on 16 January 2012
Musicians who are equally at home in the worlds of classical and popular music are not uncommon in the Unites States. Think of Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn, John Williams and, of course, George Gershwin. In Britain we can only offer one such name : Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, composer of full-length operas, symphonies, concertos and many other classical works, a pianist able to play the most advanced of atonal works (including his own) and the cream of American popular music, songwriter and vocalist, accompanist and arranger, and the composer of numerous film and television scores. There seems no style or genre in which he has not excelled. Compared with the names mentioned above only the art of conducting has passed him by. This comprehensive biography charts his progress in Kent and elsewhere to his present eminence by way of a frantically busy and general rewarding career. There is, to be honest, rather more detail - not to mention 'showbiz' chat - than the average reader is likely to want and the subject's family background might, with advantage, have been condensed. Nevertheless this is a rewarding portrait of a remarkable and astonishingly versatile musician, alebit one with a complex personality. There is a full list of works and a discography.
on 9 March 2013
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
I was aware that Richard Rodney Bennett had composed some highly regarded film scores and was Marion Montgomery's accompanist, but I hadn't realised the scope and range of his compositions across all genres, and styles, of music, until I read this biography.
It is a rich absorbing read, with a commendably high use of quotations from Bennett's friends, colleagues and fellow composers. The analyses of musical works are excellent, and are written so as to be meaningful for both the general reader and those with more technical musical knowledge.
Bennett had an extraordinary facility for composition and his list of works runs to 25 pages in the book. He could switch with ease from employing serial techniques in his serious classical works, to writing film scores in a more tonal idiom. He was also an accomplished Jazz singer and pianist. He was fortunate to be working at a time in the 1960s and 1970s when classical music had a high profile in the cultural life of the UK. I was struck by the adventurousness and range of activities being undertaken in those years.
Bennett's professional life is recounted in detail by Meredith and Harris. And yet, I don't feel that they really get to the heart of Bennett, the man. Perhaps this is because he didn't really want to get too close to those people in his life that mattered and his charm, ebullience and need to be constantly busy was part of that. He did not like unpleasantness and when his primary relationship went through a bad patch, he simply walked away from it and relocated to New York.
Commissions did not come as regularly in the latter stages of his career. This can be partly explained by Bennett's self-imposed move to New York (out of sight, out of mind) but also because of the changes affecting the classical music world in the last years of the 20th century: for example, pop soundtracks were replacing original film scores, an area of work that had provided Bennett with many opportunities, and money, for much of his career.
An excellent account of a composer's working life and a useful snapshot of the post-World War II classical music scene in the UK.
on 9 March 2011
Having reached the half way point of this magnificent biography I was itching to listen to more of Bennett's music, and re-evaluate what i'd previously heard:not least,the life enhancing Partita which was his first concert piece to break free from 12-note techniques.
The tone of voice is chatty rather than scholarly, but I was always impressed by the skill in which the numerous interviews and correspondence have been woven together to form an exciting narrative.
A few mistakes have crept in (Max Davies's famous 'Farewell to Stromness' is for piano,not orchestra, and saying that Babbitt was interested in writing 'audience free music' is a wilful distortion)but this remains a must-read for anyone interested in Contemporary British Music.
on 1 February 2013
I enjoyed this book very much, as I had seen him every year in cabaret in London, over a long period of time, and loved his piano playing and gravelly singing and his sensitive interpretations of The Great American Songbook. Primarily a classical composer, he had several sides to his musical career and was so good at all of them that, in true British fashion, he was sometimes under-rated by those who feel the need to put artistes into self-contained pigeon holes. I met him and found him charming, but he could evidently be tricky and had no time for anything less than perfection. That said, he was very generous with the help he gave to up-and-coming musicians. This book provides an insight into this brilliant and complicated man.