…light music which is not slight, and serious music which renounces depth without risking shallowness…
Arthur Benjamin (1893–1960)
Sonatina for Violin and Piano
Scherzo di stile antico
Rondo: Con moto ma non allegro
The weaving, soaring violin melody that opens Australian composer Arthur Benjamin’s Sonatina for Violin and Piano immediately beguiles the listener and attests to Hubert Howells’ description of Benjamin as “an unashamed Romantic.”
Just like his contemporaries, Bartók and Poulenc, war shaped Benjamin’s career. The Sydney-born, Brisbane-raised composer studied with Charles Villiers Stanford (enduring the older composer’s anti-Semitic comments) at London’s Royal College of Music before a military career during World War I saw him first in the infantry and then a gunner in the Royal Flying Corps. He was shot down over Germany in 1918 (by pilot and later Nazi war criminal Hermann Göring) and spent the remainder of World War I composing music in a prison camp. After the war he returned to Australia but was back in England by 1921, writing his Sonatina for Violin and Piano in 1924, the same year he was awarded the Carnegie Prize for his First String Quartet, Pastorale Fantasia.
Benjamin is best known for his 1938 hit Jamaican Rumba, but he was a remarkably agile composer. He wrote extensively for the stage and the concert hall, including a Harmonica Concerto for Larry Adler, while his film music includes the Storm Clouds Cantata used in both versions of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. His piano students at the Royal College of Music, where he taught between the wars, included Benjamin Britten (who dedicated Holiday Diary to his teacher) and Australian composers Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Miriam Hyde.
The commercial success of Jamaican Rumba hovers over Benjamin’s legacy and has drawn attention away from both the sophistication of his music and the breadth of his career – which is not to say his more serious works aren’t wonderfully engaging. The British writer Hans Keller once described Benjamin’s music as “light music which is not slight, and serious music which renounces depth without risking shallowness.”
All of this and more can be heard in the Sonatina, in which, following the flowing first movement, a gently playful Scherzo movement gives way to the bright energy of the Rondo finale, shot through with exquisitely singing melodies.
Angus McPherson © 2021