'Richard and Fred and Kenneth and Michael and them'


Paul talks to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett about the trials and tribulations of writing ballet scores


British music in the 1960s was polarised into two parts. There were those composers who were promoted by the BBC under William Glock and who wrote works that to the inner circle were cutting edge masterworks and to the general public sounded like noise. And there were those composers who were largely ignored by the BBC and who wrote music that the general public wanted to hear but were not allowed. In this divergent world lived the young Richard Rodney Bennett a man who had been composing since before he could read, and who existed almost alone in both camps.That this should happen is clear from his pedigree. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music (1953 -6) with Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson, masters of the traditional crafts in music and in Paris as the first English pupil of Pierre Boulez (1957-9) then one of the leaders of the avant-garde. For many years Bennett coped with the musical climate by dividing his writing into two parts: popular, which was in a tonal and accessible style and in which can be included his many film scores including Far from the Madding Crowd and Murder on the Orient Express. And concert which owed a marked debt to the serial school of composition. Some works showed ‘cross over’ tendencies such as Jazz Calendar which was choreographed by Ashton, but more of that later. Over the years the two styles moved closer together and now in works such as the hugely popular orchestral Partita (1995), the tonal - nay melodious- language, although not in anyway serial is strengthened by years of working in that discipline, but accessible to all.He has always espoused the theory that a composer should be useful, and many of his works have been for groups or instruments normally neglected in the normal run of concert life. Thus we find concerti for harpsichord (1980), double bass (1978), marimba (1988), and bassoon (1994), works for ondes - martenot and an extensive user-friendly series of works for young performers. He himself is ‘useful’, being a fabulous cabaret singer and jazz pianist. He is also that rarity among contemporary composers, in that he can write a work suitable for a specific occasion, which will not compromise his artistic integrity and nor will it insult his public. This has won him a world-wide audience, whether for his operas, his concert and chamber works or for his memorable film scores. That such a composer should have written little for the ballet is a little odd.As a child Bennett, was fascinated by anything on the stage. His family lived in Devon, not exactly a hot bed of dance activity but he does remember seeing Ballet Rambert in Exeter. He remembers vividly seeing them present a ballet called Winter Night choreographed by Walter Gore to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No2, at which he cried uncontrollably, which was terribly embarrassing for a young child. He continued to attend the ballet and had played one of the pianos in a revival of Les Noces with fellow composers John Gardner, Malcolm Williamson and Edmund Rubbra. For a composer who had written so much so young (his first film score was at 19) his first ballet score did not appear until he was 23. This was written for a choreographer called Meriel Evans who was related to family friends. The ballet was called Perimeter which he recalls ‘being on the pretentious side’ and also recalls that this gave him his first taste ‘of the infuriatingness of working with a choreographer’. Although he and Evans got on very well, Bennett could not get her to articulate in any sensible way exactly what she wanted him to write. A situation which he has found with all choreographers who have approached him and which in part accounts for the paucity of his ballet scores.Bennett was in his own words ‘very malleable, with music coming out of my fingertips ' and would say to Evans ‘what do you want to happen in this scene?'. Her response should not come as a surprise to any who have worked with a choreographer ' oh well darling I want it to be this feeling coming from here and going downwards and…. '. To Bennett ‘this meant fuck all really! If she had said it got faster or darker or something it would have meant something!’ Bennett’s bemusement here is similar to Norman dello Joio’s reaction to Martha Graham’s request that the music for what would become Diversion of Angels should ‘be like soft flesh around a hard core’.

Between this work which has along with the choreographer totally disappeared there was a long gap until Ashton did a ballet to Bennett’s existing score Jazz Calendar. He had originally wanted to use Bennett’s First Symphony, but Bennett had refused this recalling that ‘ for some reason I didn’t want him to. Perhaps I was being high minded but for some reason I wanted that to remain a concert piece, so I said to him why don’t you use Jazz Calendar not thinking for a minute that he would. But of course Jazz Calendar is a gift to a choreographer, it has 7 movements each with a different story. Well he was an angel, I didn’t have much to do with him, I just wrote some music for when the curtain goes up. And suddenly there was at the time this very successful ballet which went on for years in the repertoire’.

The work is based upon the children’s rhyme beginning ‘Monday’s child is fair of face’, and as well as Bennett’s music had designs (his first) by Derek Jarman. It is a light - hearted piece having much in common with Façade, incorporating many in-jokes, not only of Ashton’s own style, but also of contemporary choreography in general. Dancers and audience alike enjoyed the ballet although the critics were mixed in their opinions. Peter William’s writing in Dance and Dancers found it ‘Like the Queen Mother lifting her Hartnell crinoline to reveal a pair of kinky black boots’. David Vaughan however found that it had a ‘fatal lack of conviction’, and Mary Clarke headlined her review for the Dancing Times ‘Ashton out of date’.

Bennett himself had not had any preconceived notions as to what the ballet should look like and on stage he found it ‘perfect’. However, to him, as with many composers, the most important things in his music are tempi and rhythm. Sadly this is something that ballet choreographers ignore frequently when it does not suite their movement ideas and as Bennett observed ‘ you could have got up and gone for a pee in the time it took for them to play Wednesday’s Child!

In spite of the audience success of Jazz Calendar Bennett was not coaxed back to the ballet world for years, although he had been mooted as a possible composer for MacMillan’s Shakespeare inspired ballet Images of Love. This would have been a blessing had he written the score since the work was a flop largely due to the less than inspiring music by the little known academic Peter Tranchell.

It was however for MacMillan that Bennett would write his major ballet score. The two men had met at a Xmas party given by the critic Edward Thorpe and his wife Gillian Freeman. Now in Bennett’s own words, ‘Kenneth and I had known each other for a hundred years, or at least known of each other, because he was a great friend of John Hollingsworth, the conductor who had given me my first film job. So we eyed one another dubiously and he was deathly scared’. This fear soon passed when the two realised they shared a passion for handicraft, notably ‘making things with fibre and stuff, macramé etc’. According to Bennett, MacMillan, became ‘one of the dearest people in my life’. However that did not make the project easy to work on. Initially Bennett, found it ‘a very difficult thing to do’, this was because it was impossible to get MacMillan, to articulate exactly what it was that he wanted, indeed at one point Bennett felt it was going to be impossible for him to do so. Bennett, was used to working on films and ‘was used to the director telling me, well no, the film telling me what to do and the directors talking a load of crap.’ Well here the director was not talking ‘crap’ he simply was not talking. Eventually Bennett, pinned MacMillan, down and told him that not only did he need to have timings for each section but that he needed to know what was going on in the minds of the characters before he could start. MacMillan, responded to this approach and ‘was as good as gold’, and he and Gillian Freeman wrote a detailed scenario with the time lengths, as well as details of the dramatic mood and character for each scene.

It was as well that Bennett, was given a scenario because at the time he was emigrating to New York and the prospect of lengthy transatlantic telephone meetings was not appealing. In the event it was a strange time for Bennett as all of his furniture got lost in transit and he was without a piano. This was not such a problem for Bennett, as he prefers to write away from a piano anyway. And so Isadora was written in an empty apartment in New York with Bennett working as fast as he could. An experience which he strangely describes as ‘wonderful’. There were occasional questions and Bennett would ring MacMillan and ask what was the relationship between x and y in this dance what was he thinking what was she thinking. Even at this stage MacMillan did not find it easy to answer questions and Bennett describes him as ‘not articulate, a genius but not a fountain of words’. It is interesting to speculate here that MacMillan chose Bennett for this very reason, that he would question the motivation of the characters. After all he was used to working in film and providing music which would have a psychological link to the lives of the characters on screen. MacMillan had used patchwork scores for Manon and Mayerling etc., but here he wanted more unity in the patchwork for the story to hang together.

Writing the ballet ,over 2 ½ hours music, was an immense amount of work and took Bennett, over a year to complete (the orchestral score was completed in Los Angeles on 17 Dec 1980). In his score Bennett, wrote notes for himself, as much as anyone else, that corresponded to MacMillan’s original scenario. But as the rehearsal process went on these were frequently jettisoned. There was an enormous scene at the beginning set in Liverpool Street station with lots of children running around which was very busy and had what Bennett feels was ‘some lovely music that just went’. Even more went after the first season and eventually nearly 20 minutes of music disappeared. Such changes in the continuity of the ballet make reading the orchestral score extremely difficult. But such was Bennett’s regard for MacMillan that he ‘didn’t really care what happened to the music’, although not entirely. Bennett cares most about tempi in his music and although he wrote out his score, initially, in a version for 2 pianos and taped it with Susan Bradshaw so that the dancers had a demo tape to work with. He is convinced they did not use his tape for rehearsals; ‘They weren't used to working with tapes. I think that’s why ballet music is normally played at the wrong speed. As far as I can see they [the rehearsal pianists] play the music at the wrong tempi’, -usually it must be noted at the request of the choreographer. Even though Bennett, feels that the final score was a ‘real ragbag’ he ‘was very disappointed that everyone in the world didn’t love it’.

His favourite work on the ballet was in writing the pastiche numbers and in this he was not a purist he simply ‘wrote what I thought they should sound like’. In this MacMillan had found the perfect partner since Bennett’s musical life covers both classical and popular fields. The pastiche numbers are some of the most successful in the ballet. One example is Scene 9 in Act1 set in St Petersburg railway station, in which Isadora sees a procession of children’s coffins, a premonition of her children’s death. Bennett writes a slow pastiche of a Russian folk dance, the melody given to the melancholic cor angalis, while the orchestration in its use of woodwind is reminiscent of Stravinsky. To this MacMillan choreographs a dance for some Russian girls, joined by Isadora, which if it is not a homage to, is a very close relation to the Nursemaids dance from Fokine’s Petrushka’ Extract…Isadora video. Both the music and choreography are perfectly in harmony with one another, and both seem to be a homage to Stravinsky and Fokine. Later at the opening of Act 2 is a scene in a nightclub where both choreographer and composer have great fun sending up the popular dance styles. MacMillan, reacts wonderfully to Bennett’s music and in this extract he plays beautifully with the timings of the dancers, Isadora and Singer dance at the speed of the melody while the outside guests dance at twice the speed. This draws the audience’s attention to the two caught up in the whirl of the society life. Extract… Isadora video.

In Bennett, MacMillan found a worthy collaborator, who fulfilled all of his musical needs as few others could. Mary Clarke, felt that ‘Richard Rodney Bennett’s score is vividly theatrical and he cleverly uses pastiche music in the style of Isadora’s favourite composers – Brahms, Liszt, Chopin and Mendelssohn for her dances. He provides a score that is both danceable and dramatic…’. The pastiches are indeed masterly and the musical material for the main narrative of the ballet is prime Bennett, perfectly suited to MacMillan’s ‘contemporary ballet’, it’s neo-romanticism hinting at the developments in Bennett’s work in the 80’s.

There was almost another Bennett/MacMillan work. After the success of Elite Syncopation's (premiere 7 October 1974, Royal Ballet, ROH), MacMillan, had been asked to make another ballet using Scott Joplin’s music, nothing had come of this. However after the success of Isadora, MacMillan, asked Bennett, for a ballet ‘about Scott Joplin’s music’. When asked what did he mean he characteristically could not give an answer but said he wanted Bennett to do it.

Bennett sometimes helps himself to get to sleep by free-associating on a word, moving forward on a freely developing list and then working backwards, at the end he has hopefully dropped off to sleep. He had the idea of using this as the basis of this composition of starting with a Scott Joplin piece and then through free-association passing through different musical styles and then end up at his own music. The work that he wrote was Noctuary, a diary of night, for solo piano. The piece starts off with a Joplin rag then goes through Schumann, Ravel and Bartok and various other musical styles that are a part of Bennett’s musical makeup and eventually ends up with the real Bennett.

He played it to MacMillan, and the choreographer was thrilled. Bennett, saw it as an abstract ballet, but MacMillan, had recently seen the movie Playing for Time (1980) in which Vanessa Redgrave, played Fania Fanelon, the Jewish singer and pianist who ended up as the conductor of a women's orchestra in Auschwitz. MacMillan felt that that was what the ballet was about. Bennett had wanted to say no but ‘could refuse him nothing’. One of the pianists at Covent Garden learnt the piece but MacMillan died before he could begin work.

After working with Macmillan, Bennett is convinced that writing for the ballet ‘isn't a collaboration and nor is it applied music.’ And he feels that ‘ballet music is ballet music, it isn’t grown up music, its not like a symphony, it isn't a symphony. I mean Ben's Prince of the Pagodas is not the War Requiem’. He did not however close his mind off entirely the possibility of writing a ballet score that was until his next encounter with the Royal Ballet. In his own words ...

‘I was going to do a large ballet recently. A few years ago I was approached by Michael Corder, who asked me if I would consider doing a ballet based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I said you came to the right person, because all my life I've wanted to do something about that book. So I put my prejudices about ballet aside and Michael came to New York and I liked him, although I did think he had some odd ideas about music. For instance he thought it would be based on stuff like Rameau. So I said well what you seem to want is for me to write the bits were you can’t get Rameau to work for you. Well that’s not what I'm here for, and he was very sweet and said yes you’re totally right so we sat at this table and went through the book.

Well if you think turning that book into something that can be done with the feet was easy, think again. It was quite extraordinary but we made a scenario, which I still have, somewhere. So Novello [his publishers] went to the Garden (ROH) and started negotiating and negotiating and we never got any answers to anything. They never contacted me once, wouldn’t give me a contract although they agreed on a fee and they had a date. Michael wanted the music two years in advance; Michael was very concerned that I was being treated like shit basically. So for once in my life I didn’t start writing, I wasn’t going to write that amount of music without a guarantee of being paid or a definite performance. I said I cant write this in enough time to give Michael the music, so they postponed the first night by 2 years but they still wouldn’t give me a contract. My agent was going out of her mind, and well I'm not grandiose but I am a composer of a certain stature why fuck around with me why not give me a contract.

Then I got a letter asking me to do the music for the television production of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast saying I was the only composer in the world who they wanted to do the music for the adaptation. I said no sorry I can’t, I have another commission. Then I got another letter saying we won’t take no for an answer. I also got a letter from Sebastian Peake, (Mervyn Peake’s eldest son) saying ‘my whole family want you to do the music’. So I thought fuck Covent Garden and got my publishers to tell them I wouldn’t do the music for them. And we still never got a letter from them, eventually Michael was told ‘Richard isn't doing the ballet for you.’

Although the Royal Ballet did not receive a specially commissioned score Corder did in some way make amends when in 2000 he created a small scale ballet Dance Variations, to Bennett’s existing light-hearted orchestral suite Diversions. Corder has now moved Les Liasons Dangereuses, to The English National Ballet, with an original score not by Bennett, but by Julian Phillips. However financial difficulties with that company have put the production on hold.

After these events Bennett is, not surprisingly, in any hurry to rush back to the ballet stage. But that should not preclude hearing any of his music there. There is much in his extensive and varied catalogue to tempt the choreographer. Of the larger works the Sonnets to Orpheus, for cello and orchestra would seem to me ideal. But without doubt at the top of my list would be his Symphony No. 3 (his personal favourite piece). This passionate, verdant, romantic work surely contains the most erotic music written by an Englishman, since Tippett’s Ritual Dances from his opera A Midsummer Marriage. This is most definitely ‘grown up music’ and is waiting for an adult to choreograph it. Probably not at Covent Garden.