About this Recording
8.223764 - BENJAMIN: Symphony No. 1 / Ballade for String Orchestra

Arthur Benjamin (1893 -1960)

Symphony No. 1 (1944 -45)

Ballade for string orchestra (1947)

Born in Sydney in 1893, Arthur Benjamin moved to London at the age of eighteen to study at the Royal College of Music. There he became a pupil of Stanford and was generally considered to be among the most promising students at the College. In 1914 he was eager, with others, to enlist. His mother in Brisbane wrote to Sir Hubert Parry, Director of the Royal College, to ask him to persuade Benjamin to change his mind. The letter arrived too late for Parry to do anything about it, but in his reply he expressed concern that anyone of such talent should be treated in the same way as the millions who had no such exceptional promise and told her that he had already told Benjamin that he might benefit the country and humanity at large in a higher way. Benjamin, however, like so many of his generation and background, could not be dissuaded. He served first in the infantry and then transferred to the air force, later seen by Parry as a changed man, in common with other contemporaries.

After the war Benjamin returned to Australia to teach piano at the Sydney Conservatorium, but in 1921 he returned to London, publishing the first of his string quartets in 1924 and joining the staff of the Royal College two years later, when he wrote his Piano Concertino, under the influence of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. In addition to the influence of jazz, there was a more substantial Latin American and Caribbean strain in Benjamin’s music, notably in the popular Jamaican Rumba of 1938. This last won him a wide reputation, identifying him, for some, with a particular kind of light music, a vein further explored in Jamaican Street Songs, Jamaicalypso and other works. Benjamin's piano pupils at the Royal College included, from 1930 to 1933, Benjamin Britten, who dedicated to his teacher the Holiday Suite.

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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