Richard Robbins, the composer who created memorable scores for such films as “A Room With a View,” “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day” during a quarter-century collaboration with director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, has died. He was 71.
Robbins died Nov. 7 at his home in Rhinebeck, N.Y., of Parkinson’s disease, said Michael Schell, his longtime partner.
Robbins created the score for nearly every Merchant Ivory film from “The Europeans” in 1979 to “The White Countess” in 2005. He earned back-to-back Academy Award nominations for his original music for “Howards End” (1992) and “The Remains of the Day” (1993).
“I always felt that if anything happened to him and we didn’t have his music, then it really wouldn’t be a Merchant Ivory film,” James Ivory said in an interview last week. “His music was integral to our films.”
That long, remarkably fruitful creative partnership came about almost by happenstance.
In 1976, while he was serving as acting director of the preparatory school at the Mannes College of Music in New York, Robbins began teaching piano to the youngest daughter of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the award-winning novelist and screenwriting collaborator of Merchant and Ivory.
Jhabvala and Robbins soon became friendly and she introduced him to the filmmakers, who agreed to produce a documentary on the school’s young musicians, “Sweet Sounds,” which Robbins directed. The following year, he was Merchant’s assistant on “Roseland,” a film about ballroom dancers set at the famous dance palace in New York.
Of their initial meeting, Ivory said, Robbins “liked us and we liked him, and then he gradually became a composer. I don’t think that was something he ever thought he’d be doing, writing film music, but what happened to him was what happened to me and to Ruth: Ismail just kind of assigned us our roles and that was that.
“I think the more Dick did, the more he realized he could do. And soon, he was writing really wonderful original music.”
The first score Robbins developed for a Merchant Ivory film was for the period drama “The Europeans,” based on the Henry James novel, which drew on the music of Clara Schumann and Stephen Foster. But his work embraced a wide range of music and musical styles: He created an opera for 1980’s “Jane Austen in Manhattan,” incorporated street sounds of India for 1983’s “Heat and Dust” and evoked Parisian nightclubs of the Jazz Age for “Quartet” in 1981.
Although his compositions were heavily influenced by the minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Robbins also occasionally wrote romantic, lushly orchestrated music, including for “Maurice,” the 1987 film based on the E.M. Forster novel. The score won a top award at the Venice Film Festival, and Robbins often described it as his favorite.
Of the melancholy, evocative score for “The Remains of the Day,” Robbins said in a 2000 interview with writer Chris Terrio that his inspiration had come from a single scene featuring actress Emma Thompson.
“I know when … the hard part of writing the score is over, because I know how I feel about a character,” he said in the 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 was responsible for choosing and supervising all the music for the Merchant Ivory films he worked on, from the pop songs for “Slaves of New York” in 1989 and the Puccini aria “O mio babbino caro” for “A Room With a View.” And when an actor played music in a film — Helena Bonham Carter playing a Beethoven sonata in a key scene from the same 1985 film — he guided that too.
“Dick was right there, advising her and telling her how to play it, although those are her hands and she plays it every step of the way,” Ivory said.
Richard Stephen Robbins was born Dec. 4, 1940, in South Weymouth, Mass., and began playing the piano at the age of 5. After graduating from the New England Conservatory in Boston, he received a fellowship through a fund established by the philanthropist Frank Huntington Beebe to continue his studies in Vienna for a year.
In addition to his work as a composer, Robbins made brief appearances in several Merchant Ivory films, often as a dancer, a favorite pastime. And in 1994, inspired by a leper couple he had heard singing a duet beneath his Bombay hotel window, he directed a Merchant Ivory feature documentary, “Street Musicians of Bombay,” about the street life of that Indian city.
Robbins’ work was honored in 1996 at a gala concert at Carnegie Hall to benefit AIDS research. The actors Hugh Grant, Vanessa Redgrave, Sharon Stone, Joanne Woodward and Christopher Reeve were among those who spoke and read between compositions.
In addition to Schell, an artist who was his partner for more than 20 years, Robbins’ survivors include his brothers Donald, William, John and Peter.