Benjamin Lees was born in Harbin (now China, but part of Russian-controlled Manchuria prior to 1905, whose significant ethnic Russian population and cultural identity continued long afterward), where there was an established Jewish community. His parents emigrated to the United States in 1925 and settled in San Francisco, where he began piano lessons at the age of five, and he continued his piano studies with Marguerite Bitter in Los Angeles when his parents relocated there in 1939. During his teen years, he embarked on a study of harmony and theory and began composing.
In 1945, following his tour of duty with the armed services during the Second World War, Lees entered the University of Southern California, where he worked with Halsey Stevens, Ernst Kanitz, and Ingolf Dahl. From 1949 until 1954 he studied composition with George Antheil, who was working in Hollywood as a film composer. Lees benefited vicariously from Antheil’s earlier cultural-intellectual circle in Paris, which included such artists and writers as Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Picasso, and Stravinsky. Lees considers Antheil his greatest mentor and influence. “He never considered himself a teacher,” Lees commented in an interview on his eightieth birthday, recalling that Antheil described his method as follows: “I give you tools, and you do what you will with them.” Together they examined the scores of other composers, which, as Lees explained, offered insights into the ways in which composers arrived at solutions to compositional challenges.
Such score perusal became Lees’s continued procedure of self-education. “I discovered in Mahler how to write a very long line,” he reflected. “For more compact forms I went to Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Mozart.” And he was drawn to Haydn’s overt sense of humor and what he has called a “sunny” musical outlook. “Today,” Lees continued, “being a serious composer means you have to be a serious composer, which is not good at all!”
Among Lees’s earliest works are his Sonata for Two Pianos and his first string quartet, which were programmed by the Composers Forum at Columbia University in 1952. The next year, those were among the works that received the first Fromm Music Foundation awards, but it was probably in 1954 that he became an established American composer, with the award of a Guggenheim fellowship and the performance of his Profiles for Orchestra by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Milton Katims for a nationwide broadcast. He spent the next seven years traveling in Europe and living in a small village near Paris. During that time he became the first composer to receive the Copley Foundation award, and his music began to be heard in Europe. His Four Songs of the Night, for soprano and chamber orchestra, was premiered at a 1955 concert devoted to his chamber works, held at the Piccolo Teatro Duse in Genoa. In 1956 he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to Finland, and that same year saw the premiere in Vienna of his first piano concerto. Two years later, while he was still in Europe, his second symphony was commissioned and performed by the Louisville Orchestra. He also wrote a violin concerto and received two other important prizes: a UNESCO award for his second string quartet, and the Sir Arnold Bax Society medal in London—the first time that award was given to a composer from outside Great Britain.
When Lees returned to the United States in 1962, he was appointed a professor of composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. During his first two years at Peabody, his dramatic cantata Visions of Poets was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony for the inauguration of Seattle’s new opera house, and his fourth piano sonata—later recorded by Gary Graffman—was written on a commission from the Ford Foundation.
Lees taught for about a year on the faculty of Queens College, in New York, during which time he composed his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra—a work that has been performed more than eighty times since, by more than thirty-five orchestras. When he returned to Peabody (where he remained until 1968), he composed a second piano concerto that was premiered by Gary Graffman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf; it won a second Guggenheim fellowship.
In 1967 Lees was invited to visit the Soviet Union as the guest of the Union of Soviet Composers, and over the next several years he wrote Silhouettes, an orchestral score for a movement of choreographer John Butler’s Ballet of the Five Senses—broadcast nationally on public television; a third symphony, commissioned this time by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Medea in Corinth, a one-act musical drama; Odyssey, for the English pianist John Ogdon, who premiered it during an American tour; and Trumpet of the Swan, a piece for children’s concerts to a text by E. B. White, which was commissioned and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Celebrations surrounding the United States Bicentennial in 1976 brought Lees three more commissions and premieres: Passacaglia for Orchestra, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; Variations for Piano and Orchestra, premiered by pianist Eugene List with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Louis Lane; and Concerto for Woodwind Quintet and Orchestra, another Detroit Symphony commission, which was premiered under the baton of Aldo Ceccato.
Lees’s interest in painting and sculpture is reflected in such works as Mobiles (1980), inspired by Alexander Calder’s sculptures, and Portrait of Rodin—each of whose seven sections is inspired by a particular work of the French sculptor. Historical events and anniversaries have also been the geneses of important works, such as Symphony No. 5 (1986), subtitled Kalmar Nyckel, commemorating the 350th anniversary of the founding of the city of Wilmington, Delaware, originally as a Scandinavian settlement (at first dubbed “the New Sweden”) in the New World (Kalmar Nyckel was the ship on which those first colonists traveled); Echoes of Normandy (1994), commissioned by the Dallas Symphony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-day landings in Normandy and scored for dramatic tenor, prerecorded electronic tape, organ, and orchestra; and Constellations (1997), commissioned by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Monte Carlo’s Grimaldi dynasty.
In addition to his two most frequently acknowledged works related to Jewish experience—Symphony No. 4 (Memorial Candles) and Silent Voices, his second piano trio—Lees also composed Night Spectres for solo cello, which was performed at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2001 by Steven Honigberg.
Classical musical structures and forms are, as one might suspect from the titles of many of his pieces, the foundations of Lees’s music in general. He employs the full range of conventional developmental techniques in fundamentally tonal contexts. But his brand of tonality exhibits harmonic expansion and enrichment, often through inventive exploitation of intervals. It has been said that despite his initial attachment to the piano, his chosen instrument is the orchestra. He has demonstrated a particular fondness for exploring instrumental contrasts and unusual juxtapositions, as in his Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra (1983), his third piece in a series of works for groups of concertante instruments with symphony orchestra.
A favorite Lees procedure—continual evolution—is demonstrated in his fourth string quartet (1989), which is structured along classical models. “A landscape of shifting meters and turbulence” is how he describes it. By the final movement, the quartet has taken on an abstract form, but fully within tonal boundaries.
With symphonic works constituting the most recognized core of his oeuvre, Lees finds chamber music a welcome challenge. “Writing for a smaller ensemble means that you mentally shift gears,” he has said, “and focus more on the sound of the ensemble….. Chamber music began in homes, then salons. The important thing was that the audience felt a connection between themselves and the musicians. My big objection to what has happened to orchestras over the last half century is that there’s no human connection.”
All of Lees’s works reflect careful considerations of fresh instrumental possibilities, sonorities, and combinations. Indicative of his instrumental imagination is his Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, first performed in 1999 by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo conducted by Hubert Soudant. “Transparent lines, sharp definitions of timbres, resonant composition and rhythmic parameters rigorously controlled” is how critic Jean-Marie Fiorucci evaluated the piece in the newspaper Nice-Matin—lauding its “extraordinary mixture of orchestral plasticity while displaying a palette of fresh and lively colors for percussion.”
Other works among Lees’s voluminous opera are his Etudes for Piano and Orchestra; Declamations for Piano and String Orchestra, one of his earliest pieces; Borealis, commissioned by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary; a concerto for French horn and orchestra, which has enjoyed performances by Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (including on its European tour) and the Dallas Symphony conducted by Andrew Litton; Lady Guinevere, a ballet score staged by Ballet West in 1992 and drawn from two earlier works: Concerto for Chamber Orchestra and Scarlatti Portfolio, an imaginative reharmonization and orchestral arrangement of a group of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard pieces; and two song cycles: Staves (1977) and Paumanok (1979).
Lees has not concerned himself with academic musical directions or trends, even during the 1960s and 1970s, when obliviousness to those developments and avoidance of academically based procedures put a composer at risk of not being taken seriously by the contemporary music establishment. He believes—though perhaps based more on his own aesthetic predilections than on objective considerations—that the seemingly academic attitude of many composers during those decades, especially within the academy, constituted an unnecessarily elite stance that served only to solidify barriers between new music as a whole and the concertgoing public. And he feels that requirement of academic foundations for composition, once considered unquestionable in the circles that “counted,” but now at least open to intelligent debate, is partly at the root of public disaffection from serious cultivated music—especially with regard to new music. In an interview with journalist Ron Bierman, Lees expanded on that view:
I remember when you would look at a score and tell a composer . . . not many people are going to understand this. The reply was, “I don’t care.” They were basically writing either for themselves or for their colleagues.
And Lees agrees, too, with those who charge critics and composition teachers of that era with contributing to a decline in receptivity to new music and in popularity of classical music in general, almost as if out of fear—in his assessment—to speak their minds:
I know that for many years following the death of Bartók, critics were terrified of finding themselves on the wrong side of an issue, or on the wrong side of a composer, because it wasn’t until, what, three weeks, four weeks after Bartók’s death when suddenly the musical world was pronouncing [him] a genius. . . . Why not in his lifetime? So [afterward] whenever a composer would come along with a new work and it was very far-out—in those days “far-out” meant twelve-tone or serial—the critics were always saying, “Oh yes, yes, this breaks new ground.” They did not want to be caught again . . . and they kept this going.
The irony here, however, is that outright rejection of rigorous or so-called cerebral composition had itself become fashionable by the dawn of the 21st century—often without regard to qualitative distinctions or relative merits. Yet there is some truth to Lees’s interpretation of past attitudes, especially within conservatories and university music departments. In those environments, he has recalled from his own teaching experience (which included brief stints at The Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music) that young composers who might have preferred conservative, tonal approaches were fearful of appearing naïve, shallow, unsophisticated, or even ungifted:
They didn’t want to be ostracized by their peers. So they all wrote the same way. It all sounded the same. And of course the people who taught were terrified.
That, too, may be an oversimplified assessment. Powerful works with the ability to communicate can result from a variety of procedures, including nontonal or serial ones and other theoretically based approaches. Academically derived or disciplined techniques (which would include, for example, Renaissance counterpoint) do not necessarily preclude artistic inspiration or treatment, and what tells, in the end, is not so much a composer’s chosen method as his artistic gift. But Lees is probably not wrong with respect to pressure to conform, and such pressures did indeed inform many young composers until late in the 20th century.
If Lees cannot be counted among the best-known composers, it is not because of any avoidance of academic procedures. And if, despite performances by some of the most prestigious orchestras, conductors, and soloists, he never achieved the degree of celebrity status attached to certain other 20th-century American composers, he is certainly among the most prolific ones—and among those most frequently pursued for commissions. It may be said that his was a career marked by rewarding consistency and solid success.