BENJAMIN - AUSTRALIAN SYMPHONIST
by Rob Barnett
The name of Arthur Benjamin will be known to the general musical public as
the composer of one piece of music: The Jamaican Rumba ("an enchanting
brevity" - Herbert Howells). This piece is best known in its version for
two pianos, although there have been many other variants of this infectiously
entertaining essay in local colour. The Rumba inhabits much the same
musical world as Bax's Mediterranean (1922): the holiday mood in music.
Both pieces are successes in their own way, each exploiting and developing
the cliché image of a particular place. However, if Benjamin is to
be fairly assessed, it is necessary to delve deeper into his work. To judge
Benjamin on the basis of the Rumba can be compared with judging the
composer of Winter Legends (1930) and November Woods (1917)
on the basis of Mediterranean. There is a great deal more to this
composer and his musical legacy than one popular success in the field of
light music. His music was championed by many of the leading musical figures
of the day including Beecham, Sargent, Heifetz, Primrose, Leon Goossens and
Larry Adler. There is clearly something there to explore.
Benjamin does not appear to have been the subject of even the briefest
biographical study. If Lewis Foreman's Triad Press were more active it would
have been no surprise to have seen a booklet along the lines of the ones
devoted to Bernard Herrmann and Patrick Hadley. This, however, did not happen,
although it may be that in due course Martin Anderson's Toccata Press may
find a willing and able advocate who will enlighten us with research from
diaries and studies of the life and works of other composers.
Arthur Leslie Benjamin was born in Sydney, Australia on 18 September 1893
the son of Abraham Benjamin, a commission agent and his wife Amelia. The
family moved to Brisbane in 1896 where he was educated at Bowen House School
and Brisbane Grammar School. The family home had a strong informal musical
background. At age six he made his first public appearance as a pianist.
His formal musical training started at nine. In 1907 he accompanied his parents
on a tour of the Continent. He was encouraged by Thomas Dunhill on one of
Dunhill's examination tours of Australia to come to England to study at the
RCM. In 1911, at the age of eighteen, he won an open scholarship to the Royal
College of Music. "Cosmopolitan, widely travelled, confident, urbane, mature
in conversation which, even so early, he could already sustain in three
languages, of which Australian was not one" , he studied with
Stanford and Frederic Cliffe.
His friends and fellow students included Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells (whose
First Piano Concerto in C minor he was to premiere under the composer's baton
at a Queen's Hall Orchestra concert on 10 July 1914. Benjamin was its dedicatee),
Ivor Gurney, the clarinettist, Frederick Thurston and many Goossens (Eugene,
Marie, Sidonie, Jean and Adolph). Eugene was later to spend many years enriching
the musical life of Benjamin's country of birth. Howells noted that in their
student days Benjamin's "grip of the essentials in a new score reminded one
of Leslie Heward's high aptitude in that activity. His facility was Baxian
- but with strangely unBaxian results." Benjamin and Howells gave performances
of the Ireland Second Violin Sonata.
It was Benjamin who, in 1913, took Howells on his first foreign holiday to
France and Switzerland. Francis Purcell ("Bunny") Warren, a viola player
of some promise, was also within this circle. Warren was killed at Mons in
1917. His memorial is the Howells' Elegy for solo viola, string quartet
and string orchestra.
Benjamin considered that Stanford had:
"written some miniature masterpieces. Some of the songs
are among the most perfect written by any composer, and some of the short
choral works such as The Bluebird are unsurpassed. He was perhaps
too slavish a follower of Brahms to be really successful in his big works.
Still the Stabat Mater and the clarinet concerto merit much more frequent
hearings than they get."
William Primrose attributed Benjamin's skill in common with that of Bax and
Bridge to the guidance of Stanford "apparently a very fine teacher who exercised
an unyielding red pencil."
Those student years are recalled in Michael Hurd's: "The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney"
(Oxford University Press, 1978):
"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".
In an as yet unpublished article by Pamela Blevins, Benjamin's homosexuality
is identified. In 1912 Benjamin met Gurney. Benjamin was the well-to-do
Australian, three years younger than Gurney:-
"He was outgoing, cheerful and an enthusiastic companion
who revelled in the good fortune of his friends. He was also a homosexual,
and many years later said he believed that Gurney possessed the same tendencies.
Benjamin seemed to have insights into Gurney and an understanding of his
behaviour that could only have come from astute observation and from what
Gurney himself confided in him."
"Several days after Ivor Gurney was committed to Barnwood
House in Gloucester in September 1922, a concerned Arthur Benjamin wrote
to Marion Scott. The letter is exasperating because Benjamin deliberately
holds back information that might have made a difference in understanding
Gurney's mental illness and, ultimately, in the course of his treatment and
"I think that psycho-analysis is the only cure for
him;" Benjamin wrote "but that, of course, would mean entire confidence on
Ivor's 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."
Michael Hurd's book recounts Marion Scott's recollection of meeting the student
trio at the first London performance of Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony
at the Queen's 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,
Bliss, Howells and Goossens also attended the Diaghilev ballets and operas
at His Majesty's and Drury Lane, drinking in the many new sounds and sights.
The greatest impact came with their attendance in 1911 (Coronation year)
at the Diaghilev-Ballet Russe performance of Stravinsky's The Firebird
at Covent Garden.
The friendship of those years produced from Howells an orchestral suite in
five movements, each celebrating a close friend. The work The Bs,
first presented in concert in 1914, ends with an heraldic march movement
entitled Benjee, celebrating Benjamin. Another Howells piece,
Procession (orchestrated for the 1922 Proms) is dedicated to Benjamin.
At one stage the movement from Howells' Clavichord, now known as
Bliss' Ballet was entitled Benjamin's Brawl.
In his student days he was much impressed by the music of Brahms, Franck
and the all-conquering Richard Strauss. He was also greatly taken with the
early works of Stravinsky. Ravel's music also helped shape the artistry of
the budding composer.
Benjamin was not exempt from the whirlwinds of world history. He was swept
along into the upheaval and tragedy of the Great War. In 1914 he joined the
Officer Training Corps receiving on 29 April 1915 a temporary commission.
He served initially in the infantry as Second Lieutenant with the
32nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. On 4 November 1917 he was attached
to the Royal Flying Corps. Shot down over Germany on 31 July 1918 he was
captured and became a prisoner of war. In a letter dated 4 July 1918 Howells
writes of "Benjy":-
"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 won't be betrayed into
As a brief aside, it is worth mentioning that Carl Fuchs, Frederick Keel
and Edgar Bainton spent the years 1914 to 1918 interned at Rühleben
camp in Germany. Benjamin joined them at this camp in 1916. In 1934 Bainton
emigrated to Australia taking up an appointment as Director of the Sydney
Conservatorium of Music.
William Primrose recounts an interesting anecdote about Benjamin's War:-
"One day I saw among his photographic mementoes a
picture of him in his Royal Air Force tunic from World War I. He was wearing
pyjamas, his officer's blouse
and bedroom slippers and standing in
the middle of a field with two other [RAF] prisoners and a German officer.
Arthur was a gunner and had been called out very early that morning to fight
a German squadron. Leaping out of bed, he had only time enough to emplane
and take off. His group was to engage the famous Richtofen 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. Benjamin's
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 didn't you shoot
the bastard right then? You would have saved the world an awful lot of
Jeremy Dibble notes that in the RCM days Benjamin was regarded by many as
a star pupil. Yet alongside his contemporaries Gurney and E.J. Moeran he
joined up with eagerness. Too late, Benjamin's mother wrote to Parry begging
him to persuade Benjamin from joining the forces. He pointed out to Benjamin
that "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." Benjamin was already in the forces by
then with Butterworth, Geoffrey Toye, Fox, Dyson, Bliss, Farrar and Vaughan
Williams. The war was to leave Benjamin a changed man.
Benjamin was repatriated on 29 November 1918 and then returned to Australia
to become Professor of Piano at Sydney State Conservatory. This was at the
invitation of Henri Verbrugghen. He held this position from 1919 until 1921.
During this time his works were championed by the Belgian-born conductor,
Henri Verbrugghen, who had taken charge of the New South Wales Conservatorium
as its first Director. Howells also notes that it was at this time that Benjamin
discovered "a latent skill for conducting".
He came back to England in 1921, as a Professor of Piano at the R.C.M. Amongst
his distinguished pupils at the College were the conductors George Weldon
and Muir Mathieson, Lionel Salter, the composers Stanley Bate, Pamela Harrison,
Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Bernard Stevens, Canadian, Jean Coulthard, fellow
Australian, Miriam Hyde (born Adelaide 1913 and the composer of two piano
concertos performed in England in 1934-35) and the young Benjamin Britten.
In 1934 Britten dedicated the piano suite Holiday Diary to Benjamin.
The first movement, Early Morning Bathe apes Benjamin's own style.
Benjamin did not lack for performances during his lifetime. These were secured
not merely through the merit of his music but were certainly assisted by
his deep involvement in the musical culture of the times. His circle of friends
and contacts seems to have been wide. His music was premiered alongside works
by Warlock, van Dieren, Arnold Bax, and John Ireland. He benefited from the
ready friendship of many of the great and lesser figures of those times.
To take one example: in 1925, the year of Benjamin's first professional
performance as a soloist, E.J. Moeran organised three concerts at which his
own music (in the case of one given on 13 June 1925, the Piano Trio) together
with works by the Warlock "circle" and Benjamin were given. On 2 February
1926 Benjamin premiered Bliss's four piano pieces Masks at the Concert
Spirituel, Faculty of Arts Gallery, Golden Square, London. The same month
(6 February). Benjamin partnered Harriet Cohen in Bach's C major concerto
for two pianos in one of Henry Wood's all-Bach Queen's Hall concerts.
He lived for many years at 66 Carlton Hill in St John's Wood. In 1935 he
accompanied the 10-year old Canadian cellist Lorne Munroe (later to become
cello principal with the Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic orchestras)
on a concert tour of Europe. In 1938 he resigned from his post at the R.C.M.
and left to settle in Vancouver. 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.
In 1941 he was appointed Conductor of the newly formed CBC Symphony Orchestra.
He held this post until 1946. He was Resident-Lecturer at Reed College, Portland,
Oregon in 1944-45.
Of the greatest importance were his years in Canada. He had fond memories
of his time there. It was the Canadian years which saw the writing of his
Symphony. Canada was comparatively primitive in the 1940s. With the CBC he
gave numerous broadcast concerts with literally hundreds of first performances.
Practically anything was a premiere so starved had the Canadian public been
of the experience of mainstream European musical life. However despite the
satisfactions and rewards of these years he felt compelled by the lack of
opportunities for stage works to return to London.
Returning to England in 1946, at the request of his publishers, he became
an integral part of the British, and, in particular, London, music scene.
Bernard Stevens recalled sessions in Benjamin's 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. His
recreations included swimming and the theatre. He was a member of the Savile
Club. He was active in the organisation of concerts of Australian composers'
music at Australia House in London.
Writing of Benjamin in his book "A Distant Music" John Mansfield Thomson
describes the man as:-
"much travelled and a connoisseur of wine and food.
Arthur Benjamin was the doyen of Australian composers whose life's work lay
overseas where he identified completely with the English and European musical
Benjamin's generally acknowledged excellence as a pianist secured for him
not only the "bread and butter" of a living in the academic world but also
kept him in demand as a soloist. His premiere of the Howells' First Concerto
has already been noted. He also gave the first performance of Constant Lambert's
Piano Concerto on 18 December 1931 at the Aeolian Hall with Lambert conducting.
Benjamin composed at the piano although he confirmed that he got his ideas
away from the keyboard. However he developed those themes by improvising
around them at the piano.
Benjamin's output was substantial. He produced light music, music for film,
chamber music, songs, operas, concertos, ballet music and a single Symphony.
His light music includes the one piece which, to date, has secured his popular
reputation. The famous Rumba using a tune by Benjamin was written
in 1938. It took him only a morning to write. It is that version which has
given the piece its fame. Interestingly, when speaking to Murray Schafer
he stated that the work had been written originally for two pianos "for two
of my students who were giving their first recital." In 1949 the piece was
given particular attention by the Irish pianists, Valerie and Joan Trimble.
This is perhaps as you would expect, as the sisters were the dedicatees of
the piece. The piece was influenced by his time in the West Indies and Latin
America where he taught and was a travelling examiner for the Associated
Board and took every opportunity to soak up the local colour.
The Rumba was one of Two Jamaican Pieces arranged by Benjamin
for orchestra. The Rumba is the second of the pieces which were introduced
to the public for the first time in a studio performance by Sir Anthony Lewis
and the BBCSO on 31 October 1938. The first is the very much lesser known
Jamaican Song. Alternative versions of the Rumba abound but
they are by hands other than Benjamin's. There is even a version for harmonica
and orchestra recorded by Larry Adler.
From San Domingo (1945) is one of a number of other essays in this field.
The Caribbean Dance for orchestra, subtitled A New Jamaican Rumba
dates from 1946. Written as an orchestral work Benjamin made a version of
it for two pianos for the Trimbles. It is in the style of a rumba and uses
the Jamaican folk songs: Hold 'im Joe and Linstead Market.
The various Caribbean works play in total for less than 15 minutes. Apart
from their orchestral and two piano versions there is a transcription of
the 1938 and 1945 pieces for viola and piano. These were recorded by William
Primrose and Vladimir Sokoloff. Primrose regularly played the Rumba
recognising it as "light and charming but trivial." Nevertheless he saw it
as filling the public's appetite for "short, attractive pieces" which did
not demand too great attention. The piece worked its way with audiences through
sheer tunefulness and charm and as Primrose commented: how well it sold.
Usually it provoked from the most reserved audiences a request for an encore.
The two piano versions of the Jamaican pieces have been much played and recorded
by many duet teams. They were last broadcast as a set together with the Two
Jamaican Street Songs (1. Cookie and 2. Mattie Rag) and
the Jamaicalypso by David Johns and Jeremy Brown.
The most recent recording of the Rumba, San Domingo, Caribbean
Dance on two Jamaican folk songs - Linstead Market and Hold
'im Joe, Two Jamaican Street Songs and Jamaicalypso appeared
in October 1984. The artists Richard McMahon and Martin Jones.
The Cotillon suite was written in 1938. It was first performed by
the BBCSO and Clarence Raybould in the studio on 3 February 1939. It is subtitled
A Suite of English Dance Tunes from The Dancing Master a collection
of dance tunes published by Pearson and Young in London in 1719. It is a
brief work playing for 11 minutes. The movements are 1. Introduction - Lord
Hereford's Delight; 2. Daphne's Delight; 3. Marlborough's Victory; 4. Love's
Triumph; 5. Jigg it a foot; 6. The Charmer; 7. Nymph Divine; 8 The Tattler;
9. Argyle. The Cotillon suite has been recorded on Lyrita LP SRCS
115. The performers are the LSO conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite. More
accessibly there is a recording by the Sydney SO/Patrick Thomas on ABC Classics
442 374-2 (2CD collection of Australian Light Classics) not to mention the
. Whilst it is good to have the opportunity to hear this suite, I must confess
it is not the most inspiring music.
The North American Square Dance Suite is for two pianos and orchestra.
At 11 minutes it is another brief light essay. Published in 1951 it was first
performed by the Hallé in Manchester in November 1952 and in Pittsburgh
on 1 April 1955. The movements are: 1. Introduction - Miller's Reel; 2. The
Old Plunk; 3. The Bundle of Straw; 4. He piped so Sweet; 5. Fill the Bowl;
6. Pigeon on the Pier; 7. Calder Fair; 8. Salamanca - Coda. The work is a
collection of "old-time fiddle tunes from Canada and the USA." This has been
recorded on a CBC compact disc with the Nova Scotia Orchestra conducted by
the late George Tintner.
The Light Music Suite. This is in four movements: 1. March; 2. Pastorale;
3. Viennese Waltz; 4. Introduction and Final Dance. It was composed in 1928
and 1933 and plays for 14 minutes. The orchestra includes a wide selection
of percussion and a piano. There is also the Rondo Prelude to Holiday
(11 minutes - first performed in Indianapolis on 17 January 1941) given its
British premiere at the Albert Hall on 6 August 1942 by the BBCSO and Sir
Henry Wood and the brief (3 minute) Red River Jig (1945), a memento,
with the Square Dance Suite, of his time in Canada.
He owed his entré to the world of film music to his one-time pupil,
Muir Mathieson who, after the departure of Kurt Schroeder in the mid-1930s,
became Music Director of London Films. This connection continued until Benjamin
left for Canada. He wrote music for a number of important feature and documentary
films. His first film with London was for the Leslie Howard film The Scarlet
Pimpernel (1934). He also scored the sequel, The Return of the
Pimpernel in 1938.
There were also Wharves and Strays (London Films, 1935), The
Clairvoyant (Gaumont-British, 1935, a Claude Rains feature), The Turn
of the Tide (Gaumont-British, 1935), Lobsters (Bury productions,
1935) and Wings of the Morning (the first British Technicolour feature
film, 1937, starring Henry Fonda and 'Annabella' and including a guest singing
appearance for John McCormack). In 1947, on his return to Britain, he wrote
the music for The Crowthers of Bankdam (Holbein Films) including the
aria The Fire of Your Love, sung in the film by Maria Var. His other
scores in this genre include Under the Red Robe (1937, his last score
before leaving for Canada and starring Conrad Veidt). His last film scores
number under the Caribbean (1954), Above the Waves (1955),
and Naked Earth (1957). His last score Fire Down Below (1957/60).
was prepared jointly with Douglas Gamley and Kenneth V. Jones. Other scores
include The Cumberland Story (1947), Steps of the Ballet (1948
- a sequel to that other 1946 British Council and Central Office of Information
classic the Britten/Sargent collaboration The Instruments of the
Orchestra), and Above Us the Waves (1956). The scores for many
of these films were conducted by that doyen of British film music in general,
Muir Mathieson, who was also a piano pupil of Benjamin's at the R.C.M. Benjamin
wrote an article on film music. This was published in The Musical Times (July
The early Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much (Gaumont-British,
1934) was one of Benjamin's earliest. From this came the Storm Clouds
cantata which in the film was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra
and chorus conducted by H. Wynn Reeves. When Hitchcock remade The Man
Who Knew Too Much in 1956 the score was by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann
however, in a retrospective salute, included Benjamin's cantata in
the concluding Albert Hall concert sequence. In fact the film features far
more of the cantata than the 1934 original. The film shows Herrmann himself
as the conductor. The orchestra was again the LSO with the Covent Garden
Chorus and Barbara Howitt as the soprano soloist. The words are by Wyndham
Lewis. Herrmann made some changes to the Benjamin score.
The film music includes An Ideal Husband (from which he extracted
a Waltz and Hyde Park Gallop (8 minutes). He also wrote the
stirring music for the documentary film on The Conquest of Everest
(1953). The section from An Ideal Husband has been recorded. The waltz
is romantic and elegant especially so in the fine account by the C.B.S.O.
and Marcus Dods. The Waltz and Gallop were recorded by the National
Philharmonic Orchestra and Bernard Herrmann as part of an anthology entitled
Great British Film Music. This was recorded at the Kingsway Hall on
5/6 November 1975 and issued by Decca as PFS 4363. The film has been shown
by the B.B.C. and the score was referred to in glowing terms by the film
reviewer in the Radio Times.
The operas have already been well described in the Society's booklet.
British Opera in Retrospect (pp 105/6 and 112) by Lewis Foreman. For
the sake of completeness I mention them here. Benjamin always aimed to get
the best possible libretto. In this he counted himself fortunate in working
with Cedric Cliffe. The libretto set the form of Benjamin's operas. He always
aimed for a "really good stage spectacle". He commented that some superb
music was wasted in English operas even since the wars simply because the
librettists did not have a sense of the theatre.
In the same interview he offered further insights into his life with opera.
"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. It's a wonderful experience to live through a drama
from day to day, and to set it to music as you experience it."
His appetite for opera was discovered early. Ivor Gurney revealed Benjamin's
ambition for writing opera and fed the ambition with ideas and projects.
In 1912 and 1913 he advocated that Benjamin should set Riders to the Sea
and The King's Threshold. He also pushed themes parallel to those
in the operas they had seen together at Drury Lane: Simon de Montfort or
Froude's essay on the 12th century Bishop of Lincoln's defiance
of Richard I. None of these ideas took root with Benjamin at that time preferring
Maeterlinck and Cyrano de Bergerac.
The first opera was the elegant The Devil Take Her (1931). It is a
comic opera, in a prologue and one act, about a poet who restores his wife's
voice and lives to regret it. The libretto is by Alan Collard and John B
Gordon. This was produced at the R.C.M. on 1 and 2 December 1931 conducted
by Beecham. The work was broadcast on the Third Programme (18 June 1967)
in a performance conducted by Bryden Thomson. Boosey and Hawkes produced
a vocal score in 1932.
Another one act comic opera, Prima Donna, with a libretto by Cedric
Cliffe, dates from 1933 when the composer was 40. This was first produced
on 23 February 1949 in London at the Fortune Theatre. It was revived by the
BBC on 19 September 1965 (the BBC Studio Company, BBC Midland Light Orchestra
conducted by Stanford Robinson) and by the R.C.M. in July 1985. Again Boosey
and Hawkes produced a vocal score. Howells wrote of the score's "innate technical
perfection" and stated that: "the etched clarity of the music raised the
work to the level of Puccini's Gianni Schichi."
He made a recital tour of Australia in 1950 while writing what can only be
described as his grand opera, A Tale of Two Cities. It is a "romantic
melodrama" in six scenes. The work won first prize in the Opera Competition
of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The text was again provided by Cedric
Cliffe adapted from Dickens' novel. The original version was first performed
on 17 April 1953 in London after which he revised the piece. The revised
version was heard for the first time at Sadler's Wells on 23 July 1957 with
the New Opera Chorus and the RPO conducted by Leon Lovett.
The revision, the premiere of which I have heard in a very poor tape of what
was presumably the one and only performance, certainly merits revival by
the B.B.C. Lewis Foreman identified the piece as one deserving special
"A practical, well-constructed libretto, a good pace
and sweeping choral writing together with colourful orchestration make it
stand out from its period. Again if Britten had not been on the scene at
the time it surely would have been seen on the professional stage, the music
is so much better than that of most recent operas by British composers."
The work was revived in excerpts only as part of the BBC's "Fairest Isle"
year celebration of British music in 1995. The work was broadcast twice:
initially on 28 August 1995 and repeated later that year. The forces were
a BBC Studio Company conducted by Anne Manson. The orchestra was the BBC
Scottish Symphony. Lisa Milne (sop) took the role of Lucie and Young Comtesse.
Justin Lavender (ten): Dr Manette. Paul Parfitt (bar): Lorry/Jacques 1 &
2/Corporal. Ian Storey (ten) Charles. Ann Hetherington (mezzo): Pross. Russell
Smythe (bar) Sydney. Phyllis Cannan (sop) Mme Defarge. Colin Iveson (bass)
Gabelle. Frances Morrison (sop) 1st woman. Stella Lichfield (mezzo) 2nd woman.
Margaret Izatt (mezzo) 3rd woman. The chorus was the Scottish Opera Chorus.
The third of the three one-acters was Mañana. This opera, with
Bliss's Tobias and The Angel, enjoys the sad and unworthy distinction
of having, in the first place been commissioned for television, having been
shown and then having slipped into oblivion. The libretto is by Caryl Brahms.
Mañana was shown by the B.B.C. on 1 February 1956. It has not
been seen since.
Mañana was an experiment and, according to Howells, not in line with
the other four stage works. He wrote:-
"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 opera's
value will be gauged only in retrospect and from a point of time still
His last comic opera was never fully completed. Entitled Tartuffe
(after Molière) this work existed only in piano score at the time
of Benjamin's death from cancer in London on 10 April 1960. He had first
faced this fatal illness in 1957 and had to cut short a world tour in 1960
to attend the Middlesex Hospital for treatment. After his death his estate
fell to his devoted companion Jack Henderson who died in October 1995.
For Tartuffe, once again, Benjamin turned to Cedric Cliffe for the
libretto. The orchestration was undertaken by Alan Bousted who conducted
its first and only performance with the New Opera Company from Sadler's Wells
on 30 November 1964. A recording of this event was broadcast by the BBC on
7 December 1964.
Of Tartuffe Benjamin said:-
"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."
Amongst the small body of chamber music is to be found a Violin Sonata in
E minor: a Violin Sonatina (1924); the Pastoral Fantasy for String
Quartet also known as String Quartet No 1 (1924); a Clarinet Quintet; Five
Negro Spirituals for violin or cello and piano; a Rhapsody in D for violin,
cello and piano; a Scherzo in B minor for clarinet and piano; a lyrical and
heart-warming Cello Sonatina (1938); String Quartet No 2 (1959) and, dating
from 1949, the Valses Caprices Le Tombeau de Ravel for clarinet,
or viola, and piano. Amongst the last works is the Divertimento for
Wind Quintet (1960).
There is also a Sonata, a Suite and other pieces for solo piano. Lamar Crowson
recorded a selection of the piano music on an early mono Lyrita LP. This
collection included the Scherzino and the Pastorale, Arioso and
Finale. This triptychal work was composed as a "21st birthday
gift for Jack Henderson." Henderson was an employee at Boosey's, Benjamin's
publishers, and became Benjamin's companion and his musical executor. The
slow movement is Bach-like though with a romantic overlay. The final movement
is a glittering toccata. The movements are: G minor - Allegretto piacevole;
C minor - Adagio con espressione; and G major - Allegro con spirito.
It is interesting to note that amongst his last works was a Divertimento
for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. This was originally announced
for a premiere in Dublin in 1958 but the composer withdrew it before the
concert. To temper the disappointment of the audience Benjamin allowed the
Melos Ensemble to play a short fragment of the work. The whole work was performed
in Cheltenham on 5 July 1960 by the Melos Ensemble of which Crowson was a
member though clearly not involved in this particular work.
In addition there is a darkly compelling Viola Sonata which ranks alongside
the sonatas by Bax and Bliss. This was written for William Primrose but first
performed in this country by Frederick Riddle. It was completed in 1945.
The style is bold and passionate. The piece is very demanding for the soloist.
There are three movements. The first is an Elegy which includes a
cadenza. Part of this movement is recalled at the end of the central
Waltz movement. This begins very quietly with the piano alone and
takes some time to settle into a steady tempo. It works towards a central
vivace section after which the music slows. The sonata ends with a
Toccata. In November 1981 there was a broadcast on Radio 3 of Paul
Neubauer and Helen Davies' performance. Ten years later the BBC archive recording
of the performance by Frederick Riddle and Wilfred Parry was repeated. Primrose
and Vladimir Sokoloff recorded the work on 78s. In addition there is a Melodiya
The Pastoral Fantasy received a Carnegie Award in its year of composition.
The Carnegie United Kingdom Trust recommended it for publication with six
other works: Finzi's Severn Rhapsody; Armstrong Gibbs' comic opera
Blue Peter; Ivor Gurney's song cycle The Western Playland;
Cyril Scott's Piano Quintet; Walton's Piano Quartet; and W.G. Whittaker's
A Lyke Wake Dirge for chorus and orchestra.
His ballet music comprises two scores. One score was written for the Festival
of Britain (1951). The title of the ballet is Orlando's Silver Wedding
although there seems to be an alternative title: Orlando, The Marmalade
Cat. This was performed at the Festival Pleasure Gardens in May 1951.
The ballet was after Kathleen Hale's picture books (reissued in the UK during
the 1990s) and had choreography by Andrée Howard. The design was by
Motley. The orchestra numbered 25. There was some disquiet about the explicit
nature of one of the costumes and after four episodes the local entertainments
management committee took the production off. I have seen no references to
its performance since that date. Interestingly Andrée Howard choreographed
the Central Office of Information film Steps of the Ballet (1948).
Robert Helpmann introduced and narrated the film. Members of Sadlers Wells
ballet with Gerd Larsen and Alexander Grant rehearse and then perform a ballet
to Benjamin's music. This film is important as a document: it includes Benjamin
himself speaking briefly about the role of music in the ballet.
Benjamin's first attempt at the concerto form was a Violin Concerto (1932)
of modest proportions lasting about 26 minutes. The three movements are:
Rhapsody - Allegro giusto; Intermezzo - Andante piacevole;
and Rondo - Allegro vivo (ma non troppo presto). Frank
Howes considered this to be Benjamin's most serious work before the Symphony.
The concerto, written in the wake of Walton's Viola Concerto, is dedicated
to "William Walton with great admiration." Benjamin had intended the work
to be another great British concerto.
After the first performance of the Violin Concerto on 29 January 1933, by
Antonio Brosa with Benjamin conducting the BBCSO in the studio, it was included
in the list of British works to be featured in a special series of six concerts
arranged by the BBC. These were to run at the Queen's Hall between 1 and
12 January 1934. The season also included Ireland's Legend, Bridge's
Phantasm, Delius' Fantastic Dance, and a Symphony by R. O.
Morris (Finzi's teacher). There were post-war performances in Manchester
by the BBC Northern Orchestra (1 December 1956, 8 September 1957, 18 September
1959, 30 September 1961). On 1 July 1965 Alberto Bolet was the soloist with
the BBC Welsh SO. On 12 July 1989 there was a performance in Australia.
Following the premiere, Ernest Newman praised the Violin Concerto as "...
really masterly in its concision ... I find the ideas refreshingly vital".
The work was later taken up by Frederick Grinke and from a tape of a broadcast
by Grinke and the BBC Orchestra under Stanford Robinson. It is clear that
this work merits revival. The work is both brilliant and poetic. It should
be heard. Grove V claims that the concerto:
"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."
Benjamin produced a considerable number of concertos or works in concertante
form. There is an attractive Harmonica Concerto. This Concerto was written
with the encouragement of Vaughan Williams who had produced his own
Romance for Harmonica, Strings and Piano for Adler in 1951 first
performed, in New York, on 3 May 1952. It is interesting to note that the
first movement of the Benjamin is also a Romance. After the Proms
premiere of the VW work later that year Adler invited VW and Benjamin back
to his house. There VW told Benjamin he should write a work for Adler. The
Concerto was the result.
The Harmonica Concerto plays for circa 18 minutes. Its movements are:
Romanza- Allegro non troppo, Canzona Semplice - Andante poco
lento, and Rondo Amabile - Allegretto. The orchestra is modest
comprising double woodwind, two trumpets, xylophone, celesta and strings.
The work was written for and recorded by Larry Adler. This was premiered
at the Royal Albert Hall at a Prom concert on 15 August 1953 with the LSO
conducted by Basil Cameron. The recording was made at the No 1 Studio Abbey
Road on 17 August 1953. It has also been recorded on LP by Tommy Reilly for
In addition there is an Elegy, Waltz and Toccata (also known as the
Viola Concerto) for viola and orchestra. This is a version (prepared by the
composer) of the 1945 Viola Sonata. The performance time is 17 minutes. This
work was given its first performance by Frederick Riddle, the Hallé
and Sir John Barbirolli at the Cheltenham Festival on 30 June 1948. Cheltenham
seems have cast its usual spell over the fate of that work. It has disappeared.
The Viola Concerto coupled with the Violin Concerto and the Romantic
Fantasy referred to below would make a musically satisfying and well-filled
Benjamin's apple-sweet arrangements will no doubt be execrated by the purists
however they did serve to introduce to an otherwise timid public and body
of concert promoters some flavour of voices not otherwise regarded as 'good
box office'. In this category the following works should be mentioned.
There is a Divertimento on Themes by Gluck for oboe and string orchestra.
This dates from 1952. In each of the five movements Benjamin took and freely
moulded themes from Gluck's "Six sonatas for two violins and a thorough bass."
This collection was published in London in 1746 during Gluck's visit. Each
movement is attributable to a particular sonata: 1. Larghetto espressivo
(Sonata No. 2 in G minor); 2. Presto giocoso (Sonata No. 1 in C major); 3.
Andante pastorale (Sonata No. 4 in B flat major); 4. Menuetto vivo (Sonata
No. 5 in E flat major); 5. Allegro risoluto (Sonata No. 2 in G minor). Sonata
No. 1 in C major). In total the piece plays for 15 minutes.
There is also a Suite for Flute and Strings arranged from Sonatas by Scarlatti
(20 minutes). Benjamin was responsible for an arrangement with string
accompaniment of an Oboe Concerto by Domenico Cimarosa. This was written
in 1942. Evelyn Rothwell gave her first performance of a Pergolesi Oboe Concerto
with Sir John and the Scottish Orchestra in 1935. In 1939 she married Sir
John and joined him in New York where he was director of the New York
Philharmonic. Arthur Benjamin heard them when they performed the Pergolesi
again in Vancouver. As a result he put together a similar concerto based
on the works on Cimarosa. The work is ten minutes long.
These works made such a hit with the Barbirollis that Sir John wrote his
An Elizabethan Suite. This was a result of a spell in Vancouver in
1942. Benjamin, a close friend of the Barbirollis, drew his attention to
the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book; a collection of early 17th century
English compositions. J.B. selected pieces by Byrd, Farnaby, and others,
and orchestrated them into a suite.
It is likely that his two piano concertante works will be slightly better
known if only to those who have been collecting records of early twentieth
century music. The Concerto Quasi Una Fantasia together with the Piano
Concertino were recorded by Lamar Crowson (another of Benjamin's pupils from
the R.C.M.) and the LSO conducted by Benjamin. The record was available on
Everest SDBR 3020. It appears that the two pieces were taped in the late
1950s although the record itself was not issued in the U.K. until January
1973. The record revealed two works neither of which were totally compelling
but nevertheless attractive and entertaining.
The Concertino, clearly jazz influenced, was inspired by Gershwin's Rhapsody
in Blue as was Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major and Constant Lambert's
Rio Grande. As a young man Benjamin fell in love with Gershwin's music.
Indeed Benjamin was the soloist in the U.K. premiere of Rhapsody in
Blue. The Concertino was written in 1927 at the request of the publisher
Schott. The work received its first U.K. airing at the Proms on 1 September
1928 with the composer as soloist and Henry Wood conducting. Its premiere
had take place earlier that year in Dusseldorf. "Fearing that my little work
would become dated," recalls Benjamin, "I asked Schott's to let it go out
of print, although it had a good success on its first appearances. Was I
too modest? I am beginning to wonder!" The work was certainly favourably
received when it was reviewed by Trevor Harvey in "Gramophone" (January 1973).
The sleeve notes for the recording carry the following commentary:-
will be recognised as having
something of jazz in its makeup. [I consider] that apart from the nauseating
noises and the blatant rhythmic devices which are the unpleasant side of
modern jazz music, there may be detected something more which may definitely
become a valuable addition to our music-something more than mere syncopation,
rather, a widening of the possibilities of combining rhythms and rhythmical
counterpoint. The Concertino is scored for an ordinary small orchestra, with
the addition of an alto saxophone in E flat. "There are four sections: Allegro
non troppo e ritmico; Andante poco lente (quasi Blues); Scherzo and Trio;
and Come primo ma poco meno allegro; but they form only one movement. After
a few bars, pizzicato, a tune is heard on the solo trumpet and repeated on
the solo instrument. This is soon followed by a phrase by the clarinet and
piccolo two octaves apart, and then by a broader theme on the strings. All
these are heard in counterpoint and developed until we come to the Andante
poco lento. This, in its turn, is developed, and then we hear a short resume
of the first section leading to a fugue with a double subject formed of the
opening trumpet tune in canon at the fourth. Downward chromatic passages
on the piano lead to the Scherzo and brio-presto leggierissimo and after
an improvisation by the soloist the last section starts. Its first subject
is formed of two phrases from the Trio. After a development of these phrases
with snatches of tunes from the first Allegro, the opening trumpet tune is
heard in its original setting and a short coda brings the work to a
The Concerto, which was written in 1949, arose from a commission by the
Australian Broadcasting Commission, was given its first performance in Sydney
with the composer as soloist on 5 September 1950. The orchestra was conducted
by Eugene Goossens. The U.K. premiere was given by Lamar Crowson with the
LSO conducted by Basil Cameron at a Royal Albert Hall prom concert on 20
August 1956. As the title suggests this work is a discursive piece paralleling,
in some ways, Walton's much earlier Sinfonia Concertante (1927).
The work is in a single continuous movement in four main sections of which
the third is a scherzo and the final section a passacaglia concluding with
a coda which harks back to earlier themes. Whilst the work does have a certain
kinship with the Walton it does not have the same concentration and dynamic
impulse. It would nevertheless be good to hear the Concerto more often to
allow us to make a more adequate appraisal of a piece which, for all its
drawbacks, has many virtues. It has been referred to as "an unashamed showpiece
for the soloist." The concerto was revived for a broadcast by Martin Jones
and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra conducted by the tireless Bryden Thomson
on 8 April 1980. To the best of my recollection it has not surfaced since
then except in the occasional Radio 3 playing of the Everest record.
Benjamin described his Concerto quasi una Fantasia to the annotator
of the Everest LP as:-
"a pièce d'occasion, 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 pianist, having started
in Brisbane at a ridiculously young age. I played it under Sir Eugene Goossens
eight times in the different big Australian 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."
In the sleeve note to the Everest recording the following commentary is provided
by Paul Affelder:
"The work is in three movements which, as the quasi
una fantasia implies, have numerous changes of tempo and mood. Nonetheless,
the work is unified by a simple five-note motif. This motif begins the first
movement, closes the last movement, and provides material for developments
throughout the work. In the motif's first guise in the work's opening measures,
marked con fuoco, the strings make it sound like an angry scream; the motif
here is actually the beginning of a song phrase completed by the piano. The
orchestra and piano together develop the phrase, changing it from its initial
jarring character into more lyrical, sweeping, Rachmaninoff-like phrases,
molto meno mosso. In sharp contrast, the second theme is a sweet simple song,
andante tranquillo; but instrumentally, Benjamin follows the same pattern
he did with the first theme: he begins the phrase in the strings and finishes
it with the piano. Gradually the first motif is interspersed among these
new sweet sounds, adding tension, and leading to a third and ominous-sounding
section announced by timpani and brass. Again, the first motif returns, but
now adagio. In the next section, largamente, Benjamin writes a Chopin-like
fantasy, with the pianist playing singing melodies in the right hand (based
on the first motif and phrase) and accompanimental figures in the left. After
a beautiful solo cello line, a few bars of sweeping rhapsody are broken by
insistent repetitions of the last three notes of the opening motif. There
is a false recapitulation, and eventually the movement closes with a pianissimo
repeat of the motif by the oboe. The Scherzo fantastico e presto ma non troppo
is not humorous but instead light and fast. It is fiendishly difficult for
the pianist, who must play long pp passages with utmost control and a
gossamer-light touch. An array of percussion instruments is delightfully
audible. Benjamin writes many patterns of repeated notes, the strings play
staccato and spiccato, and the other instruments also play staccato. A dramatic
interlude breaks the pianissimo mood, and the piano states the motif from
the first movement. The third-movement Passacaglia opens attacca, allegro
moderato, with brass and percussion announcing the "ground" or basso ostinato,
a motif of two sets of descending fourths. The trumpets announce this ostinato
forbiddingly, but, after a grande pause, the ostinato is subjected to a long,
continuous variation, starting with a piano section. The soloist then plays
in staccato and in small, disjointed accompanimental figures. A trumpet plays
an extended fanfare. Passages lead in ambiguous directions, while melodically,
the instrumental groups play variants of the ostinato and the motif from
the first movement. There are sections of rhapsodic interplay between the
piano and the orchestra. Suddenly, the orchestra plays the complete angry
phrase that began the first movement. The work concludes with a unison
restatement of the five-note motif, in slow staccato.
One piece which gained a measure of public attention as a result of having
been taken up by celebrity soloists, and recorded, is the aptly named
Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola and orchestra. This was composed
in 1937. The dedicatee is Bax with whom Benjamin had some informal lessons
during the early 1920s. The work took its theme from one of Bax's early works.
Benjamin conducted the first performance on 24 March 1938 as part of a Royal
Philharmonic Society Concert. His soloists were Eda Kersey (who in 1943 premiered
the Bax Violin Concerto at a Saint Cecilia's Day concert) and the violist
Bernard Shore. It is in three continuous movements: Nocturne;
Scherzo and Sonata.
The mood of the Romantic Fantasy is also shared by Bax's Summer
Music of 1917, (orchestrated in 1920) and, further north by Levi Madetoja's
beautiful Second Symphony (1918). The air is heavy with Delian languor, the
warmth of summers 'remembered' rather than experienced, the buzzing of insects
and the first stirrings of youthful romance and passion. The Fantasy
is not wholly weighed down with this atmosphere. The dialogue between the
two instruments is also briskly impassioned, at times taking wing in glittering
display passages which are woven into the fabric of the piece rather than
having been grafted on for the purpose of gratifying the egos of the soloists.
The recording referred to was issued in this country by RCA in 1965 on RCA
LP (LSB6605 recorded in 1964). The performance is by Jascha Heifetz and William
Primrose. The horn soloist, Joseph Eger, is separately credited, probably
because of the prominently ripe role given to the instrument. The orchestra
is the RCA-Victor Orchestra conducted by Izler Solomon. This is surely one
performance with which the composer must have been well satisfied.
Amongst the least neglected of Benjamin's works the Fantasy has a comparatively
rich performance history: BBCSO 2 January 1939; Goteborgs Orkester 30 March
1939, BBC Promenade concert 18 September 1953, Japan Philharmonic SO 18 January
1968, BBC Scottish SO 6 May 1970, Orchestra Sinfonica Colombia 21 October
1983, City of London Sinfonia 21 January 1987, BBC 25 March and 7 April 1990
and RCM conducted by John Wilson on 20 April 1995.
In Herbert Axelrod's biography of Heifetz we read William Primrose's comments
"In some passages it would have been helpful if Heifetz
had given some sort of lead maybe with the scroll of the instrument but he
wouldn't ... [in this work] there are some tricky cadenzas. Tricky not only
from a technical point of view but in the matter of ensemble. I would ask
him, 'When we come to the recording will we do it this way?' He would respond
that he couldn't promise, indeed he didn't tell me and indeed he didn't lose
me nor I him. It was a kind of try-and-catch-me; try-and-lose-me situation.
I had such a vast amount of experience in ensemble playing that I think he
knew it was going to be very difficult for me to come unstuck. But he would
try me anyhow.
"If I am allowed to boast a little I would have to
say that our ensemble playing in the Romantic Fantasy is rather good.
Commendably precise. And I don't wish to leave the impression that this all
came about by accident. We did work hard - Heifetz always works hard - but
we didn't slave ourselves. The cadenzas however were definitely an adventure
and in the recording I had to be on my toes. But Heifetz's extraordinary
sense of rhythm, an almost implacable sense of rhythm, is very easy to follow
- not to follow as the common locution has it, but to be with."
Unaccountably the work has not caught on at all in this country. This may
be due to its "awkward" length (23 minutes) or to the need for first class
soloists. In fact, with a little programming imagination, it would make an
attractive "foil" for the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante K364 in the
second half of a concert. As a companion to the Bax Viola Phantasy it would
be particularly fitting. It is well worth seeking out. In the United States
it has received several performances, including one given on National Public
Radio, with David and Joan Korman, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and Raymond
Leppard. More recently the orchestra repeated the work in a concert conducted
by Leonard Slatkin on 5 May 1994. Before that the Fantasy was broadcast
in a truly outstanding performance, by Joseph and William de Pasquale, the
Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. This recording has gained some
prominence in radio tapes issued to various foreign broadcasting companies.
Apart from the operas, the vocal works include the following: Two Masefield
Settings for baritone and orchestra; Four Impressions for mezzo,
violin and string quartet; A Suite of Songs on Eighteenth Century Poems
for baritone and piano; Three Mystical Songs (1925) for unaccompanied
chorus, Sir Christemas (1941) a traditional air set for baritone and
unaccompanied chorus, Nightingale Lane (1937 to words by William Sharp)
for two voices and piano, from the same year three partsongs setting Kate
Greenaway: Bell Song, Margery Brown and Prince Finnikin,
two partsongs for unaccompanied chorus (1942) setting words by David Maccaughie:
Dirge and Spring, Callers a unison setting of Caryl
Brahms and A Tall Story a 2 part song dating from 1949.
Brian Blyth Daubney has written of the Three Mystical Songs when reviewing
the Boosey Score:-
"Two of the Benjamin set are dedicated to Howells.
Not surprisingly the soundscape, with its side-stepping chords, is redolent
of him - and of Finzi and Vaughan Williams. Joseph Mary Plunkett ... wrote
the imaginative words of the first: I See His Blood Upon the Rose
(S solo SSATB) finding His image in all natural phenomena. Subtle
expansion and contraction of harmony through the chords of D, C and B flat
and a final vibrant resolution onto the chord of G form the harmonic basis
of this fervent piece. The second, (SATB) The Mystery is more reflective,
more contrapuntal, and uses free imitation. To words by Ralph Hodgson, it
is a delicate expression of religious union with the Beloved. In the last,
and perhaps the best, of the three He is the Lonely Greatness (SSATB)
(Madeline Caron Rock) Benjamin uses his formidable skill to create a glowing
tapestry of sound. This culminates on the word "shattered" from "And Death
is shattered by the light from out those darkened eyes." in a blaze of glory
before subsiding into an easeful close."
The orchestral works include a short (5 minute) Ceremonial March
Heritage with ad lib parts for solo voice and chorus. This dates from
1935. It was recorded by the New Concert Orchestra and Frederic Curzon. It
is a work of much bustle and glitter complete with a nobilmente section
to offset the otherwise breathless and headlong pace. It has a certain film
music air to it and would make an unhackneyed filler for the next new collection
of British orchestral marches.
In addition there are two early orchestral works which are referred to in
"A Dictionary of Modern Musicians" (1924). These pieces are Three Dance
Scherzi, the second of which was performed by the Bournemouth Municipal
Orchestra in January 1917 and a Rhapsody on Negro Folk Tunes. The
chosen Dance Scherzo was written while on active service in France
"in remembrance of happy nights spent at Drury Lane, Russian season, 1914."
It was first heard at an RCM concert.
The Overture to an Italian Comedy (1937) will be well known to those
who have, over the years, followed the fortunes of the Lyrita Recording Company.
One of Richard Itter's offerings from the early 1970s was an LP collection
entitled Lyrita Lollipops (SRCS 47). You may still be able to track
down Lyrita LPs via Harold Moores and other (now very expensive) sources
on the internet. This featured the Overture in a performance by the RPO and
Myer Fredman. The work is jolly and well-scored. There is also an effervescent
recording by the Sydney SO/Joseph Post on ABC Classics 442 374-2 as part
of a an extremely attractive 2CD anthology of Australian Light Classics.
Leslie Woodgate described it as an "excellent bit of fooling." It was given
its premiere on 2 March 1937 in London. It is a buffa style work in G major
carrying a dedication to Muir Mathieson. It was intended as an opener to
Prima Donna written in 1933 and produced in London at the Fortune
Theatre in 1949.
His other occasional music includes four Fanfares: For a Festive
Occasion (1938) achieved wide circulation as a result of being performed
at the wedding of H M Queen Elizabeth II (then Princess Elizabeth) and HRH
Prince Philip in November 1947. There are also fanfares: For a State
Occasion; For a Brilliant Occasion and For a Gala Occasion
(all of the last three written in the Coronation year, 1953). Festive
Occasion was written in 1938 when along with Ireland, Bliss, Haydn Wood
and Frederick Curzon (the conductor of the Heritage recording) he
was asked by Ralph Hawkes for a fanfare piece for new trumpets recently
manufactured by Boosey & Hawkes.
There is a Sonatina for Chamber Orchestra. This was written in 1940
but as far as I am aware has not been performed in recent years. Its duration
is estimated at 11 minutes.
From 1947 (some lists indicate 1944) comes a serious essay for string orchestra.
The Ballade for Strings (circa 12') is in a single movement of many
contrasting episodes. It was written for the Boyd Neel String Orchestra who
premiered it with Boyd Neel conducting on 6 February 1948. In later years
Benjamin was to draw on a darker and more sombre vein of inspiration. It
is a vein on which he drew for the Ballade. The music of the
Ballade is romantic, intense, dark and powerful. The Ballade
has the same touch as the Elgar Introduction and Allegro with which
it would make a suitable companion at any concert. The piece was performed
by the English Chamber Orchestra in 1980 and 1982 conducted respectively
by José-Luis Garcia and Alun Francis.
During his six years in Canada, Benjamin wrote a Symphony. In the Boosey
and Hawkes' catalogue this symphony is listed as "Symphony No 1". The same
entry appears in "British Orchestral Music" Volume One of the Catalogues
produced by The Composers' Guild of Great Britain. In fact this is his only
Symphony. The performance time is 40/42 minutes.
Benjamin was nearly fifty when he wrote the symphony. When asked about this
by Murray Schafer he said that this was due to the Brahms influence. He also
cited Vaughan Williams and Sibelius as composers who made a late start on
writing symphonies. He then added a comment which perhaps casts light on
the effort which the symphony cost him:- "I don't 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 can never
resort to the aid of a text or stage action to help one out of trouble."
The Symphony is a powerful and turbulent piece racked with the extremes of
emotion ranging from violence to gentle resignation. Frank Howes in his "The
English Musical Renaissance" (Secker and Warburg, 1965) characterises it
as a symphony with an implied war programme and brackets it with the two
symphonies (1929 and 1944) of Gordon Jacob. Peter Pirie's entry on Benjamin
in the New Grove describes the Symphony as "dark and powerful, tragic in
expression." Almost certainly it was also influenced by Benjamin's experiences
in the Great War.
The first movement begins with great washes of sound swelling and receding.
The atmosphere is one of passionate intensity, from time to time recalling
Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. There are sections as warlike and primeval
in their energy as anything to be found in Nielsen's Fourth or Fifth Symphonies
or Bax's Sixth. Mystical scampering string episodes alternate with other
sections of Waltonian power. Certain parts of the string writing recall the
Tallis Fantasia while other parts suggest that Benjamin has been impressed
by the striding massed string writing adopted by Roy Harris in the Third,
Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. The movement is held together by its elemental
power and the recurrence of the wave sound with which the work begins.
The second movement starts with the gentlest of sounds. Quiet musical textures
predominate for a while until brutally interrupted by a side drum which ushers
in another pugnacious episode. The conflict subsides and there is a return
to the calm with which the movement began. The side drum taps out the end
of the movement.
The next movement opens with high exposed string writing portraying an oppressive
and desperate mood. A passage for the deep brass heightens this atmosphere.
Then comes a more pastoral section invoked by the woodwind. The writing still
has an emotionally cold and drained feel to it. The strings then return with
a singing sonorous tread, dignified and resigned. This develops further into
a mournful and bleak processional. Here the music calls to mind Vaughan Williams
orchestral writing in his opera Riders to the Sea. The procession
ends with a succession of punched-out brass chords. A bleak and uneasy peace
draws the movement to a close.
The last movement bursts in with belligerent energy reminiscent of Walton
and Shostakovich. A lighter, mercurial, almost carefree, mood then interrupts
the gloom and storm. For a few moments the shadow of Miklós Rózsa
passes benevolently across the music. The clouds gather again and are swept
away by the return of the surging waves and washes of sound with which the
work began. It ends with a passage of hollow-sounding triumphal swagger which,
rather than dispelling the clouds, only serves to accentuate all that has
This is a work fully deserving to stand alongside the best of the British
Symphonies: Walton's First, Bax's Second and Sixth, Vaughan Williams' Sixth,
William Alwyn's Fourth and Fifth, Rubbra's Fourth and Seventh, Moeran's in
G minor, Brian's Third, Sixth and Seventh, Simpson's Fifth and Edgar Bainton's
Third, and yet it is hardly even heard of, let alone heard.
As far as I can ascertain, the performance history of the Symphony is as
follows. The premiere was given by the Hallé at the Cheltenham Festival
on 30 June 1948. It was repeated the next day. The work was also given by
the same forces on Wednesday 26 January 1949 in Manchester. The performances
were all conducted by Glorious John who also gave the piece again
with the Hallé in Liverpool on 1 February 1949. On 1 August 1949 the
BBC Northern Orchestra gave the work in Manchester. It was then given a further
airing by the BBCSO conducted by the composer on 6 August 1954 at a Promenade
Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. There is in circulation a private recording
taken from acetates. This claims to be conducted by Boult but I have not
been able to trace any recorded performance conducted Boult. In 1954 the
performing material were sent to Australia but I have not been able to trace
any performances there apart from one conducted by Patrick Thomas with the
It is always easier to group works together and label the group rather than
seeking them out and assessing them individually. The Benjamin Symphony suffered
from this phenomenon as much as many other forgotten symphonies. It may have
gone into decline because of the meaningless label "Cheltenham Symphony".
It may have been handicapped by Benjamin's reputation as a prolific composer
of film music. Its neglect may be attributable to the rather empty label
of "War Symphony". Whatever the reason for its neglect by concert promoters
and record companies it has nothing to do with the quality of the work and
the imagination of the fine composer who wrote the piece.
In the obituary he contributed to Tempo, Howells wrote that Benjamin endured
two serious disabilities. The first was that "he had conquered a large part
of the listening world with an enchanting brevity". The second was that he
was an "unashamed Romantic". As a man minus technical problems he also showed
a great flare for film music and pastiches, neither of which enhanced his
standing in conventional artistic circles. Howells referred to his eighty
or so works and their common source: "an exciting, immensely practical,
As noted by Stephen Lloyd, the composer's centenary did not generate much
enthusiasm. The most notable event took place as a double celebration marking
both the composer's year and the 75th anniversary of the opening
of Australia House in London. The concert was on 27 October 1993. The programme
began with the Fanfare for a Festive Occasion and also included the
Overture to an Italian Comedy, the Harmonica Concerto (with the 80
year old Larry Adler still demonstrating remarkable technique and poetry),
the Concertino and substantial extracts from A Tale of Two Cities
and Prima Donna. The concert was rounded off with his Caribbean
Set (including the Rumba). The conductor was Geoffrey Simon with
the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The organisation of the concert was largely
down to Penelope Thwaites (the Grainger specialist and soloist in the
The centenary year also saw broadcasts of the Romantic Fantasy and
the Violin Concerto. The Fantasy was in fact given twice. The first
was on 10 January with Edward Downes conducting the BBC Philharmonic with
soloists Dennis Simons (violin) and Rivka Golani (viola). The second took
place in October with Yu Yasuraoka (violin) and Rusen Guñes (viola).
The orchestra and conductor were the same as for the Violin Concerto: fellow
Australian, David Measham and the BBC Concert Orchestra. The soloist was
Ruriko Tsukahara. Both were taped in the studio on 11 May 1993.
In Australia a concert was given at the Eugene Goossens Hall in Sydney on
14 September 1993. The Sydney SO was conducted by Max McBride though James
Murdoch was originally listed. The programme was modest but fascinating.
It opened with the 'brassy ceremonial march' Heritage. This was followed
by the Light Music Suite (of which one critic wrote of its "ennobled
salon idiom and flair for rhythmic agility and melodic friendliness [which]
produced an attractive, though now rather unfashionable, score." The programme
was rounded out by the Romantic Fantasy for viola and violin and orchestra
with Dene Olding and Irena Morozov 'as impeccable soloists'.
In a letter to Arthur Benjamin, Bax proclaimed his musical credo: "I am
absolutely certain that the only music which can last is that which is the
outcome of one's emotional reactions to the ultimate realities of Life, Love
and Death." Listening to the Symphony one can only assume that Benjamin took
this statement to heart. The work, though written by an Australian, is part
of our musical legacy. It should be actively recognised as such, energetically
promoted, swiftly recorded, and repeatedly performed.
© Robert Barnett
See CD reviews
Jamaican Rumba 1
Jamaican Rumba 2