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It was very sad recently to hear of the passing of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett in New York on Christmas Eve.
Having met him quite a few years ago, we had become good friends as well as sometimes work partners.
I knew of Richard’s work mainly through his film scores, such as ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, and his reputation as a great British composer and orchestrator. It was in this last capacity that we came together. Having been coaxed into the world of orchestral music by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Carl Davis when I was asked to write a piece for the Orchestra’s 150th Anniversary, I enjoyed very much working on the Liverpool Oratorio.
It was a different world for me and although I had been used, in the past, to working with many different classically trained musicians (such as David Mason, the piccolo trumpet player on ‘Penny Lane’ and Alan Civil, the French horn player on ‘For No One’) I had not previously been involved in a full length piece for a classical orchestra.
Working with the soloists, choirs and instrumentalists taking part in the Oratorio was fascinating, challenging, but also a lot of fun and ultimately very satisfying.
Having collaborated with Carl Davis on the Liverpool Oratorio, I later began to work with others who could help me orchestrate my compositions. This was the beginning of my friendship with Richard Rodney Bennett. I would ring him up, and chat over an idea I’d had to see if he had any interest in helping me translate my ideas for an orchestra. These phone conversations turned out to be fun and quite amusing. Richard showed himself to be quick-witted with a no-nonsense approach for the project.
As we got to know each other better, I would phone him in New York where he lived and worked, sometimes tricking him by impersonating a fictitious long-forgotten friend from his past – “This is Duncan,” I would announce in a thick Scottish accent, “Don’t ya remember me from the Academy?” Being very polite, Richard could be strung along for quite a few minutes before I let him know it was his mad friend doing a silly voice. Eventually he knew who ‘Duncan’ was and I might have to pretend to be the Nigerian Ambassador in order to hear him squirm as he struggled to find a polite way out of this terrible phone call.
We would work either at my place in England or in his, quite modest, apartment in the Upper West Side of New York City. I would be shown in, offered a cup of tea, and having said hello to his favourite cat who roamed the room suspiciously, we would get down to work at his old upright piano. I would play him the piece and often play a recording I had made, on my computer, with a synthesised orchestra. As we went through the music he would make comments and I always had the impression that he knew immediately what voicing and instrumentation would be required.
Composing is one thing, but dividing the parts skillfully across an orchestra; translating the melodies and rhythms into the perfect blend requires a certain special skill that Richard had running through every inch of his body.
These sessions, and the gossip anecdotes, and witty observations which accompanied them, will remain in my memory for a long time and are a large part of what made our time together so special.
Besides classical music, one of Richard’s greatest passions was Jazz and our shared love of the great American composers like Gershwin, Porter, Arlen and many others, led to hours of musical chats, illustrated often by his superb piano playing.
A few times I saw him play in cabaret (at the Algonquin, New York or Pizza On The Park, London) often accompanied by his favourite female Jazz singer which made for nostalgic evenings with Richard running through the chords and melodies of the greats.
We worked together again when in 1997 he orchestrated large parts of my ‘Standing Stone’ and oversaw many of the recording sessions. We often sat, three of us in a row, Richard, John Fraser (the Producer) and myself as a sort of politburo checking in detail the performances of the London Symphony Orchestra. I would sometimes ask him to orchestrate certain sections with hardly any interference from my good self and these were invariably my ‘favourite bits’.
I will miss his gentle but brutally incisive comments on music and life in general. I will miss his intelligence, quick wit and mischievous good humour. I will miss him.
After he was knighted in 1998 I phoned him and this time pretended to be a crass New York business type. “Is this Sir Bennett?” I asked. “Yes it is,” he replied, politely as usual. “I love your toons,” I went on, sensing his momentary embarrassment, “You do great music, I’m a big fan,” and so on and on and it was only when I let him off the hook by revealing who this idiot on the phone was that he cursed me in no uncertain fashion. I’ve laughed a lot. I’ll miss him.Paul McCartney, January 2013 – From paulmccartney.com
Last updated on October 31, 2020