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Richard Rodney Bennett

Few British composers ranged so widely or so freely across generic boundaries as Richard Rodney Bennett.

Equally adept and at home in the concert hall, cinema, on television and in the cabaret room, he steered an amiable and lyrically accented path between the highbrow and the populist, attracting accolades from the high priest of the musical avant garde Pierre Boulez, with whom he studied for three years in the late 1950s, and gaining three Academy Award nominations.

Born in Broadstairs, Kent, to a pianist-composer mother and children’s author father, Bennett began composing in his teens, completing his first string quartet at the age of 15. He had a piano sonata published in 1954. Following private lessons with Elisabeth Lutyens, he studied with Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson at the Royal Academy of Music – where he would return in the 1990s to occupy the international chair of composition for six years – and was soon establishing himself as a young composer of note.

He found early success writing for film, going on to compose more than 50 soundtracks and attract Oscar nominations for Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), a film he secured on the recommendation of Stephen Sondheim. Other notable cinema scores included Equus (1977) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). His television credits included the BAFTA-nominated Tender is the Night (1985) and Gormenghast (2000).

As a classical composer, Bennett wrote three much-admired symphonies, five operas and numerous concertante, chamber, instrumental and choral works. Compositions shifted from the coruscating serialism of his early output to the disturbing expressionism of his 1965 opera The Mines of Sulphur, the Frederick Ashton-choreographed Jazz Calendar (1964) and a popular guitar concerto for Julian Bream (1970). He also arranged material for the King’s Singers and provided much-loved settings of Christmas carols.

As a jazz pianist, he formed influential partnerships with Cleo Laine, Marion Montgomery, Mary Cleere Haran and Claire Martin, and regularly performed in cabaret in the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where he emigrated in 1979.

Appointed a CBE in 1977 and knighted in 1998, Richard Rodney Bennett was born on March 29, 1936 and died, aged 76, on December 24, 2012.

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