Sir Richard Rodney Bennett CBE was a prolific and highly versatile British composer and pianist known for his innovative approach to 12-tone and serial composition—particularly in his concert works. He also won acclaim for his film scores and was widely recognised for his solo and collaborative work as a jazz musician.
Bennett was born into a creative family. His father wrote children’s books, and his mother was a pianist, vocalist, and composer who had studied with the well-known British composer Gustav Holst. Bennett showed an extraordinary aptitude and affinity for a broad range of musical styles at a very young age, and in 1953 he received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. While a student, Bennett composed a number of noteworthy pieces, including Sonata for Piano (1954), which was published when he was still a teenager. In 1957–59 he lived in Paris, having received a scholarship from the French government to study with the French composer Pierre Boulez.
Upon his return to England, Bennett began to emerge as one of the most versatile and talented of the avant-garde British composers. His works include chamber, solo vocal, and choral music; operas, symphonies, and concertos; and scores for films and television. Looking to expand his musical horizons, he moved in 1979 to New York City, which remained his home for the remainder of his life, except for a period in the 1990s when he returned to London to hold the international chair of composition at the Royal Academy of Music.
Among Bennett’s most notable compositions in the classical vein are the operas The Mines of Sulphur (1965), A Penny for a Song (1966), All the King’s Men (1968), and Victory (1970); the choral work Spells (1975); the orchestral piece Music for Strings (1978); and the ballet Isadora (1981). Bennett’s best-known works, however, are his movie scores. In 1975 his score for Murder on the Orient Express (1974) won a film music award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), and in 1995 his music for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) won an ASCAP award in the category of top box-office films.
Aside from his work as a composer, Bennett regularly performed popular music and jazz as a singer and pianist, frequently collaborating with prominent jazz artists such as British vocalist Cleo Laine and American singer Chris Connor. He also cultivated a successful cabaret-style solo act in the 1990s. For his distinguished service to the arts as a whole, Bennett was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1977, and in 1998 he was knighted.