The Cypress Quartet Remembers Benjamin Lees (1924-2010)

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Benjamin Lees (1924-2010)
Photo © 2004 by Jeffrey Herman

[Ed. Note—Upon learning that composer Benjamin Lees had died on May 31, 2010, we contacted the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet who are currently in the process of recording all six of Lees's string quartets, the last two of which were composed expressly for them. The first recording in their cycle, featuring quartets 1, 5, and 6, was released on Naxos American Classics in 2009. While cellist Jennifer Kloetzel put the following memorial into written prose, this essay is very much the work of all the members of the quartet which also includes violist Ethan Filner and violinists Tom Stone and Cecily Ward. We thank them all for sharing their memories of Lees with us as we honor his life and work.—FJO]


It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of our friend, composer Benjamin Lees. Our relationship with Ben began in 2001 when a close mutual friend named Ellen Hughes brought us together. Ellen takes great joy in connecting people she loves and recognized the potential for a wonderful musical kinship. Ellen gave Ben our second violinist’s number, and Tom received a call from Ben a few days later. Ben explained that he had written four quartets and would love for us to play and record them. Tom hadn’t heard of Ben or his music but was keen to speak to him when he brought up Ellen’s name. As Ben described his life and work, Tom opened his Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and was amazed to find all of the great artists who had championed Lees’s music: Eugene Ormandy, Henrik Szeryng, George Szell, Lorin Maazel, and Gary Graffman, to name a few. Tom was embarrassed not to have known Ben’s music but after the conversation our quartet listened to Ben’s four quartets and immediately fell in love with his musical voice. When we called Ben back it was to commission a fifth quartet as well as to commit our quartet to championing his music, and so our collaboration began.

The Fifth Quartet was commissioned as part of our Call & Response series in San Francisco. It was to be paired on the program with Britten’s Third Quartet and Shostakovich’s Eleventh Quartet. Ben liked the pairing and was inspired by Britten and Shostakovich. He had met Britten in Vienna after hearing him and Peter Pears in recital. Ben’s teacher, George Antheil, had helped Britten establish his reputation in the United States. Britten was forever grateful to Antheil for the career support and Antheil told Ben to be sure to introduce himself to Britten while in Europe. Ben explained to us that he was too shy to introduce himself to Britten after the concert, but it turned out that they were staying at the same hotel. Ben summoned up the courage to approach him that evening and they had drinks together.

We premiered Ben’s Fifth String Quartet in 2002, working with him leading up to the premiere and spending time with him and his wife in their home in Palm Springs, as well as in San Francisco. Ben was an incredible yarn-spinner and had a lot of great stories to tell. He also loved great food, great scotch, and great jokes of all varieties. Some of our favorite memories of Ben are sitting around after concerts and listening to stories of his various escapades with René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Salvador Dali in Paris and the south of France. We loved talking with Ben about the wonderful musicians in his past. When we asked him how it was to work with the Budapest Quartet (on his First Quartet), he said he was very grateful to them and complimentary of their playing. When we dug deeper about how they played his music, he paused and said, “It was amazing. I never knew my music could sound like Beethoven!”

Another favorite Lees memory is how excited he was when he finished the third movement of his Fifth Quartet. He called us and described with incredible enthusiasm how the movement was “like a puff of smoke” and that “it should go like the wind.” Ben wanted to write a Sixth Quartet (“Like Bartók,” he said) and although we didn’t have the money at the time to commission it from him, he told us he’d write it for us as a thank you gift. It is a special thing to work with a composer on more than one work. For the Sixth Quartet we knew that he was writing it for the four of us (though he claimed not to write with particular performers in mind). He liked to brag that visual artists had a much greater influence on him than other musicians. Ben’s time in Paris and his close friendships with the most important Surrealists of the

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Benjamin Lees with the members of the Cypress Quartet
Photo by Leatrice Lees

20th century were formative. There are a lot of Surrealist moments in his Fifth and Sixth Quartets. We remember struggling in rehearsal over finding an organic way to get from one musical idea to another. We presented the problem to Ben who laughed at our fussiness and explained that the two musical ideas had nothing to do with one another and are meant to sound out of place, much like two objects in a Surrealist painting. After that we never played his music the same again.


George Antheil was a very important musical influence on Ben. Their lessons could last an entire day. Ben would bring Antheil a new score, and Antheil would circle sections that weren’t satisfactory. Ben would then rework the passages and bring them back to Antheil. Sometimes Antheil would cross out entire lines or sections of music. Ben explained that Antheil taught him to remove what wasn’t necessary and really taught him how to edit. Knowing what to leave in a piece and what to cut out was a key to Lees’s greatness. Ben was his own toughest musical critic. When he was finished with a piece, it was done. In our entire experience with him, Ben only changed one small detail—a cello figure from arco to pizzicato.

Ben also had a definite idea of how he wanted his music to sound in performance. He gave us a lot of suggestions when we were working on his quartets. But there was always a point at which he’d say, “That’s it. The piece is yours now!” Once we reached this point Ben would let go and simply enjoy the music.

Benjamin Lees had a very successful career, but despite writing exceptional music he never attained the success he longed for. We feel that his music has a unique voice that people will want to hear for many years. We also hope that history judges his music favorably, and know that this irony certainly wouldn’t be lost on Ben. When he received a Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Composer” in 2004 (at age 80) we had a good laugh together when he described himself as “an overnight success.” Typical Lees humor: charming and dry with a touch of dark and cutting wit.