Richard Rodney Bennett, prolific British composer, dies at 76

Stephen Chernin/AP - Paul McCartney, second left, speaks with composers Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, left, Roxanna Panufnik, second right, and Judith Bingham before a benefit dinner for the Garland Appeal in New York. Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, a British composer, pianist and arranger who was nominated three times for Academy Awards, has died in New York City at age 76.

Richard Rodney Bennett, a British composer, pianist and arranger who was nominated three times for Academy Awards, died Dec. 24 in New York City at age 76.

His publisher, Novello & Co., confirmed his death but did not specify a cause.

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Mr. Bennett was nominated for Oscars for the scores for “Far From the Madding Crowd” in 1967, “Nicholas and Alexandra” in 1971 and “Murder on the Orient Express” in 1974.

After he studied with composer Pierre Boulez in the 1950s, Mr. Bennett’s work evolved from the avant-garde to a more tonal style. As a pianist, he performed with jazz singer Claire Martin and recorded music by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen.

Mr. Bennett’s output included more than 200 works for the concert hall, 50 scores for film and television, five operas and miscellaneous works, including settings of Christmas carols.

“Richard was the most complete musician of his generation — lavishly gifted as a composer, performer and entertainer in a multiplicity of styles and genres,” said Chris Butler, head of publishing for the Music Sales Group in London.

Richard Rodney Bennett was born March 29, 1936, in Broadstairs, England, on the English Channel east of London, but his family moved to the safer area of Devon after World War II broke out. His mother, who had studied with the composer Gustav Holst and had sung in the first performance of “The Planets,” was an early musical influence on her son.

“People ask what was the first piece of music I wrote. There was no first piece,” Mr. Bennett said in an interview last year with Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

“I just scribbled away and eventually a C-major chord was there. I didn’t ever decide I was going to be a composer. It was like being tall. It’s what I was. It’s what I did.”

He moved to New York in 1979.

“I wanted to write music, and cook, and play cards, and have a nice time,” he told the Guardian.

In New York, he indulged his passion for jazz, accompanying Martin in shows at the Algonquin Hotel and drawing praise from the New York Times as “a sensitive, truly intimate collaborator.”

Mr. Bennett helped Paul McCartney with his orchestral work “Standing Stone,” commenting on sections faxed by the former Beatle.

“I sent him one, thinking it was pretty good,” McCartney said. “A few minutes later, I got a fax back with the word ‘feeble’ scribbled across it.

“I phoned him straight back and said, ‘Richard, that’s what my teacher wrote on my essays. You’re a sensitive artist, and if you don’t like something, could you please write, ‘That’s a little below par’?”

Mr. Bennett coached Elizabeth Taylor to sing a nursery rhyme for the 1968 film “Secret Ceremony,” for which he wrote the musical score. Prince Charles commissioned Mr. Bennett in 2005 to write “Reflection on a Scottish Folk Song” in honor of the prince’s grandmother, Queen Mother Elizabeth.

Mr. Bennett was knighted in 1998.

— Associated Press