Benjamin Frankel: from watchmaker’s apprentice to the sound wizard

Benjamin Frankel, by Lida Moser, 1953 - NPG x45316 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
In 1957 Benjamin Frankel moved to Switzerland. In England, his homeland, he was mainly known as a film composer. No wonder, because to his name is music for more than 100 films, including classics such as The Seventh Veil, The Night of the Iguana and Curse of the Werewolf.

The night of the Iguana:

In Switzerland he finally found the peace to engage in serious(er) music. In 15 years (Frankel died in 1973) he composed eight symphonies and one opera.

Benjamin Frankel was born in London in 1906 into a Polish-Jewish family. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a watchmaker. Luckily for him, his talent was soon discovered. For a while he played with the idea of becoming a Jewish composer alla Bloch. He considered himself an ‘English Jew’ or a ‘Jewish Englishman’, which did not prevent him from marrying a non-Jewish woman. An act that caused a break with his family.

His musical language is not easy to describe. In the fifties he studied serialism and regularly applied it in his own compositions, yet his works do not sound atonal anywhere. Perhaps the best example of this is the viola concerto, which is very melodic, romantic and yet uses the twelve-tone technique.

Frankel composed his violin concerto – at his request – for his friend Max Rostal. The premiere took place in 1951 at the Festival of Britain. The concert is entitled In Memory of Six Million and embodies Frankel’s personal commitment to the fate of the European Jews.

The beginning reminds me of Korngold’s violin concerto and in the fourth movement I encounter Mahlerian ‘tunes’: there is also a quote from ‘Verlorne Müh’ from his Wunderhorn songs.

Live recording by Max Rostal:

Ulf Hoelscher, who rehearsed the concerto with Max Rostal, plays it virtuoso and with an intense involvement.


Benjamin Frankel
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra op.24 (In memory of the six milion)
Viola concerto op.45
Serenata Concertante for Piano Trio and Orchestra op.37
Ulf Hoelscher (violin), Brett Dean (viola), David Lale (cello)
Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Werner Andreas Albert
CPO 9994222

Frankel’s first three string quartets were first performed by the Blech Quartet in 1947 and 1949 respectively, and the fourth was premiered in 1949 by the very young Amadeus Quartet (where were the recording engineers then?).

Frankel’s gift for a light-hearted approach to serialism can be heard in his fifth string quartet. The work, which dates from 1965, is an example of the composer’s unique ability to transform the atonal into a melody.

The unsurpassed company CPO, which revealed Frankel’s music to the world, deserves all praise; also for the splendid explanations with music examples written by Buxton Orr, Frankel’s pupil and friend.

Benjamin Frankel
Complete String Quartets
Nomos Quartett
CPO 999420

In Dutch:
Benjamin Frankel: van horlogemakersleerling tot de klanktovenaar