We were saddened to hear of the death of Richard Rodney Bennett over the festive period. Richard has had a long association with Britten Sinfonia and will be sorely missed not only by us but the worldwide music community.
Over Britten Sinfonia’s 20 year history we have performed and premiered many of Richard’s works – most notably we commissioned and gave the first performances of his Seven Country Dances in 2001, a piece specially written for the orchestra and our principal oboist Nicholas Daniel. The Times critic, Richard Morrison in his review in 2001 said “The Seven Country Dances poaches its melodies from a 17th-century English fiddle-tune collection, Playford's Dancing Master. But any notion that this is some sort of straitlaced "authentic" transcription is swiftly dispelled. Whether boisterously rustic or achingly melancholic, the Playford tunes are merely starting-points round which Bennett weaves ardent rhapsodies full of purple harmonies and plump textures. Both in style and spirit they evoke the early 20th-century folk-song arrangements of Vaughan Williams, Grainger and Warlock: light music, certainly, but immaculately crafted.”
We also recorded his Partita for Orchestra for the cover disk of BBC Music magazine in 1996. Co-commissioned by the Association of British Orchestra and BT this work was performed by seventeen different orchestras between October 1995 and July 1996 as part of the BT Celebration Series. Bennett said at the time “I responded to this exciting but rather daunting commission by writing a lively and I hope very accessible piece, which, I decided before I started composing, should be full of tunes.”
On a more personal level Richard was President of Britten Sinfonia during the late 1990’s/early 2000’s – a time in which he was a great support and friend of the ensemble. David Butcher, Britten Sinfonia Chief Executive also remembers fondly his most recent visit to New York, during which Richard, his good friend and publisher, Gill Graham and he played Scrabble late into the night at Richard’s apartment.
We will be performing Richard’s Tom O’Bedlam’s Song in our next At Lunch series of performances later this month. Our 2012-13 At Lunch series is focussing on Benjamin Britten’s chamber music alongside his influences and contemporaries, and Richard was certainly an important contemporary of Britten’s who alongside other 20th century composers cultivated a distinctly ‘British’ character for their music. Scored for tenor and cello accompaniment, Tom O Bedlam’s Song will be performed by Mark Padmore and Britten Sinfonia’s principal cellist Caroline Dearnley. The anonymously written poem from which the text derives dates from around 1600 and describes an inmate of the Bethlem Royal Hospital for people with mental illness, providing the ideal inspiration for Richard’s modernist musing on the idea of madness.