William Bennett obituary | Classical music
In 1958, shortly after returning to Britain from his studies in Paris, flautist William Bennett received a phone call: “Meet at the Festival Hall as soon as possible. Sir Thomas Beecham plays Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss and is a short player. The rehearsal has already started. This was soon followed by another call telling him to report to Manchester for an audition with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, now the BBC Philharmonic.
Five days later, Bennett, who died at the age of 86 from motor neurone disease, was a member of that orchestra and was embarking on a career as one of the leading actors of his generation. Both by influencing the development and design of the flute and by making over 100 recordings as a soloist, many on his own Beep Records label, he sought to give his instrument “the depth, dignity and greatness of the voice or of a stringed instrument”. ”.
In 1960 he joined Sadler’s Wells Orchestra for a year and succeeded James Galway as principal flute of the London Symphony Orchestra (1966-72). Then he went to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but was soon fired for skipping school to tour the world with the English Chamber Orchestra. This didn’t bother him much as he enjoyed the freelance life and never became a full-time member of an orchestra again. In addition to ECO, he has worked freelance with the London Mozart Players, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Pro Arte Orchestra.
There was a lot of chamber music: in the Mabillon Trio with oboist Philip Jones and pianist Susan Bradshaw, and the Lyric Trio with cellist Margaret Moncrieff and pianist Margaret Norman.
As a recitalist, he travels the world, often with pianist Clifford Benson. With harpsichordist George Malcolm, he made the first British recording of Bach’s complete flute sonatas, and they joined violinist Yehudi Menuhin in recording Bach’s Triple Concerto in A minor. With Osian Ellis Bennett recorded Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp and many others. He has also performed with larger chamber groups, including the Melos Ensemble and the Nash Ensemble.
Several composers have written solo works for him, including Winter Music by Richard Rodney Bennett and concertos by Diana Burrell, William Mathias and the Venezuelan composer Raimundo Pineda. Composers of his trios included Mathias, Jean-Michel Damase, Peter Racine Fricker and Cyril Scott.
To expand the repertoire, Bennett made “tons of pinches” of violin works, including the entire Beethoven Concerto and several Mozart violin concertos and sonatas. He shamelessly included these arrangements in his recitals and acknowledged all he had learned from the playing of violinists such as Fritz Kreisler and Adolf Busch.
Bennett also did business sessions: on one occasion, a group of people he had never met before “came in, bringing all kinds of instruments. One had a bag of bells from a junk dealer. None of them could read music. There was an Indian sitar player, so I went home and took my Indian flute to play with him. A figure with an afro haircut, red silk waistcoat and yellow silk pants shouted through “Give Flutie a mic, will you?”. He said my playing was “really groovy” and that we were “going for the take”. After all, I was told it was Jimi Hendrix.
Born in London, William was the son of Faith (née Brooke) and Frank Bennett, the two architects and acquired the nickname Wibb from the acronym of his names. At the age of seven, he was sent to school in Beltane, a “progressive” establishment which was evacuated to Wiltshire during the Second World War. There, William bought a plastic flageolet from the nearby town of Melksham and, at bedtime, could play Clementine. He eventually acquired a plastic recorder, which he played with a wind-up gramophone. This was his first contact with pitch issues.
When he slowed down the gramophone, to learn the difficult passages, the pitch dropped. This early experience eventually led him to rebuild and retune his flutes later in life. Soon after he heard a recording of a real flute and realized it was something much better than the recorder, so when he was 12 his mother bought him an instrument Rudall Thick wooden map. By the end of the first day he was playing Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, and by six months the Bach Sonatas and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, largely self-taught.
At the age of 15, he was accepted for lessons by Geoffrey Gilbert, who loaded his students with large amounts of scales and technical exercises, which he expected to play every day. The following year, 1952, Bennett entered the Guildhall School of Music in London. When the time came for national service in 1954, he joined the Scots Guards band, but still managed to continue his education with Gilbert.
The three years in the group have been an invaluable experience. New music appeared daily, often having to be transposed on sight and, under the formidable conductor Sam Rhodes, no concessions were made. The repertoire was wide, and performing in bandstands without rehearsal was “hell at first, but a fantastic experience in hindsight”, making him an excellent sight reader.
In 1957, Bennett left to study with Fernand Caratgé in Paris. He held a notebook with two columns: on the left “Caratgé says this”, and on the right “Gilbert says this”. The right side generally won.
While there, he was deeply inspired by hearing the playing of Fernand Dufrêne, and he took some lessons with another admirer of Dufrêne, Jean-Pierre Rampal. The latter proved to be a great influence on Bennett’s phrasing: he believed in the need to develop a singsong tone and to be light-hearted and happy to play the flute, an attitude that Bennett shared. Of a later period of study with another French flautist, Marcel Moyse, in Switzerland and France from 1965, Bennett said the experience was like “having lessons from God”.
Bennett’s interest in pitch and tuning, which continued in school with his making a flute from an old bicycle pump, led to the construction of several other instruments, including a balalaika and a guitar. When he acquired a Morley flute, he started carving the holes and moving the tone holes in order to get it playing in tune.
He then rebuilt an old Rudall Carte flute on a new silver tube, making it as close to the scale of a Powell flute as possible. He showed it to his teacher and, after a few adjustments, Gilbert pronounced it better in tune than a real Powell. This led to cooperation with manufacturers Elmer Cole and Albert Cooper and the development of the Cooper scale and the Bennett scale. For most of his career, Bennett played a Louis Lot (the same brand of instrument played by his hero Dufrêne), but tuned to his own scale. In 2012 he improved the Bennett range, used for Altus flutes, from Japan, and Stephen Wessel flutes, from Somerset..
He conducted master classes and a summer school, and taught in Freiburg, Germany, and from 1986 at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1995 he was appointed OBE, and he continued to organize flute events until the coronavirus pandemic intervened.
The common thread in Bennett’s career was the pure pleasure he took in playing the flute. When I once asked him what his most ominous moment was, he had to think seriously: he happened to arrive at a bar late at the end of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture.
In 1961 he married Rhuna Martin and they had two daughters. They divorced in 1980 and the following year he married Michie Komiyama. She survives him, along with their son, Timothy, his daughters, Vanora and Sophie, and his grandchildren Luke, Joe and Naomi.