Wednesday 26 December 2012

Richard Rodney Bennett 1936 - 2012

Richard Rodney Bennett was a composer and performer who seemed to embody the multiplicity of musical styles inherent in post-war Britain. Whereas others wrote and performed in one or two styles or genres, Bennett seemed comfortable in a whole variety, performing jazz, studying at Darmstadt and with Boulez, writing accessible scores. This wasn't stylistic confusion, but a desire to communicate in a variety of genres.

He wrote a number of operas, notably The Mines of Sulphur,  A Penny for a Song and Victory. Though in the 70's he rather dropped the genre, which was a great loss. The Mines of Sulphur remains one of those operas which hang on the fringes, lacking major performances but always with the aura of something work reviving. Victory, based on Joseph Conrad, was premiered by Covent Garden in 1970.

He also wrote ballet scores. His Jazz Calendar was written in 1926-64 and Frederick Ashton used it for a ballet in the 1968. Bennett wrote the score for Kenneth MacMillan's problematic ballet Isadora, though MacMillan's decision to include in spoken role rather deprived Bennett of the opportunity to write a fully developed symphonic work in the manner of John McCabe's ballet's for David Bintley. Northern Ballet Theatre have a new ballet, The Great Gatsby, planned for 2013 using a score made of Bennett's existing music.

In the 1970's Bennett moved to New York, and the rather freer musical atmosphere in the USA enabled him to fuse his various styles into a striking fusion; the 1990 saxophone concerto mixed jazz and serial techniques.

I sang in the UK premiere of Bennett's And Death Shall Have No Dominion in 1995 with London Concord Singers. A setting of Dylan Thomas for male voice chorus and french horn, it was written in 1986 for the New York Gay Men's Chorus. At the time London Concord Singers performed the work, Bennett's publishers were unable to confirm whether New York City Gay Men's Chorus actually did premiere the piece. It is a terrific, powerful, but tough work and one that has stayed in my mind ever since.

The first piece of Bennett's that I sang in was in 1970 when I was at school, when we performed his children's opera All the King's Men. The libretto by Beverley Cross is based on the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty and tells the story of a canon placed on a church tower in Gloucestershire in the civil war. It is a terrific piece and

But perhaps what most people with remember Bennett for is his film music, the iconic waltz for Murder on the Orient Express, and the music for Four Weddings and a Funeral. With Richard Rodney Bennett we have lost a musician who could write serialist music, but who also could still write a damn good tune.

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