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Richard Robbins

Composer of film music;

Born: December 4, 1940; Died: November 7, 2012.

Richard Robbins, who has died of Parkinson's disease aged 71, was the man responsible for the music in some of British cinema's most celebrated and evocative period dramas of recent times.

He was the regular composer and musical arranger for the Merchant Ivory films throughout their golden period in the 1980s and 1990s and was nominated for Oscars for Howards End (1992) and for the gently lilting soundtrack of The Remains of the Day (1993).

His elegant compositions helped transport audiences back into the drawing rooms of an earlier, more seemingly genteel period in English history. Yet, like the other key players in the Merchant-Ivory team, Robbins was a foreigner.

Producer Ismail Merchant was Indian, director James Ivory was American, their regular writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Cologne, and Robbins was from Massachusetts.

He got involved with the Merchant Ivory team almost by chance – he was working as director of a New York music school where Jhabvala's daughter was a student and she introduced him to Ismail Merchant. They made a short film about the school together and one thing led to another.

Born in Rockland, Massachusetts, in 1940, Richard Stephen Robbins showed an early talent for music, studied at the New England Conservatory and on a fellowship in Vienna and was director of the Mannes College of Music when he met Jhabvala and Merchant.

Merchant helped him make Sweet Sounds (1976), a 30-minute film about the college. It marked the beginning of a relationship that would last 30 years.

The following year Robbins served as Merchant's assistant on Roseland, a drama set in the eponymous Manhattan ballroom, and he graduated to composer on Merchant Ivory's 1979 adaptation of Henry James's The Europeans.

As well as composing new music for The Europeans, he included arrangements of music from Stephen Foster and Clara Schumann. The combination of existing music, appropriate to the time and place of a film, and new music, specifically composed for it, became a defining feature of Robbins's work.

His use of Puccini's music in A Room with a View (1985) – which was set partly in Edwardian England and partly in Tuscany – transformed O Mio Babbino Caro into one of the most popular and widely recognised arias among the general public.

Robbins's music ranged from American jazz to the ethnic sounds of India, which he employed so effectively in Heat and Dust (1983). Other credits include Mr and Mrs Bridge (1990), The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991), Surviving Picasso (1996) and The White Countess (2005), his final film.

Robbins is survived by his partner Michael Schell, an artist who worked with him on Via Crucis, a "mystical work" based on the Stations of the Cross, which was performed on stage in New York in 1994 and was later released on CD.

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