Sir Richard Rodney Bennett obituary

Composer and pianist whose work included film scores, opera and jazz cabaret

The composer Richard Rodney Bennett, who has died in New York aged 76, pursued multiple musical lives with extraordinary success. He was one of the more distinguished soundtrack composers of his era, having contributed to some 50 films and winning Oscar nominations for his work on Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

But it scarcely seemed credible that this knack for writing for a mainstream audience in a melodic, romantic style co-existed with his mastery of serialism and 12-tone techniques. From 1957 to 1959, Bennett was a scholarship student with Pierre Boulez in Paris and soaked up the latter's total serialism techniques as well as his infatuation with the German avant garde. He also attended the summer schools at Darmstadt, the mecca for diehard atonalists.

His tremendous facility as a pianist would prompt the likes of Boulez and Stockhausen to invite him to play their most demanding compositions, and, with his friend and fellow Royal Academy of Music student Cornelius Cardew, he gave the British premiere of Boulez's Structures 1a for two pianos.

However, Bennett was able to take what he had learned from these stern taskmasters and blend it with his own more lyrical musical leanings. Indeed, his only surviving piece from the strictly Boulez period is Cycle II for Paul Jacobs (1958).

Subsequently, he brought a tonal language to serialist techniques, a process evident for instance in his Five Studies for Piano (1962-64), where he can be heard developing an idiosyncratic musical vocabulary that he would continue to explore over the next couple of decades. Other key works along the way were his opera The Mines of Sulphur, commissioned by Sadler's Wells in 1965, his Commedia pieces, and his Piano Concerto (1968) for Stephen Kovacevich and Guitar Concerto (1970) for Julian Bream.

In parallel with all this, Bennett sustained and developed a prolific career as a jazz pianist and, latterly, singer, an interest dating back to his student years, when he earned much-needed cash playing jazz. His stints in the foyer of New York's Algonquin hotel became part of the city's folklore, and in the 1990s he began touring the world as a solo cabaret act, singing and playing jazz pieces and torch songs. He worked regularly with a number outstanding jazz singers, including Cleo Laine, Annie Ross and Chris Connor.

In 1976 he began a highly successful partnership with Mississippi-born singer Marion Montgomery, and their cabaret shows Just Friends and Fascinatin' Rhythm were seen at festivals and theatres round the world. The pair also collaborated on several albums.

During the 1990s, Bennett formed a partnership with the American vocalist Mary Cleere Haran, and they enjoyed a sell-out season at the Algonquin with their show Pennies from Heaven. In 2005, he began performing with British jazz singer Claire Martin, and the duo became a byword for classic interpretations of popular songs. Bennett's Jazz Calendar (1963-64) was choreographed by Frederick Ashton for the Royal Ballet.

Bennett was born in Broadstairs, Kent, the youngest of three children. His mother, Joan, was a pianist and composer who had studied with Gustav Holst, and sang in the first professional performance of the composer's best-known work, The Planets. His father, Rodney, was an author of children's books.

At the outbreak of the second world war the Bennetts moved to Budleigh Salterton in Devon. Richard always had an eclectic ear, and soaked up popular music from the radio while relishing the grand orchestral scores he would hear at the cinema. He would later reflect that the real golden age of film scoring had been the 1930s, when leading European composers such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Poulenc, Hindemith and Britten became involved with cinema.

He attended Leighton Park Quaker school, near Reading, Berkshire, and was showing precocious compositional skills in his teens. He had written three string quartets by the age of 18, and his first published piece was his Sonata for Piano (1954).

He had approached composer Elisabeth Lutyens for lessons, and with her guidance in 1953 he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), where he studied under Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson. However, he did not feel he was gaining the stimulus he needed. He claimed: "I learned much more in Westminster music library."

He struck up a close rapport with Cardew at the RAM, and remembered how they would listen to radio broadcasts from Stuttgart, carrying the news from the cutting edge of the avant garde. "You could hardly hear it for the static," he said, "but it was, nevertheless, thrilling."

Yet, even while he was studying with Boulez and embracing the European serialist movement, he was already beginning to flourish as a film composer. His early successes in the genre included Interpol (1957), The Safecracker, Stanley Donen's Indiscreet (both 1958) and The Devil's Disciple (1959). He would find himself in increasing demand from several of the era's leading directors.

Bennett worked on Billy Liar and Far from the Madding Crowd with John Schlesinger, on several films with Joseph Losey, and was recommended by Stephen Sondheim to Sidney Lumet, for whom he scored Murder on the Orient Express and Equus. In 1994 he enjoyed one of his highest-profile successes with his work on Four Weddings and a Funeral. He also worked in television, on programmes including the mini-series Gormenghast, Tender is the Night and The Charmer, and the TV movies The Tale of Sweeney Todd and Sherlock Holmes in New York.

In 1979, Bennett, feeling frustrated and hemmed in by his life in Britain, moved to New York, having enlisted Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein to support his application for a US green card. New York remained his adopted home, though in the 1990s he returned to the RAM, where he held the international chair of composition for six years.

His colossal composing output contained three symphonies, numerous concertante pieces, a jazz-classical fusion concerto for saxophonist Stan Getz – who died before he could perform it – and a swarm of chamber and solo and duo instrumental pieces.

Bennett was appointed CBE in 1977 and knighted in 1998. In 1995, Gay Times nominated him as one of the most influential gay people in music. He is survived by his sister Meg, the poet MR Peacocke, with whom he collaborated on a number of vocal works.

Daryl Runswick writes: Richard Rodney Bennett could hardly have designed his career better to alienate critics in every one of the fields he was so talented in. Classical critics disdained him as a jumped-up film composer, jazzers – players and critics alike – wrote him off as a cabaret artist, and film producers only turned to him when they wanted something self-consciously "highbrow". His jazz was indeed very old-fashioned: he fell in love with the hybrid Basie/Mel Tormé style of the 1950s when he was young, and took no account of later developments. But in everything he did he was a consummate craftsman and within the styles he espoused his works have enormous content and emotional punch.

He was a cultured gay man and every aspect of his creativity was defined by elegance. He would not go for strong avant-garde statements in any genre – it was contrary to his very core. He wanted, and achieved, a refined style in both his music and his life: that is why he went to New York, and was so happy there.

Richard was extremely important to me as a mentor and an influence. As the former he encouraged me to compose concert music when everyone else was striving to keep me writing pop songs and for TV. An orchestral piece I submitted in 1973 to a competition did not win, but, as one of the ajudicators, he told me afterwards that he admired it and told me how to promote it.

Later that year when I was in despair because I could not decipher a book by Boulez, I phoned him, almost in tears. He reasoned me out of it and set me on the path to renewed self-belief. He had co-translated the book and knew its mixture of insights and utter impenetrability. In my arrangements for The King's Singers, Richard's work for them was a major influence. Over the years I mentally "ran every arrangement past him" before sending it off.

• Richard Rodney Bennett, composer, pianist and singer, born 29 March 1936; died 24 December 2012


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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