A Biography by Dimitri Kennaway
This embodies many salient points but does not begin to hint at the often fascinating and unlikely background to Frankel's life. Consider his parents who, although they had met and married in England, were both immigrants. His father, Charles Frankel, had come from Warsaw, after completing military service in the Czarist army; his mother, Golda Adler, from Tarnopol - a Polish town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Benjamin Frankel was born, Charles was a tobacconist in London's Fulham Road but later abandoned business to take up a humble position in the local synagogue, as a beadle. Golda helped to supplement the family's income by making kosher meals for the Jewish boys at St. Paul's Public School. Like his elder brother, Isidor, and younger sister, Minna, Benjamin proved to be a highly gifted musical child but, while both parents were proud of the fact and encouraged them for recreational purposes, the idea of any of them taking up the 'uncertain' profession of music was out of the question. Isidor, however, after doing well at school opted for the career of dentist, while Minna became a very efficient secretary. Benjamin, on the other hand, had set his sights on a musical career quite early on. He and his brother had, as children, played through all available piano-duet arrangements of the orchestral repertoire - something he regarded to have been a vital, if informal, part of his musical education. He would also visit the Hammersmith Public Library (the 'Carnegie Library'), almost on a daily basis, always borrowing the maximum number of music volumes allowed (four), reading through them all and returning for a fresh collection the next day. In this way, he not only became familiar with a great deal of music but also developed into a remarkable sight reader (he also acquired his mother's voracious appetite for reading books). Before he left school at fourteen after, he later recalled, an undistinguished career there - he began to study the violin and became quite excited about it, though he never got down to much serious practise. He could often be seen during lunch-breaks, playing the fiddle in the school yard and, much to the annoyance of one teacher, experimenting with vibrato technique quite audibly.
Frankel recalled his childhood with mixed feelings but nevertheless delighted in recounting vignettes which had stuck in his memory. A particular favourite concerned the local delicatessen who used only one knife with which to cut everything; "Benjela," his mother would say, "here's some money - go to the deli for a pound of cheese,..." adding the admonition," and tell him it shouldn't smell from herring!"
After leaving school, Frankel was given his first job, as a shop-boy, by his mother's cousin Max Adler - a fruiterer in Spitalfield's market. He held one other such job, before being apprenticed to a watchmaker, who happened to be the choirmaster of the local synagogue. In a frank and illuminating discussion with the musicologist Robert Layton - recorded for the BBC's then Third Programme, shortly before Frankel's death - he remembered that he was paid ten shillings a week while he learned to clean watches, then: "...after about one year, at which time my salary would have risen to a pound a week, I was given the sack and very properly so!". It was at about this time that one of his piano teacher s persuaded her son, the American virtuoso Victor Benham, to take an interest in the young Frankel's budding musical talent. Evidently, he was much impressed, taking on his new pupil for a two-year period, free of charge. Benham had succeeded in overcoming the parental opposition which had threatened Frankel's aspirations. The last six months of this crucial period of study, took place in Germany (Cologne), where Benham had moved to take advantage of the high inflation which enabled foreigners to live there phenomenally cheaply. Indeed, Frankel's father sent Benham just one pound a month, on which he was able to maintain his pupil quite handsomely. In the wake of the inflationary problems of the German currency and inevitable unemployment throughout the country, civil chaos ensued, so Frankel returned to England, at seventeen, to confront his own need for work. It was now that his natural talent for the violin came into its own: he began playing in jazz bands at various night-clubs, also on trans-Atlantic ocean liners (as a pianist, this time), and began what was to become a long and distinguished period as an arranger for many bandleaders. To ensure that his daytime studies at the Guildhall School of Music were not endangered, he worked mainly late at night, often finishing at about four in the morning and leaving only a little time for sleep before returning to his classes in the morning. Frankel always felt his identification with his Jewish roots to be absolute:" I consider myself to be either an English Jew or a Jewish Englishman," he told Robert Layton, during the earlier- mentioned talk. For a time, this also spilled over into his compositions - influenced by the idea, though not the music of, Bloch - and for a while, he attempted to develop a "Jewish musical language" in consequence. Before too long, however, he set aside such a notion, realising that it could only limit his expressive range.
Frankel's feelings about his racial origins did not extend to the Jewish faith and, in 1932 he married 'outside', to the first of his three wives. This had profound repercussions for him and his family - his father, who died in 1939, never spoke with him again (although his mother did relent in time ) and nor did his brother. Bizarrely, however, the two continued to meet - without, apparently, exchanging a word - in the latter's dental surgery, where he continued to care for his brother's teeth. Family and professional matters were not alone in occupying Frankel's thoughts at this time: the rising tide of fascism in Germany was of grave concern and, with many of his contemporaries in artistic and intellectual circles, he was drawn to the ideals of communism.
While he was a gentle man, Frankel was not an appeaser (martial characteristics have been noted in many of his works) and, at the outbreak of the War, he attempted to enlist. He did not, however, pass his 'medical' and could only attend to Home Guard duties, such as firewatch. The reason for this was a severe skin condition (psoriasis) which had been triggered by the tragic death of his second child and only daughter, in infancy, during 1937. Undoubtedly, this was a period of frustration for Frankel, unable to fight for his ideals and, at the same time, not able to sit back and do nothing. His work in commercial music continued, although, owing to the War, fewer film scores were required. Two film commissions, however, were directly concerned with wartime propaganda The Gen (1944), an RAF newsreel and Bon Voyage (1945) - a Hitchcock short film intended to encourage the French Resistance movement. In 1941, Frankel joined the British Communist Party, ever more convinced that this was the political solution to fascism. Fellow members included Alan Bush, Elizabeth Lutyens and Bernard Stevens. During this time, some of Frankel's works alluded directly to his sympathies: Youth Music for string orchestra (originally entitled Music for Young Comrades), which included a poignant movement headed We remember the fallen, in an otherwise light-hearted piece; Solemn Speech and Discussion (again for strings), which depicted a trade-union meeting and in which the composer quoted 'The Internationale' towards the end and, in 1947, the orchestral prelude May Day, subtitled a panorama. This was Frankel's first significant orchestral piece, demonstrating his mastery and originality in orchestration, along with his fertile musical invention.
Frankel and his first wife were divorced in 1944 and he subsequently married (again 'outside' the Jewish faith) a fellow member of the Party. His career entered a new phase after the cessation of hostilities, as his concert music (mainly chamber works, for quite a while) began to find a public, and the British film industry became increasingly productive. In 1945 he wrote the music for what was to become a classic, The Seventh Veil his most important film score to date. Moreover, his reputation as a teacher of composition took off - Vaughan Williams and Walton were two composers who recommended young composers to study with Frankel - and in 1946, he joined the staff of the Guildhall School of Music, where he had been a student all those years before. It was here that he formed one of his most important friendships, with the violinist and pedagogue Max Rostal who was to remain a lifelong friend of Frankel, and champion of his music. Rostal, not long before his own death, recalled: "Perhaps because of my troubled relationship with my father, I was always closer to women than to men in my personal relationships, so the closeness of my friendship with Ben was unique in my experience.". Professionally, it was also a very productive friendship, with Frankel composing his violin works with Rostal firmly in mind. Most importantly, Rostal commissioned the composer's Violin Concerto for the Festival of Britain, in 1951. It turned out not only to be his most significant work up to then, but a very personal comment on the atrocities of the Holocaust, which affected him, both as a humanitarian and a Jew.
1952 was the year in which Frankel resigned - very publicly - from the British Communist Party, in bitter protest and outrage against the show trials and summary executions of alleged spies in Prague. He had already been increasingly at odds with the Party and the same care for human rights which had first led him to join, now led him away. Certain others - as yet undecided - followed his example. An Evening Standard reporter, writing in 'The Londoner's Diary' columns on 12th December 1952, announced: "Mr Benjamin Frankel, the composer, has quit the Communist Party after 12 years as a member. His feelings have been outraged by the recent Prague trials and the swift executions which followed....Frankel tells me his disagreement with Communist policy began with the party's increasingly illiberal attitude towards culture, and music in particular. For the past two years, he says, he has been isolated from his fellow members. Last Friday Frankel wrote to the Communist Daily Worker about the Prague trial and saying he was resigning. His letter was not printed." What was printed, however, was the composer's letter to The New Statesman and Nation, printed on Saturday, 13th December, 1952, with which he 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."
Frankel's resignation - and the publicity surrounding it was not without repercussions during the years that followed. These, however, will have to await a more extended biography, in which the detailed attention they deserve can be given. For now, let it only be said that there was at least one attempt to ruin Frankel during the mid-50s, in which the Communist Party was implicated.
Following the Violin Concerto of 1951, it was to be seven years before Frankel again composed for large forces: the demands on his time, of a seemingly endless succession of film-score commissions, meant that he was not as free as he wished, to devote himself to serious output. He worked on two, large-scale, symphonies which he left unfinished and was more productive, in chamber music, producing the lovely Piano Quartet, Op. 26 (53) and the memorable Clarinet Quintet, Op. 28 (56). In 1957, he emigrated to Switzerland, largely in search of the peace and seclusion he felt essential, if he were to develop further in his concert works. It was not easy for him simply to say No to the countless film directors and producers he had worked with through many years, (most of whom had become good friends), as long as he remained in Britain: in absentia, no excuse was really were necessary. But there were also financial considerations: Frankel had earned very well in his commercial work - it was rumoured that he was the highest-paid British composer in the field, at the time - yet, income tax was at punitive levels and matters were not helped by the composer's mishandling of his finances. He never saved, never invested, was generous to a fault and enjoyed the good life. All these factors combined to create the need for a domicile where the burdens of taxation were far less.
If the move failed to provide a permanent solution to the financial difficulties, it nonetheless proved to be crucial in releasing Frankel's time for his creative work, which can best be illustrated by the following statistics: during the years 1944-58, Frankel composed some seventy film scores but little orchestral music for the concert hall (the Violin Concerto, of course, and a few shortish pieces), writing mainly chamber and instrumental works. However, during the equivalent period of time from 1958 until his death, he wrote, only ten feature film scores and twelve television scores but, most significantly, all eight of his symphonies, the Viola Concerto, Serenata concertante and the opera Marching Song (as well as ensemble and chamber works ). The conclusion is inescapable: Frankel's most fecund period of serious work (not to denigrate the serious nature of many of his film scores) was largely - if not totally - enabled by his move abroad. This was not the only aspect to Frankel's renewal. During the mid fifties, the composer had studied and discussed serial composition method with Hans Keller, whom he had first befriended at the 1950 Film Music Festival - Maggio Musicale - in Florence. Frankel was a very late convert to serial technique and, indeed, had quite consciously rejected it for many years, demonstrating to his composition class exactly why he felt it did not work. In working with Keller, however, he found his way to a very personal kind of serialism, in which the tonal aspect of music (the sense of key-centres) was not negated but, simply, transformed. This was the technical foundation for nearly all of Frankel's works from the first symphony onwards. Stylistically, though, the composer of the Violin Concerto is still to be found in the later works and, as a matter of particular interest, Frankel was able, in his fifth symphony and Viola Concerto, to move effortlessly from non-serial first movements, into serial ones with no discernable change of style.
Another factor which was to colour the last fourteen years of Frankel's life and work, was his deteriorating health. In 1959, during one of many return visits to England, he suffered his first heart attack. During the three weeks he spent recovering in Guy's Hospital, London, he composed his Bagatelles for Eleven Instruments (Cinque Pezzi Notturni) with what was to become a characteristic - and in his view essential - resolve. He appeared to recover fully. After a few years, however, he suffered a cerebral thrombosis. Again he recovered but developed an acute and chronic angina pectoris, for which, latterly, he had to take GTN tablets (which dilate the arteries) by the fistful. 1969 found him, once again, in Guy's Hospital - this time not expected to survive. Yet, with a now familiar fortitude and courage, he asked his third wife-to- be (his second wife having died two years earlier) to bring fresh manuscript to his bedside. This she did and he proceeded to compose virtually his entire sixth symphony there. Once again, he survived and continued to live life as fully as possible, within the limitations his health imposed upon him. For example, he took holidays in the Swiss Alps and would go on walks with his wife. When, eventually, he felt that he had walked enough, or reached a maximum safe altitude (an essential consideration for those with heart disease) he would find a suitably comfortable rock on which to plant himself, take out his pocket manuscript book and proceed to jot down ideas for new works, while his wife and others with him completed their meanderings. He also enjoyed a game of table tennis - pausing every so often for the inevitable angina attacks to subside. Perhaps, in drawing to a close, it would be fitting to quote the composer's own view of his illness, which he expressed to Robert Layton in their 1970 broadcast discussion (mentioned earlier) for the Third Programme:
"...I suffer from a...disease called angina pectoris which one can't control, excepting by learning what to do not to bring it into great prominence in one's life; the consequence of all this is that one is limited, physically, not only in the hours that one ought to work but in the kind of activity one usually makes. I've usually been a terribly restless person until actually composing and I've enjoyed, enormously, rushing about in all directions, until suddenly I find that it's the moment for work. Nowadays I can't rush about, so I learn to sit longer hours at my work - I also learn that, if I'm feeling ill, this is not an excuse for not working and that the more ill one is , the more urgent it becomes to work."
Frankel went on to discuss his approaching end in philosophical terms and the way in which "the unwelcome visitor" affected the content of his work. His last three symphonies, his opera, the Overture to a Ceremony and the Pezzi Melodici, were all written in the shadow of such recognition, yet he never gave in to anything approaching depression and his teasing wit remained with him until the end. He continued to enjoy food and wine, the theatre, the cinema, books, family life and anything else not injurious to his failing health.
The composer's last, fateful, journey was by ambulance to New End Hospital in London, during the early hours of 12th February 1973. His will to live and to compose was still in evidence he asked his wife to bring fresh manuscript to the hospital, as in the past, with the intention of working. Alas, it was not to be: despite a long and dedicated effort by the emergency staff to revive him, Frankel had fought, and lost, his last battle. He was survived by his wife, and also by his first wife and two sons.
So ended a rich and varied life - one which cannot be served by full justice here. Perhaps, though, something of Frankel's personality and courage has emerged that will encourage further investigation of his story and his music.
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