Bernard Benoliel was born in Detroit Michigan in 1943 and grew up with his grandfather Bernardo Coppola, an Italian émigré, who after serving in the Canadian Army during the first World War, set up a restaurant in Detroit. Benoliel’s mother was a professional dancer, for a while on the New York stage. His father, a French citizen, immigrated to New York from Marseilles in 1910. Benoliel studied at the Detroit Institute of Music Art, piano with Margaret Mannebach and trumpet with Elmer Janes, both members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. His desire to be a composer was formed early – from a love of Beethoven’s music and life. He read composition at the University of Michigan under Ross Lee Finney, a pupil of Berg, and later attended extramural studies at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. A more salient influence on his own music was the two years he spent as a private pupil of Stefan Wolpe from 1968 to 1970. He used to say he went to Wolpe not to learn serialism but because he had been a pupil of Busoni and it is Busoni who informs the dark matter in Benoliel’s style. In 1969 Benoliel won a Bennington Composer’s Conference Award and in 1970 a Tanglewood Fellowship where an early String Quartet was premiered. A year later he gave up his librarian position at G. Schirmer and moved to England. Why? “To write a symphony before I am thirty”. He also wanted to study more British music; he achieved both aims and apart from a brief sojourn in New York in 1977, Benoliel lived in Europe. In 1986 he purchased a canal flat in Amsterdam which he used as a composing studio for the next thirty years. From 2001 he was a Dutch resident and died in Amsterdam on 2nd March 2017.
Benoliel was best known in England as the Administrator of the R.V.W. Trust (founder Ralph Vaughan Williams), 1978-2000 and the Artistic Director of R.V.W. Limited, the company set up to look after RVW’s own music, 1983-2001. He proved a staunch supporter of young composers, electronic music, and neglected music by Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. In all, usually with the estate’s financial support, he was responsible for recording more than 40 CDs of British music, the majority with the Four London Orchestras. Major projects included the complete symphonies of Hubert Parry and Roberto Gerhard. Perhaps the project though, of which he was most proud was the premier recordings of Herbert Howells’ great choral works, the “Missa Sabrinensis” and “Stabat Mater” with the LSO and Rozhdestvensky.
Benoliel composed slowly and revised extensively. From 1968 to 1998 his first nine opus works were all performed and all broadcast either by the BBC or Dutch Radio. In 1982 Sir Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic gave the premier of his Symphony ‘Sinfonia Cosmologica’, which Bayan Northcott called “awesomely transcendental”. In the 90s Gaudeamus and NCRV promoted a series of performances in the Netherlands of his Piano Sonata No. 2 after Gericault’s Fragments Anatomiques, with Kees Wieringa, and his String Quartet, with the Mondriaan Quartet. The Sonata and the Nonet ‘Boanerges’, were subsequently featured at Huddersfield Festivals. Listeners however, rarely had the opportunity to hear his works as a group or in context. He retired from England in 2001 and devoted much of his energy to a small property company he set up in 1996. His abiding interest in interior design and an acute sense of timing ensured he survived the 2008 economic crash relatively unaffected. He died leaving properties in Spain, France and the Netherlands.
He continued to compose; in all, he produced fifteen opus works. These include the Symphony, the String Quartet and three Piano Sonatas. In addition, he completed a cycle of four experimental works featuring an amplified solo stringed instrument and amplified antiphonal instrumental forces. These include his magnum opus the fifty-minute Infinity-Edge, A Transcendental Requiem, which reached its final form in 2014. The work is scored for amplified violin, organ concertante, chorus, amplified semi-chorus and orchestra. Invoking Sonic Stone features a setting of the Veni Creator Spiritus and observations on architecture by Osip Mandalstam, scored for two voices, amplified viola and an ensemble, including organ, piano and percussion. His last six works remained unperformed and un-promoted at the time of his death, largely by his own choice. However, over a period of several years, he worked with the technical staff of Donemus Publishing to produce a performing edition of all fifteen works. His final composition was a half-hour Organ Sonata completed in 2012. He never allowed any of his works to be released on commercial recordings.
He once wrote that he had a “Weltanschauung” and encouraged listeners to view his music in a philosophical context: especially with regard to the 19th century German philosophers – Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – and in America the transcendental poets – Emily Dickinson and Whitman, and the New England philosophers Thoreau and Emerson. He read and annotated the complete works of the 20th century philosophical psychologists C.G.Jung and D.H.Lawrence. He said that he viewed all these writers within the framework of Christ and the New Testament. He was baptised in the First Presbyterian Church of Detroit though in later life he was not a follower of any specific Christian sect.
Benoliel’s musical aesthetic was informed by Beethoven, whose life and works formed a bridge to his philosophical considerations. Most of the later composers, whom he loved and identified with, were influenced by Beethoven’s achievement: the German-French tradition, Berlioz, Bruckner, Brahms and Richard Strauss. The direct influences on his own idiom however, were Schoenberg, via Wolpe, Busoni, Varèse and Schriabin.
He worked extensively as a musicologist. In 1996 he was invited by ISIDA (University of Palermo) in celebration of their 40th anniversary to lecture on Szymanowski’s “King Roger” in the International Symposium “Time and Culture”. An extended version of the paper was published by ISIDA in 1997. In the same year his book Parry Before Jerusalem was published by Ashgate. His final project for the Vaughan Williams estate was the editing and publication of RVW’s early unpublished chamber music, completed in 2001. He considered these works superior to RVW’s early choral and orchestral music.
Benoliel was a chronic asthmatic from birth, and after 2009 his health began seriously to decline. He continued however, to remain in harness, insisting on walking the kilometre each way to the OLVG Hospital for treatment only days before he died of a lung infection. Appropriately his last meal was smoked salmon and a final bottle of champagne.
©Bruce Walter Roberts 2017
Executor of the Benoliel Estate.