MusicWeb International: Benjamin Lees (1924-2010)

MusicWeb International
June 1, 2010
by Glyn Pursglove

I sat down to type up this review late on the evening of Tuesday 1 June 2010. Halfway through doing so, wanting to check a date, I went to the web site devoted to Benjamin Lees (, where I was faced with the following announcement: "IT IS WITH PROFOUND SADNESS THAT THE FAMILY ANNOUNCES THE PASSING OF COMPOSER BENJAMIN LEES ON MAY 31, 2010". This review - written on the day after the composer's death - necessarily becomes more of a memorial than I intended it to be when I sat down to put it together.

Lees was born in China, brought up and educated in California. From 1949 to 1954 he studied with George Antheil who acted as a largely unpaid tutor out of respect for Lees' abilities. From the mid-1950s onwards his works began to be performed quite widely and by distinguished performers, without his ever perhaps becoming a 'major' figure in American music. A Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to spend much of his time in Europe in the second half of the 1950s. Never a composer who aspired to be thought of as especially 'American', these European years were important for Lees, years when he could evolve his own voice without direct involvement in the style wars of American music. Prokofiev, Bartók and Shostakovich became important exemplars for Lees.

In a 1987 interview with Bruce Duffie, when the interviewer enquired "in a great number of your own works, you have used the traditional approach - Slonimsky calls it accessibility - which makes your music attractive to conductors and soloists. Is this something you have consciously built in to your pieces, or is this an outgrowth of what you wanted to write innately?", Lees answered as follows: "The accessibility, I suppose, comes from something that George Antheil told me when I was studying with him. He put it very succinctly, and it was one of those catch words which stuck in the memory. He said, "Music must have a face. A theme must have a face, something which is really recognizable, both to you and to the listener." And again, it matters not what style a person writes in, but it cannot simply be amorphous. It cannot be really formless and it cannot be merely notes spinning". Certainly Lees' music never seeks to exclude listeners, or to make their life needlessly difficult by the flaunting of the composer's 'cleverness'. Nor, on the other hand, does he write down, or write to please some lowest common denominator of taste and demand. Like any substantial composer, Lees seems always to have been true to himself, to have been serenely unworried, so far as one can judge, by matters of mere fashion or popularity. Honesty, indeed, has always struck me as one of the hallmarks of his work, a directness of communication. It seems appropriate that he should once have said that "there are two kinds of composers. One is the intellectual and the other is visceral. I fall into the latter category. If my stomach doesn't tighten at an idea, then it's not the right idea."

Most attention - and perhaps rightly so - has been paid to Lees' orchestral works, not least his five symphonies. But, as this disc demonstrates well and clearly, he also had plenty to say in that other 'classical' form - the string quartet, of which he wrote six. This rewarding Naxos disc contains three of them in fine performances by the Cypress Quartet, for whom the fifth and the sixth were written.

The Cypress Quartet begin their programme with Lees' first quartet, written in 1952, and premiered the following year in Los Angles - and in 1954 played in New York by the Budapest Quartet. In three movements (moderato-adagietto-allegro vivo) it has an appealing grace, at its most obvious in the adagietto, a lovely moment that exudes a simplicity - created by considerable art - and only slightly troubled lyricism that has a more or less pastoral quality. In the movement that precedes it some crisp and dynamic writing alternates with more reflective passages. In the last movement - essentially a rondo - the writing is engagingly animated, seeming to speak out of a mind full of ideas and eagerness. A quartet well worth hearing - especially when so well performed - but not yet fully embodying the composer's mature voice.

The two 'late' quartets give us that voice in abundance. The four movements of the fifth quartet (measured - arioso - quick, quiet - explosive) form a musical argument of considerable density, marked both by striking moments and a sense of larger design. The writing for cello at the opening of the first movement, and the ensuing dialogue with the other instruments is one of those striking moments. Another comes in the second movement when an aggressive intervention by the cello disrupts the meditative conversation of the two violins. The more one listens, the more such moments one discovers. The third movement is a miniature delight (it lasts less than two minutes), music of evanescent beauty. The contrast with the fourth movement could hardly be more marked - full as it is of musical contention and turbulence, of assertion and annoyed counter-assertion, a conflict not so much resolved as serving to fuel a still angry ending. Where the sixth quartet is concerned the composer’s markings for its four movements say most of what the mere reviewer might want to say about the work: "measured, dolorous - calm, steady - quiet, eerie - unhurried". And they are! The use pizzicato passages is a particular feature of this quartet - notably at moments in the first and third movements. Without any wilful oddity or eccentricity, Lees creates some fresh and interesting effects at more than one point in this quartet. To say that one can 'hear' his respect for Bartók and Shostakovich is not, repeat not, to belittle his work as derivative. It is merely to recognise that, like 99% (or more!) of all artists, Lees was not a toweringly inventive figure. He was a highly accomplished craftsman who had listened to, and learned from, the music of the past and the present; a composer who refused to be merely modish or to chase the fashionable at the cost of fidelity to what he felt to be right for him.

It is, I hope, timely to celebrate Lees' achievement, immediately after his death. Not a composer of spectacular fame, he worked with a seriousness and truth that some more famous fall short of.