In the Music and Opera category

The Frontiers of Knowledge Award goes to George Benjamin for “modernizing the operatic language” while maintaining a “rigorous and fine- grained workmanship in all aspects of composition”

The committee bestowed the award on the British composer for “his extraordinary contribution and impact in contemporary creation in the realms of symphonic music, opera and chamber music”. His four internationally acclaimed operas written with playwright Martin Crimp “propose new narrative structures and present an emotional dramaturgy that connects with and moves the public of the 21st century,” in the words of the award citation. A star pupil of Olivier Messiaen’s, who saw in him a talent “similar to that of a young Mozart,” Benjamin was the youngest ever composer to have a work performed at the BBC Proms in London, and his music has been presented by the world’s foremost orchestras and music institutions. “The opera house is where I have had my most precious experiences,” says the awardee. I find myself losing the concept of time and place, and feel entirely united with what’s happening in the music. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my works, which, hopefully, for some people, will envelop and transform them”.

4 abril, 2024

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Music and Opera category has gone in this sixteenth edition to Sir George Benjamin (composer, conductor and Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College London) for “his extraordinary contribution and impact in contemporary creation in the realms of symphonic music, opera and chamber music,” said the committee in its citation.

“Using a highly personal and distinctive language,” the citation goes on, “he manages to communicate directly with the audience, without forgoing a rigorous, fine-grained workmanship in all aspects of composition, with particular regard to his mastery of orchestration and tone color, and exquisite formal architecture.”
His symphonic and chamber music has been presented by the world’s leading orchestras and music institutions. But it is with his four operas – Into the Little Hill (2006), Written on Skin (2009-12), Lessons in Love and Violence (2015-17) and Picture a day like this (2023) – that Benjamin has found his most unique voice, in the view of the committee, “modernizing the operatic language, proposing new structures and consistently presenting an emotional dramaturgy that both connects with and moves the public of the 21st century.”

For committee secretary Víctor García de Gomar, Artistic Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu: “We are probably talking about the most important name in contemporary music. And he is still a formidable creative force. Every new addition to his catalogue is eagerly awaited, especially in the world of opera: he writes a new one every four or five years, and with that rhythm of output and the quality of his work, expectations are always high.”

From the Beatles to Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Schubert

As early as seven years old, George Benjamin had already acquired a deep love of music thanks to his family, who were fans rather than musicians. Mid-1960s pop music was his first passion, instilled in him by his older sister, with whom he would listen to the radio in the small room they shared. But this passion was shortly overtaken by another, when he went to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), a musical film featuring the music of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Schubert, among others: “In one day I was transfixed and converted, almost like a religious conversion, and not only became intolerant of any other music, but of almost anything else in the world. It seemed to me so much more beautiful, wonderful, exciting and profound than anything I knew. So I became a musical fanatic, I’m afraid. As children can be. And I’m not so sure it’s a mistake,” he remarks in an interview granted shortly after hearing of the award.

At this short age, then, he began studying music and at nine composed his first piece. In his first years of study he received private composition and piano classes in his native London, and from the early 1970s was taken under the wing of Peter Gellhorn, who took him to an audition with Olivier Messiaen. This, for Benjamin, was a transformative encounter. “He had an enormous influence.

Apart from being a truly great composer, he was also the most sweet, kind, generous, wonderful person. He’s left us now for over 30 years, but I still miss him. I learnt so much from him, both in terms of technique and as a model for an artist, but also his way of living and his way of loving music was infectious. Just by seeing him play a chord from Debussy or his own music, you could learn more than you would learn in a thousand hours with someone who wasn’t of his level. I’ve moved far away from his world now, which is absolutely right, and what he would intend as a teacher. But his impact on me and what I owe him are indescribable.”

The admiration Benjamin expresses for Messiaen was matched by the expectations the maestro placed upon his student, whom he went so far as to compare with a “young Mozart.” A statement that achieved wide circulation in its day and put no small pressure on its subject: “You have to bear in mind that I have taken music terribly seriously since I was a little child. It seems to me the most important thing there is. So the pressure to do the best I can and to speak in the most honest and authentic and hopefully beautiful way has been with me always, and it hasn’t really changed. Yes, having some public exposure when I was very young added a certain type of pressure, because it was no longer a private world, but a slightly more public world.”

For the next four years, Benjamin pursued his musical training at the Paris Conservatoire, with Messiaen as his “main teacher,” until an event that would stand as an acknowledged milestone in the young composer’s nascent career: his orchestral work Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980) was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under conductor Sir Mark Elder at the prestigious London Proms, making the twenty-year old the youngest composer ever to feature in the festival program, a record unbeaten to this day. Just two years later, Sir Simon Rattle would lead the London Sinfonietta at the world premiere of his chamber piece At First Light (1982).

The composer also took advantage of his time in Paris to take a short course at IRCAM, founded and at the time led by Pierre Boulez (Frontiers of Knowledge laureate in 2012). This was the opportunity for him to explore what was happening in the musical avant-garde in terms of technology, and to develop his already keen interest in unusual instruments. He employed microtonal keyboards developed by IRCAM for Antara (1987), his celebrated piece for ensemble and electronics written on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Pompidou Centre. Performed at IRCAM itself, this was the first published composition to use the Sibelius notation program. Other keynote works in the years that followed were Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra (1995), commemorating the 75th edition of the Salzburg Festival, and Palimpsests (2002), in honor of Pierre Boulez, who also took the podium to lead the world premiere of the first part of this work celebrating the great man’s 75th birthday.

Throughout these years, as his reputation grew, it was clear to Benjamin that the time was approaching to create what for him is the most complete and complex form in the musical world: his first opera: “The thing was I loved opera as a child. I mean, I was obsessed with it as soon as I got to discover it. And I liked dark, frightening opera the most. I wanted to write in the genre from a very young age. As young as 10, I was dreaming about operas! But I didn’t write my first until I was about 45. And the reason for the wait is that it took me 20, 30 years to meet the most perfect collaborator, the playwright Martin Crimp. Without him, I wouldn’t be an opera composer. Probably I wouldn’t be receiving this award today. So that is the primary thing. Our partnership has been transformative for me as a composer, and has allowed me to realize my dream to write this most magnificent of all forms, the opera.”

An inseparable writing partnership

After dozens of meetings with possible collaborators, Benjamin had not found the “magic” that for him was essential to take on such an ambitious project. Before encountering Crimp, he was even thinking of throwing in the towel: “I met a lot of people, a lot of playwrights, filmmakers, theater people, novelists, directors, and it never got near to working. And after 50 of these meetings, it becomes a little embarrassing. It’s very, very hard to make the chemistry work. And then I gave up in about 2003.” But not long after, a musicologist and viola da gamba player, Lawrence Grafus, who was a great friend of Martin’s, brought the two men together. “I knew in a few minutes that this was different,” says Benjamin looking back. “I knew there was something about Martin and his work, which I had got to know well before the meeting. I just sensed there was a magic there. His work is very hard, but he is very gentle as a person. And the split between those two phenomena, I found very interesting. Martin loves music with an intense passion and I have had the fortune now to work with him four times.”

Benjamin is unsparing in his praise for his inseparable partner: “The electricity that comes off his words, the forms that he gives me, the narrational shape and structures… He’s extremely concerned with structure, as I am… The words are very simple, but the structures he proposes are very complex, almost like crystals. These things galvanize my abilities, my imagination. And I compose much faster. With an ensemble piece or a solo piano or orchestra piece, I don’t have that. I have ideas, but ideas are not music. I also need to feel a strong passionate link to the sound that I’m making when I compose, and above all the harmony. If I don’t find that, I can’t compose. A lot of time, particularly with orchestra pieces, I may wander in the dark for several months before I find anything. And always at the end of my composing, I go very fast, so fast I can barely sleep. But the start is always like searching in the underworld for just one tiny bit of light to find my way. And I do find something eventually, but the first few weeks can be hard.”

Asked about the subject matter of his operas, Benjamin believes the historical period they are set in is of secondary importance: “My first operas (as a spectator) were Salomé and Woyzeck, the darkest operas from the beginning of the 20th century. I just loved the mixture of drama with music, which I think is irrelevant to when you live. The style has to continuously mutate and change. As for the fact that our works are usually set in quite ancient circumstances, but have strong contemporary references, that’s one of the many, many things I’ve had to learn while writing opera, to avoid settling for easy solutions or two dimensional portrayals. It’s something that has been part of my learning process. In fact, that’s been a great source of inspiration, because it’s true that music, theater and opera, with words and drama, can’t help but throw a mirror to our contemporary world. And there’s a strange beauty to how opera can create a deep resonance to things that are right now important to our world. We face such big challenges at the moment, it’s almost terrifying. What can I or anyone else offer? I don’t feel worthy to even suggest a solution to anything. But music can speak to the heart of the people like nothing else can. And in the end, more than any other concept or ambition, one thing leads me while I’m composing, which is to write something that I want to hear myself, that matters to me and is the best that I can do, in the hope there might be some people out there who are also sensitive and open to it, and with whom it might resonate. It might stay with them and open up an area of thinking and feeling that is meaningful and new.”

A strong bond with Spain

In his work for chorus and orchestra Dream of the Song (2014-2015) Benjamin’s writing shows the influence of Spanish culture: “In that piece there’s not only text by Federico García Lorca – whose home I visited in Granada the first time and whose piano I played –, there are also texts set to Hebrew poetry of the 11th century from Andalusia, a secular poetry of extraordinary modernity and beauty.”

Benjamin admits to feeling a deep connection to Spain. “I love the country and have been many times, to many different regions. My first professional experience was in Barcelona, where someone who has remained a dear friend and loyal supporter of my music, Josep Pons, invited me to conduct the Teatre Lliure Chamber Orchestra. He also invited me to conduct the City of Granada Orchestra, which gave me the thrill of seeing what is perhaps the most beautiful place in Europe, the Alhambra. I’ve been two or three times since and it remains for me an absolute jewel in the crown of our continent.”

Josep Pons himself comments on “the rightness of the award going to Benjamin, because he is one of the greats and could go down in music history for any one of his works, whether opera, symphonic or chamber music. One of my greatest memories is when we gave him a Carte Blanche tribute, including different activities, one of which was a screening of Murnau’s Nosferatu at Spain’s National Film Theater. George asked to see a speeded-up version, then afterwards, at a public showing, sat down at the piano like in the old silent movie days and improvised. It was a unique experience because he is a fabulous improviser and a great pianist. He is not just a number one musically, he is also a great human being, with a moral compass that brooks no concessions.”

Maestro Pons was subsequently charged with conducting the Spanish premiere of Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Teatre del Liceu in 2021. This was right in the midst of the COVID era, and for visa reasons Benjamin was unable to attend. “We held video conferences during rehearsals,” Pons recalls, “then he would send us his notes. He has an impeccable ear and was able to spot when a flute changed one note in the score.” Benjamin himself looks back with fondness on the occasion: “I was able to watch it on YouTube, and the performance was extraordinary. So that’s in a way my prime connection to Spain, but there have been many other times I’ve come to work in your country. I admire Spain very deeply for the story of classical music in the last 30, 40 years, because almost more than in any other country in the world, except perhaps China and Korea, you see the growth of classical music. You see a growth in excellence. You see a growth in producing, and in building concert halls and opera houses. The quality of Spanish musicians, composers and conductors is now so great that they are all over the world. Percussionists, but now also string players, wind players, brass players, are in the most magnificent ensembles. That was not the case 40 years ago. But there is another thing as well. My family is Jewish, and my mother’s family came from Spain. The name originally was Abendana, and I’m pretty certain that the roots come from the translating tradition in the middle of Spain, be it Toledo or further to the south. So I feel a real spiritual connection. I am over 50% Sephardic. So yes, Spain is very important to me.”

As a conductor, George Benjamin’s repertoire runs from Mozart and Schumann to Knussen and Abrahamsen, and among the many works he has premiered are scores by Wolfgang Rihm, Unsuk Chin, Gérard Grisey and György Ligeti. Since 2001 he has held the Henry Purcell Professorship of Composition at King’s College London.


A total of 42 nominations were received in this edition. The awardee composer was nominated by conductor Santiago Serrate, Professor of Analysis and Chamber Music in the Liceu Higher Conservatory of Music, Alfredo Kraus-Fundación Ramón Areces Voice Chair teacher in the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía, and director of the BBVA Foundation’s 2023-2024 Music Season (Spain), and Sam Wigglesworth, Performance Music Director at Faber Music (United Kingdom).

Music and Opera committee and evaluation support panel

The committee in this category was chaired by Gabriela Ortiz Torres, composer and Professor of Composition at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), with Víctor García de Gomar, Artistic Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona (Spain), acting as secretary. Remaining members were Mauro Bucarelli, Artistic Administrator of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome (Italy); Silvia Colasanti, composer (Italy); Raquel García-Tomás, composer (Spain); Pedro Halffter Caro, conductor and composer (Spain); and Joan Matabosch, Artistic Director of the Teatro Real (Spain).

The evaluation support panel was coordinated by Luis Calvo Calvo, CSIC Delegate in Catalonia and Director of the Mila i Fontanals Institution for Research in the Humanities (IMF, CSIC) and formed by: María Gembero Ustárroz, Scientific Researcher at the Mila i Fontanals Institution for Research in the Humanities (IMF, CSIC); Mariano Gómez Aranda, Scientific Researcher at the Institute of Languages and Cultures of the Mediterranean and the Near East (ILC-CCHS, CSIC); David Irving, ICREA Professor at the Mila i Fontanals Institution for Research in the Humanities (IMF, CSIC); and Andrea Puentes Blanco, Tenured Scientist at the Mila i Fontanals Institution for Research in the Humanities (IMF, CSIC).

About the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards

The BBVA Foundation centers its activity on the promotion of world-class scientific research and cultural creation, and the recognition of talent.
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, funded with 400,000 euros in each of their eight categories, recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in physics and chemistry, mathematics, biology and biomedicine, technology, environmental sciences (climate change, ecology and conservation biology), economics, social sciences, the humanities and music, privileging those that significantly enlarge the stock of knowledge in a discipline, open up new fields, or build bridges between disciplinary areas. The goal of the awards, established in 2008, is to celebrate and promote the value of knowledge as a public good without frontiers, the best instrument to take on the great global challenges of our time and expand the worldviews of individuals for the benefit of all humanity. Their eight categories address the knowledge map of the 21st century.

The BBVA Foundation is aided in the evaluation of nominees by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the country’s premier public research organization. CSIC has a preferential role in the appointment of members to the evaluation support panels made up of leading experts in the corresponding knowledge area, who are charged with undertaking an initial assessment of the candidates proposed by numerous institutions across the world, and drawing up a reasoned shortlist for the consideration of the award committees. CSIC is also responsible for designating each committee’s chair and participates in the selection of remaining members, thus helping to ensure objectivity in the recognition of scientific excellence.