Sir Richard Rodney Bennett: Composer whose work encompassed serialism, tonality and popular music

He announced he didn’t want to write to commission any longer: ‘I’d rather paint,’ he said

Richard Rodney Bennett once described Pierre Boulez as “a spectacular musician’’ and, for different reasons, the same epithet could have applied to himself.

Prodigiously gifted, Bennett began informal lessons with Elisabeth Lutyens when he was 10, later describing himself as “one of her first groupies”. By the age of 18 he had written his third String Quartet and at 19 he recorded his first documentary film score. A voracious listener, he absorbed not only Debussy, Ravel and Holst (with whom his mother had studied) but also the jazz in the American musicals which he heard at the cinema, whence his father, who wrote children’s books, drove him so as to be relieved of his son’s incessant piano-playing.

Born in Broadstairs in March 1936 to H Rodney and Joan Esther Bennett, he was educated at Leighton Park School, going with a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Howard Ferguson and Lennox Berkeley. But Lutyens’ search for serialism was at this stage a stronger influence and, always thorough, he found his way to Darmstadt in 1955, there encountering Boulez, who agreed to take him on as a pupil. The years in Paris (1957-59) were productive in two ways: he mastered serialism but, on the side, wrote non-serial film music (as Lutyens did). A fellow-student at the time was the pianist and teacher, Susan Bradshaw, who became a lifelong friend and with whom he translated Boulez’s Penser la Musique aujourd’hui. They later premiered Bennett’s Kandinsky Variations for two pianos.

Boulez’s influence was such that Bennett gave the first UK performances of his First Piano Sonata and, with Cornelius Cardew, his Structures I. His own music was now based upon a personalised serialism not unlike Berg’s, an idiom which years later he repudiated: “I wouldn’t want anybody now to play my pieces from those days ... when I was turning out that atonal stuff,” he was reported as saying. Nevertheless the idiom, technically consummate, produced, among many other works, three operas, all heard at Sadler’s Wells: The Ledge (1961), The Mines of Sulphur (1963) and A Penny for a Song (1967). These theatre pieces – and the influence of a good friend, the composer Thea Musgrave – enabled him to give to his abstract music a dramatic element clearly apparent in his concertos, particularly the Piano Concerto and Actaeon, in effect a horn concerto.

Still in his twenties, he wrote the music for John Schlesinger’s film Billy Liar in 1963; his Aubade was heard at the 1964 Proms (and later performed by Karajan); and he taught at the Royal Academy of Music between 1963 and 1965. His sheer professionalism kept him in constant demand and he somehow contrived to juggle the various strands of his musicality, 1974 producing, for example, the substantial Spells, for the Three Choirs Festival, the music for Murder on the Orient Express and several other smaller pieces.

In 1976 came Zodiac, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington to celebrate the US’s Bicentenary, which he dedicated to Elisabeth Lutyens on her 70th birthday, so declaring a pax in the row which had broken out when Lutyens had accused him of plagiarism. The work was important because it validated his “serious” credentials in America and, after what he referred to as “a big break-up” in his (very private) private life, he moved to New York in 1979, a migration concurrent with gradual disillusion with the procedures of serialism and an increasing integration of his diverse musical styles.

Noctuary (1980) combines Scott Joplin with references to Schumann and Debussy, whose Syrinx was the source of several After Syrinx pieces. At the 1979 Edinburgh Festival he was Artist-in-Residence, performing both his Horn Sonata, with Barry Tuckwell, in a programme of Saint-Saëns, Strauss and lain Hamilton, and, with Marian Montgomery, a late-night entertainment called Portrait of Ladies. His cabaret shows – with, among others, Maria Ewing – remained an engaging part of his professional life and displayed his stylishly husky gifts as a vocalist.

Bennett’s versatility also helped him to avoid the neglect which, in varying degrees, afflicted the other British composers – Peter Racine Fricker, lain Hamilton and Thea Musgrave – who had settled in America. Thus, he celebrated his 70th birthday with – at one end of the musical spectrum – a tribute to the late Queen Mother, Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song, called for by the Prince of Wales and performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra; and at the other a cabaret season with Claire Martin at London’s Pizza on the Park. Related events included BBC concerts by the Symphony Orchestra (Actaeon and the Third Symphony), the Concert Orchestra (mostly film music) and the Singers. He himself took part in a recital of his serious songs, a form for which he had a special talent, and, with John Harle, in a programme dominated by the saxophone.

Because his music was so expertly written Bennett attracted the finest performers: Stephen Kovacevich (then Bishop) premiered the Piano Concerto and played it at the 1969 Proms; Barry Tuckwell, Julian Bream, Evelyn Glennie and James Galway were among his concerto exponents; his singers included Jane Manning, Robert Tear and Philip Langridge; Antal Dorati launched his Zodiac, Christoph von Dohnanyi his Partita, a tonal work of 1995 which was given by 17 UK orchestras as the centrepiece of a scheme devised by the Association of British Orchestras.

Bennett’s enormous output (had he adopted opus numbers he would have exceeded 200) covered everything from opera and ballet to solo music and pieces for children; for films alone he wrote more than 40 scores. So it was not surprising that, as he approached 70, by now a paid-up tonalist, he confessed that he no longer wanted to write music to commission: “I’d rather paint. It’s more fun ... Also, I don’t have the musical heroes I used to have. The only one I have now is Henri Dutilleux ... I just hope it’s possible to have a late flowering like he has had.”

Last year his Murder on the Orient Express Suite was performed in a concert of film music at the Proms, and in the same season his Dream Dancing and Jazz Calendar were also featured. And at the Wigmore Hall, a few days before his 75th birthday, a double concert was given: which his Sonata After Syrinx was performed in the first concert, while in the Late Night Jazz Event, he and Claire Martin performed his arrangements of the Great American Songbook

Apparently rather a good painter, he remained reserved, urbane and audibly English. His knighthood, in 1998, he had assumed with immaculately polite detachment, having organised his Anglo-American lifestyle as deftly as he had integrated the diverse elements of his music. He was indeed a “spectacular” musician, but also a quietly humorous human being who was good at friendship.

Richard Rodney Bennett, composer: born Broadstairs, Kent 29 March 1936; CBE 1977, Kt 1998; died 24 December 2012.

News
i100
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsAll just to promote a new casino
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java, AI)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-Office D...

Day In a Page

Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband