Sir Richard Rodney Bennett

1936 2012

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett

Composer • Piano


Bennett was an English composer and pianist who specialised in both concert and film scores. Bennett revolutionized the middle-ground of 20th century composition by combining serial techniques with a tonal language. He succeed in becoming one of the most accomplished soundtrack composers of his era, composing more than 50 film scores.

Bennett was the youngest of three children, born in Broadstairs, Kent in 1936. His father was an established author of children’s books while his mother was also a pianist and composer. She even studied once withGustav Holst.

Bennett possessed a finely tuned ear. He was able to absorb many popular works from the radio, orchestral works from the cinema and tuned into the weekly German radio station late-night programmes. Before he was able to read, he had already begun to write music and by the age of 18, Bennett had already completed three string quartets. The next year he also completed a film score for a documentary.

Bennet was self-taught before contacting composer Elisabeth Lutyens who helped him enroll in the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in 1953, where he studied with Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson. However, he was not pleased with his lessons and claimed, ‘I learned much more in the Westminster music library’. During the summers, Bennett attended the courses in Darmstadt, where he was heavily influenced by avant-garde techniques. With a scholarship from the French Government he was able to study with Pierre Boulez in Paris for two years between 1957 and 1959. Boulez’s use of total serialism  and interest in the German avant-garde also greatly affected Bennett, especially during his Paris years.

As a pianist, Bennett was also remarkably talented and versatile. His tremendous technique led both Boulez and Stockhausen to personally request that he play their works. While studying in London, he gave the UK premiere of Boulez’s Piano Sonata no. 1.

Bennett’s debut as a composer was with his film music in 1956 for the feature filmsInterpol and A Face in the Night. While in Paris he also composed music for The Safecracker(1958), Indiscreet (1958) and The Man Inside (1958). His only concert work that remains from this time is the unpublishedCycle II for Paul Jacobs.

Bennett returned to England in 1959 and put his strict avant-garde European techniques behind him. His film music career flourished; he composed 20 film scores within the next ten years, though he considered himself a composer of concert music primarily.

Bennett’s Five Studies for piano (1962-4) show a turning point in his music. His use of serialism is more personal and an expanded musical vocabulary was created that he would use for the next two decades. During the 1960s Bennett was increasingly prolific, composing a series of works including the one-act operaThe Ledge (1961), The Mines of Sulphur (1965), A Penny of a Song (1966-7) andVictory (1968-9). He also completed many small instrumental works in addition to two symphonies (1965 and 1967), the Piano Concerto (1968) for Stephen Kovacevich and stage pieces for children.

In the 1970s his productivity continued at full-speed, resulting in 17 concertos, the chamber music series ofCommedias (1972) and Spells (1974) for voices and orchestra. He also continued to write concertos during the 1970s, including the Guitar Concerto (1970) for Julian Bream.

Though much of Bennett’s music avoids a crossover from his various sound worlds of jazz, avant-garde, and film music, he composed the keyboard balletNoctuary (1981) based on a Scott Joplin piece. It also uses the strict serialism Bennett was accustomed to.After Syrinx I (1982) also proved to be a landmark work, as it signals the relaxation of his strict serialism and combines a mixed serial texture with the tonality of Debussy’sSyrinx. These two works paved the way to his new musical language, still filled with atonality, but no longer serial. As with his use of Joplin and Debussy, Bennett continued to use quotation in his chamber music throughout the 1980s. For instance, in his two pieces based on a madrigal byMonteverdi and on the other works based on Debussy’s Syrinx ( After Syrinx II[1984], Sonata after Syrinx [1985] and Tango after Syrinx [1985]). He also wroteReflections on a theme of William Walton (1985).

Bennett became successful as a pianist in various genres. He was fond of ensemble playing and worked as an accompanist with many instrumentalist and also had a successful duo with Cornelius Cardew. Much of his chamber music and concertos were influenced and inspired by the musicians with whom he worked. He was also fascinated by jazz and most notably had a successful solo cabaret-style show in the 1990s. Along with his compositions, his playing was very divided. He took care that his jazz work didn’t influence his film or concert work andvice versa. One main exception is the Concerto for Stan Getz (1990).

Bennett’s Partita (1995) shows his distinct American sound from his later years, resembling the sounds ofCopland or Bernstein. His Songs before Sleep (2002) was commissioned by the BBC Radio 3 and the Royal Philharmonic Society. It includes many nursery rhymes taken from the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, such as ‘The Mouse and the Bumblebee’, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, ‘There was an Old Lady’ and ‘Baby, baby, naughty boy’.

Bennett was not inspired to become a teacher, and avoided long term teaching commitments after a period of two years at the RAM from 1963-5. He did, however, enjoy teaching at summer schools and short-term residencies. Bennett held the international chair of composition from 1994 to 2000 and was a member of the general council of the Performing Rights Society. He also served as vice-president of the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1983.

Bennett was greatly recognized for his achievements and received prizes such as the Arnold Bax Society Prize (1964), the Ralph Vaughan Williams Award for composer of the year (1965) and many film music awards including an Ivor Novello Award (1976) and an Academy Award nomination (1976). Bennett received Oscar nominations several years in a row. He was knighted in 1999.

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