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Bennett, Sir Richard Rodneylocked

(1936–2012)
  • Edward Venn

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936–2012)

by Vincent McEvoy, 1976

Bennett, Sir Richard Rodney (1936–2012), composer, was born on 29 March 1936 at Cliff Combe nursing home, Broadstairs, Kent, the son of (Harry) Rodney Bennett (1890–1948), children's author and lyricist (as H. Rodney Bennett), and his wife, Joan Esther, née Spink (1901–1983). He had two older sisters, Anne (b. 1926) and Margaret (Meg) (b. 1930). At the time of his birth registration the family lived at 50 Eversley Crescent, Isleworth, Middlesex, but after the outbreak of the Second World War they moved to Budleigh Salterton, Devon. Already reading music by the age of four, Bennett began piano lessons the following year with a local teacher; later, lessons with his mother (who had studied composition with Gustav Holst at St Paul's Girls' School and sung in the first professional performance of his The Planets) led swiftly to arguments and then self-tuition. The relative geographical and cultural isolation of Budleigh Salterton required the evidently gifted Bennett to forge his own musical education, primarily through listening to music, classical and popular alike, on the radio. His early tastes included Peter Warlock as well as Noël Coward (the latter to his parents' disapproval). An interest in film music was cultivated through frequent trips to the cinema. Early compositions followed naturally; Bennett would later quip that 'I never decided I was a composer, any more than I decided I was tall' (The Times, 27 Dec 2012).

Bennett returned to Kent in 1945 when he began boarding at Betteshanger School. Journeying from Devon to Kent in the summer of 1947, he happened to read a review of Elisabeth Lutyens's Ôsaisons, Ôchâteaux!. Intrigued by the work's title and instrumentation, he got to know some of her piano music and subsequently telephoned her. A scholarship took him to Leighton Park School, near Reading (1949–53). His compositions at this time, including a string quartet composed in his second year, were strongly influenced by twentieth-century English music such as that of Vaughan Williams and Delius. Bennett was also getting to know Britten and Walton's work, as well as performing and arranging jazz.

An increasing interest in twelve-tone music prompted Bennett to contact Lutyens again; this led to a number of visits to her London home. Though he was never a formal pupil of hers, Lutyens's example inspired Bennett to compose increasingly in a serial idiom. Two works, a song, and variations for solo oboe, received professional performances while Bennett was in his final year at school, attracting the attention of the national press.

In 1953 Bennett rejected an offer from Oxford to read modern languages, taking up instead a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), where he studied with Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson. He found little of value in his formal studies, but, as in his childhood, took advantage of his environment to further his education. With his fellow composer Malcolm Williamson, and his RAM contemporaries Cornelius Cardew and Susan Bradshaw (who became a longstanding champion of his music) he was able to develop his enthusiasm for discovering contemporary music, and the London jazz scene provided him with the chance to deepen his love of more popular styles.

Bennett's first published composition, a serial sonata for piano, appeared in 1954. As with all his compositions, he published under his full name, Richard Rodney Bennett. Later that year he hitchhiked to Germany with Bradshaw and Cardew to attend the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, at the time a leading centre for the study and performance of avant-garde music. There he lodged with Peter Maxwell Davies. He returned to Darmstadt (for varying lengths of time) each year until 1959. As a result of the early trips Pierre Boulez came to exert a considerable influence on him. By now a pianist of considerable talent, Bennett gave the UK premières of Boulez's formidable Structures Ia (with Cornelius Cardew in 1956) and piano sonata no. 1 (in 1957). (In 1971, Bennett's translation, with Susan Bradshaw, of selected writings by Boulez was published as Boulez on Music Today.) As a composer Bennett's reputation was growing, too: further professional performances of his works continued throughout his time at the RAM, and his first of over fifty film scores, for the documentary The World Assured, was composed in the same year. A scholarship from the French government enabled him to study in Paris as Boulez's first pupil (1957–8). The concert works from this period were heavily indebted to Boulez's example; Bennett only allowed one, Cycle II (1958) to survive. As he later noted to his biographer Anthony Meredith, this piece 'wasn't to do with arithmetical series or the usual rubbish we were doing then' (Meredith and Harris, 112).

The Paris years can be seen in retrospect to be pivotal in Bennett's development. It was during this time that he fully acknowledged his homosexuality; on his return, he soon came to realize that his musical predilections lay away from the rigours of Boulezian high modernism and more in the mainstream, lyrical version of twelve-note serialism that he had been cultivating in the first half of the decade. At the same time his jazz career was taking off (remaining rooted, as it did for his whole career, in the style of the 1950s); his film scores, non-serial and consummately crafted, were providing an increasingly lucrative sideline. Though Bennett described his music for films as his ‘journalism’, driven by financial necessity, he found the experience of writing to deadlines and for excellent musicians congenial.

The diversity of his career ensured that, by the mid-1960s, Bennett had an unusually high public profile for a young composer. There were regular appearances on television with the folk singer Jean Hart, and in 1962 he made his first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. Of the twenty or so film scores he produced in the 1960s, that for Billy Liar (1963), directed by John Schlesinger, was a notable early success. A string of major commissions attracted the attention of the national press. Two critically acclaimed operas, The Ledge (1961) and The Mines of Sulphur (1963; performed 1965), were written for Sadler's Wells. In these, along with concert works such as Aubade (1964) and his first symphony (1965), Bennett refined his approach to serialism, incorporating a Bergian sense of lyricism, a rhythmic energy akin to Walton, a sure hand for orchestration, and a freedom from dogma (a quality that he admired greatly in the work of Hans Werner Henze). In Jazz Calendar, a 1964 commission for the Proms, he demonstrated his ability to bring together classical and jazz styles. He was awarded the 1964 Arnold Bax Society prize and the 1965 Ralph Vaughan Williams award for composer of the year. In 1965 he began a long-term relationship with the singer (and later, art dealer) Dan Klein (1938–2009), for whom he wrote a number of works.

A desire to be a 'respectable composer, not an avant-garde one' (The Times, 7 Feb 1966) characterized Bennett's output, as well as his teaching (he held a post at the RAM between 1963 and 1965). Yet his success in so many fields may have contributed to a cooling of critical opinion: while the technical fluency of his music was never in question, its emotional depth was. A third opera, A Penny for a Song (1967), and a second symphony (1967) were less well received than their predecessors, and the failure of Victory (1968–9), premièred at the Royal Opera House in 1970, was such that Bennett withdrew from opera composition altogether. Neither avant-garde nor conservative, he noted that 'there's no hope in between, which is where I am, along with most other English composers' (The Guardian, 21 Feb 1965).

Greater acclaim came for Bennett's music for Far from the Madding Crowd (1967, again directed by Schlesinger), which was nominated for an Oscar, as were the later scores for Nicholas and Alexandra (1971; directed by Franklin Schaffner) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974; directed by Sidney Lumet). The latter, also nominated for an Ivor Novello award, eschewed obvious train-like rhythms in favour of a waltz in order to summon up the grandeur of the setting. It received a BAFTA award in 1975.

The early 1970s were characterized for Bennett by a reorientation of compositional priorities, partly in response to a widening of experiences gained during an enjoyable spell teaching at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore (1970–71). It is possible that a renewed emphasis on instrumental scores at this time was a reaction to Victory. However, the increasing interest he showed in the potential of chamber works such as Commedia I–IV (1972–3) to explore the dramatic potential of non-vocal music, influenced by his friend Thea Musgrave's example, can also be seen as the natural development of this impulse demonstrated in his piano concerto of 1968. It is perhaps this dramatic concern that led him to focus so much on the concerto during the 1970s—just under half of his seventeen scores in this genre, including the stand-out Acteon for horn and orchestra (1977), were written in this decade. A similar impulse underpinned Spells (1974–5), a forty-minute cantata on the poems of Kathleen Raine for soprano, chorus, and orchestra. In 1977 he was made a CBE.

In 1976 Bennett and the jazz singer Marian Montgomery began touring a show entitled The Two of Us; Montgomery persuaded Bennett to sing as well as play the piano. Cabaret became an increasingly important form of musical expression for him, and led to a series of partnerships with singers such as Maria Ewing, Eartha Kitt, and, latterly, Claire Martin. As both singer and arranger Bennett became interested in the Great American Songbook, though it was with Zodiac (1976), commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington and dedicated to Lutyens, that he 'validated his “serious” credentials in America' (The Independent, 27 Dec 2012). After the end of his relationship with Klein, and supported in his US green card application by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, he moved to New York in 1979.

Bennett's first few months in the US were devoted to completing Isadora (1980; performed 1981), a complex ballet based on the life of the American dancer Isadora Duncan. This was followed shortly after by Noctuary, a ballet scored for solo piano (1981), based upon a set of variations on themes from Scott Joplin's Solace –a Mexican Serenade, which combined Joplin's tonal idiom with Bennett's serialism. The collision of musical languages proved fruitful, and in works such as After Syrinx I (the first of five responses to Debussy's Syrinx written between 1982 and 1985), his freer application of his twelve-note system gave rise to a far more flexible relationship between melody and harmony, as well as permitting references to tonal material. In his third symphony (1987) he extended these discoveries further, underpinning his expressive melodic writing with an increasing acceptance of tonal harmony.

The Concerto for Stan Getz (1990) provided a rare instance of Bennett combining jazz and concert music in a single work; typically he kept the various strands of his career separate. As in earlier decades he remained active throughout the 1990s in numerous fields. Having swiftly acquainted himself with New York's piano bars, he often played in the foyer of the Algonquin Hotel, where he also performed a show, Pennies in Heaven, with Mary Cleere Haran. He also began to develop his own solo cabaret-style show. An interest in the work of Kurt Schwitters and American collagists led him to construct his own collages, an activity which occupied him increasingly, and with some success, for the remainder of his life. In 1994 he was appointed international chair of composition at the RAM (1994–2000), and composed the music for Four Weddings and a Funeral (directed by Mike Newell), which was nominated for a BAFTA award. The following year he was named by Gay Times as one of the most influential gay musical figures. He assisted Paul McCartney in 1996 with the orchestration of the latter's piano piece Spiral, and was an adviser for McCartney's Standing Stone (1997). Bennett was knighted in 1998.

The tonal leanings evident in the concert music that followed the third symphony found full voice in Partita (1995) for orchestra, composed in a buoyant D major. By now Bennett's tastes had drifted far from those of his youth: in an interview in 1996, he stated that 'I can't stand listening to atonal music … At times I have the uneasy feeling that music took a terrific swerve and went terribly wrong in the Fifties' (The Scotsman, 22 Feb 1996). Subsequent works such as Reflections on a Sixteenth-Century Tune for string orchestra (1999) and the thirty-minute choral work The Glory and the Dream (2000) saw him further refine his language by drawing on early music. His major work at the turn of the millennium, however, was music for the BBC television series Gormenghast, for which he received an Ivor Novello award.

During the 2000s much of Bennett's musical activity revolved around his partnership with Claire Martin. Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song for cello and string orchestra (2004), commissioned by Prince Charles in memory of his grandmother Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, was a rare large-scale concert work. As he approached his seventieth birthday, Bennett commented in interviews on his waning desire to write music, preferring instead to paint (The Independent, 27 Dec 2012), though his final years saw a number of smaller works, mostly for the voice. He died on 24 December 2012 in New York.

Sources

  • S. Bradshaw, ‘Richard Rodney Bennett: the last decade’, MT, 123/1679 (Sept 1982), 609–11
  • S. Bradshaw, ‘Bennett, Richard Rodney’, Grove Online, www.oxfordmusiconline.com, 27 May 2015
  • A. Meredith and P. Harris, Richard Rodney Bennett: the complete musician (2010)
  • Daily Telegraph (26 Dec 2012)
  • The Independent (27 Dec 2012)
  • The Herald [Glasgow] (28 Dec 2012)
  • New York Times (31 Dec 2012)
  • P. Rupprecht, British musical modernism: the Manchester group and their contemporaries (2015)
  • WW (2012)
  • b. cert.

Likenesses

  • S. Samuels, bromide print, 1960–79, NPG
  • photographs, 1965–2005, Getty Images
  • G. Argent, bromide print, 1969, NPG
  • photographs, 1970–2006, Rex Features, London
  • V. McEvoy, photograph, 1976, Getty Images, London [see illus.]
  • G. Newson, bromide fibre print, 1984, NPG
  • E. McCabe, photographs, Camera Press, London
  • S. Wadham, photograph, Mary Evans Picture Library, London
  • obituary photographs
  • photographs, Photoshot, London

Wealth at Death

£1,082,657—in UK; lived latterly in New York: probate, 7 Nov 2014, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Musical Times
(1849–)
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)