The week before our interview, the composer George Benjamin tells me, he had been poring over an exhibition of medieval illuminated manuscripts at the British Library. He is still full of it. “Think how long it must have taken them, working with nothing but natural light,” he enthuses. “Every page has the most precise geometry in its design, as if it has been planned architecturally, but that is combined with a fantasy in its decoration which is quite extreme.”
The subject is on Benjamin’s mind as he has just finished composing a new opera that has a 12th-century illustrator as its protagonist. This was evidently a labour of love and for four or five years his life effectively came to a halt. He says he stopped conducting, teaching, travelling, and lived virtually as a recluse. But now, with the opera finished, he can at last escape his self-imposed prison.
The change in lifestyle is going to seem dramatic, as 2012 promises to be a big year. Two events, a retrospective and the opera’s premiere, will provide an opportunity to reassess the work of a composer who has never been one to promote himself unduly. Now 52, Benjamin is at the height of his powers and yet his rise seems almost to have happened imperceptibly, as the brilliant newcomer who burst upon the scene in 1980 as the youngest ever composer at the BBC Proms has grown into a senior figure of authority. Although his home in west London is quite central, barely a sound disturbs the peace in the conservatory as Benjamin talks about his music – a perfect setting for a composer who is like the eye at the centre of the contemporary music storm.
Part of the reason is that his output to date has been famously small. It is rare for a year to pass with more than one new piece coming forth and many of them, perfectly formed though they are, have been on a modest scale. Nevertheless, over the years that corpus of music has built up to the point where a survey can be surprisingly far-reaching in its scope and variety.
In May, the Southbank Centre in London will present a weekend-long survey, Jubilation: The Music of George Benjamin. The event has been in the planning for some years, since the first stirrings of ideas for the London 2012 Festival, of which it is part. Almost every aspect of Benjamin’s music will be featured but, at its centre, the weekend has two works that have not been heard in the UK for many years. Antara is a seminal work of exquisitely voiced sounds, including electronics, while Jubilation is a choral work for more than 200 young performers, which gives the weekend its name. Three ensembles with which Benjamin has been closely involved – the London Sinfonietta, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Royal Academy of Music – will take part.
Some two months later, the new opera, Written on Skin, will have its premiere at France’s Aix-en-Provence Festival. At 100 minutes, it represents the longest span of music (three scenes, but played without a break) that Benjamin has composed.
“This is the first time I have written a piece on such a scale and it’s great to be able to swim in so vast an ocean,” says Benjamin. “I’m not used to writing pieces that long, but I have to say I liked it. To maintain the spontaneity and flow is a huge challenge and I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t secluded myself. Once you have been swept up by the wave of the drama, it is exciting to surf it. But then you think, ‘Have I used that instrument too often? Should I save up a particular colour for later?’ I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted at all, because there only needs to be one little mistake in the dramatic timing and the consequences could be serious.”
The commission came from Bernard Foccroulle, director of the Aix Festival and a long-time supporter of Benjamin’s work. His one condition was that the opera should relate in some way to the Provençal region. The result is a story based on an Occitan legend from the 12th century, in which a wealthy lord invites an artist into his house to complete a book of illuminations in glorification of his achievements, only for his previously emollient wife to use the book as a means of rebellion against him.
“The original story … told of a troubadour, not an artist,” explains Benjamin. “But because Martin Crimp, my librettist, and I had already used a pied piper in my earlier opera, Into the Little Hill, we decided to change him to an illuminator. The imagery of the illumination of the manuscripts has added an additional source of colour.”
The opera has been booked for further performances in Munich, Vienna and Paris – all this before it has even been seen. At a time when many living composers find it difficult to cross national boundaries, Benjamin’s voice has an international reach.
Does he feel a British composer? “I just write music. I don’t think where it comes from. I am a British composer, but not with a big ‘B’. From my teachers Peter Gellhorn and Alexander Goehr, I drew on a Teutonic tradition, and from Olivier Messiaen [Benjamin’s composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire from the age of 16] a French one. In Frankfurt last autumn there was a survey of my works at the Alte Oper and at the seminar afterwards the last speaker gave a talk outlining what British music is. We wouldn’t have to do that with German music, would we?”
It was Messiaen who provided the immediate example of a composer with a mind and style uncompromisingly his own. “From a model as inspiring as he was, you take not only what they say, but who they are,” Benjamin says. “Messiaen was a very generous man and a defiantly original composer. I loved him always, but if you have a teacher who has such a strong personality, it is also important to escape them, and one of Messiaen’s final gifts was that he was very tolerant of those who wanted to get away.”
Easy to say, not so easy to do, as Benjamin concedes. But, as this important year unfolds, it will surely be clear how wholeheartedly he has followed his teacher’s example and pursued his own, very personal path. Locked away in his study, the creator of music that seeks perfection in every precise shade and blend of its brilliant colours, Benjamin is surely a master illustrator for our times.
‘Jubilation: The Music of George Benjamin’, Southbank Centre, London, May 12-13 www.southbankcentre.co.uk
‘Written on Skin’ premieres at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on July 7, www.festival-aix.com