Richard Robbins, a two-time Oscar nominated composer who scored most of Merchant Ivory’s films over a quarter-century, died Nov. 7 of Parkinson’s disease at his home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 71.
His compositional style combined lavish orchestrations with synthesized minimalist cues, evoking the dramatic complexity of each film and the psychology of its characters. “I know when that moment arrives that the hard part of writing the score is over because I know how I feel about a character,” he told Chris Terrio in an interview posted on the Merchant Ivory website. “That's a great relief that can happen all at once: It can be as simple as watching one of the characters enter a room or walk down a hallway. In The Remains of the Day, it happened when I first saw the shot of Emma Thompson walking down the hall toward the camera. That did it.”
Robbins began his association with Merchant Ivory Productions with the 1976 music documentary Sweet Sounds, which he wrote and directed. The first film score he composed for director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant was for the 1979 Lee Remick starrer The Europeans, which featured a delicate musical mix of Stephen Foster and Clara Schumann.
He went on to compose the scores for more than two dozen films either directed by Ivory and/or produced by Merchant, garnering back-to-back Oscar nominations for Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993). His credits also include Quartet (1981), which evoked the jazzy world of 1920s Paris nightclubs; A Room With a View (1985), for which he received a BAFTA nom; Maurice, for which he won the Golden Osella for best music at the 1987 Venice Film Festival; The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991); A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998), Le Divorce (2003) and The White Countess (2005), his final film score.
“I think Jim Ivory and I agree that a musical score should comment on the action with a contemporary voice,” he told Terrio. “But we select other musical pieces -- not original compositions but appropriate for the period, music which we think the characters would have listened to. And these pieces contribute to the atmosphere, the mood, the ambience, all strong elements of Merchant Ivory films. Howards End just wouldn't be right without Beethoven. The Schubert song enriches The Remains of the Day for everyone. The pieces give us additional information about the characters.”
Robbins was born Dec. 4, 1940, in South Weymouth, Mass., and began studying music at age 5. After graduating from the New England Conservatory in Boston, he received a Frank Huntington Fellowship and continued his studies in Vienna.
When Robbins was acting director of the preparatory school at Mannes College of Music in New York in 1976, he taught the daughter of screenwriter and novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who introduced him to Merchant and Ivory. He later wrote the score for their 1983 film adaptation of Jhabvala’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Heat and Dust. The music was filled with the sounds of India.
In 1994, Robbins directed Merchant Ivory’s 1994 feature documentary Street Musicians of Bombay.
He collaborated with composer and painter Michael Schell on Via Crucis, a musical and visual collage representing the Stations of the Cross, the recording of which was co-produced by Philip Glass. Robbins’ work was celebrated in a 1996 gala benefit at Carnegie Hall supporting AIDS research.
He is survived by Schell, his longtime partner; brothers Donald, William, John and Peter; and several nieces and nephews. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations the Columbia-Greene Humane Society.
Listen to excerpts of Robbins' score for The Remains of the Day below.