Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Benjamin, Arthur Leslie (1893–1960)

by Charles Campbell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Arthur Leslie Benjamin (1893-1960), pianist, composer, conductor and teacher, was born on 18 September 1893 in Sydney, son of Abraham Benjamin, commission agent, and his wife Amelia, née Menser. His parents moved to Brisbane in 1896 and he was educated at Bowen House School and Brisbane Grammar School. His family provided a strong informal musical background and, aged 6, he made his first public appearance as a pianist. At 9 he began formal training and in 1907 accompanied his parents on a tour of Europe where he developed the musical discrimination that had been lacking. He finished his schooling in Brisbane, and in 1911 went to London and attended the Royal College of Music for three years as a pupil in composition of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

Following the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the British Army. He attended the Army Officers' Training Corps and on 29 April 1915 received a temporary commission as second lieutenant with the 32nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, which served in France. On 4 November 1917 he was attached to the Royal Flying Corps as a gunner. Shot down over Germany on 31 July 1918, he was repatriated on 29 November.

In 1919 at the invitation of Henri Verbrugghen, Benjamin returned to Australia to become professor of piano at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Sydney. He went back to England in 1921 to advance his career as a pianist and composer, and, as an adjudicator and examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, toured Australia, Canada and the West Indies.

Benjamin's first published work was a string quartet which received a Carnegie award in 1924, and by 1926 his published music revealed his developing techniques. In 1925 he made his first public appearance as a professional soloist and that year joined the faculty of the Royal College of Music. Among his pianoforte pupils were Benjamin Britten and Peggy Glanville-Hicks. In 1929 he again visited Australia, combining the role of examiner for the board with a series of successful recitals. Back in England he continued his concert career but soon concentrated on composition. His first opera, The Devil Take Her, a witty one-act farce, was performed under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham in 1931. His publications in this period included another opera, a violin concerto and orchestral, solo and vocal works; he was also a prolific composer of good film-music.

At the end of 1938 Benjamin resigned as a professor at the Royal College of Music and settled at Vancouver, Canada, where he was engaged in 1941 to conduct the new Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra. In 1944-45 he also worked as a lecturer at Reed College, Portland, Oregon, United States of America. Benjamin's publishers asked him to return to England in 1946 and enabled him to devote his time to composition. He made a successful tour for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1950, playing a specially written piano concerto.

At the Festival of Britain in 1951 Benjamin's ballet, Orlando's Silver Wedding, was produced, and his opera, A Tale of Two Cities—a romantic melodrama based on Dickens—won first prize; it was televised in 1953 and successfully produced at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1957.

Witty and urbane, Benjamin enjoyed London life and theatre. He was a member of the Savile Club and lived at Hampstead. After a serious illness in 1957, he continued to conduct but, in 1960, recurrent illness forced him to interrupt a world tour and return to England. He was admitted to Middlesex Hospital, London, where he died of cancer on 10 April 1960; he was privately cremated.

Benjamin's composition was stylistically eclectic. At heart he was a romantic, who continued to be influenced by Stanford. His music was distinguished by wit and skilful technique with a sure touch for parody and satire; he was also successful with compositions written in a richer emotional and contemplative style, but had difficulty in convincingly overcoming the challenge of reflecting the deeper issues of World War II—as evidenced in his Symphony No. 1 written in 1944-45.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Ewen (ed), Composers Since 1900 (New York, 1969)
  • J. Murdoch, Australia's Contemporary Composers (Melb, 1972)
  • F. W. Sternfeld (ed), Music in the Modern Age (Lond, 1973)
  • Tempo (Sydney), Aug 1950
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Apr, 14, 21 Sept 1929, 2, 6, Sept 1950, 11 Apr 1960
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 11 Apr 1960, p 17.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Charles Campbell, 'Benjamin, Arthur Leslie (1893–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benjamin-arthur-leslie-5202/text8753, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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