to achieve greatness because of its lack of individual invention: its music is unfailingly apt and resourceful but its idiom lacks personal distinction [...]
The opinion seems to have set the standard by which most subsequent reviewers have taken their cue. Considering these criticisms, the following qualification by the same writer was hardly an ovation
It these ideas are not very profound nor strongly individualized, neither are they on the other hand derivative, and his conspicuous skill in presenting them so as to appeal to his hearers makes him one of the more approachable of English [sic] composers of his generation.
Benjamin was not unaware of such criticism and offered an interesting and candid perspective on it. When asked whether it bothered him that it had been said that his serious works lacked personal style, he replied:
It might if I thought it was true, but as I dont, it doesnt. I dont know why people talk so much about style. I think a lot of damage has been done today by this kind of insistence on personal style. There is an inward style as well as an outward style. The outward style is more recognisable perhaps, but it should not be forgotten that it is easily imitated, and within a generation or two it often degenerates to parody. Inward style is the honest expression of what moves the composer from within. Ive always tried to express myself sincerely.
Or perhaps he was right in feeling that he simply hadnt specialised early enough and was not taken seriously as a result. In his delightful reminiscences of sessions at the Benjamin home in Hampstead during the late 1950s, Richard Stoker recalls Benjamins becoming "[...] sad, as if a cloud had come over his smiling face. He said how he wished hed concentrated on composition alone, and felt hed spoiled his chances by being a piano teacher, a concert pianist (hed given the British première of Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue), a conductor, a light music composer, an arranger and a film music composer."
Youre not taken seriously over here if youre a jack-of-all-trades like me! Specialise... specialise in composition, my boy, and be tremendously patient... wait to be asked to compose, dont thrust your music at people, puts em off and its terribly unprofessional. Wait to be asked... its much better that way. The musics valued then, if its been commissioned.
Above all, Arthur Benjamin prized professionalism, a notion he held to with rigour and which was probably instilled in him during the early years at the Royal College of Music where, even thenor especially then (!)the relative certainties of Parry and Stanford were being dismantled by the younger turks. It was a notion that blended with his natural conservatism to produce, despite the criticism to the contrary, a quite individual and subtle musical language bent on retaining that connection with the audience which was, between and after the wars, being sorely tested by other more adventurous composers. Still, it is far from certain that his old teacher Stanford would have approved of all the modernisms in Benjamins music after World War II, and he may well have cried over him as another wayward pupil, as he had done in 1921
He was touchingly pleased to see me, and thanked me for coming until I was embarrassed. With tears filling his eyes he said: "All my lovely pupilsmad! Theyve all gone mad! Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells, Blissall mad!" Then, looking very fixedly at me: "Dont you go mad, me bhoy!"
©Ian Munro 2000
list of works
CD Jamiacan Rumba 1works for piano solo
CD Jamaican Rumba 2chamber works