Remembering Sir Richard Rodney Bennett

An article in memory of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett from TSi Director and friend Andy Scott.

What a person, what a musician, and what a terrible loss to the world when Richard unexpectedly passed away on 24th December 2012. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work with RRB, there are friends of mine who know him a lot better than I did, however I did want to briefly share some of my experiences with Richard, primarily because I simply have a huge amount of respect for him.

If we rewind to 1985-89, my colleagues and I in the Apollo Saxophone Quartet were students at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester UK. Head of the Wind and Percussion Department was the larger than life Timothy Reynish, who single-handedly created an amazing scene with the RNCM Wind Band; by commissioning new works, organising concerts and festivals, and just by being so passionate about wind bands. Looking back, all the students at the RNCM were extremely fortunate to have been a part of the Reynish era. Amongst the new works that we premiered was ‘Morning Music’, composed by Richard Rodney Bennett in 1986.

In 1990 Richard completed his ‘Concerto for Stan Getz’, at the instigation of Getz, who however never had an opportunity to play the work, as sadly he passed away in June 1991. John Harle gave the televised world premiere at the BBC Proms in London in 1992 with the BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth. At this time John and Richard were a regular performing Duo, and as saxophonists we have a lot to thank John for, not least being the catalyst that led to Richard writing major works for saxophone.

Post RNCM (1989) the Apollo was gaining a good reputation as an up and coming chamber music ensemble, winning competitions and securing work in the UK, Europe and Japan. The group started a vigorous commissioning policy, and found ourselves in a position where Richard was going to write us a saxophone quartet! We premiered the fourteen-minute quartet in July 1994 at Cheltenham Festival, and subsequently recorded it in 2001 on the ASQ CD ‘Works For Us’.

I remember us meeting Richard in 1993 in the refectory of the RNCM, and talking with him about the piece that he was to write us. He must have been laughing inside, we were so naïve and excited. All we did was ask if the piece could be fully notated, i.e. not have chord symbols and improvised sections that Concerto for Stan Getz has. At the time it was an obvious point to check, coming so soon after the Concerto. We had made a decision with the Apollo that although we all improvised, the ASQ was essentially a ‘written music’ ensemble.

Richard was at the world premiere of his Saxophone Quartet, and as on previous meetings he was an absolute gentleman. There is no edge, no ego, no politics. He isn’t looking around when you’re having a conversation to see who he should be talking to next! We knew then that we were very fortunate young men to have received a substantial new work from a composer that was respected globally. However proof of the pudding is that his saxophone quartet is an absolute work of art.

Fast forward to 2004 and the ASQ had been speaking with Richard about a Concerto for Saxophone Quartet with Orchestra, which was a real possibility, especially with Richard celebrating his 70th birthday in March 2006, as there would be events leading up to, on the day, and after his birthday where a world premiere could potentially be programmed. Alas it was not to be, and during a chat with Gill Graham (Chester Novello, RRB publisher) in London, Gill mentioned that there was a possibility that the ‘Concerto for Stan Getz’ may be programmed in Richard’s 70th birthday concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

A few months later a phone call did come from the BBC, and as someone who isn’t an out an out classical soloist I had to think carefully about whether or not to accept this gig. I knew the Concerto as a piece of music and figured that it needed someone who had an understanding of classical music and jazz, someone who could improvise, and it’s written for solo tenor saxophone, which is my instrument, and it was good to keep the Apollo connection. The date went in the diary, and this is where the fun begins…….

Late Autumn 2005 and I’m learning and practising the Concerto, and in January 2006 I’m in New York City, performing at the IAJE with Duo partner Dave Hassell. Richard lives in NYC so we had arranged that I would visit him at his apartment and that we would rehearse and chat about the Concerto, in preparation for the London birthday concert in March.

Off to Central Park West, into an imposing building where the doorman calls ‘Mr Bennett’. Lauren, my wife, and I make our way up to his apartment. It’s pretty amazing, great thick solid stone walls, an open plan main room with an upright piano, his writing desk with manuscript paper facing the window. The next thing I know is that I’m struggling through the Concerto, with Richard playing piano. He explains what he wants musically at certain points, and it was an amazing insight into his work. Throughout the whole process, and to date, you wonder how the piece would have sounded with Stan Getz playing it? You do your best knowing that everyone else is probably thinking this as well!

At the end of the Concerto play through, Richard asked me if I would play through another piece that he had recently written, scored for clarinet and piano, called ‘Ballad in Memory of Shirley Horn’, and commissioned by the British clarinettist Nigel Hinson. This is a beautiful work, and a heartfelt musical offering to his late friend, the great jazz singer. It was pretty tricky sight-reading, especially with changing phrases to different octaves, where the clarinet written range wouldn’t allow direct transposition onto tenor saxophone. Again I struggled through it, but it must have given Richard enough of an idea that it would work for tenor saxophone and piano, as well as the original clarinet version. He asked me if I would edit the piece with him for tenor saxophone? I didn’t have to think about the answer to that question!

Onto early March 2006 and I’m at conductor John Wilson’s house in London; he’s conducting, Richard is playing piano and I’m playing sax. We work through the Concerto before rehearsing with the BBC Concert Orchestra for the next couple of days. There was a lot of hanging around time, which was an opportunity for some practice and also to listen to the orchestra rehearse the rest of the RRB programme. Richard was piano soloist in the concert, which included his music from award-winning films such as ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. He truly is a master orchestrator as well as composer, amazing sounds.

In one of the breaks we played through some ‘solos’ that I had written as an alternative to reading chord symbols. I’d thought to do this for several reasons; as a possible option for saxophonists that would play the Concerto in years to come, I also felt that I was potentially setting myself up for a fall if I improvised a solo, as the changes were tough, especially the phrase lengths, and this was the first time that I had played the Concerto. Richard liked the solos, gave his approval, and only changed one note (in the first movement solo).

The concert was a fitting tribute to Richard, broadcast live by BBC Radio 3, brilliantly conducted by John Wilson, and the BBC Concert Orchestra (who were great to work with throughout) made a 70th birthday cake which they presented backstage to Richard.

Post 70th birthday concert, we communicated via fax with the editing of ‘Bimosh’, and here is one of those faxes! Richard’s publisher, Chester Novello now have an alternative tenor saxophone and piano version of ‘Ballad in Memory of Shirley Horn’ for sale.

Also included here are copies of the ‘solos’ that I wrote, and which Richard approved, for movements one and three of ‘Concerto for Stan Getz’.


Click following links for a full size downloadable version of Bimosh, Concerto for Stan Getz 1st movement solo or Concerto for Stan Getz 3rd movement solo (pdfs).

Below are several photos that were taken during the rehearsals for Richard’s 70th birthday concert in London, March 2006, and some scans of the concert programme (to follow).

Ballad in Memory of Shirley Horn – Richard Rodney Bennett

Concerto for Stan Getz – Richard Rodney Bennett

Saxophone Quartet – Richard Rodney Bennett

There’s a whole world of music to explore and experience that this great man has left us, and I’ll be forever grateful to have been in the company of Richard on the occasions mentioned in this article. A wonderful person and an inspiration.

Richard Rodney Bennett, composer, pianist and singer, born 29 March 1936; died 24 December 2012

Photographer: Jonathan Nunn