between Richard Stoker and John France
can you tell me about your visit to
It was my very first visit to London.
I was still in my teens at the time
I had decided to make the 200 mile journey
from Castleford to the Capital to visit
the composer of the famous Jamaican
Rumba. My father gave me a lift
to Westgate Wakefield railway station
in the early morning. I was soon on
the train for the very first time to
Kings Cross. We lived almost half way
between Edinburgh and London.
did you choose to contact Arthur Benjamin
and not to another composer living in
I had a wonderful teacher of composition
at Huddersfield called Winifred Smith,
who had been a former pupil of Sir Edward
Bairstow. She'd studied with him at
Durham. Winifred had taken me a long
way by 1957, and she knew I wanted desperately
to go to London to study further. She'd
taken me to Choral Society concerts
and to Leeds for the operas. Recently
we went to Manchester to the RVW concert
that included his new 8th Symphony.
One day she suggested sending some pieces
to Benjamin Britten, Arthur Benjamin
then Lennox Berkeley. Arthur replied
very quickly, so that's how he came
to invite me down. Of course Benjamin
was a high flyer by the mid fifties.
It is hard to imagine that he was right
up there in the first rank of composers
bearing in mind his subsequent undeserved
eclipse. So he was an excellent choice.
Also I knew of his success at the RCM
as a piano teacher, mainly of Ben Britten.
Arthur also received much publicity
in the Daily Mail- the paper we read
at home- and in magazines too. I'd also
heard how kind he was to composers starting
the next year or so I had to stay in
Huddersfield and was unable to move
to the Capital. However, the composer
Harold Truscott arrived so I was lucky
enough to have over a year with him
too. It worked out really well for me
as I found out later. It was eerie to
find that Truscott knew many of the
musicians Lennox, Ben and Arthur had
worked with at the BBC in London.
back to Arthur Benjamin- a fortnight
later a letter arrived- would I like
to visit him in London? I was delighted
to even receive a reply, so as a holiday
was coming up, I wrote back asking the
obvious question – ‘When?’
a date and insisted I bring some of
my work. I was also invited for lunch.
It is strange how everything was arranged
by post in those days. Not the telephone
and of course email had not been invented!
before I headed south another letter
arrived asking me to bring everything
I had written with me. A map of Hampstead
was enclosed and the house where Benjamin
lived was clearly marked.
you recall how you felt as you arrived
in the Smoke for the very first time?
I remember what a thrilling experience
it was: the time in the three long,
smoky tunnels approaching King’s Cross
seemed interminable; then, as the train
came suddenly out into the sunlight,
the rhythm of the wheels seemed to spell
out the name Ar-thur Ben-ja-mn, Ar-thur
Ben-ja-min. The anticipation in the
last twenty minutes as the train approached
the station was overwhelming. At last
I stepped off the train onto the platform.
My first visit to London had begun.
you planning to stay at Benjamin’s house
or with relatives?
Neither. I had no-one to stay with in
London. I had made a postal booking
for a weeks stay at the YMCA in Tottenham
Court Road. I must admit that I liked
the atmosphere there. People from many
countries were staying there. And they
were from all kinds of backgrounds.
At first no one spoke to me. Most of
the men were lolling back in easy chairs,
reading their newspapers. Fortunately
for me there was a concert grand piano
in the large sitting room where I was
able to practice each morning. This
enabled me to get my compositions into
some kind of order. There were so many
it all piano practise? Or were you able
to enjoy the big bad city?
lucky to see Richard Burton as the First
Speaker in the stage version of Dylan
Thomas’ Under Milk Wood on one
of the nights in London.
a lot of time down the Kings Road at
a café called the Picasso. It
was here that I saw ‘Larry’ Olivier
walking down to the theatre. He had
begun the rehearsals for The Entertainer.
up with some friends who were stationed
at the barracks in Chelsea and we went
to a number of films, including the
latest Peter Sellers.
did you feel about the city?
excited by the prospect of visiting
theatres to see some plays, and my great
love at that time was the ballet. I
wanted to visit the art galleries, meet
people, sit sketching in London parks,
swim in the Serpentine!
I found London un-colourful and drab,
still recovering from the very recent
war years. All the men wore black, brown,
or mainly dark blue suits. Being a well
brought up Conservative boy, I kept
to the main streets, but strange elderly
looking women did come towards me from
the side streets of Soho - they hadn't
changed much since late Victorian times.
The police out on their beats suddenly
appeared close by, moving on luckless
unaccompanied girls of all ages who
were often simply looking in the shop
windows. There were bombsites about
and the rubble still piled up in places
even in 1957. Many places looked drab
but the weather and especially the sunshine
was a great change from the North.
me about the visit to Benjamin’s house.
big day finally arrived. It was 24th
was one and half years old then! Sorry…
was a lovely sunny day. I noticed that
his address was ‘off Finchley Road’
– so I hopped onto a Number 2 bus. ‘Which
bit do you want?’ asked the conductor
gruffly, ‘This road goes to Edinburgh.’
him my map and he eventually put me
off in NW2.
I was nervous as I approached 15 Ranulf
Road. I noticed that it was a very smart
bungalow. As I reached the door with
my heavy case I felt more like a carpet
salesman than a composer.
nervously on the doorstep with my huge
suitcase crammed full of scores. I was
extremely jittery as I rang the doorbell.
After a while Arthur Benjamin opened
the front door. He was quite jovial
and smiling. I remember he was dressed
in an open-necked royal blue summer
shirt worn outside his grey flannels.
And on his feet he had sandals with
no socks! Benjamin kindly helped me
to carry my heavy suitcase into his
me at ease immediately. And in moment
I was invited into his music room at
the back of the house. I particularly
recall as I passed thought the hallway
that I could hear someone preparing
a meal in the kitchen – his wife, perhaps?
you tell me about his music room?
large. There was a French window leading
out onto the garden. To the right of
this was an alcove with a bow shaped
window; here was a window seat and a
large table with glossy magazines laid
out on it. They were not musical. And
there was the latest Eric Ambler novel,
which was lying face down on the table
as if it had just been put to one side.
must have been quite daunting for a
nineteen year old lad to be sitting
in a famous composer’s study. Did he
make you feel welcome?
His first question was, ‘Sherry? Would
you like a drink?’ I thanked him. ‘I’m
having a brandy – doctor’s orders. You
see, I have a weak heart and my doctor
says that one brandy each morning will
do me good. That suits me fine!’ he
imagine that he must have been a bit
concerned at the great suitcase you
had lugged all the way from Tottenham
no actually. He did not seem in the
least bit surprised at it. All he said
was, ‘Those must be your scores,’ he
said pointing at the case. ‘ It’s best
if I see all that you have written –
for the simple reason that you might
leave your best efforts at home and
bring me your less inspired ones.’
understand that the evening before Benjamin
had heard the world premiere of his
opera A Tale of Two Cities at Sadler’s
Wells. Did he talk about this?
an apology about being ‘unusually elated.’
But of course I had noted that he was
more than just plain cheerful. He told
me how the opera had been a great success
and how he had seven curtain calls.
The work had been broadcast three years
earlier but this was the stage premier.
The main protagonist had been superbly
established by Heddle Nash and the young
soprano Heather Harper had performed
wonderfully. I later found out that
the work had won a Festival of Britain
award in 1951.
must confess, Richard, that I have never
really associated Arthur Benjamin with
opera was in fact Benjamin’s favourite
medium. He told me that he was hoping
to compose another one soon, based on
Moliere’s play Tartuffe. This
was to be written to a libretto by his
close friend Cedric Cliffe.
that he then talked to me about Giacomo
Puccini. ‘There is someone who knows
how to write for the stage. He saw the
play first, and if they worked dramatically
he turned them into the most beautiful
and successful operas…and what orchestration!
Many of our own composers forget the
stage when they write operas….un-dramatic
works they are!’
he not have much time for the operas
being written in England at that time?
I mean what about Britten.
to him – ‘But what about Peter Grimes?’
He had a lot to say about this. ‘Oh
yes...that is a masterpiece. I was thinking
more of our older composers. VW (Vaughan
Williams) is my idea of the great professional
in music. I admire him above all other
living composers, but unfortunately
his operas are not dramatic enough.’
Benjamin lamented to me that this was
such a pity. He insisted that VW was
still a great man and a perfect example
to all of us of professionalism.
a leitmotiv of our conversation. ‘Be
professional, my boy, be professional.’
this is what Arthur Benjamin was himself
– a true professional.
he admire Benjamin Britten?
he did- but with qualifications. He
insisted that he thought BB enormously
talented. But he was of the opinion
that he had too much success too early.
And Benjamin felt it had gone to his
head! He said to me – ‘It is what you
are like at 50 that counts in the serious
at that time the age of 50 seemed an
eternity away to me.
disliked the way Ben had treated people
and how he'd failed to listen to what
he (Arthur) considered as good advice.
Britten found criticism difficult to
Benjamin felt that Britten’s opinion
of his composition teacher John Ireland
was unfair both as teacher and as a
man. However, he thought that it was
unfortunate that the young Britten had
been given John Ireland as a composition
teacher after having studied privately
with Frank Bridge. Benjamin found Ireland
often a good teacher, but the outstanding
qualities of the practical Bridge was
'a hard act to follow, yet when at his
best Ireland was a highly inspired composer.
that Britten had ‘gone down’ since Peter
Grimes. Of course at that time the
War Requiem had not been written.
I wonder if Arthur Benjamin would have
changed his opinion?
was Arthur Benjamin indifferent to the
achievement of The Turn of the Screw?
he did admit that this work was an exception.
In fact I believe he thought it was
a very good piece and he admired the
subtle and effective use of the chamber
know that Benjamin taught BB piano at
the Royal College and the attractive
Holiday diary was dedicated to him by
his pupil – did he mention this?
he did not actually mention this but
he did insist the Britten was an exceptionally
good pianist. Of course Arthur also
taught Helen Perkin.
was the student to whom John Ireland
dedicated his Piano Concerto?
apparently Ireland had been walking
past one of the practice rooms and had
heard her playing during a lesson with
Benjamin. This inspired him to write
he say anything more about Britten?
said that Ben, whom I was to meet for
the first time six months later, had
got into entirely the 'wrong set' after
leaving the RCM. 'You mean musically?'
he said 'the Oxbridge group of writers.
It's made him too political and turned
his head a lot.' You see Ben had been
extremely lucky in his teacher Frank
Bridge, he went to him at exactly the
right age, Bridge was remarkable, he'd
also taught Howard Ferguson, and then
when Ben came under the spell of the
Oxbridge group, Bridge was furious.
You see, according to Arthur, Ben was
over-ambitious, wouldn't take his time
... he found it hard to take criticism.
Vaughan Williams disliked the 30's Oxbridge
people too, I'm sure he shared Arthur's
views, (later at the flat of the then
RAM Principal Sir Thomas Armstrong I
happened to say as he poked at his fire,
that, " The thirties poets are remarkable."
Sir Tom turned round brandishing the
poker: "Young upstarts the lot of them!".)
Armstrong and VW had all fought in the
First World War, so the way many of
the ‘thirties’ young men acted over
the Second World War had a lot to do
with their attitude.
maintained that Bridge besides being
a great teacher was a first-rate composer,
but that Ben had difficulty knowing
who to listen to. At that time he was
still very young, almost a ‘Peter Pan’
like figure who needed advice and protection.
to me that it was Britten the man, rather
than Britten the composer, that he had
doubts about. 'He has so many of the
"Right" people about him, they do everything
they can for him, to give him "space"
in which to compose, but I often worry
about what it is that motivates him,
he seems to have so many hang-ups, psychologically
he's had a hard life so far. You see
he showed me all his early scores and
I still try to keep up with his many
thought that Ben would burn himself
out at the rate he was composing after
'Grimes'. He agreed though that Ben
was one of the greatest talents to emerge
Arthur confessed that preferred the
deeper, more solid works, of his piano
pupil the composer the late Bill (William)
Blezard once told me that Arthur couldn't
stand Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony
when he heard it played, or it was mentioned
to him, he'd shouted out
Cuckoos!' which he'd often said with
suppose it came as no surprise to hear
Arthur say he hadn't liked Ben Britten’s
Spring Symphony for similar reasons.
I told him that the 'Spring'
was a favourite of mine, that I liked
in particular the opening chorus and
the Auden setting.
would not surprise me if you quizzed
Arthur Benjamin about Lennox Berkeley
and he said, "Ah, he's my type of composer,
a true professional, he takes his craft
seriously. He was extremely well taught
in Paris by Nadia Boulanger.’ He then
told me how well Lennox writes for the
stage. In fact, it had been only nine
months since his really excellent one
act opera Ruth had been staged,
Benjamin felt that it was a remarkable
achievement for a long ‘one-acter’,
He was impressed by Berkeley’s ability
to write the ‘Mozart type’ of composition
with his captivating comic opera A
Dinner Engagement. However Benjamin
felt that Lennox’s real masterpiece
was his large scale three act opera
Nelson. This was written to a
libretto by Alan Price Jones.
sipped his last drop of brandy and filled
my glass again.
am interested to hear you mention William
Blezard. I actually think his music
is extremely attractive. I remember
a friend pointing him out to me once
in Barnes – where he lived.
– well Benjamin told me that Blezard,
who had toured as pianist with Marlene
Dietrich, Joyce Grenfell, and more recently
Honor Blackman, had been told by Arthur
that he'd given a title to a composition
for a printed programme, and then wrote
it in time for the concert.
had once or twice bumped into Arthur
later at the Denham film studios recording
his own feature film scores with conductor
Muir Mathieson (1947-49).
other pupils did Benjamin teach - either
at the time of your visit or later?
Ivan Clayton, Joan and Valerie Trimble,
Irene Kohler, Lance Dosser, Bill Blezard
told me that Herbert Howells taught
in the room almost opposite Arthur and
if Arthur liked a composition he'd fetch
Howells in to hear it. So, like Nadia
Boulanger he'd enjoyed looking through
his piano pupil's compositions at the
the composers were given to Arthur to
teach them piano then they would obtain
second opinions of their works. Arthur
had been a child prodigy giving his
first piano recital aged six. In1931
he'd given the premiere as soloist of
Constant Lambert's Piano Concerto with
Benjamin give his views on any other
contemporary composers during your visit?
was greatly impressed by Peter Racine
Fricker too. His very close friend was
Gian Carlo Menotti who often kept in
touch with him as did many of the younger
American, New Zealand and Australian
composers most of whom were published
in this country. 'I love Menotti's Consul,
The Medium, The Telephone
and Amahl too ". He also said
that some of the younger generation
were, 'losing their way stylistically',
feeling that Ben was 'in danger of trying
to follow them'.
like Lennox Berkeley, Walton, and Francis
Poulenc, whose Carmelites had
recently been premiered, were going
along on more productive traditional
lines, yet still producing something
personal and individual.
his eyes lighting up, all composers
should model themselves on Mozart, as
I try to do, it means attempting to
compose music on a number of levels,
with communication as the main goal,
very hard to do this but that Lennox
Berkeley and the younger Peter Fricker
were managing and Ben certainly had
done in his early works which had 'astounded
us all'. Arthur Benjamin had composed
an opera for Television, the first ever
commissioned by the BBC.
is perhaps not widely realised that
Arthur Benjamin was an exceptionally
accomplished pianist in his own right.
Did he talk about his solo career? I
know that he gave the first European
performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in
yes he did. Actually after chatting
about Ireland and Britten he went quite
sad. Just as if a cloud had come over
his smiling face. He told me how he
wished he had concentrated on composition
alone. He felt that somehow he had spoiled
his chances by being a teacher and a
concert pianist, a conductor, a light
music composer and arranger and a film
composer. He reckoned that you are not
taken seriously if you are a jack of
to me – "Specialise…specialise
in composition my boy, and be tremendously
patient…wait to be asked to compose,
do not thrust your music at people –
put ‘em off and it’s very unprofessional.
Wait to be asked…it’s much better that
way. The music’s valued then if it has
he cheered up and suggested we had lunch.
thing is interesting me – you mentioned
noises off in the kitchen. Was this
his wife? Were you introduced?
it’s quite interesting really. When
he said ‘Let’s have lunch’ he knocked
on the door of a serving hatch at the
back of the room. It opened immediately,
to reveal a Jamaican manservant. Benjamin
introduced us through the hatch, and
we shook hands. I had never shaken hands
through a serving hatch before!
revealed to me cooking was one of his
hobbies and that he had cooked the meal.
The manservant was serving it and bringing
at a dining table in the centre of the
room. The Jamaican came through form
the kitchen, a huge dinner plate in
– I hope you like steak,’ Benjamin said.
‘I shopped for it this morning. I asked
the butcher for two portions, and he
has given me two navvies!’ I remember
that the streaks absolutely filled the
plates – there was hardly any room for
the vegetables and salad.
insisted that we did not talk about
music whilst we ate. He said that it
can spoil the digestive process. ‘Tell
me about yourself- and then after lunch
we can go through your composition.’
this made me feel very grand – he took
me and my musical efforts so seriously.
to eat the huge meal, telling Benjamin
about my early life and studies without
mentioning music. This was difficult,
and I finished the meal last. He then
invited his manservant to join us for
coffee. Benjamin’s manservant said very
little, but I remember he looked very
much like the great, legendary cricketer,
did you eventually get to discuss your
Benjamin asked his manservant to leave
us so that we could go through Mr Stoker’s
compositions. He indicated the dishes,
saying – ‘Leave the things – we can
clear away later.’
I noticed a very large draughtsman’s
table at least eight feet by seven,
on a large steel frame. I learned that
the composer stood at this to work on
his orchestration, the light coming
in from behind him through the open
French windows. I also noticed the large
garden and told him how lovely it looked.
it is so private out there, I can sunbathe
naked. No-one can see through the privet
hedges and trees. There cannot be many
places so near London where you can
do that!’ he said proudly.
down at his grand piano – a Bechstein,
and started going thorough my pieces,
playing them as piano duets, with Benjamin
pedalling. He was very encouraging,
often saying, ‘Yes, I like that!’ Then
we approached a climax. ‘No,’ he said,
‘you must REACH your climaxes…they seem
to fall away. Have as many as you like,
but you must reach each one in the end
– then the listeners will not be left
unsatisfied. Listen to Ravel!’
he was sight reading my works and I
was impressed at how competent he was
at this. He seemed to understand the
character of my piece immediately. His
playing of my works was quite thrilling
and extremely musical.
through some of my other pieces without
playing them, telling me which he liked
best. ‘This will help your taste to
develop, if I point to the good things
and leave the weaker ones.’
he said to me – ‘I am not a composition
teacher. You cannot teach it – you can
only guide a young composer. I’ve never
taught composition. I’m willing to give
advice to you, but not to teach. A very
talented Welsh composer keeps saying
in his brochure and programme notes
that he studied with me- well, he didn’t.
I just gave him advice, as I have done
to one or two others. I hope you will
never say that you studied with me,’
he stressed. ‘You can say I gave you
advice…I’d like that very much better.’
know that Benjamin himself studied at
the Royal College of Music with Parry.
Did he mention this to you?
studied with both Parry and Stanford.
He claimed that both were very great
teachers. However he had some hard things
to say about the RCM. ‘That place has
gone down and down,’ he said somewhat
wistfully. ‘I resigned with one or two
other professors. It’s their Registrar,
Anson. He’s been no good for the place.
He’s so bad that he drives people away.
The Director Bullock is not much better.
He’s easily led…under Anson’s thumb.
No! Do not go to the College – Go to
the Academy. They’ve just got a new
Principal who is very good. He likes
composers and he will look after you
there. He’s called Thomas Armstrong.
I was in there a few days ago examining
their Piano Division Five and the Recital
Diploma. Armstrong has turned the Academy
very quickly into a good place to study…more
like the Royal College was when I studied
you disappointed that Arthur Benjamin
would not take you on as a pupil?
yes, of course. But I asked him who
would be best for me. He suggested Matyas
Seiber and Lennox Berkeley. He considered
them to be the best teachers of the
day. They had taught Peter Racine Fricker
and Richard Rodney Bennett.
Benjamin took me over to a sideboard
in the corner of the room. ‘Would you
like to see my proudest possession?’
I nodded, following him. He took down
a small black-framed photograph, covering
up some writing at the bottom. Showing
to me he asked if I knew who it was.
at it for a moment. ‘It’s Brahms isn’t
it?’ I replied.
look, he’s signed it.’ Sure enough,
the clear signature of Johannes Brahms
was written along the bottom of the
told me that Brahms had always been
his favourite composer. Benjamin had
been only four years old when the elder
man had died in 1897.
for a while about Brahms. ‘I had to
keep my love of him secret from my Royal
College colleagues, though…Brahms was
out of favour in the nineteen twenties
and thirties. It was the gypsy element
they couldn’t take...too light and popular
for them, you see.’
then talked to me about Mozart. ‘What
a model! To write a piece of music that
can be appreciated on so many levels
and so light in texture. Not a note
too much. This should be the aim of
he talk about his own music to you?
loved Ravel’s music too. He told me
that he had just composed a suite for
Gervase (de Payer), the brilliant clarinettist.
He had called it Le Tombeau de Ravel,
after Ravel’s title, Le Tombeau de
Couperin. He insisted that Boosey
& Hawkes would publish it. He mentioned
that he had done a version for viola
and piano – just as Brahms had done
with his two clarinet sonatas.
he was a versatile composer – writing
in many idioms. Not only did he produce
a fine symphony, four operas, concertos
and piano music, but also film music.
He told me that he had written a cantata
for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who
Knew Too Much. Apparently this contains
a shot of the composer himself, seated
at the end of a row in the audience
at the Royal Albert Hall.
see how excited he was about his future
are your final thoughts about Arthur
this was only the first of many visits
that I made to him. On another occasion
he had been badly stung on the face
by a wasp whilst sunbathing (lucky it
was his face as he had a predilection
for doing it nude! Ed.) He was not,
unsurprisingly in quite so good a mood.
Another time he wrote to me to cancel
a visit – ‘I am off on a banana boat
to the West Indies to find some sun.’
You know, the Jamaicans gave him a barrel
of rum each year for making their island
so popular with the Jamaican Rumba
– and he was always welcome there.
in 1960 I heard of his sudden death
on 10th April. This was only
a few days after his three-act opera
A Tale of Two Cities had received
its American premiere at the State College,
San Francisco on the 2nd
April. Some four years later his Moliere
opera Tartuffe was successfully
produced at Sadler’s Wells.
do you feel about his position as a
composer in 2004?
after his death his compositions have
been mostly neglected and I believe
a general re-assessment of his works
is long overdue. Obviously he is best
remembered for his Jamaican Rumba
which was composed in 1938. However
there is a fine recording of the Symphony
No.1 and the Ballade for String
Orchestra on Marco Polo (8.223764)
and a number of chamber works and piano
pieces are also available. A biography
is also in the process of being written
by the Australian pianist and scholar
Stoker/ John France April 2004