King’s Singer David Hurley reflects on the work of Richard Rodney Bennett.
“It was with great sadness that I read of the death in his hometown of New York of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett on Christmas Eve. Richard was a man of many parts – an Oscar-nominated composer of film scores, a remarkable jazz pianist and singer, a distinguished composer of serious music (who studied with Pierre Boulez among others) and one of the classiest arrangers around.
He composed two significant works for the King’s Singers, the first being House of Sleepe (1972), and the second being his setting of religious writings by the 17th Century poet and priest John Donne, Sermons and Devotions (1993), written to celebrate our 25th anniversary. I got to know House of Sleepe when I bought the King’s Singers’ Contemporary Collection, having heard Timepiece in a concert at school, and it was the Bennett piece which I played most often. I was in the group when we asked Richard to write a serious work to mark our Silver Jubilee. He said he had always wanted to set Donne’s writings (including the famous line, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”), and the resulting work is one we still perform to this day, and one of my favourite contemporary works.
In addition to his commissions Richard penned many remarkable arrangements for the group, including his set of five Gershwin songs, which are scored for us and piano or orchestra. He also contributed the ever-popular arrangement of Harold Arlen’s It’s a new world to the playlist for the 1991 CD Get Happy, for which we joined with George Shearing. Richard also assisted George with the vocal parts of his 5/4 version of George’s own jazz standard Lullaby of Birdland.
We last saw Richard in Swaledale last summer, where he was Artist-in-Residence at the Festival. Looking at their website I discovered that he was also a fine visual artist, with some of abstract collages being on display during the Festival. When we saw him we chatted about future ideas, which sadly won’t be realised, but the wonderful music he created for us will remain an integral part of our repertoire.