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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Arthur Benjamin:

Interview between Richard Stoker and John France

Arthur Benjamin

 

Richard, can you tell me about your visit to Arthur Benjamin.

Yes. 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.

 

Why did you choose to contact Arthur Benjamin and not to another composer living in London?

Well 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 out.

For 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.

Anyway 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?’

He suggested 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!

Just 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.

Can you recall how you felt as you arrived in the Smoke for the very first time?

Yes. 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.

Were you planning to stay at Benjamin’s house or with relatives?

No. 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 of them!

Was it all piano practise? Or were you able to enjoy the big bad city?

I was 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.

I spent 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.

I met 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.

How did you feel about the city?

I was 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!

Otherwise 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.

Tell me about the visit to Benjamin’s house.

The big day finally arrived. It was 24th July 1957…

I was one and half years old then! Sorry…

…it 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.’

I showed him my map and he eventually put me off in NW2.

Of course 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.

I stood 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 hall.

He put 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?

Can you tell me about his music room?

It was 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.

It 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?

Yes. 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 laughed.

I imagine that he must have been a bit concerned at the great suitcase you had lugged all the way from Tottenham Court Road.

Well 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.’

I 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?

He made 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.

I must confess, Richard, that I have never really associated Arthur Benjamin with opera.

Well, 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.

I remember 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!’

Did he not have much time for the operas being written in England at that time? I mean what about Britten.

I said 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.’

Arthur 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.

It was a leitmotiv of our conversation. ‘Be professional, my boy, be professional.’

Of course this is what Arthur Benjamin was himself – a true professional.

Did he admire Benjamin Britten?

Yes 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 music world.’

Of course at that time the age of 50 seemed an eternity away to me.

Arthur 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 take.

Arthur 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.

He felt 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?

But was Arthur Benjamin indifferent to the achievement of The Turn of the Screw?

Yes, 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 orchestra.

I 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?

Well he did not actually mention this but he did insist the Britten was an exceptionally good pianist. Of course Arthur also taught Helen Perkin.

That was the student to whom John Ireland dedicated his Piano Concerto?

Yes, 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 the concerto!

Did he say anything more about Britten?

Arthur 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?' I asked.

'No', 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!".)

Benjamin, 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.

Arthur 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.

It appeared 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 Premiers.

Arthur 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 since Elgar.

Yet Arthur confessed that preferred the deeper, more solid works, of his piano pupil the composer the late Bill (William) Blezard.

Incidentally 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

'Bloody Cuckoos!' which he'd often said with some vehemence.

So I 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.

 

It would not surprise me if you quizzed Arthur Benjamin about Lennox Berkeley either?

I did 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.

Arthur sipped his last drop of brandy and filled my glass again.

I 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.

Yes – 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.

Bill 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).

What other pupils did Benjamin teach - either at the time of your visit or later?

He taught 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 RCM.

Perhaps 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 Lambert conducting.

Did Benjamin give his views on any other contemporary composers during your visit?

 

Arthur 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'.

Composers 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.

He said, 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.

 

It 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 Blue.

Well 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 all trades.

He said 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 been commissioned."

Then he cheered up and suggested we had lunch.

One thing is interesting me – you mentioned noises off in the kitchen. Was this his wife? Were you introduced?

Well, 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!

Benjamin revealed to me cooking was one of his hobbies and that he had cooked the meal. The manservant was serving it and bringing it through.

We sat at a dining table in the centre of the room. The Jamaican came through form the kitchen, a huge dinner plate in each hand.

‘Steak – 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.

Benjamin 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.’

Actually this made me feel very grand – he took me and my musical efforts so seriously.

I tried 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, Viv Richards!

So did you eventually get to discuss your compositions?

Yes. 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.’

Then 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.

‘Yes 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.

We sat 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!’

Obviously 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.

He looked 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.’

Then 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.’

I know that Benjamin himself studied at the Royal College of Music with Parry. Did he mention this to you?

He actually 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 there. ‘

Were you disappointed that Arthur Benjamin would not take you on as a pupil?

Well 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.

Suddenly 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.

I looked at it for a moment. ‘It’s Brahms isn’t it?’ I replied.

Yes…and look, he’s signed it.’ Sure enough, the clear signature of Johannes Brahms was written along the bottom of the photograph.

Benjamin 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.

He continued 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.’

Benjamin 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 all composers.

Did he talk about his own music to you?

Benjamin 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.

Of course 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.

I could see how excited he was about his future plans

What are your final thoughts about Arthur Benjamin?

Well 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.

Then 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.

What do you feel about his position as a composer in 2004?

Well 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 Wendy Hiscocks.

 

Richard Stoker/ John France April 2004

 


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