The 2014 Honorees

By Paul Griffiths

No opera within recent memory has received such dazzling praise as this British composer’s Written on Skin, a triangular tale of sexual curiosity, rhapsodic love, and violent jealousy. His music, always bewitchingly beautiful, is at once startlingly new and startlingly reminiscent.

Some composers are significant achievers when still in their teens, like Mozart, Schubert, and  Mendelssohn. Others have to wait until nearer—or beyond—the age of 50 to find a mature voice, like Bruckner or Franck. George Benjamin is perhaps unique in belonging to both groups. Born in London in 1960, he joined Olivier Messiaen’s class at the Paris Conservatoire when he was 15, and by the time he left, four years later, had already produced a striking piano sonata, among other works. His first  orchestral score, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, followed when he was 20, and was taken up by Pierre Boulez. By then he was continuing his studies at Cambridge with Alexander Goehr, while learning also from everything that appealed to his keen ear for poetry and precision: Elliott Carter, György Ligeti, the French spectralists. A spectacular career ensued.

Benjamin was always, though, a circumspect artist. He responded vitally to new challenges—combining a live ensemble with electronic sounds (Antara, 1985-87), finding an unsuspected voice in ancient viols (Upon Silence, 1989-90), creating rich textures and extraordinary dynamism with only a pair of violas (Viola, Viola, 1997)—but worked for a decade before releasing, in 1993, his second piece for full orchestra, Sudden Time. He became good at waiting. And perhaps, all this while he had a notion there was something worth waiting for, something that arrived with startling impact when he got around to his first opera, Written on Skin, which had its premiere at the Aix Festival in 2012.

Always bewitchingly beautiful, Benjamin’s music was now driving itself through the throats of characters in emotional turmoil, with an orchestra boiling beneath them. Perhaps for the first time since Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, here was an opera that conveyed every word of its libretto—an exceptionally fine one, by Martin Crimp—while at the same time elaborating a new and involving musical world. The piece tells one of the oldest stories in the world, a triangular tale of sexual curiosity, rhapsodic love, and violent jealousy. But it does so in a language all its own, at once exquisitely wrought and devastatingly raw.

Written on Skin sounds new, not only within the operatic repertory but also as a product of Benjamin’s artistry.Typically, he prepared for it by writing, with Crimp, a smaller theatrical piece, Into the Little Hill, which proved his ability to conceive fully formed vocal characters and a gathering atmosphere of foreboding. But Into the Little Hill is a parable, Written on Skin flesh-and-blood drama.

At the same time, though, the opera draws on resources Benjamin had been building up for himself since his teens, resources of color and harmony. The orchestra, which includes a bass viol and glass harmonica as well as an abundant variety of percussion, supports and extends the passionate drama onstage while coming up with sounds that often astonish and are always tightly in focus. Yet it is perhaps Benjamin’s harmonic control that is most remarkable, and most productive, not least in giving him access to a vocal style at once new and natural.

Harmony, for Benjamin, was always the main issue. “Without any question,” he said back in the mid-80s, “I think fundamentally in terms of harmony right from the start of a piece…. And I can’t write harmony unless I feel it’s going somewhere, unless it creates a sense of passion, of pushing forward…. The biggest joy is to find music in which the harmony takes off.”

This never meant restoring the old tonality, but it might mean restoring the old chords, as he had done marvelously in his orchestral song after Wallace Stevens, A Mind of Winter (1980-81), where a major chord comes shining through the surface like a new discovery. After that, with increasing clarity, definition, and richness, his desire for harmony, and in particular for songs, but all the time within a vaster frame of reference.

That sense of grown-up reenactment—of creating something new that is simultaneously something old, embedded in the contemporary and yet speaking for itself, like the major chord in A Mind of Winter—has enabled Benjamin to evoke a wide range of prototypes without succumbing to pastiche. His output includes canonic piano studies on the borderlands of Bach (Shadowlines, 2001), a reinvention of the Mozartian piano concerto (Duet, 2008), and a succession of orchestral scores, including Duet, in which the body of instruments is reconfigured. Duet is for a moderate ensemble with no violins, Palimpsests (2002) for a lineup that is fully symphonic except in having drastically reduced numbers of violins and violas, and no cellos.

These works do not break with the past, for that break happened long ago, and they are picking up the pieces, under changed conditions. Equally, they do not return to harmonic force and motivation, led him into a beguiling world of interacting modes, where musical things seem to be happening exactly as they did in immemorial folk the past, for no return is necessary: We are in and of the past, even while we are in and of the present.

For a composer whose music is at once startlingly new and startlingly reminiscent, as dazzling in its retrievals as in its innovations, Martin Crimp, who wrote the words for Into the Little Hill as well as Written on Skin, is the ideal collaborator, for in his plays he has similarly worked with making memory immediate, having costume drama take place now.

Benjamin and Crimp are already at work on a second big opera, though perhaps we can look forward to at least one further reconfiguration of the orchestra along the way, as well as more piano music, continuing Benjamin’s longstanding relationship with Pierre-Laurent Aimard. All we can be sure of, about any of this composer’s future works, is that, while decisively creating their own echoes, they will not sound like anything else. •

Paul Griffiths was born in Wales in 1947 and worked for 30 years as a music critic in London and New York. He is known particularly as a writer on new and recent music, his Modern Music and After, now in its third edition, being the standard work on music since 1945.


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