Richard Rodney Bennett (born 1936) was one of the most gifted and versatile composers to emerge from Britain's cultural renaissance after World War II, writing for films and television, opera and concert audiences.
Richard Rodney Bennett was born in Kent and received his musical training as a scholarship student at the Royal College of Music, where he was a pupil of Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson. When Bennett was 18, he composed a piano sonata that revealed his unusual talent. It is recognized as being an important contemporary work.
In 1957 a scholarship awarded by the French government enabled Bennett to study with Pierre Boulez in Paris for two years. Although Boulez was one of the leaders of the musical avant-garde, he did not impose his style on the young composer. Bennett returned to England with a complete mastery of serial techniques, but he never used them in a doctrinaire manner. He had become a versatile composer, seemingly able to write convincingly in any style and for many different audiences. In 1970 Bennett accepted a two-year appointment as visiting professor of composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland.
Bennett's opera The Mines of Sulphur (1963) has been called one of the most professionally adept and successful first full-length operas ever produced. It demonstrated that his abilities were particularly suited to writing operas and revealed his strong dramatic sense and his power to create atmosphere and depict characters in soaring melodic lines and colorful orchestration. The opera is through-composed, that is, there are no arias, and the dramatic intensity of the story is reflected at all times in the music. The Mines of Sulphur is a horror story, set in a dilapidated ancient mansion in the midst of a forest on a stormy night. A band of disreputable strolling players comes to this spooky place, and horrible deeds ensue. The choice of such a grisly, melodramatic plot shows Bennett's basically romantic attitude as a composer.
Bennett's next opera, A Penny for a Song (1967), is a complete contrast. It is a light-hearted political satire, for which the composer adopted a freely tonal idiom, very different from the chromaticism of the earlier opera. His third opera, Victory, based on Joseph Conrad's novel, was first performed in London in 1970.
Bennett composed two symphonies (1965 and 1967), a piano concerto (1968), Epithalamion (1966) for chorus and orchestra, a ballet called Jazz Calendar (1964) for jazz ensemble, various piano pieces and songs, and his own variations of Scott Joplin. He also wrote piano pieces and songs for children as well as a children's opera, All the King's Men (1968), and scores for young musicians.
Bennett is himself an accomplished performer. He recorded classics from Jerome Kern (1975) and Harold Arlen (1993) on the piano. On more than one occasion he collaborated on recordings with Elisabeth Lutyens, including a memorable performance on the basset horn on "Clarinet Classics".
Over the years his works provoke inspired performances from many distinguished performing artists, including Cleo Laine's London Clarinet Consort, Stephen Cleobury's King's Singers, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and the Oregon Symphony. Julian Bream recorded Bennett's guitar sonatas (1982 and 1989). Bennett's Marimba and Percussion Concertos were recorded by Evelyn Glennie, Paul Daniel, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In 1994 Bennett composed and arranged the sound track for the popular motion picture, Four Weddings and a Funeral, incorporating songs from many popular artists into the work.
Two general works which include material on Bennett and his music are Paul Henry Lang and Nathan Broder, eds., Contemporary Music in Europe: A Comprehensive Survey (1965), and Rollo H. Myers, Twentieth Century Music (1968). See also Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961); Stewart Craggs, Richard Rodney Bennett: a Bio-bibliography (1990). □