Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, who has died aged 76, was a composer and pianist whose output ranged from the popular to the populist, from film scores to the avant-garde, and from the neo-classical to the idiom of jazz and many variations thereon.
Throughout the course of several different musical lives he was as likely to be heard in a concert of serialism in Paris, Berlin or London, as in the foyer of the Algonquin Hotel in New York, while his music was summarised by Grove Dictionary of Music as “amiably persuasive rather than confrontational”.
Following in the tradition of Britten and Walton, serious composers who wrote for the silver screen, three of his film scores — Far from the Madding Crowd (1967, with Julie Christie); Nicholas and Alexandra (1971, with Laurence Olivier); and Murder on the Orient Express (1974, with Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman) — earned him Oscar nominations. Years later he would recapture much of the same spirit in the score for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, with Hugh Grant) .
Nevertheless Bennett was equally at home with the cutting edge of serialism, penning perfectly respectable 12-tone works by the age of 16, worshipping at the temple of Darmstadt with his great friend Cornelius Cardew, and producing the chilling Expressionist opera The Mines of Sulphur, which was a hit at Sadler’s Wells in 1965 thanks to the composer’s remarkable ability to blend serialism with lyricism.
Although his more cerebral phrase, largely in the 1950s under the influence of Pierre Boulez, is seized on by purists as evidence of his place in the pantheon of the avant-garde, he came to be dismissive of the genre. “I don’t really like listening to contemporary music,” he admitted to The Daily Telegraph , explaining why tonality was once more to the fore in his output. “At one time it [12-tone music] was food and drink. [Now] I can’t take in so much difficult music, I really can’t.”
Yet there were plenty of other avenues: in the past few days, for example, many Christmas congregations will have heard his melodious setting of The Holly and the Ivy, which with its asymmetrical rhythms and effortless movement between musical styles, was just one of many Christmas and church numbers that he arranged. Many of these works hint at the favourite styles of his latter years, jazz and cabaret. Bennett often accompanied Clare Martin, the British jazz singer, while in 1989 he was at the piano for a BBC Concert Orchestra Prom that featured music by Gershwin and Cole Porter.
Indeed, over the last three decades of his life Bennett became increasingly identified with the composers of the Great American Songbook, having moved to New York in 1979 to get over a failed love affair. Yet even in the New World he was not limited by merely the giants of jazz, but also followed closely and admired the work of the American composer Elliott Carter and his French contemporary Henri Dutilleux.
In short, music by Bennett could — and did — turn up at any and every opportunity and he remains undoubtedly one of the hardest composers of the 20th century to pigeonhole. Bennett himself expressed bemusement about the myriad personalities his music assumed, while accepting that they rarely cross-fertilised with, or influenced, each other. “The different parts of my career seemed to take part in different rooms, albeit in the same house,” he told The Guardian last year. “It was just the way things were and I didn’t actually think much about it at the time.”
Richard Rodney Bennett was born in Broadstairs on March 29 1936, the youngest of three children. His mother, Joan, was an accomplished pianist and composer who had studied at St Paul’s Girls’ School with Gustav Holst and sang in the first professional performance of The Planets, while his father, Rodney, wrote children’s books.
When war came the family moved to Budleigh Salterton, in Devon, where young Richard spent much of his childhood. His musical ability and insatiable curiosity were spotted at an early age “but I was in South Devon … it wasn’t the Juilliard School”. Popular music was on his radar from an early age. “We went to the cinema and heard these great scores,” he told The Guardian. “But mostly I listened to the radio.”
He was educated at Leighton Park, a Quaker school near Reading, and by the age of 15 had written a respectable string quartet. From there, under the guidance of Elizabeth Lutyens, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, having first turned down a place at Oxford to read Modern Languages. Nevertheless, he regarded the Academy, where he studied with Howard Ferguson and Lennox Berkeley, as a “disaster”, adding “I learnt much more in Westminster music library”.
In addition, he and Cardew “used to sit up late at night with a portable radio listening to a new music programme from Stuttgart, on which we heard recordings of practically anything,” he recalled. “You could hardly hear it for the static, but it was, nevertheless, thrilling.”
In 1956 his Ricercar, a translation of a Spanish poem for unaccompanied choir, was presented by the Society for the Promotion of New Music at the Wigmore Hall, alongside works by Alexander Goehr, while two years later, for the Macnaghten Concerts, his Sonatina for unaccompanied flute, written when he was 18, drew critical praise as being “endearingly youthful and fresh — unpretentious, but absolutely certain in its conciseness and sense of direction”.
Bennett’s keyboard ability was also scarcely less versatile, and highly valued, particularly at Darmstadt. He travelled to the German contemporary music festival in the late 1950s with Cardew and soon found gainful employment tackling challenging scores by Stockhausen and Boulez — whose sole pupil he was in Paris between 1957 and 1959 — while developing a parallel career in jazz. Meanwhile, Stephen Sondheim recommended him to Sidney Lumet, the director of Midnight on the Orient Express.
Film writing was a wonderful way to hone his craft, he told the Telegraph. “The subject is supplied to you. You are writing within a certain format that will be acceptable to the boss, you have a specified length, and you know what you can do and what you can’t.”
But no sooner had he become established in film (and indeed television, for which his credits include Poor Little Rich Girl, The Story of Anne Frank and Gormenghast) than he was producing symphonies, operas, concertos — 17 or more, for almost every available instrument — and choral music, such as The Glory and the Dream, which was commissioned in 2000 by 15 choirs worldwide.
The influence of the avant-garde appears in works such as his Piano Concerto of 1968, written for Stephen Kovacevich, and his Guitar Concerto from 1970, for Julian Bream. At the same time his academic side was also never far from the surface, and he produced analytical studies and translations (with Susan Bradshaw) of Boulez’s Penser la musique d’aujourd’hui (published as Boulez on Music Today, in 1971).
A midlife crisis in 1979 brought about a complete change of direction: he hated teaching, he found committee work at the Royal Academy of Music not to his taste, and he was playing music that he did not want to play. Thus, naming Sondheim and Bernstein as referees for his US Green Card application, Bennett moved to New York, where he soon felt more relaxed, giving cabaret-style performances with Eartha Kitt, Marian Montgomery and Clare Martin.
Bennett’s artistic nature was expressed in many other ways; in particular he enjoyed cooking, painting and making collages, many of which were highly sought after by collectors. He was also a generous host and a fiendish Scrabble player.
Later in life he was reconciled with Britain, although he remained living in America. He returned to the Royal Academy of Music in 1994, where for six years he held the international chair of Composition, and made occasional appearances at the Proms, the Barbican and Ronnie Scott’s.
In 1995 he was named by Gay Times magazine as one of the most influential gay musical figures .
Richard Rodney Bennett – he was always known professionally by his full three names – was appointed CBE in 1977 and knighted in 1998.
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, born March 29 1936, died December 24 2012