Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I had my first piano lesson at just four years old, my dad would love to have played but came from a family who just couldn’t afford lessons. He played me Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony when I was about seven years old and I vividly remember being bowled over by the storm section. My first pop single was the Adagio from Spartacus and Phrygia which was in the charts because ‘The Onedin Line’ was a very popular TV series. I began writing songs when I was 15, mainly due to my father’s encouragement.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Coming from Wales and being surrounded by music in school the whole time meant it was a huge part of my life, right from the very beginning. I really enjoyed piano lessons, took my first exam when I was just six and music was always my great love. Sounds daft but significant influences are every single piece of music I’ve ever heard, all the classical greats plus Barry Manilow and Abba. I love good pop music and Abba wrote the best, most beautifully constructed songs. I don’t have a favourite composer, too many to choose from!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Small hands! I have always had to choose my music carefully. Rachmaninov was never going to be possible but I played Mozart, Mendelssohn well. Becoming a mum meant being permanently busy and not having the time (or inspiration) to write. I didn’t compose a note between 1998 and 2011 but when my elder son was working towards his Winchester College entrance exams and spending lots of time at his dad’s to study, I began playing again. Within a few months, I had composed the whole ‘A Country Suite’ album, eight pieces for piano.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I wrote to order early in my career. Jingles, incidental music for TV drama but I’m afraid I prefer working independently and putting together music for my own enjoyment (which, thankfully appeals to a wider audience too). I am a huge fan of Debbie Wiseman (she and I studied with James Gibb at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 1980s) and she is expert at composing to pictures and being able to change things quickly. I am still very much a full time mum and would find that aspect very challenging. I still write at the piano with manuscript paper and a pencil!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Again, this isn’t something I do much. I composed a piece for SATB choir back in 2014 and it was a huge thrill to sing in a choir actually performing a piece I had composed in the beautiful setting of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.
Which works are you most proud of?
I was a prolific songwriter in my teens/20s/30s and the first song I wrote ‘Ti a Mi’ (Welsh for ‘You and Me’) was a big hit for me. It has generated a lot of royalties over the years and is still played on the radio now. I am very proud of ‘A Country Suite': it has some lovely melodies and the piano pieces are rather more complex than they sound!
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I love good music, melody, harmony and so, as well as classical music, I loved 1970s pop music, ABBA, Barry Manilow, Wizzard, Sweet, Slade, The Osmonds. In terms of classical music, I adore Puccini, Rachmaninov, Mozart, Bach. I love a big romantic melody!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Singing ‘One Voice’ in Barry Manilow’s choir at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1982 was very exciting. My own ‘Concert for Autism’ was very special too. I put on a free concert at St Nicolas’s Church in Newbury in September 2009. I invited along some of Newbury’s most talented musicians and we raised almost £5000 for the West Berkshire branch of the National Autistic Society. I sang, played Mozart duets and a massive ragtime medley. It was great!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians and composers?
I am not one to sweat over a piece. If it works, it tends to come quite quickly and I rarely (if ever) change things. If it works and sounds good, just do it. I have broken many of the ‘rules’ of harmony and counterpoint, parallel fifths and octaves, parallel fourths. I’m not a fan of tritones and haven’t used those as yet but never say never! If the piece I’ve written sounds nice to the ear, is well structured, has a good intro, beginning, middle and end, then I’m happy. If you have to keep changing it all the time, chances are it wasn’t that great to begin with.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Happily married and sharing my life with my new fiancé, John. He is also a trumpet player and we both practise together! Aw!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Loving someone special and knowing they love and cherish you too.
What is your most treasured possession?
I am not a big one for ‘things’ but my new engagement ring is very special to me.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Several things: attending concerts with John, playing the piano and realising a new piece is starting to form, going for pizza with my two amazing sons, walking my greyhounds in the woods.
What is your present state of mind?
As happy as I have ever been in my whole life!
Fiona Bennett’s ‘New Lady Radnor Suite’ is available now. With a nod towards Hubert Parry who composed ‘Lady Radnor’s Suite’ in 1894, Fiona has composed and dedicated her new album to her friend, Melissa (The Countess of Radnor).