ARTHUR BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
by Pamela Blevins
In 1934 while Ivor Gurney was languishing in the
City of London Mental Hospital, the music of his friend Arthur Benjamin
was thrilling British film audiences who flocked to see Alfred Hitchcock’s
spy mystery The Man Who Knew Too Much. Benjamin had composed
a dramatic Storm Clouds Cantata for a tension-filled scene in
the Royal Albert Hall during which the heroine of the film must stop
an assassin from shooting a visiting prime minister. The assassin has
memorized the music by listening to a recording and waits patiently
for the thunderous climax of cymbals which will muffle the sound of
his gun. But the heroine, in desperation, screams just at the moment
when the cymbals crash. The prime minister is distracted by her scream
and the assassin’s bullet only wounds him. For Gurney, who enjoyed a
good mystery, the film and the success of his friend’s music would have
been events to celebrate had circumstances been different for him.
Arthur Benjamin had once been one of Gurney’s closest
friends, a man he trusted enough during his college years to call him
his "confidant". The two composers met in 1912 when Benjamin
won an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music along with Gurney’s
good friend Herbert Howells. Benjamin was a sophisticated and attractive
young man, an experienced traveler, adept at foreign languages, an engaging
conversationalist, financially well-off, living comfortably in pleasant
lodgings in Bayswater, and eager to become part London social scene.
The three students became close friends often attending concerts together,
discussing music and literature and socializing at cafés where
artists and writers gathered.
Benjamin was born in Sydney, Australia on September
18, 1893, but spent his formative years in Brisbane, where he studied
at the Brisbane Grammar School. He was hailed as a child prodigy and
a brilliant pianist blessed with perfect pitch. His gifts had come to
the attention of teacher and composer Thomas Dunhill who had met Benjamin
during a visit to Australia and encouraged the boy to study in England.(1)
In 1911, he left Australia on the long journey to London to study composition
with Charles Villiers Stanford, piano with Frederic Cliffe, whose wife
was related to Benjamin’s father, and harmony and counterpoint with
Dunhill. Benjamin pursued his studies with diligence and completed the
prescribed five year course in two years. He was in demand as a chamber
performer, and, in 1914, was the soloist in Herbert Howell’s Piano
Concerto in C minor in the Queen’s Hall with Charles Stanford conducting.
Thanks to Dunhill, several of Benjamin’s early compositions were published.
At the outbreak of World War I, Benjamin enlisted
in the infantry but later transferred to the air corps, becoming a gunner
with the Royal Flying Corps. In August 1918, he was shot down over Germany
and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp writing music. After
the war he returned to Australia as Professor of Pianoforte at New South
Wales State Conservatorium of Music, but remained there only two years.
He missed the cosmopolitan atmosphere of London and returned in 1921
to concentrate on his performing career. He spent four years practicing
and preparing and, in 1925, made his first post-war concert appearance
with Sir Henry Wood. He toured extensively in Europe, the United States,
Canada and Australia.
In 1924, his Pastoral Fantasy for string
quartet had won the Carnegie Award and in 1926, he became a teacher
of piano at the RCM, where his students included Benjamin Britten, and
fellow Australians Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Miriam Hyde. He came into
prominence as a composer in 1932 with his concerto for violin and comic
opera The Devil Take Her.(2)
By 1930, talking films had created a new industry
in England — film music — and Arthur Benjamin was among the pioneers
in this fledgling art form. He had been approached by Muir Mathieson,
who was music director of the London Films studio, to compose the score
of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), a lavish production starring
Leslie Howard. Mathieson had been a student of Benjamin’s at the RCM.
The same year, Benjamin composed the score for The Man Who Knew Too
Much. The London Symphony Orchestra with a chorus, conducted by
H. Wynn Reeves performed the cantata before a live audience of extras
gathered at the Albert Hall. The performance was recorded during the
filming and so it could be played back for editors to match the scenes
to the music. During the 1930s, Benjamin composed music for ten films.(3)
In 1938, he resigned his position at the RCM and
emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he taught and gave radio
talks for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which had become a
forum for the composition and performance of music by Canadian composers.
After war broke out in Europe, Benjamin, a non-practicing Jew, decided
to remain in Canada and sent for his elderly mother to join him. In
1941, he was appointed conductor of the CBC Symphony Orchestra and promptly
challenged conventional approaches to orchestral programming. He established
the popular Vancouver Sun Promenade Symphony Concerts.
Benjamin was highly regarded as a teacher and was
particularly influential in the work of Jean Coulthard, who, in 1998,
still had vivid memories of her teacher.
"From virtually the moment of his arrival,
Arthur Benjamin began to perform new music — both international and
home grown. He organized the now famous ‘Proms Concerts’ of Vancouver
and did his utmost to stimulate young composers..." and she credited
him with infusing her with the self-confidence she needed to tackle
large scale works.
In 1944-45, Benjamin was a popular lecturer at
Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
"His vast array of knowledge on every conceivable
subject, his scholarly yet every-day approach to pedagogy, his keyboard
dexterity, his mature and warm interpretative ability — these are all
molded into one whole, resulting in an instructor who is completely
admired and who commands the utmost in respect," wrote a reporter
for the college newspaper in 1945.
Benjamin returned to England in the mid-1940s and
resumed teaching at the RCM where he remained until 1953. He returned
to composing film music and between 1947 and 1957 produced nine scores.
In 1949, he composed his grand opera A Tale of Two Cities. Benjamin’s
largest commercial success was his 1938 composition Jamaican Rumba,
which enjoyed numerous recordings and is still available today.
Arthur Benjamin died in London on April 10, 1960.
His music manuscripts are housed at the British Library.
PAMELA BLEVINS, © 2000
See also Richard
Stoker talks about Arthur Benjamin
1. Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) was a close friend of
Marion Scott and played a key role in securing the publication of Gurney’s
first poetry collection Severn and Somme.
2. Benjamin’s 1935 Romantic Fantasy for Violin and
Viola was recorded by Jascha Heifetz and William Primrose in 1945
but not issued until 1965 on the RCA label.
3. In the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much,
the cantata was conducted by Bernard Herrmann and Benjamin’s name appears
briefly on a poster outside the Albert Hall announcing the performance.