Happy birthday to a composer who can do everything
Geoffrey Norris salutes the remarkable career of composer Richard Rodney Bennett
From the Telegraph - 23/03/2006
Anybody who has seen the star-studded '70s film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express will have heard the music of Richard Rodney Bennett.
The title sequence is among the most memorable in the movies: the plush train is at the platform, the well-heeled passengers install themselves in their sumptuous berths, the guard's whistle blows and, as the train gets up steam, the soundtrack insinuates fragments of a tune that burgeons into a fabulous whirlwind waltz. That is Bennett in exuberantly inspired mood, the mood for which we perhaps know him best.
Next week, Bennett, who was knighted in 1998, turns 70, and a series of celebratory concerts testifies to the diversity of his craft. Among his other famous scores are Far from the Madding Crowd, Nicholas and Alexandra and, more recently, BBC2's adaptation of Gormenghast.
But it would be wrong to slot him simply into the sphere of the silver screen. Bennett composed the chilling Expressionist opera The Mines of Sulphur, which was the hit of the 1965 Sadler's Wells season in London and was triumphantly revived two years ago in upstate New York and last autumn in Manhattan itself, where he now lives.
Bennett has written symphonies, concertos and a host of other classical works, in an approachable idiom with a strong lyrical impulse and fresh, modern harmonies. But he can - and frequently does - slip just as easily into jazz and cabaret. At the drop of a hat he could sing you dozens of songs by Cole Porter or George Gershwin.
In the '50s in Paris, he went through a cerebral phase under the guidance of Pierre Boulez. But it is a more laid-back Bennett who approaches his eighth decade. "I don't really like listening to contemporary music," he admits. "At one time it was food and drink. Those earnest programmes - I can't take in so much difficult music, I really can't."
But there are exceptions. "The composers I care about are those who have flowered again. There are a handful of composers who started doing extraordinary things." He mentions the ever-youthful veteran Elliott Carter, and also Henri Dutilleux, "my favourite living composer, and about the only one - with the exception of my friends - who I rush to hear every time he writes a new piece. I hope I end up like that."
As for Bennett's own works, he "was always concerned about writing music that people want, and want to play. When I was in Paris, audiences didn't mean anything. You can't think about audiences when you're 20. But after a certain point I wanted to write, particularly, instrumental music that instrumentalists needed."
Now, though, that creative impetus seems to be less acute. "It will come back, but I'm finding it very difficult to write music at present. I was supposed to write a piece for the Barbican concert next month, and I just couldn't. I had a lovely text, but I just couldn't do it. I can write small things that require little effort, but the idea of 20 minutes for chorus and orchestra is more than I can deal with."
It was Bennett's earlier fluency that made him a film director's dream. "It's a wonderful way to hone your craft," he says. "The subject is supplied to you. You are writing within a certain format that will be acceptable to the boss, you have a specified length, and you know what you can do and what you can't. I could try out all sorts of freaky orchestral things, particularly when I started doing horror films.
"It never occurred to me that what I was doing was important as music, but gosh it was fun. I suppose I'm still living on royalties from films of the '50s being shown in Paraguay or somewhere. I came in at the tail-end of that great British tradition of using real composers - Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Britten. Now it's so commercial. The music is done by somebody you've never heard of, and probably will never hear of again. There aren't really any heroes left."
For his part, he says, "I haven't got the stamina to write that much music that fast any more. I'm not complaining. I used to think it was thrilling to stay up all night, but I don't now. God knows, I've written lots of music, and now I'm doing short pieces if I feel like it. I like to paint. I can make collages all day. Or I can cook. Or I can walk around New York. It's perfectly all right. I've earned the right. I'm allowed."
'A Richard Rodney Bennett Songbook' is at Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020 7935 2141), next Tuesday.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra presents a tribute at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7500), on April 8.