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Australian Heritage: Arthur Benjamin

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

A few times over the years I've written about composers who were so-called "one hit wonders" (see this post, for example), and I've usually used this as an excuse to prove they wrote a lot more than is generally realised. Johann Pachelbel and his Canon (see the previous post in this blog), Carl Orff and Carmina Burana, Engelbert Humperdinck with Hansel and Gretel, Charles Marie Widor and the famous Toccata... There are so many composers who actually wrote a great deal of good music but who are too often dismissed as "one hit wonders".


You don't have to look very far to find such a composer much closer to home. Like Orff's Carmina Burana, this composer's "hit" is more readily recognised than his name, let alone anything else he may have written. But the piece's fame is not undeserved; it's irrepressibly catchy. [listen]


This is the original two-piano version of Jamaican Rumba, composed in 1938 by the Australian-born composer Arthur Benjamin. Arthur Benjamin's other piano works - not to mention his operas, orchestral works, chamber music, choral pieces and songs - are very rarely heard today, while Jamaican Rumba is a standard of the light music repertoire. In addition, Benjamin was a leading piano virtuoso in his day, a highly-regarded performer and an influential teacher. In this post we're going to survey the life and work of Arthur Benjamin.


Arthur Benjamin

Arthur Leslie Benjamin was born in Sydney on 18 September 1893. He came from a Sephardic Jewish background and his parents were both interested in music. His father, Abraham, was an amateur singer, and his mother, Amelia, was a talented pianist. At the age of three he moved with his family to Brisbane and it was there he spent his childhood. He performed as a pianist for the first time at the age of six and attended Brisbane Grammar School. In 1911, the year he turned 18, he went to London, having won a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition, harmony and counterpoint, and piano. His composition teacher was one of the major figures of British music at the time, Charles Villiers Stanford.


Charles Villiers Stanford (1921)

Benjamin's harmony and counterpoint teacher at the RCM was Thomas Dunhill, someone about whom Benjamin wrote with great affection and respect in later life. It was through Dunhill that, in 1913, Benjamin had his first piece published, the short Romance-Impromptu for piano. [listen]


Benjamin saw active service during world war one, which broke out the following year. Initially he was an infantry officer but later he joined the flying corps. In July 1918 he was shot down over Germany by a young German pilot called Hermann Göring, and he spent the remaining months of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp near Berlin. While in the camp he met the English composer Edgar Bainton, who had been imprisoned since 1914. (Bainton would become director of the Sydney Conservatorium in the 1930s.)


Edgar Bainton

In 1919 Benjamin returned to Australia and took up the post of piano professor at the Sydney Conservatorium, then still under its foundation Director, Henri Verbrugghen. He found the contrast between Sydney and London too much to bear, though, and returned to London after only two years. During his time in Sydney he began what would eventually become his Three Pieces for violin and piano. The first and third of these were written in Sydney; the second was added after his return to London and the set was published in 1924.


Arthur Benjamin returned to London in 1921 to take up a teaching post at the same institution at which he had been a student before the war, the Royal College of Music. In 1926 he was appointed to a professorship at the RCM, a post he held for the next thirteen years. He became highly-respected as a leading piano teacher and his list of piano students includes a number of prominent names, many of them Australian. He taught Peggy Glanville-Hicks, her eventual first husband Stanley Bate, Dorian Le Gallienne, Alun Hoddinott, and - perhaps his most famous student - Benjamin Britten.


Britten's early piano work, Holiday Diary, is dedicated to Arthur Benjamin and mimics some of his teacher's mannerisms. [listen]


Benjamin Britten

During his early years back in London Benjamin continued to write chamber works and a few piano works. These include the Three Impressions for voice and string quartet, the Five Pieces for cello and piano, the Pastoral Fantasy, the violin Sonatina [listen] and the Suite for piano.


The Pastoral Fantasy for string quartet attracted attention when it was one of the winners in the Carnegie Publication Competition in 1924. The judges were Ralph Vaughan Williams and Hugh Allen - both closely connected with the RCM as well - and their comments on Benjamin's score are fascinating. Vaughan Williams wrote, "This is good. We must consider this...slightly Ravelian in texture", while Allen wrote, "Whether experimental or not it is well done and the content never flags," adding the reservation, "Is perhaps rather synthetic in slow and scherzo movements". The Pastoral Fantasy was published in 1924.


From 1926 Arthur Benjamin turned his attention more to writing for orchestra. A major work from this period is the Concertino for piano and orchestra, which occupied him in 1926/27. Like Ravel's G major piano concerto and Lambert's Rio Grande, Benjamin's Concertino was the result of the composer's encounter with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. It was premiered at the London Proms in 1928 with Benjamin himself as the soloist and Sir Henry Wood conducting. In later years the composer was ambivalent about the piece but he needn't have been. This single movement work in four contrasting sections is delightful and definitely deserves to be revived today. This recording was conducted by the composer in the late 1950s and features another pianist who was one of his students at the RCM, Lamar Crowson. [listen]


In 1931 Benjamin composed his Violin Concerto, a work which was dedicated to William Walton and which elicited the admiration of composer Constant Lambert and critic Hans Keller. The concerto was premiered in a BBC studio concert conducted by the composer in January 1933 in which the soloist was the Spanish virtuoso, Antonio Brosa (later strongly connected with Britten's violin concerto). A year later it was given a public performance with the same orchestra and soloist, this time conducted by Adrian Boult. Benjamin's violin concerto is a major work in three movements which most definitely deserves to be better-known. [listen]


One work of Benjamin's - apart from the Jamaican Rumba - which has maintained some currency is his Overture to an Italian Comedy, composed in 1936. This seems to have been written independently of his one act comic opera Prima Donna, which was composed three years before in 1933. When the opera was premiered in 1949, though, it opened with the 1936 overture. It's a sparkling confection, a tarantella with delicate good humour, immaculately orchestrated and perfectly poised. This classic recording is conducted by my own conducting teacher, the late Myer Fredman. [listen]


Another aspect of Arthur Benjamin's work was as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. This took him far afield, to places as diverse as Australia, Canada and the West Indies. It was while he was in Jamaica on one these examining tours that he encountered the sounds which would inspire his most famous work, Jamaican Rumba, mentioned earlier. The famous rumba was one of a pair of pieces, simply titled Two Jamaican Pieces. The two-piano versions of these pieces came first; the composer later orchestrated them. But with the rumba Benjamin himself later made an abridged version for solo piano and a version for violin and piano, and one of his students made a four-hands-on-one-piano arrangement. And these are in addition to countless arrangements for other instrumental forces by others.


Jamaican Rumba became so famous that the Jamaican government gave Benjamin a barrel of rum every year in recognition of the work he had done in making Jamaica better-known around the world.


The 1930s saw Arthur Benjamin produce other major works, quite apart from his famous pieces of light music. The Sonatina for cello and piano was written for the young cellist Lorne Munro, who years later became principal cello of the Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic Orchestras. The Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola and orchestra was premiered in 1938 and later recorded by stars no less famous than Jascha Heifetz and William Primrose. [listen]


Also in 1938 Benjamin made the momentous decision to resign from the Royal College of Music and leave England. He moved to the west coast of Canada and settled in Vancouver. He established a reputation as an engaging speaker on radio and extended his career as a conductor while in Canada. He eventually became a major figure in Canadian musical life and in 1941 was appointed conductor of the CBC Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1946. He visited the USA often during this time and in 1944/45 was resident lecturer at Reed College in Portland, OR.


Benjamin composed a great deal of music during his years in Canada. This includes the Ballade for string orchestra [listen], the Suite for flute and strings, From San Domingo [listen],

Caribbean Dance, and much else. He also arranged, in 1942, a Baroque-sounding oboe concerto from keyboard pieces by Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801). In fact for some years the work was often mis-labelled as "Cimarosa's Oboe Concerto" whereas it's entirely Arthur Benjamin's own arrangement of the Cimarosa pieces. [listen]


On a personal note, it was while he was in Canada that Benjamin met Jack Henderson, who was to be his partner for the rest of his life. In Vancouver in 1943 Benjamin composed the Pastorale, Arioso and Finale for piano as a 21st birthday present for Henderson. This is the Finale section. [listen]


Despite his success in Canada, and the fondness he held for the country, Benjamin decided he needed to return to England. He returned to London in 1946, with Henderson, and began teaching at the RCM once more. Quite apart from his work as a teacher and composer, Benjamin was highly sought-after as a pianist in his own right, as he had been before the second world war. For his part, Jack Henderson worked for music publisher Boosey and Hawkes.


Royal College of Music, London

A major work from the mid-40s is one of Arthur Benjamin's largest works, his only symphony. This was completed in 1945 and premiered at the Cheltenham Festival in 1948 by the Hallé Orchestra under John Barbirolli. The same artists went on to perform the work in Manchester, Liverpool and the Royal Albert Hall in the ensuing months. It's a big work, in four movements, lasting nearly 40 minutes. It should definitely be better-known. This is the finale. [listen]


Another major work followed as a result of a commission from the ABC. Benjamin was commissioned to compose a new work to perform on his 1950 concert tour of Australia, and this resulted in the Concerto quasi una Fantasia for piano and orchestra. Unlike the earlier piano Concertino, this is a fully-fledged concerto in three movements, and Benjamin was the soloist at the premiere in Sydney with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goossens in September 1950, with subsequent performances in other Australian cities as part of the tour. This is the second movement. [listen]


Arthur Benjamin

An important part of Arthur Benjamin's output is his music for the stage. The two one-act operas from the 1930s (The Devil Take Her and Prima Donna [listen]) were joined by two full-length operas in the 50s, A Tale of Two Cities and Mañana, neither of which has held the stage since their premieres, despite effusive praise from many quarters for the Dickens-inspired opera, especially. Benjamin left an unfinished opera based on Molière's Tartuffe when he died. He also wrote ballet music, but very little of his theatre music is ever heard nowadays.


Benjamin was also a respected composer of film music, but most of the scores and parts of his film scores have been lost. Perhaps his most famous contribution to film is the Storm Clouds Cantata, a choral work written to be played as part of the climactic scene in the 1934 Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much. Benjamin wrote the music for the entire film, including the cantata which is performed as part of a concert in the Royal Albert Hall, during which a murder is attempted. Only a fragment of the piece was used in the film but Benjamin composed a compete piece lasting some eight or nine minutes so that Hitchcock could choose which bits he wanted when he came to do the final editing.


Hitchcock remade the film in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day and on this occasion the film score was by Bernard Herrmann. However for the Albert Hall scene, Herrmann decided to re-use Benjamin's cantata from 1934, although he extended and it and enhanced the orchestration. Here is that famous scene in the 1956 remake. (The on stage conductor in the movie is Bernard Hermann himself.) [listen]


The famous view between the cymbals of Bernard Hermann conducting Benjamin's "Storm Clouds Cantata" in the 1956 remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much".

One of Arthur Benjamin's last works was a concerto written for the American harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, a work which Adler recorded twice and performed many times. This is Adler's 1954 recording, made the year after the work was composed. [listen]


This necessarily brief survey of Arthur Benjamin's works focuses on his larger, more "serious" works, but it must also be said that he was a master of the light music genre as well. Quite apart from the Two Jamaican Pieces which include the famous rumba, Benjamin wrote much on a smaller, lighter scale, music which is equally well-crafted and always accessible and charming. There is a large amount of small-scale piano music and much more chamber music and lighter orchestral pieces, quite apart from the works mentioned here. It's well worth looking out for.


Arthur Benjamin died from cancer in London on 10 April 1960 at the age of 66. His partner Jack Henderson lived on for many more years; he passed away in October 1995.


Although he spent little of his adult life in Australia, Arthur Benjamin maintained his Australian connections and is still regarded very much as an Australian composer today. He is also a composer whose time surely must have come. It is time to reassess his major works and allow the Australian public to hear a voice which created some wonderful music. Here's hoping Benjamin's major works will be given more prominence in concert programs in the very near future.


I'll conclude with one of his last works, the Tombeau de Ravel, for clarinet (or viola) and piano. [listen]


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2013.

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