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8.223764 - BENJAMIN: Symphony No. 1 / Ballade for String Orchestra
Arthur Benjamin (1893 -1960)
Symphony No. 1 (1944 -45)
Ballade for string orchestra (1947)
war Benjamin returned to
In fact Arthur Benjamin might be more fairly represented by attention to more substantial compositions, by his six operas, the last of which, based on Molière’s Tartuffe was left unscored at the time of his death, by his Violin Concerto, or by the sombre Symphony, written in 1944 and 1945 and first performed at the Cheltenham Festival in 1948, a year after the completion of the string orchestra Ballade.
The Symphony opens with a slow dark-hued introduction, with a continuing accompanying figuration in the lower strings. This is interrupted by harsh drum-beats that lead to more angular and astringent thematic material. As the movement unfolds, it is not hard to hear a reflection of the war-time circumstances in which the work was written, a measure of certainty provided by the string chorus, in an idiom that suggests something of the writing of Vaughan Williams. As the movement comes to a close, the rocking accompaniment figure is heard again, with excited fragments of melody superimposed, and the march moves on, urged by the drums to a dynamic climax, followed by the re-appearance of more wistful material, before the final fanfare dies away. The second movement Scherzo offers an immediate contrast in texture, with its use of tuned and untuned percussion, and angular thematic material over an initially delicate background. A harsher element soon intrudes, brass interrupting the earlier delicate woodwind textures, which have their turn again, in continuing contrast. The slow movement, marked Adagio appassionato, opens with a strongly felt and tragic violin theme, which is expanded and developed, as the music moves on into a lyrical dream world of relative peace. The hushed ending, a ray of hope, is displaced by the angry rhythms that introduce the last movement, with its brief sequential writing for trumpet and less somber string material. The march, impelled forward by the martial drum, moves on to a triumphant transformation of the music that had opened the symphony.
Arthur Benjamin’s Ballade was written in 1947, the year of his film score for Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. This again is a work in a serious vein, its narrative often sombre in tone, a world away from the Jamaican rumba or calypso and the predominantly cheerful tone of much of his music. There are long drawn violin melodies and accompaniment figurations that recall those of the Symphony, but the work ends in final tragedy.
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