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ARTHUR BENJAMIN (1893-1960) by Pamela Blevins MusicWeb(UK)

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.


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.

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