I sat down to type up this review late on the evening of Tuesday
1 June 2010. Halfway through doing so, wanting to check a date,
I went to the website
devoted to Benjamin Lees, where I was faced with the following
announcement: “IT IS WITH PROFOUND SADNESS THAT THE FAMILY
ANNOUNCES THE PASSING OF COMPOSER BENJAMIN LEES ON MAY 31, 2010”.
This review - written on the day after the composer’s death
- necessarily becomes more of a memorial than I intended it to
be when I sat down to put it together.
Lees was born in China, brought up and educated in California.
From 1949 to 1954 he studied with George Antheil who acted as
a largely unpaid tutor out of respect for Lees’ abilities.
From the mid-1950s onwards his works began to be performed quite
widely and by distinguished performers, without his ever perhaps
becoming a ‘major’ figure in American music. A Guggenheim
fellowship enabled him to spend much of his time in Europe in
the second half of the 1950s. Never a composer who aspired to
be thought of as especially ‘American’, these European
years were important for Lees, years when he could evolve his
own voice without direct involvement in the style wars of American
music. Prokofiev, Bartók and Shostakovich became important
exemplars for Lees.
In a 1987
with Bruce Duffie, when the interviewer enquired
“in a great number of your own works, you have used the
traditional approach - Slonimsky calls it accessibility - which
makes your music attractive to conductors and soloists.
Is this something you have consciously built in to your pieces,
or is this an outgrowth of what you wanted to write innately?”,
Lees answered as follows: “The accessibility, I suppose,
comes from something that George Antheil told me when I was studying
with him. He put it very succinctly, and it was one of those
catch words which stuck in the memory. He said, “Music
must have a face. A theme must have a face, something which
is really recognizable, both to you and to the listener.”
And again, it matters not what style a person writes in, but it
cannot simply be amorphous. It cannot be really formless
and it cannot be merely notes spinning”. Certainly Lees’
music never seeks to exclude listeners, or to make their life
needlessly difficult by the flaunting of the composer’s
‘cleverness’. Nor, on the other hand, does he write
down, or write to please some lowest common denominator of taste
and demand. Like any substantial composer, Lees seems always to
have been true to himself, to have been serenely unworried, so
far as one can judge, by matters of mere fashion or popularity.
Honesty, indeed, has always struck me as one of the hallmarks
of his work, a directness of communication. It seems appropriate
that he should once have said that “there are two kinds
of composers. One is the intellectual and the other is visceral.
I fall into the latter category. If my stomach doesn’t tighten
at an idea, then it’s not the right idea.”
Most attention - and perhaps rightly so - has been paid to Lees’
orchestral works, not least his five symphonies. But, as this
disc demonstrates well and clearly, he also had plenty to say
in that other ‘classical’ form - the string quartet,
of which he wrote six. This rewarding Naxos disc contains three
of them in fine performances by the Cypress Quartet, for whom
the fifth and the sixth were written.
The Cypress Quartet begin their programme with Lees’ first
quartet, written in 1952, and premiered the following year in
Los Angles - and in 1954 played in New York by the Budapest Quartet.
In three movements (moderato-adagietto-allegro vivo) it has an
appealing grace, at its most obvious in the adagietto, a lovely
moment that exudes a simplicity - created by considerable art
- and only slightly troubled lyricism that has a more or less
pastoral quality. In the movement that precedes it some crisp
and dynamic writing alternates with more reflective passages.
In the last movement - essentially a rondo - the writing is engagingly
animated, seeming to speak out of a mind full of ideas and eagerness.
A quartet well worth hearing - especially when so well performed
- but not yet fully embodying the composer’s mature voice.
The two ‘late’ quartets give us that voice in abundance.
The four movements of the fifth quartet (measured - arioso - quick,
quiet - explosive) form a musical argument of considerable density,
marked both by striking moments and a sense of larger design.
The writing for cello at the opening of the first movement, and
the ensuing dialogue with the other instruments is one of those
striking moments. Another comes in the second movement when an
aggressive intervention by the cello disrupts the meditative conversation
of the two violins. The more one listens, the more such moments
one discovers. The third movement is a miniature delight (it lasts
less than two minutes), music of evanescent beauty. The contrast
with the fourth movement could hardly be more marked - full as
it is of musical contention and turbulence, of assertion and annoyed
counter-assertion, a conflict not so much resolved as serving
to fuel a still angry ending.
Where the sixth quartet is concerned the composer’s markings
for its four movements say most of what the mere reviewer might
want to say about the work: “measured, dolorous - calm,
steady - quiet, eerie - unhurried”. And they are! The use
pizzicato passages is a particular feature of this quartet - notably
at moments in the first and third movements. Without any wilful
oddity or eccentricity, Lees creates some fresh and interesting
effects at more than one point in this quartet. To say that one
can ‘hear’ his respect for Bartók and Shostakovich
is not, repeat not, to belittle his work as derivative. It is
merely to recognise that, like 99% (or more!) of all artists,
Lees was not a toweringly inventive figure. He was a highly accomplished
craftsman who had listened to, and learned from, the music of
the past and the present; a composer who refused to be merely
modish or to chase the fashionable at the cost of fidelity to
what he felt
to be right for him.
It is, I hope, timely to celebrate Lees’ achievement, immediately
after his death. Not a composer of spectacular fame, he worked
with a seriousness and truth that some more famous fall short
Other Lees reviews on MWI