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George Benjamin umgeben von Pflanzen George Benjamin umgeben von Pflanzen George Benjamin umgeben von Pflanzen
Ernst von Siemens Music Prize Winner

George Benjamin


George Benjamin or In Praise of Obstinacy

by Philippe Albèra

When we look back at George Benjamin’s compositional evolution, we are struck by the coherence of his approach, the absolute fidelity to himself that has brought him to the great form of opera, the crowning of his development, without the slightest concession or deviation from his path. He was already entirely himself at his first public appearance on the occasion of a memorable BBC Proms concert in which his orchestral piece Ringed by the Flat Horizon was performed in London. How had he acquired such mastery of composition, particularly for orchestra, when it was his first attempt in this area? His style was already so personal, but where had it come from? Even forty years later these questions are still difficult to answer; and we might be tempted simply to point to genius, to which Kant attributes a superior intuitive power.

George Benjamin Porträt

If there is little evidence of Benjamin’s links with English music, both the conservative tradition culminating in Britten and the modernist thrust of Birtwistle’s generation, there is also little evidence of the influence of Messiaen, with whom Benjamin had worked for two years since the unlikely age of sixteen. We might rightly ask how an adolescent, who was undoubtedly dazzled by the master he had chosen for himself and to whom, by his own admission, he owes so much, was able so strongly to resist the influence of his music and not even rebel against it, as Boulez had done before him. In Benjamin’s beginnings there is equally little trace of the movements that stirred the 1970s: minimalism, new simplicity, spectralism, new complexity, concrete instrumental music, the development of live electronics.


George Benjamin am Klavier

It is tempting to go back to the origins, to the composer’s early passions, in his childhood for the music of Beethoven and later for that of Berlioz, and to see in them the two sides of his own nature: a constructive rigour linked with a formidable musical imagination and the search for an organicism including free fantasy. But through these two great predecessors, to whom we must add Messiaen, a quest for the absolute also emerges that is fundamental to Benjamin’s aesthetic. With him, style and technique do not exist for themselves but are bound to an ethics of composition, to an expressive necessity that aims for the essential and exceeds it whilst finding its embodiment in the music. This can be discerned in three early works that form a kind of trilogy and were composed by Benjamin between the ages of twenty and twenty-two: Ringed by the Flat Horizon, A Mind of Winter and At First Light.

They offer three ‘images’, to use a Debussyian term, which are extremely contrasting, ranging from the stormy chiaroscuro horizon of the first to the blinding luminosity of the third, via the icy landscape of the second, where the light comes from within. In another group of three instrumental works composed later— Sudden Time, Three Inventions, Palimpsests—which mark a new orientation and are more austere in character, and more dramatic, the seductive sonority of the early pieces is placed at the service of structure and form. What can be perceived in all these compositions as a search for transcendence, albeit a worldly one, will become in the operas a merciless social analysis in which the aspirations of art, which give it a sacred character in the scholarly tradition, find themselves struggling against the mechanisms of domination in which love relationships and power politics are interwoven. These antinomies are at the heart of the dramaturgy of the operas. Their success around the world owes as much to the quality of the dramaturgy and the music, which reaches heights no longer thought possible, as to the works’ ability to bring universal existential questions into play and to reclaim for the realm of the theatre the tragic that is so very present in real life yet so strangely absent in a large part of contemporary artistic production. In so doing, Benjamin has secured his place in the great lineage of opera composers who have defined the history of the genre, from Monteverdi and Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, Debussy and Janáček and some others, to Berg and Zimmermann.


George Benjamin Porträt

Benjamin’s ability to be part of tradition whilst renewing it from the inside, which has been key to his operas’ success, is worthy of reflection. In contrast to many of his predecessors he has not tackled the problems of musical language by supporting radical positions but by working out how to achieve with today’s resources the coherence that was characteristic of the great works of the past. Resuming the distinction drawn in his time by Schoenberg, it can be said that Benjamin has not sought to prolong the style of these works but to maintain the idea of them. For this he has remained within a field which, in view of what the material experienced in the post-war period, could be described as restricted: the field of the twelve notes of the tempered system. In Benjamin’s music we do not find the use of micro-intervals (except in Antara, where they are largely produced using electronics; but this is an atypical work in his catalogue) or an extension into noises and effects produced with new vocal and instrumental techniques, or the temptation of chance, or the spatialisation of sound, or experimentation with electro-acoustic methods. He has chosen to be modern whilst using traditional methods, something that draws him close to Elliott Carter, with whom he shares a mastery of composition and form.

George Benjamin schreibt Noten

But why this limitation in a context in which the renewal of material and of language, even the conception of form and the concept of work, was a general preoccupation, a sign of belonging to modernity? At the time when Benjamin was embarking with total commitment on his vocation as a composer, the attempt to reconstruct a unified, universally usable language through serialism had exhausted its strength and deteriorated into a new academism. Its proponents themselves had set out on individual paths far removed from one another, and the new generations had stood up against it. Whilst Alexander Goehr had conveyed to Benjamin a concern for the organicism stemming from the Schoenberg school, Messiaen had drawn his attention to the importance of natural resonance, the profound nature of the sound phenomenon, from which twelve-tone music had distanced itself. Reconciling these two demands was one of Benjamin’s objectives. If there is a lesson to be learned from the aesthetics of rupture, it is that breaking away from what history has accumulated and starting out on a new basis is hardly likely to produce finely articulated and coherent structures and forms; they often have recourse to coarser means, or bring into play structures that are difficult to perceive. This difficulty is one that confronted composers who prioritised timbre at the expense of harmonic construction: it led them to simplifications on a discursive and a formal level, which limited their own developments. Serial musicians, on the other hand, conceived sophisticated constructions whose principles are however hard to grasp. Whilst it is possible to compose and decompose a harmonic structure consisting of notes, project it in space and interpret it with the aid of different instrumental colours, it is difficult to manipulate complex sounds or noises that present themselves as already formed totalities, with their characteristic timbres and structures; they do not offer those zones of ambiguity that allow their component parts to be given a different meaning depending on the context. Furthermore, the intervals and the harmonic configurations are not mere material but carry within them historical, intrinsically musical meanings with which the composer can work. This is undoubtedly why Benjamin chose a different path, just as he did not use micro-intervals or certain scales he says he likes but which present insolvable problems in an aesthetic like his. He has opted for the richness of relationships offered by traditional material, relationships that are meaningful at the level of perception.

George Benjamin sitzt am Tisch, auf dem Noten liegen

In this respect, through Messiaen, Benjamin has heeded Debussy’s lesson: with great suppleness he has used the different interval and scale structures, the relationships between diatonicism and chromaticism, the interactions between harmony and sound, in order to achieve minimal differentiations as well as large-scale articulations and transformations. He wanted the first notes set down on paper to include the subliminal presence of the notes that follow. Indeed in his music we perceive the projection of sounds beyond themselves, giving continuity its evidence, as if “it was meant to be”. Benjamin needed this extreme differentiation which means that even a minimal change in a note’s position alters the perception and the meaning of a chord, and that sensitive progressions, subtle nuances and organic developments within the nature of the sound phenomenon itself are again possible in continuity. Adorno’s description of Berg as the Master of the Smallest Transition applies rather well to Benjamin’s fine hypersensitivity.  

For Benjamin “the great problem in twentieth-century music” was not the renewal of the material or the search for new foundations but “how to integrate the linear and vertical aspects”1. He rightly observed that the problems of harmony had not been solved satisfactorily, particularly in serial music. “I hated the sound of that music, its coldness, a sort of grey dissonance, a kind of static quality that I found horrible.”2 For him it was not about starting from an a priori structure, symbolised in serialism by tables of correspondences between different compositional parameters, but about concretely experiencing the relationships between sounds as physical phenomena and as structures. He has described how he used to submit two hundred chords to Messiaen for assessment every week; and we can imagine the quantity after a while! Benjamin wanted not only to test the different degrees of tension between the chords and the ability of the sounds to cooperate vertically with one another, he also wanted to find out how to link them organically and which internal rules apply both in the order of simultaneity and in the order of succession. Whilst in tonal music changes of register do not alter the meaning of chords, in atonal music the real relationships between the notes, their respective weights and their spectral interferences play an essential role. This is what Debussy called “placement” and added that it “cannot be learnt”. Thanks to his exceptionally fine ear and knowledge gained from his practical experiences Benjamin has achieved a balance in this respect that is unparalleled in new music: it is impossible not to be moved by the beauty of his combinations. In modern art the term has become suspect, but this beauty that Rimbaud reviled and described as “bitter” has nothing hedonistic about it with Benjamin; it is not the opposite of truth but on the contrary reveals it.

[1] Interview with George Benjamin, by Risto Nieminen, in: George Benjamin, In association with IRCAM, London, 1997, p.12.

[2] Ibid., p.9.

George Benjamin sitzt an einem Tisch, auf dem Noten liegen

Nevertheless, Benjamin was aware of the danger of an essentially harmonic style of composition, as he had celebrated it in his first works; and Messiaen’s example undoubtedly made him reflect on this point, as this style leads to a certain stasis, to the repetition of the same motifs, to a form which is not “braided”, as Boulez put it, but which proceeds by accumulations and juxtapositions. Benjamin therefore tried to conquer polyphony as another dimension of composition, replacing the flamboyance of his first works with an asceticism that became a veritable via dolorosa. It took him almost ten years to write Sudden Time. Even then, at the last moment he tore up a large section of his laboriously produced work and composed the second, longer part under intense pressure just before the premiere (the two parts are separated by a long pause, a freezing of time, which is like a scar within the work). To master a polyphonic writing style that combines with his harmonic style of composition, Benjamin first had to devote himself to a more modest work inspired by Purcell’s Fantasias for the Viols. What he seems to have been seeking in confronting this piece of early music is the balance between polyphony and harmony, between linearity and verticality, which in Purcell’s music maintains an equal distance from an older polyphony already concerned with harmonic matters and a modern harmony in which counterpoint still plays a fundamental role and produces exciting tensions and clashes. Upon Silence for voice and viols (a version for modern string instruments also exists) was at once an exercise and an exorcism. Here, for the first time, we encounter sinuous melodic lines that sound improvised and bring those of Indian music to mind. These reappear at the heart of his later works, like threads at once taut and loose binding the different parts together. (Il filo, the thread, Leopold Mozart stressed to his son.)

George Benjamin Porträt
George Benjamin schreibt Noten

In Sudden Time Benjamin approaches the dimension of time by venturing beyond it, as he had previously done with light in At First Light when he was exploring the borders between polyphony and harmony. He is concerned with polyphony’s ability to develop dynamically over time and with harmony’s ability to tip over instantly from one reality to another, or to remain weightless, as with Schubert. Whereas the first three works had a contemplative, incantatory and ecstatic dimension, forms with complex textures started to be developed from Sudden Time onwards as well as dynamic and large-scale constructions which introduced a dramatic element made possible by the polyphonic style of writing.

This is also the case with Three Inventions. The tintinnabulations in the first movement give way to big guitar chords in the second before sinking to the low sonorities of the third. This progression from an almost naive serenity to a tragic tonality is underlined by the solos unfolding in each movement: It is the flugelhorn in the first movement, the English horn and clarinet in the second, the contrabassoon and euphonium in the third, before the violin attempts, with a deeply lyrical flourish, to oppose the fatality of a process punctuated by bass drums and gongs whose blows reverberate throughout the ensemble as if in a march of torment. But its escape attempt is like an act of desperation: the piece ends in cataclysmic fashion with a final blow on both bass drums, recalling Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

George Benjamin, im Hintergrund Bäume

This concern for formal dramaturgy is found again in Palimpsests. Here the contrapuntal thinking, which is based on the relationships between the three heterogeneous instrumental “choirs” formed of winds, brass and strings, reaches its climax in an incessant and mysterious game of veilings and unveilings. The piece advances in zigzags, as if searching for itself. And as so often with Benjamin – this is one of the many traits he shares with Carter – the abrupt ending is more a halt than a conclusion.

It is the ability to project in time a flexible and varied musical discourse, one in constant evolution and capable of adapting to different theatrical situations, that made writing operas possible. Their success depends on at least three factors: the choice of a subject allowing the portrayal of characters entangled in passionate relationships, without which the singing and the music lose their raison d’etre; a collaboration with a true playwright with a sober, dense and plurivocal writing style who allows the music its rightful space; lastly a score of exceptional quality through which the drama is joined together, embodied and transcended, a score whose finesse, dramatic efficiency, expressive richness and beauty have something Mozartian about them. Like his famous predecessor, Benjamin places opera at the pinnacle of the evolution of this genre by reinterpreting its conventions rather than seeking to replace them.

George Benjamin Porträt

Benjamin was cautious in his approach to the challenge that only few composers have successfully mastered and began with a chamber opera, which marks the start of his collaboration with Martin Crimp, whose encounter was decisive for him. Into the Little Hill is a lyrical tale, an allegory presented in a quasi-liturgical form, in which the two singers are not the story’s protagonists but appear as narrators. This form of alienation points both to Brechtian theatre and to Stravinsky’s stage works and ballets, in which the voices are detached from their characters. The distancing effect is also found in Written on Skin where three angels, a kind of antique chorus, tell an ancient story in which the characters are brought back to life while it lasts, like in Japanese Nō theatre.

The story, which is studded with contemporary words that indicate the distance between reality and fiction, mixes direct and indirect speech, as though the characters were narrating themselves: “What d’you want, says the Boy”, “Can you invent another woman, says the woman”. The illuminator’s page is itself a kind of representation within a representation, the image becoming flesh under the impulse of the Woman’s desire. In Lessons in Love and Violence the alienation occurs through the idea of
a play within a play. In the course of two theatre performances Gaveston, the King’s lover, and Mortimer, the King’s advisor and his wife’s lover, are killed. But the scene where the Queen appears before the people and the scene where the King dies are also related (our thoughts inevitably turn to
Hamlet). The Shakespearean violence in the relationships between the characters, which culminates at the end with the son’s determination to perform Mortimer’s murder in front of his mother, the Queen, is concentrated in music that is often paroxysmal. However, the audience does not witness the scenes of the murders. Crimp’s and Benjamin’s great sensitivity and intelligence prevent any fall into mimesis and make the music the actual site of the drama and its portrayal, an imageless place in which the characters, their voices and their gestures are firmly inscribed (the musician in Into the Little Hill was faceless).

George Benjamin sitzt in einem Sessel

The purity of Benjamin’s musical language, this compositional precision where everything is controlled right down to the minutest detail and everything must be clearly heard, is dialectically linked to the themes of extreme cruelty. This fascinating relationship in itself creates an element of dramatic tension that excludes all possibility of reconciliation. But it also gives the music an expressivity without pathos, as the music seeks less to represent emotions than to draw out the underground forces that underlie the actions of individuals. In all three cases it is about the relationships between the artist and power, between art and political reality, and even whether art and the artist can exist at all. In Lessons in Love and Violence, when the King’s son, now King himself, is asked by his mother what music will accompany the play to which she has been invited (she has no inkling that it concerns her lover’s murder), he announces chillingly: “I have forbidden music.” Mortimer eliminates the couple formed of the King and his lover Gaveston because of their devotion to the arts and because of their immoral relationship but also under pressure from the crowd, who see the King’s lavish spending as the reason for the people’s misery. Now Mortimer’s cynicism turns against him and he drags music with him into the abyss. The artist in Written on Skin pays for his work with his life, and at the end his heart must be eaten by the woman1. In Into the Little Hill the musician has put himself at the service of a cynical politician; he is cheated and leads the town’s children away. In all three operas Crimp and Benjamin do not offer unequivocal interpretations but ones that are complex, ambiguous and thought-provoking.

[1] Von Herzen möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen’, wrote Beethoven as an exergue to the Kyrie of his Missa Solemnis.

In the three operas, the music keeps burrowing abysses of meaning beneath the words and the situations, particularly through the constant changes in temporality, material and harmonic rhythm and through the interweaving of even light lines, creating an ever-changing contrapuntal fabric, and through subtle shifts from diatonic to chromatic structures that enable changes in lighting, forward movements and fine transformations. When the music decelerates to a kind of standstill we are plunged into the characters’ inner consciousness, into a background that cannot be defined with words and that only music can make palpable. At some moments, through terrifying forms of intensification the music becomes the concentrate of the entire tragedy experienced with an almost destructive force. The clever montage of perspectives allows direct expression without submitting to a form of realism. This applies to the love duet between Agnes and the Boy at the end of Part Two of Written on Skin, the dramatic intensity of which is breathtaking, and to the vocal ensembles in Lessons in Love and Violence, which reach extremes of density and tension. The blend of precision and cruelty that is characteristic of Benjamin’s music leads to forms of sacrificial rituals with inexorable and catastrophic outcomes.

George Benjamin umgeben von Pflanzen und Blumen

In Into the Little Hill the faceless musician who frees the town from rats, as in the Pied Piper legend, and even more so from the problems of immigration, says at a certain point: “The world is the shape my music makes it.” If he is speaking about our world, either it is a utopia or it is not about music as Benjamin understands it. For it is no longer the remarkable works that train the ear and serve as models, it is no longer the finely crafted musical forms and the richly structured musical ideas that shape musical taste, as J. S. Bach demanded in the preface to his Inventions and Sinfonias. The music industry has wreaked the same havoc in Music as big industry in nature; it causes downward levelling and a loss of diversity. At the same time, traditional music institutions have been in isolation, exploiting an exceedingly limited repertoire to the extreme and thereby emptying it of its meaning, as if music history had come to a standstill somewhere in the twentieth century. It is all the more remarkable, and it is something of a miracle, that within the most prestigious of them Benjamin has managed to convey a message of such depth and of such quality. But let us make no mistake: measured against the currents that are developing in music creation today and in which music can apparently only continue to exist if it comes across as pictorial and spectacular, his music is perceived as belonging to a past world. His works are too subtle and too profoundly composed; they offer too many nuances and differentiations that require the listener’s ability to perceive them, to meet more immediate needs that are satisfied by repetitive forms, simple effects and spontaneity without technique and without foundations. In this Benjamin is not alone: today all music composed since 1945 is in purgatory.

A prize such as this should therefore acknowledge the courage, the obstinacy and the honesty of a composer who has never allowed himself to be lured by the Sirens and who, without blocking his ears like Odysseus’s crew, has always listened to his inner voice. His path has not been easy, even if to us in retrospect it seems to have been straight, for the troubles, the quests, the wanderings, the struggles with himself and with the material, the doubts and the obstacles have been made sublime in the works, to our great good fortune. This lonely trajectory is magnificent. It is exemplary. His works are not numerous—when we read his scores, we realise why—and this is because with each new problem posed by a new work the composer is trying to move beyond the point reached in the previous work. His music does not have a system and it has no procedure; every work is a new adventure and a new challenge. Benjamin’s music is an oasis of beauty and truth, it is a beacon in the night, and a reason for hope.

In Into the Little Hill the child says, referring to the flute player: “The deeper we burrow the brighter his music burns.” For those who cannot breathe easily on the world’s surface any more, what remains is to burrow, over and over again.