From his precocious early years at the cutting edge of the musical avant garde to those many and memorable nights where just the man and the piano and that engaging gravelly voice of his would warp around an American songbook standard or a thirty-two bar something he’d made earlier, Bennett really did, in the words of his publisher, do “everything in-between” when it came to the art he knew and loved from the inside out.
I had one “official” interview with him many years ago and it took place in the home of our mutual friend, composer and lyricist Charles Hart, which I think helped to put us both at ease. We talked about it all – the “serial” years, the one-on-one studies with Boulez, the thorny pieces he didn’t disown but later thought better of; his desire to communicate, to embrace music in all its guises, the superior movie music he fashioned with such care (isn’t his score for Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd one of the great movie scores?), the American songbook he loved so much, the Bennett songbook he sought to expand, the joy of jazz, the phrasing that freed up the melody but never strayed far enough to disrespect it, the show tunes that didn’t speak to him but that he was thrilled spoke to others. He was a listener, was Bennett, and the best thing about that interview was that like all the best interviews it turned into a conversation where nothing was off-limits and whatever you could bring to the table was alright with him. He didn’t suffer fools but he warmed to enthusiasm that came from the heart. I remember him taking audience questions at an event we did together at the Cheltenham Festival and the only moment he became waspishly fractious was with a rather pretentious man who started referring to “art songs”. Go figure why that got his goat…
His musical ethos reminded me of my idol Leonard Bernstein – he embraced pretty much everything – and though I didn’t know him intimately like my friend and musical soul-mate John Wilson I wanted to. His words and spirit were infectious.
When my interview feature appeared in print he took the trouble to find out my phone number and called to thank me personally. I was out and he left a message saying how no one had ever written such nice things about him. I can’t think for a moment that that was true but I guess what he was acknowledging was our shared enthusiasm – not least, of course, for those wonderful American songs that spoke volumes to us both. The man who called them “art songs” had demeaned their universality and that pissed him off. Richard Rodney Bennett was a completely natural musician and it was a privilege to have met him and shared a little of his musical thinking. Or better yet to have heard him getting to the heart of Vernon Duke or George Gershwin.