A life in music: Richard Rodney Bennett

A life in music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Richard Rodney Bennett talks to Nicholas Wroe of the Guardian about his life and works.

Sidney Lumet's 1974 film version of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was something of a landmark in crime cinema. The star-studded cast (Bacall, Bergman, Connery, Finney, Gielgud, Redgrave . . .) and lavish production values provided both the template for later movie adaptations of Christie's work and paved the way for the successful trend of high-end television crime series. Richard Rodney Bennett, who had been writing for the screen since he was 18, and who was a technically brilliant classical composer with a deep knowledge of 1930s popular music, was an ideal choice to write the score.

"Stephen Sondheim recommended me," recalls Bennett. "And as soon as I saw the rushes I told Sidney that no one in their right mind was going to be scared out their wits by Agatha Christie. This wasn't a thriller. It was an elegant and glamorous entertainment, and that is what the score should reflect."

Bennett's stylish meshing of train rhythms into a piano-led waltz evocatively conjured a 30s high-society chic, and his score was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta. Bennett's music had previously been Oscar nominated for Far from the Madding Crowd in 1964 and Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971, but despite this high-profile success, his work for film occupied a peculiar sub-section of his wider career and his lifelong engagement with jazz was essentially hidden from his concert-going audience. "The different parts of my career seemed to take part in different rooms, albeit in the same house," he says. "It was just the way things were and I didn't actually think much about it at the time."

Bennett had emerged in the early 1950s as a youthful prodigy and hardcore modernist. In the 60s he produced acclaimed operas, symphonies, concertos and choral works. His film work funded his concert work and his jazz was just for friends. It wasn't until the 1970s that he began to work more openly across all genres, and not until the 1980s, after he had moved to New York, that he began to perform and fully explore the jazz standards of the Great American Songbook that had long been close to his heart.

The sheer breadth of his musical interests was laid out last year in a detailed soup-to-nuts biography by Anthony Meredith. A flick through the index reveals not only his involvement with all the great names of classical music from the second half of the 20th-century, but a vast range of other connections: "Taylor, Elizabeth", whom Bennett coached on set to sing a nursery rhyme for Joseph Losey's 1968 film Secret Ceremony; "McCartney, Paul", who brought in Bennett to advise him on his own symphonic poem, "Standing Stone" and sent Bennett 70 red roses on his 70th birthday; "Charles, HRH Prince", who commissioned Bennett to write a piece of music dedicated to his late grandmother, the Queen mother.

Bennett was 75 earlier this year and two proms next month celebrate his career by bringing together its different strands. His Murder on the Orient Express suite features in a film music prom alongside work by Bernard Hermann (Citizen Kane, Psycho), William Walton (Henry V), John Williams (Star Wars, Schindler's List), Ennio Morricone, John Barry and Jonny Greenwood (Norwegian Wood). A matinee prom will also feature work from the other key parts of Bennett's oeuvre: his Debussy-inspired Dream Dancing and Jazz Calendar, alongside pieces by two composers he knew and admired, Henri Dutilleux and Betty Maconchy. "I really think it is a lovely programme, and in a way all of this music has been with me all of my life," he says. "It just took a little time for it be allowed to come together."

Bennett was born in 1936 and brought up in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, where his family had moved when war broke out. His mother, Joan, had been a talented pianist and composer who had studied with Holst and even participated as a sixth-former in the first professional performance of The Planets. His father, Rodney, was a successful writer of children's books. He has two older sisters, Anne and Meg, who is better known as the poet MR Peacocke, several of whose poems Richard has set to music.

He says that popular music appealed to him from the beginning. "We went to the cinema every few weeks and heard these great scores. But mostly I listened to the radio. And when I came across something I liked, I wanted to find out as much as I could about it. This was as true of hearing Hoagy Carmichael for the first time as it was later when I first heard Boulez. Being on a musical quest was something I always enjoyed."

He says his facility for music was spotted early, "but I was in South Devon during the war, it wasn't the Juilliard School, so it didn't make much difference. People ask what was the first piece of music I wrote. There was no first piece. I just scribbled away and eventually a C major chord was there. I didn't ever decide I was going to be a composer. It was like being tall. It's what I was. It's what I did."

In 1953 Bennett turned down a place at Oxford to read modern languages for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. "In fact for me the academy was a disaster. I learned much more in the Westminster music library in Buckingham Palace Road, which was an absolute treasure house of 20th-century music. But London was very exciting. It was cheap and we could live our own lives and be slightly raffish without exactly being bohemian, and that was different to Budleigh Salterton, which I still love and won't have a word said against. I gave a concert last year in their first jazz festival in the church where I'd gone to Sunday school, which was rather wonderful."

At the academy Bennett did join a new music club, "where we played some difficult music – Boulez and so on – which was very exciting and felt sort of illegal". Bennett continued as a performer of new music, as well as a composer. "As there were only about two pianists and two singers who performed it, I played a lot. But I did want people to listen to this music that I believed in so passionately."

Bennett was in a generation that included Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Thea Musgrave and Cornelius Cardew. As a student he visited Darmstadt and won a scholarship to study with Boulez in Paris. "That was thrilling. I'd met him a couple of times by then and was totally in awe of him. In effect I wanted to be Boulez. In fact there were several of us at that time who wanted to be Boulez."

Bennett is still hugely admiring of Boulez's success in "bringing together various important strands of contemporary music. Works such as Le marteau sans maître and Pli Selon Pli are very important and sum up a whole era. But something like Structures For Two Pianos, for which I was the co-first pianist in the UK, you just can't listen to now."

The composer Mark-Anthony Turnage says: "As a kid, Bennett was very important to me. The technique of those early symphonies was stunning and it seemed to be a less academic, more musical, sort of modernism. What people didn't realise was that he'd always been into popular songs and Cole Porter and things like that, so his later move from atonality to tonality was a progression not a conversion. That's why it sounds so natural." Turnage is also envious of Bennett's ability to write for the cinema while maintaining a concert career. "And he did Hollywood blockbusters, not just arthouse films. Looking back, Britten and Walton and lots of others did it, but Richard was pretty much the last of the line."

Bennett first wrote screen music in his late teens "to earn money to subsidise my other work. But I liked writing music that would be played next week by brilliant musicians. It was the best training there was." While his film music was public, if strangely disassociated from his concert work, his involvement with jazz was almost entirely hidden. "I'd always listened more to jazz than anything else, but it wasn't until I was asked to write a 'third stream' piece by the BBC [a classical/jazz hybrid] that I realised I just wanted to write a jazz piece." The result was Jazz Calendar, which will be performed at the proms. Around the same time he began playing for Cleo Laine, "and for the first time it felt OK for me to do this. It needn't be an underground activity. There was a strong sense of liberation, although there remained a certain amount of sniffiness as there was about my film music."

Looking back on the period Bennett says he remembers being "tortured" by concerts of contemporary music in the 1960s. "I didn't really want to go, but I was in that world and so I sort of had to. But as I grew older and maybe a little more confident, I realised I just couldn't be bothered. The music I'd been so interested in in the 1950s had moved far away from audiences and I hated that. Look now at concerts of contemporary music and often they are exactly the same as those concerts I went to in the 60s, give or take a few electronic bits and pieces."

Bennett's growing disillusionment with the British music scene, and the break-up of a long-term relationship, preceded his move to New York in 1979. "It was a relief because I was doing a lot of things out of guilt. I hated teaching composition. I was playing music I didn't particularly want to play, being on committees I didn't want to be on. I wanted to write music, and cook, and play cards, and have a nice time. And while there were all kinds of dramas in my private life, it wasn't that dramatic for my professional life."

Using Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein as his referees for his green card application, Bennett thrived in the home of the Great American Songbook. He began performing in piano bars and has continued ever since, in recent years accompanying the jazz singer Claire Martin, most recently in a season at the legendary Algonquin hotel. "It's pretty expensive to listen to that type of music now, even in New York. At one time you could sit in a little club after dinner, have one drink and listen to someone playing. There are fewer places now, but playing that music with Claire is wonderful. There is nothing I would rather do on earth."

In New York Bennett also began seriously to make art in the form of collages that are today highly collectable. "I'm fascinated by Schwitters and a lot of American collagists from the 30s onwards, and to be truthful I am now much more interested in painting that I am in music. These are the things I am really curious to see. I'll run out to an art show, but I don't go to many concerts any more."

He says he can't imagine what it must be like for a young composer starting out today. "When I started there was maybe a dozen of us who all went to different publishers and had a real chance of doing something. Today, if you really put your mind to it, you could probably come up with a couple of thousand all trying to get work." He has commissions and has recently written a series of unaccompanied Christmas carols. But, he says, he's "lucky that I don't have to write for money because I've earned enough. I've been writing music since I was about six, and I'm now 75, so I also think I've earned a bit of time off."

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