Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012)

The versatile British composer dies, aged 76

Richard Rodney BennettSir Richard Rodney Bennett has died in New York at the age of 76. One of the most versatile composers of recent times, he turned his hand to classical, jazz, TV and film music.

The British composer's best-known classical works include three symphonies, 17 concertos, an opera called The Mines of Sulphur and Sonnets to Orpheus for cello and orchestra. But he also wrote over 50 scores for TV and film, including those for Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), and received three Oscar nominations and a Bafta.

Bennett was born in Broadstairs in 1936. His father wrote children’s books and his mother was a pianist and composer who’d studied at St Paul’s Girls School in London under Gustav Holst – she sang in the first professional production of his work The Planets.

After attending Leighton Park school near Reading, Bennett turned down a place to study languages at Oxford to go to the Royal Academy of Music in London. But speaking to The Guardian newspaper last year he said: ‘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.’

His choral work Ricercar was performed at Wigmore Hall in 1956 by the Society for the Promotion of New Music and between 1957 and 1959 he studied with Pierre Boulez in Paris. His opera The Mines of Sulphur blended serialism with lyricism and proved a hit at Sadler's Wells in 1965.

Bennett moved to New York in 1979, naming Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein as referees on his US Green Card application.

Throughout his career, Bennett wrote music for the screen to subsidise his other composition. He was also a jazz pianist and frequently performed with singer Claire Martin. In 1989 he played at the BBC Proms in a concert of music by Gershwin and Cole Porter.

In 1994, while still living in America, he became international chair of composition at the Royal Academy of Music. He was knighted in 1998.

‘Richard was the most complete musician of his generation – lavishly gifted as a composer, performer and entertainer in a multiplicity of styles and genres’ said Chris Butler, head of publishing for the Music Sales Group, which publishes Bennett's music. ‘He was a loyal friend to music, musicians, and music publishing and we will remember him with great respect and affection.’