Aureole etc.




Nimbus on-line




If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


BENJAMIN FRANKEL:

BMS Lecture-Recital on Saturday, 6th May 2006 given by Dimiti Kennaway

see also MusicWeb Frankel pages
and www.benjaminfrankel.org

(the music cues have been left in but unfortunately we are unable to provide sound samples)

Welcome to this talk on the British composer Benjamin Frankel, in this, his centenary year. I hope you will excuse my informality if, as a stepson, I speak of him simply as Ben.

There are those among you who may have known Ben personally and professionally; others who know him only through his music; still others who know him only by name. This afternoon, with the aid of recordings, I hope that you will all feel you know him better, both as a musician and human being.

Ben’s life and career must rank among the most extraordinary journeys in the history of our musical culture, or, indeed, that of any nation. There were scarcely any areas of music upon which he didn’t make an impact: jazz; film-scoring; musical theatre; composing for the concert hall; conducting; lecturing; teaching, broadcasting and even acoustic engineering. Like many remarkable stories, its beginning was unpromising and would scarcely have pointed to any sort of musical career, much less the attainment of recognition as "doubtless our most eloquent symphonist", quoting a 1969 review by the Times music critic William Mann.

Ben was born on 31st January, 1906, at a house in London’s Fulham Road. His father, Charles, had come from Warsaw, after serving an obligatory stint in the Tsarist army. His mother, Golda, had come from the Polish town Tarnopol which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two met and married in England. Charles, initially, was a tobacconist but, being a devout Jew, was to find his calling as a synagogue beadle – a rather lowly paid position, if personally rewarding to him. Golda helped along by making kosher meals for the Jewish pupils at St Paul’s School in Hammersmith.

Like his elder brother, Isaac, Ben was a musical child and together the two played through countless piano duets, including arrangements of the orchestral repertoire – something he regarded as having been a vital part of his musical upbringing. He would also visit the local music library and borrow as many volumes as were allowed, sight-read his way through them and then return for a fresh collection. In this way, he not only got to know a great deal of music, both famous and obscure, but developed into a marvellous sight-reader. He later said that his younger sister, Minna, was the most musical of the three but that he, alone, set his sights on a musical career.

Ben said he had never been particularly adept at school and didn’t intend to be. He was, however, a voracious reader, like his mother, and had a thirst for knowledge. While still at school, he also developed a flair for the violin, becoming quite excited about it though not especially disciplined in his practicing. He was particularly delighted when he discovered vibrato and could be heard, during breaks, experimenting with it as he wandered around the school yard. This met with the disapproval of at least one teacher who would lean out of his window and shout "Ben, stop making that awful racket!"

He recalled his childhood with mixed feelings, having found his father’s religious fervour to be stifling – something which was later to lead to an irreparable rift. At the same time, there were vignettes he recounted with humour and affection. One such, concerned the local delicatessen who, in rather non-kosher fashion, used just one knife with which to cut everything. Ben would go, at his mother’s behest, to buy some cheese, with the admonition ringing in his ears: "…and tell him it shouldn’t smell from herring!".

Ben’s formal education, at Hammersmith’s Latymer Foundation School, ended at fourteen, when he was apprenticed to a watchmaker, the choirmaster at the local synagogue. Apart from two stints as a shop boy, this was to be his only taste of a career in business. After one year of learning to clean watches and finding out something of their workings, he was sacked – as he put it "very properly indeed." Meanwhile, his musical abilities had come to the notice of the American pianist Victor Benham who, prevailing against stern parental opposition, took Ben under his wing, free of charge, for two years. The last six months were spent in Germany, where Benham had moved to take advantage of the exceptionally low cost of living, due to post-War inflation. Such was the exchange rate that Ben was able to live quite comfortably on the monthly allowance of a pound, from his father. When civil unrest broke out, Ben returned to London, aged seventeen, to earn a living.

His flair for the violin stood him in good stead for many years. Having absorbed the popular music idioms of the day, he made a living as a hot jazz fiddler and arranger, working for many leading bands of the ‘20s and early ‘30s, among them those of Roy Fox, Fred Elizalde and Carroll Gibbons. One of his earliest gigs was with bandleader Arthur Roseberry, an old school friend. Ben’s contribution was not limited to the fiddle, however: he also doubled on Kazoo (a comb covered with grease-proof paper and played between the lips)! This makeshift instrument was never to feature in his serious music.

Another of Ben’s earliest engagements was as pianist in a dance orchestra, at the Wembley Exhibition during its first year.

During the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Ben continued his musical studies, now with Orlando Morgan, at the Guildhall School of Music, on scholarships from the Worshipful Company of Musicians. It was no easy thing combining formal study with the hectic nightlife of a jazz fiddler and sleep was often in short supply.

His discovery of Delius and Bartok freed Ben from what he called his "otherwise complete dependence on the German classics as a linguistic base" and, during the ‘20s, he began to note down some of his ideas, producing the Three Miniatures for piano, Op.1, in 1926. It was not until December, 1933, however, that he first exposed his music to a semi-public audience, when he held a recital at his studio in St John’s Wood. The performers, drawn from friends and colleagues, were the violinists Hugo Rignold and Eric Siday, the Violist Harry Berly, the cellist Anthony Pini and the pianist Cornelius Fisher. One of the works on the programme – the Three Sketches for String Quartet, op.2 – was recorded in the version for strings a few years ago. Here’s the first of the Sketches, played by the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Seattle, under Alun Francis:

Music sample 1: Sketch No.1 from Three Sketches for Strings, Op.2

I think that there are various points of interest here. The neo-baroque aspect of the Sketch is unusual, if not unique, among Ben’s concert works; the music has an instant appeal; the mastery of the chosen instrumental ensemble is clear. As a very early work, it may not suggest the personal musical voice that was to develop but some individual characteristics do emerge: the quiet, questioning ending; the surprising melodic and harmonic turns, which seem, nonetheless, to fit perfectly, owing to an innate and unfailing musical instinct.

This period of Ben’s life was one of turbulent change: in 1932, he married the first of his three wives, Joyce Stanmore Rayner. The fact that she was non-Jewish was something that the orthodox religion of his father could not condone and Charles, who died three years later, never spoke to his son again. Ben’s mother, caught in the middle of the conflict, was later to soften, as was his sister. His brother, however, took after their father and the two became estranged. Ben and Joyce had three children of their own, Nicholas in 1936, Julie in 1937, who died the same year, in appalling circumstances, and Jeremy in 1938. Julie’s death was to have a lasting effect on Ben.

Professionally, the ‘30s were also a time of change. Ben gave up playing jazz fiddle in about 1933 and concentrated on his arranging work, most notably as Henry Hall’s assistant, with the BBC Dance Orchestra. He began arranging and conducting for musical theatre in London’s West End (and out of town), for the likes of Noel Coward and C.B.Cochran. He also presented and conducted a number of jazz and light music programmes for BBC radio – "The Song is Ended", "Rhythm Express" and "This Thing Called Jazz". Briefly, in 1937, he also fronted his own band, recording a few sides and conducted recordings for Gracie Fields and Frances Day.

Of longer term significance was his entry into the film industry in 1934, when he scored the music for the Will Hay comedy "Radio Parade of 1935". During the next 36 years, Ben composed for over 100 feature and documentary films, including a number for television. Many became much-loved classics of the British cinema. I’ll be playing excerpts later.

With the outbreak of War in 1939, Ben attempted to enlist but was thwarted by health problems. He wrote to a friend and colleague, in September:

"This is a war to end Hitler, I think we would all agree there; and I don’t think it’s going to be so easy as a lot of people seem to think."

In December, he wrote again:

"I feel we must talk out the war situation thoroughly, though it is too much to hope that we can get things clear. In my blacker moments, I wonder whether anything will be clear again.

I’ve been reading the Einstein biography. Relativity seems an admirable antidote to party politics – in future, you can include me out of the latter."

Whichever party politics Ben was referring to on this occasion, he became drawn to the ideals of Communism, along with many contemporary colleagues, seeing it as the antidote to the advancing Nazis.

In a reinvigorated wartime entertainment industry, Ben contributed to morale-boosting shows and broadcasts and composed for a number of propaganda short films, among them Alfred Hitchcock’s "Bon Voyage" and "Aventure Malgache", both intended to encourage the French Resistance. There were also scores for wartime documentaries, such as "The Broad Fourteens" for the Royal Navy and "The Gen", for the RAF, as well as "The Fire of London" which concerned the effects of The Blitz. Ben, himself, was one of many engaged in firewatch duty.

One of his most ambitious personal projects was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 4th July, 1943, in which he conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in aid of the Red Cross Prisoners of War Fund. The concert was put on by the Post Office Engineering Union. It isn’t known whether the date – American Independence Day – was coincidental but the programme featured mainly music from the Allied countries: Copland’s El Salon Mexico; the premiere of Khatchatourian’s Violin Concerto (with soloist Edward Silverman); Dukas’ "Sorcerer’s Apprentice", Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with soloist Sydney Harrison) and Elgar’s Cockaigne. Among those present was Ben’s friend, the writer Laurie Lee who, as a talented amateur violinist, used to play sonatas with Ben at the piano. Also present was a representative of BBC Radio, who reported back very favourably to the music department. Soon afterwards, Aubrey Beese, personal assistant to music director Sir Adrian Boult, wrote in a memo:

"In view of so good a report on a conductor so comparatively unknown, it was thought that we should watch Benjamin Frankel’s progress carefully in case he should prove worthy of a trial with the BBC Orchestra some day.".

Sadly, the BBC was unable to broadcast the concert, as Ben had hoped, and no recording of it is known to exist.

Although busy with such activity, Ben continued to compose for the concert hall. Among the increasingly individual works to emerge at that time was the lovely Trio for clarinet, ‘cello and piano, Op.10, from 1940. Here is part of the slow movement, in a recording by Paul Dean, Marcus Stocker and Kevin Power:

Music sample 2: Clarinet Trio, Op.10 – slow movt. Excerpt:

This music exemplifies Ben’s late-Romantic style and his great gift for melody. There is also a characteristic melancholy which was considered by some to be a reaction against his commercial music.

Ben’s political leanings also found expression in some of his music at this time, as in the two string-orchestra works "Solemn Speech and Discussion", Op.11, of 1941, which depicts a trade union meeting, and the tuneful four-movement suite "Youth Music", Op.12, from 1942. Composed for the Guildhall School of Music and dedicated to its then principal, Edric Cundell. This work – originally called "Music for Young Comrades" -squeezes an extraordinary amount of invention into its 12-minute duration. The ability to express much in a limited time was to become a Frankel trademark, even in the later symphonies. Here is the last movement – "Forward March" – a rousing exhortation with a memorable ‘big tune’, beautifully crafted for strings. It’s played by the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Seattle, under Alun Francis:

Music sample 3: Youth Music, Op.12 – last movt.

With the cessation of hostilities, the British film industry began to expand once again and for Ben, it was the start of his most productive years in the field, beginning with what was to become a classic, "The Seventh Veil", in 1945. This was his most important film to date and one of his first dramatic incidental scores. It starred the youthful James Mason as a somewhat sadistic guardian to Ann Todd’s emotionally disturbed pianist (is there any other kind?!). Herbert Lom played the Freudian psychiatrist charged with curing her. As revealed in a recent British Film Institute survey for Channel 4, it was to be the tenth most successful film ever at the UK box office, with ticket sales approaching 18 million. Remarkably, this places it ahead of Superman, E.T., Jaws, Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and all the James Bond films, among countless others. Because of its great success, it inevitably raised Ben’s profile as a film composer, here and abroad.

Here, now, is the opening, as played on the original soundtrack, by the LSO, under Muir Mathieson:

Music sample 4: The Seventh Veil – Prelude

A characteristically gripping Frankel score. Before we leave it, let’s listen to the ending – a romantic flourish which nods in the direction of Hollywood composer Max Steiner whom Ben greatly admired:

Music sample 5: The Seventh Veil – Ending

A great many fine film commissions followed, among them "Mine Own executioner", "London Belongs to Me", "Give Us This Day", "Night and the City", "The Man in the White Suit" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" – the first of many scores for Anthony Asquith who was to become one of Ben’s closest friends.

In the year following "The Seventh Veil", Ben demonstrated his deep understanding of acoustics when, with architect Felix Goldsmith, he designed a floating ceiling and various screens, for "The London Philharmonic Orchestra to correct the acoustics of Covent Garden Theatre for concerts with the orchestra placed on the stage."

Ben’s reputation as a serious composer really began to grow from the mid-‘40s onwards, with the Sonata No.1 for solo violin, Op.13, championed and recorded by Max Rostal, the song cycle "The Aftermath", to poems by Robert Nicholls, from 1947 and the first four String Quartets. The Fourth, premiered by the Amadeus Quartet in 1949, is a poignant work in which melody abounds, alongside often complex harmonies, including a now characteristic clash of major-minor chords. Here is the last movement which begins with a theme of almost childlike simplicity, played here by the Nomos Quartet:

Music sample 6: String Quartet No.4 – last movt.

By now, we can hear Ben’s truly personal, mature voice.

Although Ben had written a great deal of music for full orchestra in his film scores, he was late in turning his attention to the medium in the concert hall. However, in 1948 he showed himself a master with the kaleidoscopic overture "May Day", Op.22. Written in the composer’s occasional idiom, this festive piece conjures up myriad scenes, both urban and bucolic; comical and sad; exciting and solemn. It was subtitled, appropriately, "A Panorama" and illustrates Ben’s fertile imagination at its best. As a matter of interest, a portion of it first appeared in his score for the naval wartime documentary "The Broad fourteens". First performed in 1950 by the Liverpool Philharmonic under Hugo Rignold, we’ll hear an excerpt from a recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by my brother, Igor Kennaway:

Music sample 7: "May Day", Op.22 – Exc.

The sense of colour is a feast for the ear. Ben always regarded his film work as an ideal opportunity for experimentation and considered it a vital part of his developing orchestral ease. Would it be too fanciful to suggest that scoring to picture for so many years enabled him to compose a piece like "May Day" with such a great sense of imagery?

Ben and his first wife, Joyce, had divorced in 1944 and he soon married for a second time, to Anna Leat. They had met at a meeting of the British Communist Party and shared ideals.

In 1946, Ben joined the staff of the Guildhall School of Music as senior professor of composition – a post he held for ten years. Vaughan Williams and Walton were just two who referred young composers to him for study. During that time, a great many had the benefit of his accumulated knowledge and wisdom, not to mention his keen analytical mind. Many went on to enjoy distinguished careers of their own, as composers, radio producers, teachers and writers. They included Robert Crawford, Alan Langford, James Stevens, Buxton Orr, Harry Rabinowitz and Sir George Martin of later Beatles fame. More often than not, the Frankel master-class would gather at his flat in Soho Square for lessons and there were field trips to the film studios, where pupils could watch Ben at work and learn first hand about the technique of film scoring. His versatility and open-mindedness meant that pupils could bring anything to the class for analysis and comment, be it a sonata, a tango, a symphony or a piece of jazz. He was, however, unwilling to give classes in arranging or orchestration per se, as he believed that composers should always think directly in terms of the medium for which they were writing: in other words, it was a matter of composing, rather than arranging, for the orchestra.

Ben was a proud and passionate Jew, racially, though not, as explained earlier, religiously speaking. Early on, he had even sought to find a Jewish musical identity, somewhat in the manner of Ernst Bloch. He later abandoned the idea, finding that it limited him too much and also believing that his Jewishness was present in his work without the need for self-conscious expression. Even so, early works like the suggestively titled Sonata Ebraica, for ‘cello and harp, and the Elegie Juive, for ‘cello and piano, are interesting examples of his earlier pre-occupation and are fine compositions, deserving of a place in the repertoire.

Unquestionably, though, the most important musical expression of his racial identity was to come in his Violin Concerto of 1951, written in memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust. The work was commissioned and first performed by his great friend Max Rostal, for the Festival of Britain that year, with Ben conducting the London Philharmonic. For many, it is his masterpiece and there can be no denying the sheer emotional power that emanates from every bar. Here is the opening, in a recording by Ulf Hoelscher, with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Werner Andreas Albert:

Music sample 8: Violin Concerto. Op. 24 – 1st movt.

A rumbustuous scherzo is followed by the prolonged slow movement – a heartfelt lament which, surely, carries the full weight of the concerto’s dedication. Some were puzzled by the short, at times light-hearted finale which lilts along in triple time and ends with a whisper. Others understood that he would not have ended this, of all works, with a showpiece. Instead, this musical epilogue, as he called it, offers a sense of hope and renewal, with a smile through tears.

The Concerto was to be Ben’s last large-scale orchestral work until his first Symphony, Op.33, in 1958: the demands on his time by an increasing number of film commissions limited his work for the concert hall, in quantity and scope, if not in quality. In fact, two of his finest chamber works were composed during these years: the Piano Quartet of 1953, and the Clarinet Quintet of 1956. This, a commission for the Cheltenham Festival of that year, was written for Thea King, in memory of her husband, the great Frederick Thurston. Here is part of the lovely last movement, played by Thea King with the Britten Quartet:

Music sample 9: Clarinet Quintet, Op.28 – last movt.

It is fascinating to contrast the concert works of this period with some of the necessarily light music Ben was writing for film. In 1950, he had enjoyed a hit with his "Carriage and Pair" from "So Long at the Fair" – a piece which went on to become a standard of the light-orchestral repertoire. Earlier, he had also enjoyed success with other light pieces and even songs, usually composed under his nom-de-plume Ben Bernard. One of them, "Bow Bells", - the main theme from his score for the 1947 film "Dancing With Crime"- made the top ten. Generally, he didn’t record his own film music except on the soundtracks themselves. However, he conducted the singer and actress Christine Nordern in a commercial recording of two songs he wrote for the film "Night Beat" (also 1947). Let’s listen to one of these now, "I’m Not In Love" – a charming beguine of which Cole Porter himself might have been proud. The words are by Ben’s frequent collaborator, Harold Purcell, perhaps best known for his libretto to "Lisbon Story":

Music sample 10: "I’m Not In Love" – Christine Nordern/Cond.Frankel

Among other things, that gives a fine illustration of Ben’s skill as a writer of dance band music.

Now let’s listen to an altogether different kind of song, from the same year: one of those from his cycle "The Aftermath", composed to the words of the First World War poet Robert Nicholls. The poems employ the imagery of the sea as an allegory of life’s journey, against the background of war. Ben dedicated the work to his good friend Howard Ferguson. The scoring, for tenor, strings, off-stage trumpet and timpani might call to mind Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings but there is no mistaking the musical identity of the composer. Here’s the second song, "Alone", in a recording by the tenor R.Llewelyn, with Constant Lambert conducting members of the LSO, in a London Contemporary Music Centre concert from 1950:

Music sample 11: "The Aftermath", Op.17 – "Alone"

Could there be two more contrasting songs than the latter and "I’m Not In Love" which we heard before it? It is remarkable that both flowed from the same pen.

Before leaving behind Ben’s ‘40s film music, let’s listen to his "Gaiety Galop" from the British musical "Trottie True", from 1949. It starred Jean Kent as the Gaiety Girl who marries a Duke. This is exemplary light music of a kind that recalls the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and composers like Offenbach:

Music sample 12: "Trottie True" – "Gaiety Galop"

"Gaiety Galop", played by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, under Werner Andreas Albert.

From the early 1950s onwards, Ben took to conducting his own film scores, much to the irritation of music director Muir Mathieson who remarked: "You do your job and I’ll do mine." There was a certain friction between the two and one exchange is well worth recounting. In one of Ben’s scores, Mathieson noted a somewhat unusual trumpet effect:

"I suppose you got that from your jazz days" Mathieson remarked, snootily.

"No, actually," Ben replied, "I got it from Berlioz!"

In 1950, Ben met the musical writer and analyst Hans Keller and the two became lasting friends. The meeting proved musically significant too. Hans was a proponent of Schoenberg’s 12-note serial method – broadly, composition employing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, in an order pre-determined by the composer. At the time, it was anathema to Ben but his respect and trust for Hans led to his re-evaluation of the technique and this was to be the key which unlocked the symphonic outpouring of his later years. Ben had destroyed at least two unfinished symphonies during the ‘40s and was seeking a valid framework for his symphonic ideas. After working with Hans for a time, he was able to find a very personal approach to serialism which emphasized, rather then undermined, a sense of tonality and which was fundamentally melodic in outlook. Ever willing to use his film music as a proving ground, Ben slipped his first public experiment with serialism, almost unnoticed, into his score for the gripping 1955 political film "The Prisoner", which starred Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins. The film itself warrants further comment, especially in terms of a sea change in Ben’s own political views. Firstly, though, let’s hear the title music from the film, in a brand new recording by Carl Davis and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. At a certain point, you will hear an imposing theme on the trombones, which is a note-row; this is repeated by the strings and then heard in its retrograde or back-to-front form. Here, the music is harmonized freely:

Music sample 13: "The Prisoner" – "Prelude"

Motifs derived from the note-row are heard throughout the score.

Returning to the film’s subject, it was the harrowing story of a Roman Catholic Cardinal (Alec Guinness), in a nameless Communist country, who is arrested on grounds of treason, interrogated mercilessly by the Inquisitor (Jack Hawkins) and eventually brainwashed into confessing to the trumped-up charges against him, in a show trial before the press. Adapted from her stage play by the writer Bridget Boland, it was allegedly based on the true-life story of the Hungarian Cardinal Mindscenty. The fact that Ben was in any way associated with such a strong indictment of Communist regimes, will tell you that he no longer had any truck with the Party. In fact, he had resigned in a storm of publicity, over the 1952 summary trials and executions of alleged spies, in Prague.

Since the Daily Worker refused to publish Ben’s letter of resignation, he wrote, instead to the New Statesman which published his letter on 13th December 1952. It began:

"Sir, - Many of us have had a revulsion of political feeling as a result of the recent judicial proceedings in Prague, and this has been brought to a climax by the indecent haste with which the ultimate penalty has been applied.

The letter ended:

I can no longer remain a member of a Party which unquestioningly accepts such standards of civil liberty, and for whom the application of the death penalty for "political deviations" represents a triumph."

Prague was the last straw: he had been at odds with the Party for some time, due to its increasingly illiberal attitude towards culture, and music in particular. For at least two years, he had felt isolated from his fellow members.

So it was that Ben divorced himself from the British Communist Party and politics more generally.

Despite such disruption, the film work continued at a pace, with as many as eight commissions in a single year. Ben came to regard his reputation as a leading film composer to be something of a curse when it came to finding acceptance in his concert work. Musical snobbery was prevalent in those days and Ben’s versatility – which would have stood him in good stead today – was frowned upon by many. Nevertheless, in 1955, Ben was honoured with a Cortauld Music Trust award in recognition of his "outstanding work as a composer."

His views on film music were, understandably, ambivalent. He once referred to it as "a strange semi-art." Still, as with everything he did, he could never give it less than his best and it is worth quoting from a BBC talk he gave in 1957:

"In starting work on a new film score, I’m always conscious of the way in which I first look at the picture. At that stage, I have a two-fold task. First, to see the film through the eyes of the producer, secondly to attempt to see it as an ordinary member of the audience.

In serving the needs of the producer faithfully, one must help to project his "brain-child" in the way in which he has always seen it. To this end, it’s sometimes necessary to underline an action which is not quite so full of meaning as the producer intended. Sometimes it’s useful to underline a sound. Again, it’s sometimes necessary to provide music to create an atmosphere which is somehow missing from the film as it stands.

From the point of view of the audience the composer has to assume a kind of explanatory role. He may need in some way to link together musically a series of scenes which don’t look quite as connected as the producer intended. Indeed, the producer will often leave it to the music to connect disjointed scenes. On the other hand, the composer may "explain" a scene musically by deliberately playing against what appears on the screen of the sound track. A sad scene may sometimes be made to seem sadder if the background music comes in a very gay manner, either from a radio or a gramophone. A comic scene can be made to seem funnier by choosing a deliberately sad kind of musical accompaniment.

He continued:

"Sometimes a tune heard earlier in the film can be recalled to make a dramatic effect. In the film "The Net", Phyllis Calvert is seen playing a little simple tune at the piano. Her husband is an inventor and he’s impatient to make another flying test of the super-sonic plane he’s designed. He decides to evade the guards that night and take the plane up. He goes to call his wife to tell her of his intention and from the garden hears her playing the little tune of which I have told you. Their relationship has been rather strained and, feeling unwilling to alarm her, he goes back to his room and starts to write her a letter. The little piano tune plays behind his letter writing.

His wife, waking in the night and finding him missing, becomes alarmed, goes downstairs and finds his letter. She starts to read and we hear his voice speaking the words. The innocent piano tune, playing against the tension of the scene, takes on an unexpected sadness:

Music sample 14: The Net – Love Theme

Instead of the original soundtrack which Ben employed to illustrate his point, we heard that lovely new recording by Carl Davis and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which is now available on the Naxos label.

The conductor Denis Vaughn, much associated with Ben’s music, was the pianist on the original film soundtrack and later recalled:

" For my ear many of his compositions have the Schubertian quality of being entirely new, but that I have always known them. It is this quality which convinces me that his music will last long after others are gathering dust. Other films that I worked on – "The Prisoner", "Orders To Kill" – had some constants and many novelties. His chiming bells, concatenations of permutations of different clangs and strokes were a signature tune for many pieces, which no one else could achieve. He often used a widely spaced, gruff bass line which stood right away from the rest of his upper writing, and acquired a particular hollowness on the film stage recording studios."

Vaughn wrote further:

"Ben’s ear for orchestral sound was inspired in particular by the sounds which the conductor Victor de Sabata conjured up. Ben identified with them and felt that you could never get good strong sound without a wide, sweeping conducting gesture. He was fascinated with conducting technique in general, and one of his favourite stories was of a film composer who had put in Mozart’s Figaro overture, to be played during the sessions. But when he got up to conduct it, he could not get the orchestra to start. Three times he made a gesture to the orchestra which lacked the essential upbeat, and so all he got from them was silence. After the third defeat, the composer turned to the men in the control room and shrugged his shoulders – with that the orchestra started playing because at last he had given them the upbeat they needed!"

In 1952, Ben and Anna moved to Rodmell, near Lewes, where they lived in a grand manor house, next door to the political writer Leonard Woolf, who was a frequent visitor. Ben held court there and entertained a lively artistic circle, including Terence Rattigan, Cecil Day-Lewis and Anthony Asquith. It was also close to Glyndebourne, where he could indulge his love of opera.

Although rather short, Ben cut an imposing figure, with his high-domed forehead, resounding voice and larger-than-life personality. His interests extended well beyond music and included a passion for cricket, football and even boxing, though it should be added, as a spectator. He was also passionate about cars and was an expert driver with a penchant for trying to set new speed records. Food and wine were another passion: he was the quintessential bon viveur.

An apt moment for us to pause for some refreshments.

 INTERVAL

PART TWO:

I’ve already mentioned how Ben’s film work impeded his composing for the concert hall, due to pressure of time, and in 1957, he decided to seek peace and seclusion abroad, to devote himself to his serious music. Although this reduced his film work, he continued to compose cinema scores for a further nine years, with some of his most important still to come. His resignation from the Guildhall prompted the Principal, Edric Cundell, to write:

"Benjamin Frankel….has now decided to live abroad. It is a pity we are losing him for he is a man of such distinction."

Ben, himself, had been offered the directorship but, believing that it would hinder his composing, declined.

After six months in Salzburg, Ben and Anna moved to Locarno, in Switzerland, where for a time they rented a splendid villa, high on a hill overlooking Lake Maggiore. A busy social life continued, as friends and colleagues flocked to visit them, undeterred by the somewhat greater distance involved.

Nevertheless, the move was to prove an artistic Godsend, enabling Ben to begin his most productive years as a composer for the concert hall, beginning with the first in his cycle of eight symphonies, in 1958. First performed by the Westphalia Symphony Orchestra under Hubert Reichert, in Germany, we’ll hear the opening, in its premiere recording by the Queensland Symphony, under Werner Andreas Albert:

Music sample 15: Symphony No.1 – 1st movt.

The symphony – Ben’s first serial composition – set out many characteristics of the cycle as a whole: slow outer movements, often ending in a mysterious whisper; lively central ones; a clearly tonal and melodic presentation of the note-rows. Ben conducted the British premiere himself, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, at the 1960 Cheltenham Festival.

In 1959, there was a setback with far-reaching consequences: while working on the score to Asquith’s film "Libel", Ben suffered a heart attack and spent a number of weeks in Guy’s Hospital. Years of running in all directions and leading the good life had taken their toll. Yet, in what was to become a typically courageous manner, he continued composing, while in hospital, producing his Bagatelles for 11 instruments, Op.35.

Ben recovered well initially and one of his next undertakings was to compose the score to Hammer’s 1960 film "Curse of the Werewolf". This is credited with being the first serial score for a British feature film. In it, Ben decided to use two different note-rows: one, almost entirely melodic; the other, built on four triadic chords using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. The result is decidedly tonal in effect, with some splendidly spicey harmonies. Let’s hear the Prelude, from the first complete recording, with Carl Davis conducting the RLPO once again:

Music sample 16: Curse of the Werewolf: Prelude

Suitably dramatic music, setting the tone for the ensuing tale of horror. Even so, the film afforded one or two opportunities for music of an altogether different mood. Here’s the delightful "Pastoral" which accompanies the afflicted, central character when, seemingly cured of his curse, he ventures forth as a young man:

Music sample 17: Curse of the Werewolf: Pastoral

A rustic piece, complete with horn calls and depictions of birdsong, suggesting Ben’s affinity with Mahler.

Before moving on, I’d like to play the closing moments from this landmark score: the werewolf has been shot and killed with a bullet, fashioned from a silver crucifix, so ending the tragic curse. There is, I think, a tremendous power and sense of catharsis to this music:

Music sample 18: Curse of the Werewolf: Finale – exc.

As you may have gathered, the score is not exclusively serial.

Not long after composing that, Ben wrote a concert work for piano trio and orchestra – the "Serenata Concertante". Op.37 – intended as a piece of lightish entertainment. He wrote:

"The work can be listened to either pictorially or formally. Pictorially, the piece suggests a street scene in which all manner of night sounds are heard: people gently ambling around, traffic passing, sounds from distant band music, jazz from nearby cafes, sudden pursuits, lovers in shadowy corners, a remotely waltzing couple detached from their surroundings, street musicians and so on."

I’m not going to quote him here on the formal structure, for reasons that will be clear in a moment. Here’s an excerpt, played by Stephen Emerson, Alan Smith and David Lale, with the Queensland Symphony under Werner Andreas Albert:

19: Serenata Concertante, Op.37 – exc.

I chose not to mention anything technical beforehand, as I wanted you to listen to the music purely as the light entertainment it was intended to be. Now, however, I can reveal – perhaps to your surprise – that the work is written in strictly serial form! I wanted to leave this till now, being well aware that many associate serialism with music that is entirely discordant, tuneless and generally unappealing. Sometimes, that is true but – and it is a very big but – this is down to what the composer chooses to express. I think, in the foregoing excerpt, you will have heard that Ben was able to write tuneful, tonal, witty music – above all, musically expressive – within a serial framework.

I’m going to follow that with the opening of his very next work – the imposing and solemn Second Symphony, Op.38, composed for the Cheltenham Festival of 1962 and played there by the New Philharmonia under the composer’s baton. Aside from his very last work – the opera "Marching Song" – this is by far Ben’s most substantial work, at nearly forty minutes. This excerpt is from the premiere recording by the Queensland Symphony, under Werner Andreas Albert:

Music sample 20: Symphony No.2 – opening

Once again, despite the strict serialism, I think you will have noticed just how tonally based the music is and, in a way, how rooted in the mainstream of symphonic tradition. It was composed against a background of great personal difficulty, when Ben and Anna – the work’s dedicatee – were separating after some twenty years.

Despite this turmoil, Ben continued to compose both for the concert hall and film. His Third Symphony followed soon after the Second, in 1964, and it was also at about this time that he wrote one of his most important and personal film scores, for John Huston’s version of the Tennessee Williams play "Night of the Iguana". This, with its stellar cast of Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr, has become a classic. I’m going to play the "Prelude", which exemplifies so many of Ben’s qualities: the orchestral colour, the intriguing, highly individual harmonic style, the simple and direct melodic ideas and the unfailing ability to encapsulate, musically, the character of a story:

Music sample 21: Night of the Iguana – Prelude

Music from "Night of the Iguana", in which a defrocked clergyman, now an alcoholic tour guide in Mexico, finds himself caught up with three very different women: a feisty widow, a repressed spinster and a nymphette. (Who wouldn’t be a defrocked clergyman?!)

This commission was followed, in 1965, by Ben’s last for the cinema, the epic "Battle of the Bulge" – Hollywood’s version of World War Two’s last great land battle. With an all-star cast, headed by Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw and Robert Ryan, the film was a model of big budget ‘60s film making. The subject matter and the film’s impressive length – at nearly three hours, gave full reign to Ben’s orchestral virtuosity and symphonic outlook and must be regarded as his musical testament where film music is concerned. The score – some ninety minutes long – was nominated for a Hollywood Golden Globe the following year. Let’s hear an excerpt, from a recent, award-winning recording by the Queensland Symphony, again conducted by Werner Andreas Albert. This music accompanies a sequence in which a supply train brings vital artillery to bolster the besieged US forces.

Music sample 22: Battle of the Bulge – Armaments Train

It was not Ben’s intention to cease composing for the cinema after "Battle of the Bulge" but changing times worked against composers of his generation, with more and more pop soundtracks and electronic scores , and less demand for orchestral or symphonic ones. So, Ben turned his attention to television, working on a number of projects for the BBC and ITV, up until 1970, when he composed his last incidental score, for the Thames Television play of "The Suicide Club".

If his career as a film composer was winding down, that for the concert hall was in the ascendant, with a fourth symphony in 1966, and a fifth in 1967 which also saw the production of his Viola Concerto, a BBC commission for the Cheltenham Festival that year. Another Cheltenham commission, two years earlier, was the Fifth String Quartet, Op.43, dedicated to Hans Keller. This was to be Ben’s last string quartet and his only one composed in serial form. We’ll hear now the fourth of its five movements – a short intermezzo:

Music sample 23: String Quartet No.5 – 4th movt.

That lilting music, characteristic of the work as whole, again illustrates Ben’s accessible use of serial technique.

The Fifth Symphony, first performed in the German town of Recklinghausen, by the Westphalia Symphony under Hubert Reichert, was a more extrovert affair than its predecessors, ending, for the first time, with a rousing finale which Ben described as being "of brilliant and fiery gesture." The first movement, of moderate tempo, has a pastoral lyricism about it. Let’s listen to excerpts from both, in a recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted, once again, by my brother Igor. First, the last pages of the opening movement:

Music sample 24: Symphony No.5 – 1st movt. Exc.

Now we’ll hear part of the finale, leading to its triumphant conclusion:

Music sample 25: Symphony No.5 – finale exc.

For those interested, that serial movement ends with a plagal, or "amen", cadence!

It was in about 1966, aged eight, that I first really came to know Ben myself, although both he and Anna had been friends of my grandparents and parents for a great many years. As may be gathered, Ben was a good bit older than my mother. They had always been fond of each other and when Ben and Anna separated in the mid-1960s, and my mother was contemplating divorce after years of misery, they became close, during his frequent visits to London. His appearance on the scene was a miracle, for he brought a warmth and humanity into the house and made each day seem special. Illness and a growing spirituality had mellowed what was a sometimes fiery temperament in earlier years. His coronary arterial disease was becoming a major factor at this point and he developed a severe and chronic pectoral angina, which required him to take tablets by the handful. The extraordinary thing, which I recall vividly, was the way in which he discouraged any fuss and attention during the many painful, daily attacks. He would simply stop whatever he was doing and stand quietly while the tablets did their work. After a moment or two, the pained expression would give way again to a characteristic smile and he would resume his activity, be it walking in the mountains, playing table tennis, or concocting his latest gourmet dish.

Alas, the daily attacks of angina were only the tip of a deep iceberg: the ensuing years saw Ben suffer a cerebral haemorrhage, from which he recovered, and further heart attacks. In 1969, ten years after his first attack, he was again in Guy’s Hospital, with severe doubts about whether he would survive. Yet, with customary resolve, he asked my mother to bring manuscript paper and composed almost all of his Sixth Symphony there, dedicating it to her.

The Seventh Symphony followed with no other works between and was composed, again, in appalling health. At times, he hadn’t the strength to lift his pen to the manuscript. The work, full of references to clocks and chiming mechanisms, revealed his awareness of time running out, even to the extent of quoting from Marlowe, at the head of the first movement:

"That time may cease and midnight never come"

while at the foot of the last page:

"The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike"

As Ben put it:

"One may say that the whole work lies between these extremes"

First performed at the Royal Festival Hall by the LSO, under Andre Previn in June 1970, here are the closing pages, played by the QSO, under Albert:

Music sample 26: Symphony No.7 – ending:

It would be appropriate, here, to listen to Ben, himself, on his illness and its effect on his work, recorded in a discussion with the producer Robert Layton in the early ‘70s:

Sound sample 27: Ben on ill health:

Despite such thoughts, Ben remained positive and retained his celebrated sense of humour. He also enjoyed some degree of respite from poor health, partly due to the frequent, gentle walks he would take. He was able, in fact, to walk in the Swiss Alps, when we stayed at Max Rostal’s chalet, in 1970. It became an endearing characteristic that, when he felt he had walked far enough, Ben would plant himself on a comfortable rock, take out his pocket manuscript book and make notes, while the rest of us completed our meanderings.

He was always enchanted by nature – animals, the mountains, waterfalls and birdsong. Many years earlier, he and Anna had adopted some nineteen stray cats, while living at Rodmell. Ben also owned a much loved terrier – "Little Pinkie". The visit to the Alps was to be the first of three and Ben would hire a car with power-steering, enabling him to drive without unduly triggering his angina. He remained an expert driver and negotiated the winding mountain roads with great panache!

It has often struck me how quiet and modest Ben was about his many and varied achievements. He hardly ever discussed his years in jazz or film music and one was not even aware when he was composing his television scores. One was aware, of course, of his work on the symphonies and other works, though in a very mild way. Mostly, he composed in his head, occasionally going to the piano to check some detail. Although he had to cut himself off from other musical sounds while working – not always easy in a house where my mother would practise the piano for hours every day - he always liked having someone around to talk to, while he wrote out a finished score.

One particular pleasure at that time was playing piano duets with my mother, especially those of Schubert. I’ve already mentioned Ben’s sight-reading ability and I once witnessed this most impressively, when he read through Rachmaninov’s complex and demanding transcription of Kreisler’s charming "Liebesleid". There was never a moment’s hesitation as he negotiated the intricacies of Rachmaninov’s writing.

The piano was also an area of particular interest that I shared with him. As a budding pianist, I was fascinated with the recordings of the great pianists of the golden age, many of whom Ben had heard in the flesh. Often, we would listen to their recordings together, marveling anew at their wizardry. It was endearing to see Ben get tears in his eyes over some breathtaking phrase, or laugh at some audacious pianistic fireworks. Despite his own lofty musical ideals, he was charmed by the salon music of the 19th century and was especially smitten with a little Waltz by the pianist Mischa Levitski, played by the composer himself. I recall that Ben harboured some regret over not having pursued a career as a pianist, alongside his composing. He took great pleasure in listening to my mother play and , so too, my brother who had become a student at the RAM. Ben also shared my sister Nadia’s passion for the violinist Jascha Heifetz. Touchingly, he treated the whole family as his own and I recall how interested he was in people generally making everyone feel important and cared for.

Here’s Ben speaking again, this time on his manner of working:

Sound sample 28: Ben on composing:

Ben felt himself drawn to works of a tragic nature and it is certainly true that his own music was predominantly melancholic. Yet two of his last works offered some contrast: the "Overture to a Ceremony", commissioned for the St Cecilia’s Day Royal Concert in 1970, and the finale of his Eighth Symphony, composed in 1971 and first performed by the RLPO under its dedicatee, Sir Charles Groves. For only the second time in the cycle, there is a positive, energetic ending, pointing, perhaps, to some sense of hope. Here’s a part of that finale, once again with the QSO under Albert:

Music sample 29: Symphony No.8 – finale – exc.

Was that serial or was it not? One might think, with its distinctly tonal fanfares and melodies, that it wasn’t. One would, however, be wrong! It is one of the best illustrations of how Ben used serialism not to undermine tonality and melody but to assert it positively.

Ben and my mother were married, at last, in 1972, after her acrimonious divorce had been granted its Decree Absolute. Sadly, it was only about a year before his death, though they had enjoyed some years of loving companionship, despite their respective difficulties.

The last work Ben completed – only days before his death – was the opera "Marching Song", after the play by John Whiting. It had been commissioned by the ENO for the Belgian celebration of the EEC, and was to have been staged in London and Brussels concurrently. However, the ENO was hit by a financial crisis during the mid-1970s and "Marching Song" was one of several new productions to be axed. It has yet to be staged, though it received its premiere in a BBC Radio 3 studio production, in 1983.

The completion of the opera was another heroic triumph of the will over the adversity of dire health. His doctor had told my mother that only a third of Ben’s heart was still functioning. Three days before he died, Ben attended a performance at the Coliseum, to hear a singer who was being considered for the lead in "Marching Song". During the interval, he suffered one of his most severe attacks of angina, leading my mother to wonder if he would make it home. Following a troubled weekend and a visit from his doctor, Ben died during the early hours of Monday, 12th February 1973, despite heroic efforts to revive him, in the emergency room at New End Hospital in Hampstead. Even during the ambulance journey, among his last words to my mother was a request to bring manuscript paper to the hospital where, no doubt, he still planned to thwart the grim reaper and, perhaps, to write out his choral Ninth Symphony which, he had revealed to a friend, was complete in his head. It had been commissioned by the BBC for the Proms later that year. Alas, it died with him and, inexplicably, no other work of his was substituted in memoriam.

As Buxton Orr was to comment, this was an ominous augury of the near total neglect that followed, which, 33 years after his death and in this centenary year, is still a great problem. Not as much as before the acclaimed recordings of his works began to appear on the CPO label, during the 1990s, but a problem nonetheless. These reversed the almost complete absence of his music from the record catalogues during his lifetime (only two of his works were recorded commercially) but the frequent broadcasts and performances his music enjoyed while he was alive dwindled almost to nothing. Ten years ago, and again this year, Ben was featured as Composer of the Week on Radio 3. In 1998, to mark his 25th anniversary, there was also a BBC Archive programme. Yet many a year has passed without a single broadcast of his music and there are almost no performances to speak of. It is over fifty years since a note of his music has been heard at the Proms and this year’s season offers nothing to mark the centenary.

I feel strongly that this is our loss. It isn’t unique to Ben’s music, it must be said, but it is extraordinary that one who had achieved such a pre-eminence during his lifetime, should be so overlooked.

Sometimes, people ask why Ben didn’t receive any kind of honour during his lifetime. He clearly deserved one but did not receive a knighthood, or a CBE. Was it his early adherence to left-wing politics? Probably not, bearing in mind that such leanings did no harm to, say, Britten or Tippett. Was it his reputation as a composer of film music? Possibly. Perhaps, in the end, it had much to do with Ben’s humility and lack of personal ambition: he did not make a point of being in all the right places, or befriending all the right people.

I suspect that the honour which would have mattered most to him, was that of having his life’s work acknowledged through performances, recordings and broadcasts.

We must be duly grateful to the German label CPO and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for their enterprise in undertaking to record all Ben’s major works and much of the film music, which they did to great acclaim. Grateful, too, to the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Werner Andreas Albert, as well as to all the soloists involved in the recordings. This month sees the release of a wonderful new film music album, on the Naxos label, with Carl Davis conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, some of which we’ve heard this afternoon. So, we can be thankful that much of Ben’s output has been preserved for posterity.

I feel it right that his music should have the last word, so to speak, and I’m going to return to the recording of the Violin Concerto, which we heard earlier – this time, the last movement, with it’s characteristic, whispered ending. I think it captures much of his personality, especially the sense that, through all of life’s suffering and struggle, there is still room for hope - and still time for a smile.

Thank you for being here today – I hope it has been both interesting and revealing.

Music sample 30: Violin Concerto, Op.24 - finale

END

 



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

Advertising on
Musicweb


Donate and get a free CD

New Releases

Naxos Classical

Hyperion

Musicweb sells the following labels
Acte Préalable
Alto
Arcodiva
Atoll
CDAccord
Cameo Classics
Centaur
Hallé
Hortus
Lyrita
Nimbus
Northern Flowers
Redcliffe
Sheva
Talent
Toccata Classics


Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing
sample

Return to Index

Untitled Document


Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.