At the age of 16 George Benjamin was introduced to Olivier Messiaen, who became his teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, where he also studied piano with Yvonne Loriod. Subsequently his music was accepted by a major publisher, and he went to Cambridge to study with Alexander Goehr; it was during this time, and still aged only 20, that he first attracted national attention with the premiere of Ringed by the Flat Horizon, his first orchestral piece, given by the Cambridge University Musical Society. The work was brought to a wider audience by its subsequent performance in the 1980 Proms, and Benjamin duly found himself furnished with prestigious commissions. This early dose of celebrity has neither knocked him off balance nor unduly accelerated his course as a composer. Benjamin’s works are characterised by two distinct but interdependent virtues: an absolute technical command of whatever medium he uses and a passionate concern for harmony as the fundamental basis of musical inspiration.
Benjamin lives in London, where he is Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College, London, and is a frequent visitor to France and the USA. He continues to write with meticulous care, producing no more than one or two works per year.
Recipient of numerous awards, Benjamin has been associated with several prestigious contemporary music festivals. In 1992 he was even invited to direct a new festival for the Opéra de Paris entitled ‘Carte blanche for George Benjamin’, and the same year he ran the controversial ‘Wet Ink’ festival of the San Francisco Symphony, featuring a wide range of living composers, in which he appeared as conductor, pianist and presenter. As a direct result, he was invited by the South Bank to inaugurate their annual ‘Meltdown’ festival in 1993, during which his orchestral work Sudden Time was premiered.
Benjamin has since been Principal Guest Artist of the Hallé, Composer-in-Residence at the Salzburg Festival, Director of the Contemporary Music Festival at Tanglewood and Artistic Consultant to ‘Sounding the Century’, BBC Radio 3’s nationwide retrospective of 20th-century music which ran from 1996 to 1999.Throughout the 2002/3 season he curated a festival of his music and those of composers he most admired, mounted by the London Symphony Orchestra under the title ‘By George!’. Also a conductor of international reputation, he works regularly with the London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern. In recent seasons he has conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Not surprisingly, Benjamin’s music has found a particularly warm welcome in France. In the last decade he has also worked with increasing frequency in Germany and has been elected to the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts.
Profile © Calum MacDonald