Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Benjamin Lees (b. January 8, 1924; d. May 31, 2010).

Benjamin Lees was part of a generation of American composers (mostly born in the 1910s and 20s) who remained beholden to many European classical traditions, yet embraced a modern tonal language. Lees quite staunchly avoided modernism, serialism, and later minimalism, and yet differed from many of his contemporaries by avoiding programmatic music, or returning to the excesses of romanticism.

Lees, an American born to Russian parents in China, served prominently on the faculties of the Peabody, Julliard and Manhattan schools of music. He developed as a composer under the likes of Halsey Stevens and Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California, and later under "bad boy of music" George Antheil. For the most part, Lees always remained a bit of an outcast in American music, primarily due to his rejection of the prevailing isms of the day. His music is often compared to that of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartok, and of course, contemporaries like Walter Piston, who also shared his belief in absolute music, or music for music's sake. Lees music seems to have remained remarkably consistent throughout the bulk of his career. Although distinctly modern in style, Lees once said, "I consider form on a par with expression," a position not commonly expressed amongst American composers in the 1960s and 70s.

Nicolas Slonimsky described Benjamin Lees’ music as “…so personal, so distinct, so assertive are the stylistic and idiomatic usages in the works of Benjamin Lees that an immediately recognizable Gestalt is formed from an attentive perusal of his scores.”

Perhaps the best examples of his style are his most well-known works. Even by the composer's own admission, amongst his best works are his often performed symphonies -- the Symphony No.4 (“Memorial Candles”), written for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, and Symphony No.5 (“Kalmar Nyckel”), which received a Grammy nomination in 2003. [ When asked about having lost the award (to Dominick Argento), Lees responded, “I came back, I took out the garbage, and life goes on.”]

However, he has many other compositions of note, including his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1964) and Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1958). When asked about why he wrote the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, which has recently become his most performed work, given that the composer admitted that he anticipated very few performances, Lees responded, "I needed the money."

Embeddence Lees: Piano Concerto No. 2 (mvt. III) -- like many of his works, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is composed using a contemporary sense of extended tonality, and makes considerable use of constantly shifting meters, which was the style at the time.

Lees was never shy, nor apologetic about this stylistic choices, which certainly kept him from reaching greater notoriety.

Of serialism and the 12-tone technique Lees had this to say in an interview in 1992: “I tried the technique, but couldn’t do it. It was like making love to a corpse.”

Of his own compositional style he said, "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."

You can read an interview Lees gave in 1987 with Bruce Duffie here. It is an interesting discussion as they cover many themes in the composer's life and music, and touch upon topics such as the future of contemporary music and the symphony orchestra.

Lees, who died on May 31st, at the age of 86, has mostly been an unfortunately neglected composer. Although not much of his music was recorded, what is available (like with all Composers of the Day!) deserves a good listen. The New York Times has an excellent story on the life of the composer here.

figure composer of the day: Benjamin Lees


Anonymous said...

"...Lees quite staunchly avoided modernism..."

He avoided some contemporary or avant-garde trends, but — as found elsewhere in your own text — his tonal practice was modern, his models as a composer were modern, and his teacher was none other than the ultra-modern Antheil.

This blog is an odd place to find such sloppiness.

Gustav said...

Well, I wouldn't exactly call Antheil "ultra-modern". He liked to call himself that, but by comparison, his music in decidedly not ultra-modern. And I use modernism in this case to refer to a movement in music that sought to break with common practice, more specifically with composers like Webern, Varese, and Cage. Modernist composers also tended to embrace atonality, whereas I don't know of any Lees piece which is in any way atonal. Lees' music is more in line with the polytonality of a William Schuman, for example, who would never have been mistaken for a modernist.

Sator Arepo said...

I can sort of see both sides of this.

I would in fact characterize the bulk of Antheil's [early] best-known work as ultra-modern, even if it turned out in the end that he wasn't necessarily committed to that program.

Lees (who I do not know well) seems, though, pretty conservative on the scale of modernisms. While his work engages with various modern/modernist trends, ideas, and techniques, on the whole his idiom seems pretty solidly on the (as I said) conservative side of things given the period in which he lived.

Also, I am pretty sure that for years I assumed he was British.