Sir Richard Rodney Bennett – A Born Musician

Written by: Colin Anderson

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett arrives without ceremony, off the tube! His conversation is gentle and chatty. As for reaching 70 (on March 29), “it’s a nice excuse to see my friends and I don’t feel so impelled to work. I’ve been earning my living as a composer from the age of 19 and I used to feel guilty if I wasn’t working all the time. I now prefer to paint and I’ve written a great deal.” He has. Concert works, songs and film scores; cabaret, too, with Claire Martin, “a wonderful release; we just dropped into it and we have lots of concerts. I like playing that music and every night is different.”

Sir Richard defies pigeonholing. “My father was an opera singer but gave it up due to a heart condition and wrote lyrics for famous drawing-room ballads. My mother was a pianist, a pupil of Holst, and was at the Royal College. I just went ahead and did it. I loved sight-reading; I wasn’t in love with playing the piano, I wanted to hear the music. I got a big pile of manuscript paper every Christmas, which was absolutely thrilling. I was a composer before I could read music; I drew music on the page and give it titles. I had a lucky upbringing and went to schools where music was an ok thing to do.”

For Sir Richard music was “entirely self-generated. I’m proud of that. I heard things on the radio and was taken to the pictures to see musicals. I went in for talent competitions; I used to win 5 shillings and spend it on music.” His mentors later included such diverse figures as Lennox Berkeley, Elisabeth Lutyens and Pierre Boulez. Sir Richard has long “had a love for English music written between the wars. My parents reviewed sheet music for magazines, so it was there like books on the shelves. It’s still important to me and my own music is very English. I wouldn’t like to be starting now; since all the doors are open, which one do you go through? Scary! I couldn’t use a computer.” They can compose for you. “Isn’t it awful. Composing requires a lot of hard work.”

Richard Rodney Bennett’s music is atmospheric and image-creating (try his opera The Mines of Sulphur, recorded on Chandos). “My main influence has been Debussy, as a colourist and through his harmonic language.” RRB writes beautiful songs, as will be heard at Wigmore Hall on March 28 (“I’ve stockpiled texts since school and my younger sister is a very fine poet and sends me things”), and his orchestral works are vibrant. The BBCSO’s portrait of him on April 8 (at St Giles and the Barbican Hall) includes exquisite choral works (as on a superb Collegium CD), piano music (Metronome), and Symphony No.3, which “is me all grown up, not showing off. It turned a corner. I love it.”

Sir Richard paints abstracts and is “interested in outsider artists, people untrained and outside society; I collect those painters. My attitude to art is naïve and unschooled, but I do know what I like and I read about it and educate myself.” Not that composing is over: “I’m not looking for work, but the phone might ring tomorrow and I’ll get all lit up again!”



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