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As one of Britain’s most respected and versatile musicians, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett has produced over two hundred works for the concert hall, and fifty scores for film and television, as well as having been a writer and performer of jazz songs for over fifty years.
This album of compositions and arrangements performed by the BBC Singers showcases some of his most popular and beguiling works for choir and voice, drawn from classical and jazz music and featuring his ever-popular work A Good-Night.
Bennett was born on 29 March 1936 into a musical family in Broadstairs, on the Kent coast, and began composing as a child. His mother, who had been a student of Gustav Holst at St Paul’s Girls’ School, began teaching him piano from the age of five. In 1953 a scholarship took him to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied with Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson. During this decade he was described as ‘the most spectacular rising star on the British musical scene in the Fifties’. By the end of his first year he had written his first three string quartets, which were enthusiastically reviewed by London critics for their natural and convincingly expressive use of the 12-note method. And Bennett was still a RAM student when he met the film conductor John Hollingsworth, who gave him his first opportunities to write film soundtracks, starting with small-scale scores for industrial documentaries. (One of his first successful orchestral works, Aubade, was written in Hollingsworth’s memory.)
At the same time he was studying informally with the pioneering British serial composer Elisabeth Lutyens, who aroused in Bennett an interest in more avant-garde techniques and idioms which led him to visit the Darmstadt summer schools. In 1958 a French government grant took Bennett to Paris, where he undertook two years’ intensive tuition from Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen. They represented a radically different aesthetic from his RAM teachers, and he continued his absorption, begun with Lutyens, of the then-exciting tenets of post-Webernian serialism. In addition to this he was also establishing himself as a successful jazz pianist. He also formed a two-piano duo with his RAM classmate and friend Susan Bradshaw, and they performed widely together for over 20 years. Other regular performing partners have been the soprano Jane Manning and the horn-player Barry Tuckwell.
On his return to London, Bennett’s unusual mixture of modernist rigour, lyrical warmth and first-rate craftsmanship soon garnered him significant commissions and laid the ground for international success. He received the Arnold Bax Society Prize in 1964 and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Award for Composer of the Year in 1965. Both by generation and by his partiality for 12-note serial techniques, Bennett tended to be grouped with the so-called ‘Manchester School’ of Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Nicholas Maw and others who came to prominence as Britain’s first significant post-war musical avant-garde in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But Bennett’s interests and theirs only occasionally coincided: he was set upon a different creative path, as his highly successful jazz ballet of 1963, Jazz Calendar, showed: the first of a string of jazz-oriented works which take in music written for specific performers such as Cleo Laine and stretch at least as far as the Concerto for Stan Getz of 1990. But his most significant major works of the 1960s and 1970s included three operas: The Mines of Sulphur and A Penny for a Song for Sadler’s Wells, and Victory for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. (There was also a highly successful children’s opera, All the King’s Men.) These were followed by the full-length ballet Isadora, premiered by the Royal Ballet in 1981.
By this time Bennett had become increasingly acclimatized to life in the USA. He was composer-in-residence at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore in 1969-71 and regularly appeared as a soloist at jazz clubs in New York and elsewhere. In 1979 Bennett moved to New York, which remains his home. He has toured the USA as an accompanist (with singers such as Marian Montgomery) and appeared there many times in performances of his own works. But he has kept his British citizenship and is a frequent visitor to his native country. He was awarded a CBE in 1977, and was knighted in 1998.
With a gift for memorable, quintessentially English melodies and an instinctive lyric responsiveness to English poetry, Bennett has been able to produce a distinctive, highly attractive and varied and consistently imaginative body of choral work over a period of almost 50 years. In the last couple of decades, as the choral works on this disc exemplify, he has adopted an increasingly tonal idiom which connects back to the great English choral traditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so that his works seem very much like fruitful new plots added to the soil already so richly tilled by Parry, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Warlock, Britten, Harris and others. Moreover his extensive knowledge of English lyric poetry has enabled Bennett to set a fascinating range of texts to music.
No genre better illustrates Bennett’s versatility and practicality than the large number of Christmas carols he has composed to suit professional and amateur singers alike. My dancing day, commissioned by Jerry Johnson and the choir VocalEssence in memory of Joann Catherine Johnson, was premiered in December 2008 at a VocalEssence ‘Welcome Christmas’ concert. The text of this Cornish carol, though first published in William Sandys’ Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833), most likely has a medieval origin. The speaker is Christ, describing the events of his life: the ‘dancing day’ is his birthday on Christmas Day. As many listeners will know, there is already a famous setting of this poem by Gustav Holst (This Have I done for my True Love, 1916), but Bennett contrives to banish memories of that formidable competitor with this elaborate and touching setting.
Gloria, Gloria dates from 2010 and demonstrates Bennett’s gift for writing memorable melodies that are harmonized in appealing and unexpected ways. The carol builds in intensity as the question-answer dialogue of the text works up to the mystery of the incarnation, climaxing on vibrant chords for the final exclamation of ‘Gloria, Gloria!’. In the bleak midwinter, another carol from 2010, is a setting of the famous Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti (this favourite too was set by Gustav Holst, Harold Darke and, indeed, by many other British composers). Premiered on 15 December 2010 in a live broadcast by the BBC Singers from St George’s Church in Campden Hill, London, conducted by Robert Hollingworth, this is a richly-textured setting that nonetheless respects the sheer simplicity of the poet’s language.
Dating from 2009 is the New Year Carol, to an anonymous poem previously and memorably set by Benjamin Britten—but it is clear by now that Bennett is not afraid to challenge such comparisons. His setting, which establishes a lullaby-like mood, has a wonderful simplicity. The upper three voice parts are separated from the basses, whose descending scales disrupt the rhythm and harmony in a conflict that is only finally resolved in the closing moments of the carol.
Town and Country was one of Bennett’s collaborations on record with Marian Montgomery; issued as an LP in 1974—but it is also the title of a choral diptych composed in 2002. This opens with an evocative treatment of Wordsworth’s 1807 poem ‘The Sun has long been set’, but this is in a sense only a prelude to the title poem, ‘Town and Country Life’, a witty exercise in contrasts that firmly plumps for the delights of the former. This is in fact a setting of a poem more usually entitled ‘The Contrast’ by an elder contemporary of Wordsworth, Charles Morris (1745-1838), published first in 1795 and anthologized in Lyrica Urbanica, or The Social Effusions of the Celebrated Captain Charles Morris of the Late Lifeguards (1840). Morris was a dedicated devotee of London life and fashion, and Bennett’s lively and good-humoured setting decidedly takes his side in the town-and-country debate, just as he had previously seemed to wholly accept Wordsworth’s point of view.
Bennett’s Serenades, a five-movement choral suite, was premiered in a broadcast by the BBC Singers conducted by Stephen Cleoobury in December 2007. Here Bennett sets poems by one of the great eccentrics of English letters, John Skelton (c.1460-1529), sometime ‘poet laureate of Oxford’ and tutor to the future Henry VIII, later Rector of Diss in Norfolk, satirist and lyricist. His ‘Skeltonics’—short three-stressed lines with persistent but irregular rhyming—make his poems particularly apt for lively setting (as Vaughan Williams proved in his Five Tudor Portraits to Skelton poems). Bennett’s Serenades are also mainly portraits of women whom Skelton praised or dispraised in verse. These are the odes by turns lyrical, abusive and playful, to Mistress Margaret Hussey, Mistress Margery Wentworth, the highly inconstant Mistress Anne and Mistress Isabel Pennell. The exception is ‘My Darling Dear’, a ballad of seduction which Bennett sets in such a haunting manner that Skelton’s satire is transmuted into something altogether more romantic.
The apple tree is another irresistible carol. Composed in 2009, it sets a poem (also known as ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’) probably written by an unknown New Englander in the mid-18th century and first published in New Hampshire in 1784. Apple trees were a feature of early New England and there was an old English tradition, in cider-growing regions, of ‘orchard wassailing’—singing to apple trees to ensure their good health in the coming year. The text has become internationally known as a Christmas carol and there have been several settings before Bennett’s, which must, nevertheless, be one of the finest the poem has received.
The Four Poems of Thomas Campion was a commission for the BBC Proms, and was premiered by the BBC Symphony Chorus, conducted by Stephen Jackson, at the Royal Albert Hall in August 2007. As the title indicates this cycle takes its texts from the poet, composer, lutenist and physician Thomas Campion (1567-1620), a highly significant figure in English literature and music at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, who wrote the words and music for over 100 lute songs as well as masques for dancing and a treatise on the art of counterpoint. His poems, written for music in the first place, were neglected for about 200 years but have since provided a rich store of texts for subsequent composers. Bennett’s tribute to Campion takes the form of contrasted settings of four very different poems written between 1614 and 1618, creating a four-movement design akin to a tiny vocal symphony or sonata, with the moving ‘Never weather-beaten saile’ and the playfully dramatic ‘Fire, fire!’ functioning as slow movement and scherzo. The authorship of the fourth poem of this cycle, ‘The hours of sleepy night’, was formerly uncertain, but is now generally accepted as that of Campion. The transparent choral textures and kaleidoscopic vocal colouring make this cycle one of the most virtuosic of Bennett’s unaccompanied choral works.
Bennett composed A Good-Night, a setting of prose by the 17th-century writer Francis Quarles, in 1999 as his contribution to A Garland for Linda, a collaborative series of works written in memory of Linda McCartney. Bennett had known Linda McCartney personally, and this touching tribute is remarkable for its harmonic warmth and melodic simplicity.
This programme concludes with three delicious examples of his a cappella arrangements of favourites by Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter—numbers that Bennett has many times interpreted from the keyboard in cabaret and song recitals. As well as being utterly enjoyable in themselves, they stand as an impressive testimony to the versatility and open-mindedness of a composer for whom the distinctions between popular music and ‘high art’ have long been essentially meaningless.
Malcolm MacDonald © 2012