Composer. Nationality: British. Born: Broadstairs, Kent, England, 29 March 1936, one of three children of Rodney Bennett, a lyricist and author of children's book, and the former Joan Spink, a violinist/pianist/composer/critic who studied with Gustav Holst. Family: Single. Education: Leighton Park School, a private school in Reading, U.K.; Royal Academy of Music, composition study with Lennox Berkeley, Howard Ferguson, 1953–56; Private study with Pierre Boulez, Paris, France, 1957–58. Career: 1952—composed first work in serial idiom, "Put Away the Flutes" for soprano, chorus, and orchestra; 1956–1966—scored miscellaneous British shorts including The Song of the Clouds and The World Assured , the latter
Pickup Alley ( Interpol ) (Gilling)
Face in the Night ( Menace in the Night ) (Comfort); The Man Inside (Gilling); The Safecracker (Milland); Indiscreet (Donen)
Blind Date ( Change Meeting ) (Losey); The Angry Hills (as Richard Bennett) (Aldrich); The Devil's Disciple (Hamilton); The Man Who Could Cheat Death (Fisher)
The Mark (Green)
The Wrong Arm Of The Law (Owen); Satan Never Sleeps ( The Devil Never Sleeps; Flight from Terror ) (McCarey); Only Two Can Play (Gilliat)
Billy Liar (Schlesinger); Doctor Who (TV series) (C. Carry/M. Barry); Heavens Above
One Way Pendulum (Yates); The Nanny (Holt)
The Witches ( The Devil's Own ) (Frankel)
Far from the Madding Crowd (Schlesinger) Billion Dollar Brain (Russell)
Secret Ceremony (Losey)
Figures in a Landscape (Losey); The Buttercup Chain (Ellis Miller)
Nicholas and Alexandria (Schaffner)
Lady Caroline Lamb (Bolt)
Voices ( Nightmare ) (Billington)
Murder on the Orient Express (Lumet)
Permission to Kill (Frankel)
Sherlock Holmes in New York (TV) (Sagal)
The Brink's Job ( Big Stickup at Brink's ) (Friedkin)
The Return of the Soldier (Bridges)
The Ebony Tower (TV) (Knights)
Tender Is the Night (TV mini-series) (Knights)
Strange Interlude (TV) (Wise)
The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank (TV) (Erman)
Enchanted April (Newell)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (Newell)
The Tale of Sweeney Todd (TV) (Schlesinger)
"A Conversation with Richard Rodney Bennett," interview with Elmer Bernstein, in Elmer Bernstein's Filmmusic Notebook , vol. II, no. 1, 1976
"In Conversation with Richard Rodney Bennett," interview with John Caps, in Soundtrack Collectors Newsletter , vol. II, no. 7, July 1976
"Interview with Tom Sutcliffe," in Manchester Guardian Weekly , May 10, 1981.
Seabrook, Mike, Richard Rodney Bennett , Scholar Press, 1997.
* * *
Composing for film and television has been only one aspect of the prolific musical career of the British composer/pianist Richard Rodney Bennett. Aside from his film scores Bennett has worked equally prodigiously in concert music and opera, and has maintained a successful "secondary" career performing vintage popular music. In addition, Bennett was once a devotee of the new Vienna serialist school of Schoenberg and his disciples, and in the 1960s was a key member of an emerging school of new British concert composers which included Peter Maxwell-Davies, Elizabeth Luytens, and Thea Musgrave.
Bennett, however, began his professional musical career as a jazz pianist. At age 19, Bennett broke into film music when Howard Ferguson, one of Bennett's professors at the Royal Academy, introduced him to conductor John Hollingsworth in 1955 and he began scoring British short films. Feature scores soon followed (including his first, Interpol in 1957, and Hammer's The Man Who Could Cheat Death in 1959), these leading to a 1963 score for John Schlesinger's Billy Liar , a key film in the British cinema renaissance which evolved from the emerging international popularity of foreign (or "art") films in the post-studio era 1950s.
It was Bennett's association with Schlesinger which led to his first international cinematic success, a lush symphonic score for Far from the Madding Crowd , released by MGM in 1967. Here Bennett's atmospheric lyricism aptly captured the pantheism of Thomas Hardy's mythic Wessex countryside through the use of traditional British folk themes fused with his own folk-like motifs. The score was also a landmark of symphonic orchestral scoring for an era in which film music had become increasingly dominated by rock/pop effects. Bennett's extended cue for the scene in which Sergeant Troy seduces Bathsheba with a virtuoso display of swordsplay is one of the most striking fusions of music, image, and drama in late 20th-century film music. While the Hardy film itself was a commercial disappointment, Bennett's score became a contemporary classic, and Schlesinger would go on to direct one of the most popular American films of the 1970s, Midnight Cowboy in 1969.
That same year Bennett scored Billion Dollar Brain for another British director soon to create a major splash on the international film scene: Ken Russell. Brain was a manifestation of the James Bond/secret agent craze launched in the early 1960s, and was the third in a series based on Len Deighton's "Harry Palmer" novels. It chronicles the fantastic efforts of a mad American general to invade communist Russia, and Russell's stylish production makes several visual references to Eisenstein. Likewise, Bennett's sleekly contemporary music pays homage to Prokovief, Shostakovich and other 20th-century Russian composers. Orchestrated solely for multiple pianos, brass, percussion, and an early electronic instrument, the Ondes Martinot, Bennett's cohesive, yet sonically adventurous score includes of a kind of aural Op Art-style Main Title (and a languorous love theme cleverly derived from it), and an extended cue for the film's climactic sequence, a homage to Eisenstein's "Battle On The Ice" sequence from Ivan the Terrible. These two contrasting but distinctive scores led to Bennett's scoring more prestigious productions on the international film scene of the 1970s. He created another big symphonic score evoking both the lyricism and brooding melancholy of Tchaikowsky for Franklin Schaffner's epic of the last days of the Romanov dynasty, Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971. This was followed by darkly rhapsodic music for Lady Caroline Lamb , Robert Bolt's 1972 film about the scandalous affair between Lord Byron and the wife of a prominent British aristocrat. (The Lady Caroline score was also developed and recorded as a concert piece for viola and orchestra). Sidney Lumet's 1974 Murder On The Orient Express , based on one of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries, provided a change of pace with a pastiche score which indulged Bennett's interest in period popular music, while still providing the opportunity for a number of orchestral cues in the mode of Ravel and the French impressionists.
While scoring these major international productions Bennett remained active in the more intimate realm of native British cinema. He scored several small films for American expatriate director, Joseph Losey, including Secret Ceremony in 1968, and Figures In A Landscape in 1970. For the former (a notoriously ambiguous and rather Pinteresque exercise with Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow) Bennett created a delicately minimalist, partially serialized score for a chamber ensemble which aptly captured the enigmatic quality of Losey's strange film.
In 1977 Bennett produced another major score for Lumet's depressingly literal adaptation of Peter Schaffer's international stage success, Equus. Orchestrated solely for lower strings, Bennett's music effectively played against Schaffer's poetic, if overwrought script with a somberly melancholy yet compassionate lyricism. Bennett's last major score for the 1970s was for another Schlesinger film, 1979's Yanks , a modern romance about American soldiers stationed in Britain during World War II.
By the 1980s Bennett had veered away from big film scores to pursue his interest in popular music, particularly the classic songs of great American songwriters such as Porter, Warren, Gershwin, and Berlin, and to further pursue his career as a pianist, accompanist, and sometimes singer on the New York cabaret scene. The composer also scored a number of television productions during this period, among them a Tender Is The Night mini-series, Strange Interlude , and The Attic : The Hiding of Anne Frank. In 1992 a film which he had scored for British television, Enchanted April , was successfully released as a theatrical film in the United States. Along with his popular cabaret performances and solo recordings Bennett's other recent work has been for the popular Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994). This followed by another all-string chamber style score for the poetic murder mystery Swann (Canadian film, 1996). In 1998 Bennett scored another John Schlesinger film, The Tale of Sweeney Todd , produced for British television, a score which Bennett himself considers one of his finest. His most recent score was for another British mini-series, Gorbenhurst.
Concerning his film work (about which the composer has become very selective) Sir Richard Rodney Bennett has commented: "I realized very early that I was never going to make by living by writing string quartets. But I wanted to write music and I didn't want to have to do anything else." Bennett has called his film work "a means to an end," a way for him "to live as a composer," but in the process has nonetheless created some of the most brilliant, varied, and original scores in the history of late-20th-century film. In a conversation on film music with American film composer Elmer Bernstein, Bennett also offered these comments: "on the other hand, you've got to be born to it. It is not hack work as far as I'm concerned. I've never had any consistent theory about film music. I try to simply respond freshly to everything I see. Every picture I do to stimulate myself, and in order not to let myself do anything I've done before."