Arthur Leslie Benjamin (September 18, 1893–April 10, 1960) was an Australian composer, pianist, conductor and teacher one of the first Australian musicians to forge an international reputation, who is best known as the composer of Jamaican Rumba, composed in 1938. Benjamin was born in Sydney, Australia, on September 18, 1893, but when he was three his parents moved to Brisbane in Queensland, and he was educated there. Taught piano by his mother, he became a progeny on the piano. At the age of six he made his first public appearance as a pianist and his formal musical training began three years later with George Sampson, the Organist of St John’s Cathedral and Brisbane City Organist. In 1911, after a period playing in a piano store to prospective customers, at the suggestion of Thomas Dunhill he entered and won an open scholarship from Brisbane Grammar School that took him to London at the age of eighteen to study at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where he studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford, harmony and counterpoint with Dunhill, and piano with Frederic Cliffe. Almost immediately Benjamin made his mark as a star pupil, and he became a leading figure in a circle of close friends that included Herbert Howells, Arthur Bliss, Ivor Gurney, and Leon Goossens.
In 1914 Benjamin joined the Officer Training Corps, receiving a temporary commission in April 1915. He served initially in the infantry as 2nd Lieutenant with the 32nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and in November 1917 he was attached to the Royal Flying Corps. On July 31, 1918, his aircraft was shot down over Germany by the young Hermann Göring, and he spent the remainder of the war as a German prisoner of war writing music at Ruhleben internment camp near Berlin. There he met the composers Edgar Bainton, who had been interned since 1914, and who was later to become director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, and Benjamin Dale. The manuscript of the unpublished Violin Sonata in E minor bears the date 1918, the only surviving work of that year and one of very few to be written by Benjamin during the war.
Benjamin returned to Australia in 1919 at the invitation of Henri Verbrugghen and became piano professor at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, Sydney. He remained in Australia for only two years and returned to England in 1921 to become piano professor at the RCM. Following his appointment in 1926 to a professorship which he held for the next thirteen years at the RCM, Benjamin developed a distinguished career as a piano teacher. His better-known students from that era include Muir Mathieson, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Miriam Hyde, Joan Trimble, Stanley Bate, Bernard Stevens, Lamar Crowson, Alun Hoddinott, Dorian Le Gallienne, Natasha Litvin (later Stephen Spender’s wife and a prominent concert pianist), William Blezard, and Benjamin Britten, whose Holiday Diary suite for solo piano is dedicated to Benjamin and mimics many of his teacher’s mannerisms.
Benjamin continued writing chamber works for the next few years, such as Three Pieces for violin and piano (1919–24); Three Impressions for voice and string quartet (1919); Five Pieces for Cello (1923); Pastoral Fantasy string quartet (1924), which won a Carnegie Award that year; Sonatina for violin and piano (1924); and the Suite of 1926 for piano solo influenced by his lasting admiration for Maurice Ravel. Orchestral works of this period include Rhapsody on Negro Themes (1919); Concertino for piano and orchestra (1926/7); Light Music Suite (1928); Overture to an Italian Comedy (1937); and Cotillon Suite (1938). There also appeared over twenty meticulously crafted songs and choral settings.
Benjamin wrote four operas. The one-act opera The Devil Take Her, to a libretto by Alan Collard and John B. Gordon, was first produced at the RCM on December 1, 1931, and was followed by another one-acter, Prima Donna in1932 with libretto was by Cedric Cliffe, son of Benjamin’s piano teacher at the RCM, Frederic Cliffe. The Violin Concerto of 1932 was premiered by Antonio Brosa with Benjamin conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 1935 he accompanied the 10-year-old Canadian cellist Lorne Munroe on a concert tour of Europe. Three years later he wrote a Sonatina for Munroe, who later became the principal cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
Benjamin was equally active as a writer of music for films, beginning in 1934 with The Scarlet Pimpernel, an adaptation of music from the Napoleonic era, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) for which Benjamin composed the extended Storm Clouds Cantata. Benjamin was also an adjudicator and examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which led him to places such as Australia, Canada, and the West Indies. It was in the West Indies that he discovered the native tune (Mango Walk) on which he based his best-known piece, Jamaican Rumba, one of Two Jamaican Pieces, composed in 1938. His Romantic Fantasy for Violin, Viola and Orchestra was premiered by Eda Kersey and Bernard Shore in 1938, under the composer.
Benjamin resigned from his post at the RCM and left to settle in Vancouver, Canada, where he remained for the duration of the war. In 1941 he was appointed conductor of the newly formed CBC Symphony Orchestra, holding the post until 1946. During this time he gave “literally hundreds” of Canadian first performances. The Elegiac Mazurka of 1941 was commissioned as part of the memorial volume ‘Homage to Paderewski’ in honor of the Polish pianist who had died that year. After a series of radio talks and concerts in addition to music teaching, conducting and composing, he became a major figure in Canadian musical life. He frequently visited the United States, broadcasting and arranging many performances of contemporary British music. He was also Resident Lecturer at Reed College, Portland, Oregon between 1944 and 1945. Notable students include composer Pamela Harrison. Returning to Britain in 1946, Benjamin resumed his position at the RCM, where he remained until his retirement in 1953.
Other film scores included those for Alexander Korda’s 1947 film An Ideal Husband, The Conquest of Everest, The Cumberland Story (1947), Steps of the Ballet (1948), Master of Bankdam (1947), Above Us the Waves (1955) and Fire Down Below (1957). A Tale of Two Cities (1950) and Mañana, commissioned in 1955 and produced by BBC television on February 1, 1956, were full-length operas. The other major original works written during the 1950s were the Harmonica Concerto (1953), written for Larry Adler, who performed it many times and recorded it at least twice; the ballet Orlando’s Silver Wedding (1951), Tombeau de Ravel for clarinet and piano, a second string quartet (1959), and the Wind Quintet (1960). He was honoured by the Worshipful Company of Musicians by the award of the Cobbett Medal later that year (1957). His private students included John Carmichael.
Continuing to compose and teach privately, Benjamin 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. He died on April 10, 1960, at the age of 66, at the Middlesex Hospital, London, England, from a re-occurrence of the cancer that had first attacked him three years earlier compounded by hepatitis, contracted while Benjamin and some friends were holidaying in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). A fifth opera, Tartuffe, with a libretto by Cedric Cliffe based on Molière, was unfinished at Benjamin’s death. The scoring was completed by the composer Alan Boustead and the work produced by the New Opera Company at Sadler’s Wells on November 30, 1964, conducted by Boustead.
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 flavor, the most famous of which is the Jamaican Rumba that brought him popular acclaim, making him something of a household name. But there are also some impressive pieces of chamber music and several concertos. And there is the magnificent Symphony, first performed at the Cheltenham Festival in 1948. Among Benjamin’s other notable scores are the oboe concerto, arranged in 1942 from keyboard sonatas of Domenico Cimarosa, which has succeeded in maintaining a place in the repertoire; Elegy, Waltz and Toccata for viola and orchestra, also a Cheltenham premiere (in 1949); a Concerto quasi una Fantasia for piano and orchestra (1950)
My collection includes the following work by Arthur Benjamin:
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources