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Thus, eloquently and with civilized regret, Howells defined the critical problem surrounding a most unproblematic composer. Benjamin was a brilliantly assured all-rounder, a master of many ingredients, whose gifts ran counter to the perceived evolutionary direction of serious music in his time; and his obvious flair (or as Howells would have it, ‘flare’) and commercial success in writing pieces that were popular, entertaining, or served a modest subsidiary purpose led to the discounting of his very substantial achievements.
Ten years younger than Percy Grainger, Benjamin was, like his compatriot, one of the first Australian musicians to forge an international reputation. Though he was born in Sydney on 18 September 1893, his family—both parents were musical—moved to Queensland when he was three and he was educated in Brisbane. Taught piano by his mother, he was something of a prodigy, giving piano recitals at the age of six, and began to study with the city organist when he was nine. After a period playing in a piano store to prospective customers, at the suggestion of Thomas Dunhill he entered and won an open scholarship that took him to London at the age of eighteen to study at the Royal College of Music, where he studied harmony and counterpoint with Dunhill and the piano with Frederic Cliffe. For composition he had Stanford, whom he considered a great teacher despite his bigotry (‘You Jews can’t write long tunes!’, Stanford would tell Benjamin). Almost immediately Benjamin made his mark as a star pupil, and he became a leading figure in a circle of close friends that included Howells himself, Arthur Bliss, Ivor Gurney and Leon Goossens. He appeared at Queen’s Hall as soloist in Howells’s first piano concerto. Bliss recalled how they would all visit the Diaghilev ballet and opera productions at Drury Lane together. ‘He seemed already to be a cosmopolitan’, recalled Howells, ‘widely travelled, confident, urbane, mature in conversation which, even so early, he could already sustain in three languages of which “Australian” was not one.’ In 1914 Howells celebrated some members of this circle in his remarkable orchestral suite The B’s, reserving the finale, a brilliant and even grandiose triumphal march, for Arthur Benjamin under the sobriquet of ‘Benjee’.
Like Bliss and Gurney, Benjamin eagerly enlisted for service in World War I, first in the infantry in the trenches from 1915; he then transferred in 1917 to the Royal Flying Corps as a gunner. He was shot down over Germany in July 1918 (the commander of the enemy squadron was an air ace called Hermann Goering), and spent the remainder of the war writing music in Rüheleben prison camp, where his fellow prisoners included the composers Edgar Bainton and Benjamin Dale.
In 1919 Benjamin returned to Australia at the invitation of Henri Verbrugghen to become professor of pianoforte at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. He remained in Australia for only two years, however, and in 1921 returned to London to pursue his composing ambitions. In 1924 he won the Carnegie Award for his Pastoral Fantasy for string quartet. He became a professor of composition and piano at the RCM in 1927 (Stanley Bate, Benjamin Britten, Muir Mathieson and Bernard Stevens were among his piano pupils; much later Alun Hoddinott was a private pupil) but he had also discovered talents as a conductor. In 1931 his opera The Devil Take Her, championed by Thomas Beecham, confirmed his position among leading composers in Britain. In 1938 he resigned from the RCM and moved to Vancouver, where in 1941 he was engaged to conduct the new Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra. In 1944–5 he also held the position of lecturer at Reed College, Portland, Oregon.
Returning to Britain in 1946, Benjamin resumed his position at the RCM, where he remained until his retirement in 1953. Continuing to compose and teach privately, he stayed interested and quietly influential in contemporary music, but his health was failing. Cancer was first detected in 1957, and though he had a remission long enough to see his opera A Tale of Two Cities put in production by San Francisco Opera, it recurred and he died on 10 April 1960 at Middlesex Hospital, at the age of sixty-six.
In his unfinished autobiography Benjamin related how as a boy in Australia he discovered, played and fell in love with many different kinds of music—Beethoven, Grieg, Ethelbert Nevin, Chopin, Sidney Jones—without knowing anything of their relative critical standing. Until his first trip to Europe in 1907 he had no idea that they could be considered to be of different quality: they were ‘different in style, yes, but not in value’. In a sense he retained this outlook, and it was a key to his own versatility, his ability to turn his hand to modest works sheerly designed to entertain (one light-music suite is unabashedly entitled Light Music) and to ambitious, sophisticated and even profound scores in the great classical genres. As Hans Keller put it (in an article entitled ‘Arthur Benjamin and the Problem of Popularity’): ‘Untouched in the most formative years by the conceptions of “great” and “deep”, and not having to intend, therefore, to be either, his mobile mind grew to incorporate modern moods and methods and to attain the modern marvel—light music which is not slight, and serious music which renounces depth without risking shallowness.’
Benjamin’s creative output, which encompasses about eighty works altogether, thus manifests a great variety of idioms and genres. It includes many light-music miniatures, many of them infused with a jazz or Afro-Caribbean flavour: the most famous of these is the Jamaican Rumba. But there are also some impressive pieces of chamber music and several concertos, ranging from the Romantic Fantasy (1936–7) for violin, viola and orchestra, a work that seems a modern counterpart to Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for the same combination, to the once-popular Harmonica Concerto written for Larry Adler (1953). There is the magnificent Symphony, the deeply felt Ballade for string orchestra, the ballet Orlando’s Silver Wedding (1951) and five operas—four for the stage and the fifth, Mañana, an early example of opera for television. As Howells noted, Benjamin was also highly successful as a film composer, beginning in 1934 with The Scarlet Pimpernel and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, for which he composed the cantata Storm Clouds for use in the climactic Royal Albert Hall sequence. The cantata was used again in Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of the film, even though the other music for that version was composed by Bernard Herrmann. Benjamin’s later film scores includes An Ideal Husband (1947), The Ascent of Everest (1953), Above Us the Waves (1956) and Fire Down Below (1957).
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2014