Monday, July 7, 2008
From the Intriguing Coincidences dep't
You get a (virtual) dollar if you've ever heard of Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960), an Australian-born British composer. Even during his lifetime, articles on the composer began with little apologies for his obscurity. Usually, articles on his life begin by explaining that his best-known work is an orchestral miniature called "Jamaican Rumba", but orchestral repertoire of that sort has been out of style for years. Or the article will begin with an appeal to older listeners, by mentioning his double concerto that was recorded by Heifetz and Primrose. More honest writers realize that the vast majority of musicians have never heard a Benjamin work at all, and mention that he also had a remarkable career as a pianist, including giving the British premiere of Rhapsody in Blue.
I've heard a few of Benjamin's occasional orchestral works, which are well-crafted and enjoyable, but the piece that knocks my socks off is his Symphony. There are two recordings in the catalogue, but the piece is almost unknown, and I cannot fathom why. It's a Romantic symphony in the best sense of the word, firmly in the English tradition, but set apart by unusually engaging thematic material and an unerring sense of pacing, so that the listener's attention never wanders through the work's 45-minute length. As far as I'm concerned, it's a better piece than many symphonies by better-known British composers - including Vaughan Williams, Bax and Arnold. In a sane world, it'd be performed all the time. But, alas, musicians have no discrimination and value name recognition above musical quality, &c.
I just discovered, however, that this composer has an intriguing Canadian connection*. Benjamin visited Canada as an adjudicator during the 1930s and moved to Vancouver in 1939, staying in Canada for the duration of the Second World War. In fact, it was in Vancouver that he wrote his symphony! Google turned up the additional nugget that Benjamin was the first conductor of the CBC Radio Orchestra.
But wasn't John Avison the first director of the orchestra, like it says on the CBC webpage? Yes and no. And here we move into even more obscure facets of Canadian broadcasting history: the CBC Vancouver Orchestra was the brainchild of Ira Dilworth, a conductor and teacher who joined the Corporation in 1938. It's little-known today, however, that he actually started two radio orchestras - the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Avison, and the CBR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin. Avison's chamber orchestra, comprising only 25 musicians, was the one that lasted, eventually expanding to become today's CBC Radio Orchestra - Benjamin's orchestra, presumably full-size, didn't outlive the 1940s. But for a few years, the city of Vancouver had not one, but two radio orchestras. That's pretty cool.
Looking back on it, it's hard not to see this 1940s period as a golden age of CBC radio programming, one which quickly passed. The CBR Radio Orchestra folded quickly enough. Its sibling, the Vancouver Radio Orchestra, is now on the chopping block, to the chagrin of some Canadians and the indifference of most. Arthur Benjamin went back to England and took his symphony with him - I can find no reference to a Canadian orchestra ever performing it. And the visionary Ira Dilworth's job as head of CBC's English-language programming has been taken by Richard Stursberg.
It may be too late to pick up the rest of the pieces of this puzzle, but Canadian orchestras could do worse than to pick up Benjamin's Symphony as a part of their repertoire. Sure, he wasn't born in Canada, but he loved the country - and the Canadian orchestral repertoire is conspicuously missing a big Romantic symphony.
*The book that set me on this particular chase was British Composers in Interview by the young R. Murray Schafer, then a young music student working as a journalist to pay his bills. Today, we can't imagine a radical like Schafer interviewing arch-conservative composers like Benjamin or Edmund Rubbra, but he does so with such good taste and asks such good questions that his own antipathy disappears. Read it the first time to find out how your favourite British composers tick, including Tippett, Britten, Lennox Berkeley, and Walton; read it the second time to get inside the mind of a young genius before he was famous.