Lawrence Power is Britain’s greatest living viola player, the true successor to Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. Part of his mission is to perform and record music premiered by those masters of the previous century, including works by York Bowen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Dale, William Walton and, here, Arthur Benjamin.
Benjamin was one of the first Australian musicians to forge an international reputation. His creative output, which encompasses about eighty works altogether, manifests a great variety of idioms and genres. It includes a good number of light-music miniatures, many of them infused with a jazz or Afro-Caribbean flavour: the most famous of these is the Jamaican Rumba which concludes this album.
This album represents something of a departure for Lawrence Power’s recording career: he performs Benjamin’s Violin Sonatina on the violin. This ambitious, virtuosic and formidably accomplished work is not at all diminutive—perhaps the lack of a slow movement was felt to debar it from full sonata status.
Benjamin’s Viola Sonata is a wartime piece, with a first movement of dark foreboding. It manifests a spiritual affinity with the large-scale and often elegiac Symphony that Benjamin was about to begin composing, and it contains the bleakest and perhaps the most deeply felt music on the present album. It is an impressive, powerful and virtuosic work, with many technical challenges, all of which Lawrence scales with his usual astonishing prowess.
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).
The Three Pieces for violin and piano are among Benjamin’s earliest published works—they appeared together in 1925, though ‘Carnavalesque’ and ‘Humoresque’ were written in Sydney in 1921 and ‘Arabesque’ at the village of Beare Green in Surrey in 1924. ‘Arabesque’ is dedicated to the well-known English violinist Sybil Eaton, who was also the recipient of works by Stanford and Finzi, and bears the subtitle ‘The Muted Pavane’ (the violinist plays con sordino throughout). In this beautifully effective piece, as the title suggests, the piano treads a grave dance-measure while the violin spins an ecstatic, floridly decorated line above it, to which the pianist adds amiable counterpoints from time to time. ‘Carnavalesque’ is a waltz whose flexible, bittersweet melody is first spun over a single tolling tone in the piano before launching into full ballroom colours, subito e bruscamente; thereafter lyrical and full-bloodedly romantic ideas alternate until the piece delicately evanesces into silence.
‘Humoresque’ bears a dedication to the leading Sydney-based violinist Cyril Monk (1882–1970), an advocate of modern music who gave the Australian premieres of many works. It is a blithe and brilliant toccata for the two instruments, taking a delight in virtuoso display, passing through a wide range of contrasted moods and textures, with much effective use of pizzicato.
The Violin Sonatina is, like the Three Pieces, dated ‘Beare Green 1924’; it is dedicated ‘To Millicent’ (possibly Millicent Silver, who though later renowned as a harpsichordist began her career as a pianist and violinist). The diminutive generic title is perhaps hard to justify. This ambitious, virtuosic and formidably accomplished work is neither a ‘little’ nor a particularly ‘light’ sonata (perhaps the lack of a slow movement was felt to debar it from full sonata status). Overall the Sonatina traces a tonal course from B minor to B major. The spacious and sometimes ecstatic first movement begins with a peaceful, evocative melody, beautifully adapted to the prevailing 5/4 time, over a calmly undulating figure in the piano. A more skittish triplet motif forms a transition to a sonorous, grandly melodic second subject, first heard on piano and taken up by the violin against a bell-like ostinato in the pianist’s left hand. A passionate development section puts these ideas (and others that arise along the way) through some strenuous paces before the movement subsides to a serene close that recalls the opening theme.
Benjamin entitled his E major middle movement Scherzo di stile antico, but there is little that immediately strikes the ear as archaic in this very rapid scherzo that skitters its way above a single nagging repeated bass note. Perhaps he was thinking of the more or less strict canonic imitations (an ‘antique’ discipline) between the violin and the piano’s right hand. The romantic tune of the trio section turns itself after a while into a suppressed waltz; the scherzo returns, deftly abbreviated.
The finale is a good-natured rondo with a rather French-pastoral main tune. Very soon, however, the basic 3/4 time changes to 5/4 and the first movement’s opening idea is briefly heard; indeed the episodes of this rondo tend to reveal reminders of the first movement, often intermingled with the rondo theme as if through a mysterious osmosis. The movement drives towards its conclusion with increasing brilliance, rising at last to a cadenza-like outburst from the violin marked con summa forza ed ectasia (with fullest force and ecstasy) before the decisive final bars.
Both the Sonatina and the Three Pieces show the influence of near-contemporary French music, perhaps Ravel above all. But Benjamin is already able to adapt that vocabulary to his own individual, more Anglophone ends; and he would later broaden his stylistic palette by reference to North American and Caribbean music.
The best-known of all Benjamin’s light-music pieces, Jamaican Rumba was based on a tune he heard in the West Indies while examining there for the RCM. First composed for two pianos in 1937, as the second of Two Jamaican Pieces, it was arranged for many combinations. The original version was in fact composed in a single morning for two of Benjamin’s students, Valerie and Joan Trimble, who were about to give their first recital. The composer made a violin-and-piano version, dedicated to Jascha Heifetz; and this was in turn arranged for the viola by William Primrose and published in 1954. The high-spirited melodic and rhythmic confection of the piece (Howells’s ‘enchanting brevity’) answered to a current vogue for South American and Caribbean idioms created by American jazz and popular music of the 1930s and 1940s.
From San Domingo is another Caribbean-style miniature. The title refers to the old Spanish name for the island that now accommodates the republics of Dominica and Haiti—a racial and musical melting-pot in which Spanish, African and Creole influences were freely mixed. Though this may have been intended to exploit the market opened up by the Jamaican Rumba (and like that work, it was originally scored for two pianos), it is in fact a quite different sort of piece. The version for viola and piano, dedicated to Primrose, appeared in 1945. The piano’s opening rhythmic ostinato calls for the player to rap with the knuckles on the piano lid, producing a rhythmic figure of five rapid quavers which becomes an integral motif in the viola’s melody. Though the mood is generally raffish and carefree, towards the end comes a melancholy snatch of song in Spanish style; in the coda the violist is instructed to play the rhythmic figure col legno, the wood of the bow answering the wood of the piano.
A tune and variations for little people for violin and piano was composed in 1937 and published two years later; it consists of a theme, three variations and a coda. The theme is a simple melody with a slightly old-fashioned air, like a gavotte, and the variations are simple too: the first is a study in pizzicato; the second shifts the prevailing 2/4 metre into 5/8 in order to set some mild rhythmic challenges. In the third, slower variation we are presented with a romantic, nocturne-like version of the theme. The first part of the coda modulates back to a final statement of the tune. Altogether this is an unassuming but charming educational piece.
At the other end of the scale as far as ambition goes, the Viola Sonata was composed for and dedicated to William Primrose in 1942 while Benjamin was working in Vancouver, Canada: he almost simultaneously made a version for viola and orchestra under the title Elegy, Waltz and Toccata (combining the titles of the three movements, which are played without a break). Benjamin’s association with Primrose went back to 1925, when they had presented one of the earliest performances of the Violin Sonatina; and they gave a series of performances of the new Viola Sonata throughout Canada in 1942–3, beginning in Vancouver on 14 October 1942. Primrose had large hands and was said to play the viola as if it were a violin, and in this impressive and powerful work Benjamin set him many technical challenges.
This wartime Sonata also manifests a spiritual affinity with the large-scale and often elegiac Symphony that Benjamin was about to begin composing, and it contains the bleakest and perhaps the most deeply felt music on the present album. The opening E minor Elegy is a chill and desolate meditation whose vein of dissonance and chromatic disquiet are reminiscent of Alban Berg or Frank Bridge; the central section has sinister march music in F sharp minor, driving to an Appassionato e largamente climax with sonorous viola octaves. The transition to the central Waltz, starting with a brief rhapsodic cadenza and then pitting viola pizzicato against piano trills, is powerfully and imaginatively achieved, and the waltz music itself, marked quasi improvisatore and con morbidezza, is a phosphorescent and fretful affair that sustains the dark mood of the opening movement, the viola’s circling triplets suggesting a moth beating its wings against a window, unable to escape. Against it Benjamin juxtaposes a quicker, frostily glittering episode, quoting the urgent march theme, that starts up as if offering a would-be playful contrast, but rapidly turns hectic and sinister, stopping just short of catastrophe. The reprise of the waltz music also refers to the opening Elegy in its impassioned transition to the finale. This is the Toccata, which begins in powerful, almost mechanistic style but soon turns into a chattery and boisterously dancing piece that gives both performers a strenuous work-out while overturning the prevailing moods of the previous two movements and replacing them with one of pugnacious but basically good-humoured determination. The music culminates with a breathtaking coda in E major. This masterly work is one of the finest viola sonatas of the twentieth century.
There is a distinct feeling of a debt being repaid in Le tombeau de Ravel, a set of Valses-caprices for clarinet or viola and piano composed in 1957 and one of Benjamin’s most delightful yet affecting works. This is among the composer’s last completed works. It sends us back to the early violin works of the 1920s when the French influence was at its height in his music. Though the original clarinet version was written for the young Gervase de Peyer, in July 1957 Benjamin informed his pupil Richard Stoker that he had completed ‘a version for viola and piano as Brahms did with his clarinet sonatas’. As with the Brahms works, it is possible to feel that the substitution of the viola gives the music an added plangency; and, as with the Brahms, the viola part is no simple transposition of the one for clarinet but has many incidental differences in substance. The title recalls Ravel’s own memorial work, Le tombeau de Couperin, though the music from time to time is more redolent of his Valses nobles et sentimentales.
The introduction, six waltzes and finale are played without a break. The very fast, agitated F minor introduction leads into the melancholic first waltz, which has echoes of both café and ballroom and becomes more fretful as it proceeds. The second waltz (Presto, volante), played with a light touch and sparsely accompanied, hurries us into the F major third (Andante semplice), whose melodic intimacy and apparent simplicity over quietly sophisticated harmonies, though rising to an unexpectedly desolate central climax, mimic Ravel better than any quotation. No 4 (Allegro, vigoroso) is a choppy, energetic dance vanishing in an upward spiral of triplets. No 5 (Allegretto, preciso, in F minor again) at first pits pizzicato viola against a simple accompaniment in the pianist’s left hand but soon opens out into a kind of hesitant firefly serenade, linking at last into the C major sixth waltz (Lento, intimo). Here the memorial function and deeply elegiac vein that ultimately underpin the entire work become most delicately, stylishly explicit. The finale, however, banishes these shadows in a concluding waltz-fantasy that intermingles several themes, including reminiscences of previous waltzes, and that eventually returns us to the unquiet mood and music of the introduction, as Benjamin closes the circle with a defiant gesture of dismissal.
Calum MacDonald © 2014