Frankel Ben

Ben Frankel

Benjamin Frankel was born in London on 31st January 1906. His parents met and married in England but were both immigrants. His father, Charles Frankel, had come from Warsaw, after completing military service in the Czarist army; his mother, Golda Adler, was from Tarnopol – a Polish town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Charles was a tobacconist in London’s Fulham Road but later took up a humble position in the local synagogue, as a beadle. Golda helped to supplement the family’s income by making kosher meals for the Jewish boys at St. Paul‘s Public School.

Part of Ben’s musical education was self-directed, by visiting the Hammersmith Public Library almost daily and borrowing the maximum number of music volumes allowed and devouring them in a single day. During lunch-breaks at school he would play the fiddle in the school yard.

But his first job was in Spitalfield’s market, although he was then apprenticed to a watchmaker at the age of 14, who the choirmaster of the local synagogue. Within a year, young Ben began serious piano studies first in London, later in Cologne. This would set him off on a life course that would end with him becoming, in his day, a rather famous composer, conductor and pianist. At seventeen he returned to England and earned a living in jazz (as violinist, pianist and arranger), while continuing studies at London‘s Guildhall School of Music.

He continued working in jazz during the 1930s and was also music director for West End Revue but composed his first film score in 1934, a direction of work that would move him into particular directions.

Frankel attempted to enlist during the Second World War. But he did not pass the medical, due to psoriasis that had been triggered by the tragic death of his second child in infancy in 1937. Instead, he had to be satisfied with fire-watching duties.

In 1941, Frankel joined the British Communist Party and his work increasingly alluded to his sympathies. His `Youth Music for string orchestra’ was originally entitled `Music for Young Comrades’.

Two film commissions were directly concerned with wartime propaganda The Gen (1944), an RAF newsreel and Bon Voyage (1945) – a Hitchcock short film intended to encourage the French Resistance movement.

Frankel’s piece, `Solemn Speech and Discussion’ for strings, depicted a trade union meeting, during the course of which the composition quoted ‘The Internationale’.  In 1947, the orchestral prelude `May Day’ was

Frankel and his first wife were divorced in 1944 and he subsequently married again; this time to a fellow member of the Communist Party but also to a non-Jew.

During and after the Second World War, he gained recognition for serious compositions, most notably his first four string quartets and then his Violin Concerto in 1951. His career entered a new phase after the war, as his concert music (mainly chamber works, for quite a while) began to find a public, and the British film industry became increasingly productive. In 1945 he wrote the music for what was to become a classic, The Seventh Veil his most important film score to date. Moreover, his reputation as a teacher of composition took off. Frankel found himself obtaining a commission for a violin concerto for the Festival of Britain, in 1951.

In 1952 Frankel very publicly left the Communist Party in protest against the show trials and summary executions of alleged spies in Prague. He now claimed that he had already been increasingly at odds with the Party for the previous two years.

A letter from him to what was then called `The New Statesman and Nation’ was printed on 13th December, 1952, with which he ended: "I can no longer remain a member of a party which unquestioningly accepts such standards of civil liberty, and for whom the application of the death penalty for ‘political deviations’ represents a triumph."

He was also a teacher of composition at the Guildhall School of Music from 1946-56.

Frankel emigrated to Switzerland in 1957 and produced his first symphony in 1958, followed by a further seven during the next 14 years.

He composed for film and television until 1971, notching up over a hundred commercial scores. He began playing in jazz bands at various night-clubs, also on trans-Atlantic ocean liners (as a pianist, this time), and began what was to become a long and distinguished period as an arranger for many bandleaders.

Frankel’s feelings about his origins did not extend to the Jewish faith. In 1932 he married the first of his three wives, who was not Jewish. His father, who died in 1939, never spoke with him again. Although his mother relented in time, Frankel bizarrely used to attend his brother’s dental surgery as a patient but neither brother would speak.

During the years 1944-58, Frankel composed some seventy film scores but little orchestral music for concerts. This commercial work paid excellently – he was said to be the highest-paid British composer in the field at this time.  Yet, with income tax at very high levels and his own financial mishandling, somehow Frankel had big money worries. 

From 1958 until his death, he wrote only ten feature film scores and twelve television scores but, most significantly, eight symphonies, and a great deal more. His last years were marred by ill-health. In 1959, during one of many return visits to England, he suffered his first heart attack. After a few years, however, he suffered a cerebral thrombosis. He then developed an acute and chronic angina pectoris. He died on 12th February 1973.

Source: The Watchmaker’s apprentice – a biography by Dimitri Kennaway


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