Richard Rodney Bennett, Composer and Cabaret Artist, Dead at 76

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01 Jan 2013

Richard Rodney Bennett, the accomplished English composer and musician who carved an elegant, witty profile in the cabaret world as the accompanist and foil to singer Mary Cleere Haran, died Dec. 24 in New York, his adopted home. He was 76.

The prolific and artistically curious Mr. Bennett worked in many musical realms. He wrote his first film score at age 18, and three of his subsequent 50 scores — "Far From the Madding Crowd" (1967), "Nicholas and Alexandra" (1971) and "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974) — were nominated for Academy Awards. The latter won at BAFTA Award in Britain. Other scores included "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Enchanted April" and "Equus."

A student of Pierre Boulez, with whom he had studied for two years in Paris as the winner of a scholarship, he composed three symphonies, 17 concertos, five operas and dozens of chamber works. He also wrote long and short works in the jazz idiom, including a piece for Stan Getz.

He found a fellow fan of the American Songbook in Haran, who emerged as an intelligent and insouciant cabaret performer in the mid-1980s. Together they collaborated on shows built around the work of the Gershwins and other American songwriters of the early 20th century. Mr. Bennett would accompany and occasionally join her on vocals, acting as a polished English counterpart to Haran's American verve. The New York Times called their 1998 show "The Memory of All That," "dazzling," complimenting their "unerring grace, good humor and unostentatious virtuosity."

The two worked well together. In 2001, Haran remembered how, "One afternoon, Richard began vamping some simple melancholy chords and said, 'Mary, sing "Lullaby of Broadway," but sing it very slowly.' I already knew the tune — doesn't everybody? — and most of the lyrics, but I followed them on the sheet music that Richard had put in front of me… Because the tempo was slowed down and Richard was playing such gorgeously plaintive chords, all the dance-band gloss disappeared and the music and lyric took on a whole new light." Haran died in 2011.

Mr. Bennett also accompanied the cabaret singers Cleo Laine, Claire Martin and Marion Montgomery. Richard Rodney Bennett was born at Broadstairs, Kent. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1977, and was knighted in 1998. Anthony Meredith published a biography of Bennett in 2010.