Legacy of Robert Russell Bennett June 12 2012, 2 Comments

Robert Russell Bennett

An American Musical Phenomenon

Contributed by: Jack Kopstein

This month we salute the genius of  Robert Russell Bennett who was born on June 15th 1894. Robert Russell Bennett (June 15, 1894 – August 18, 1981) was an American composer and arranger, best known for his orchestration of many well-known Broadway and Hollywood musicals by other composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. In 1957 and 2008, Bennett received Tony Awards recognizing his orchestrations for Broadway shows. Early in his career he was often billed as Russell Bennett. Robert Russell Bennett was born in 1894 to a very musical family in Kansas City, Missouri. His father, George Bennett, played violin in the Kansas City Symphony and trumpet at the Grand Opera House, while his mother, May, worked as a pianist and teacher. She taught Bennett piano, while his father taught him violin and trumpet. After completing his secondary education, Bennett moved to Kansas City to be a freelance musician, performing throughout the city as well as with the symphony. He also began his first musical training outside of a home environment with Danish composer-conductor Dr. Carl Busch. Busch taught him counterpoint and harmony until 1916, when Bennett took his savings and moved to New York City. He eventually found a job as a copyist with G. Schirmer while continuing to freelance and to build a network of contacts, particularly with the New York Flute Club. In 1917 he volunteered for the Army. Although he yearned for an active role, his youthful health woes caused the draft board to mark him for limited service. However, he successfully appealed this classification and became the director of the 70th Infantry Band at Camp Funston. Upon his discharge several months later, he returned to New York. His relationship with Winifred Edgerton Merrill, a society matron who had been the first woman to receive a doctorate from Columbia University, led to rewards both financial and emotional—she had been one of his first employers in the city, and she introduced him to her daughter Louise, whom he married on December 26, 1919. Their daughter, Jean, was born a year later. Bennett later studied composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger 1926-1929. His career as an arranger began to blossom in 1919 while he was employed by T.B. Harms, a prominent publishing firm for Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. Dependable yet creative within the confines of formulaic arranging, Bennett soon branched out as an orchestrator and arranger for Broadway productions, collaborating particularly with Jerome Kern. Although Bennett would work with several of the top names on Broadway and in film including George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Kurt Weill, his collaborations with Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers stand out both for sheer volume and for highlighting different facets of an arranger’s relationship with a composer. Bennett described his own philosophy: "The perfect arrangement is one that manages to be most ‘becoming’ to the melody at all points." Through this, he kept his commercial arrangements simple and straightforward, with a careful ear for balance and color. Kern's working relationship with Bennett serves as a clear illustration of this point. For example, when orchestrating Show Boat, Bennett would work from sketches laid out quite specifically by Kern, which included melodies, rough parts, and harmonies. The original sketches appear remarkably close to Bennett’s completed scores; as one scholar puts it, "Bennett didn't have much to make up." In contrast, Rodgers allowed Bennett a greater degree of autonomy. The pair had first collaborated in 1927, but the majority of their partnership occurred in the 1940s and 1950s. While scoring Oklahoma! in 1943, Bennett proved himself invaluable by reworking an elaborate and possibly out-of-place selection into the title song. His most legendary contribution to the partnership, however, occurred during the scoring of the television series Victory at Sea (1952–3). Richard Rodgers contributed twelve basic themes for the series, with three earmarked for the first episode, but those who worked on the series attribute its eleven-and-a-half hours worth of music principally to Bennett. Rodgers himself wrote, “I give him [the credit] without undue modesty, for making my music sound better than it was.” With Gershwin and his Broadway musical scores, Bennett would work from annotated short scores (condensed   scores for piano with general suggestions for the instrumentation) He worked very closely as Gershwin's assistant during the period in which Gershwin composed his massive film ballet score for Shall We Dance (1937 film), oftentimes spending late nights with Gershwin rushing to complete orchestrations for deadlines. The next year Gershwin died. Later Bennett would be turned to yet again as a definitive orchestrator of Gershwin's other works, both on Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture and Gershwin in Hollywood. Bennett once spoke of the most valuable lessons to be learned by any orchestrator, but these words apply equally well to his work as a composer. “The first thing you study, to become a famous music arranger, is to do without sleep…The second [is]: Learn to do without regular food.” Many of the Broadway scores completed by Bennett are in existence in the shows cross North America from New York Rental agencies. In spite of Bennett’s numerous arrangements and compositions , is reputation today as a classical composer rests primarily on two oft-recorded pieces, the Suite of Old American Dances and Symphonic Songs for Band. This may be attributed both to the modesty so characteristic of Bennett and to the Eastman Wind Ensemble recordings which popularized them. Many of Bennett’s original works came about through direct commission; the 1939 World’s Fair, CBS radio ("Hollywood" for orchestra), and the League of Composers ("Mademoiselle" for the Goldman Band) provide prominent examples. A significant number of commissions were initiated by Robert Austin Boudreau, a former member of the Goldman Band, and his American Wind Symphony In later years, Bennett again developed major health problems. “He never talked about it, but always showed joy,” Boudreau states. “It wasn’t just a business relationship we had, it was more than just music. We were pals, and he would treat me as a son.” Bennett did not slow his output, creating original works for the nation’s bicentennial celebrations and accepting commissions from a variety of sources, including a Presbyterian church in Florida, for which he accepted only a modest fee. Bennett died in  1981. His memory rests largely on his popular arrangements which grace the libraries of concert and military bands and orchestras  around the world. The Legacy of Robert Russell Bennett The album includes extensive liner notes with bios, pictures, and great piece descriptions. The full article can be found on Wikipedia here.