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Category Archives: Bennett-Robert Russell

This is one of my absolute favorite band pieces.  I’ve conducted it 3 times, including once at my wife’s request, and once again at my return to Dartmouth College with the CUWE in 2008.  In fact, hearing this piece as a freshman in the Dartmouth Wind Symphony under Max Culpepper in 1997 (along with Lincolnshire Posy and Holst’s First Suite – what a program!) probably started me down the road to becoming a band director.  So I’m in a little bit of shock that I haven’t written about it yet!  Time to fix that.

Kansas City native Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) was Broadway’s pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator for most of his career.  His ease with instruments enlivened the scores of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and many others.  He was composer in his own right, having studied with the renowned Parisian teacher Nadia Boulanger.  He wrote nearly 200 original pieces for several media, including two dozen works for wind band.  The best known of these are his Suite of Old American Dances and the Symphonic Songs for Band.

Bennett was inspired to write the Suite of Old American Dances in 1948 and 1949 after hearing a very special Goldman Band concert:

When Edwin Franko Goldman arrived at his 70th birthday it was celebrated by a concert sponsored by the League of Composers.  For the concert (January 3, 1948) the engaged the Goldman Band of New York and asked Dr. Goldman to conduct his own band in honor of his own anniversary.  Louise and I went to that concert and I suddenly thought of all the beautiful sounds the American concert band could make that it hadn’t yet made.  That doesn’t mean that the unmade sounds passed in review in my mind at all, but the sounds they made were so new to me after all my years with orchestra, dance bands and tiny “combos,” that my pen was practically jumping out of my pocket begging me to give this great big instrument some more music to play.

Thanks to Edward Higgins’s excellent full score edition of the piece for that quote (and all of the other Bennett quotes to follow).

Bennett came up with a five movement suite that he titled Electric Park, after an actual place in his native Kansas City where, as a youth, he heard all of the day’s popular dances (click here for pictures).  He called the park “a place of magic to us kids.  The tricks with big electric signs, the illuminated fountains, the big band concerts, the scenic railway and the big dance hall.  One could hear in the dance hall all afternoon and evening the pieces the crowd danced to.”  His publisher, presumably with marketing in mind, retitled the piece as Suite of Old American Dances.

The Cincinnati Wind Symphony performs the whole piece, all 5 movements:

Bennett’s source material was all real, living American dance of the day.  Let’s break it down one movement at a time.

The Cakewalk originated in Southern plantations as sort of a game for African-American slaves.  Dancers would do impressive-looking struts and kicks, often while dressed mockingly in the fashion of their white masters, and sometimes while also balancing something on their heads.  Often there would be a prize of a piece of cake, hence the term cakewalk.  Here’s what it looked like:

I love the beach scene at the end there!

Here’s a very genteel version of the Schottische, which is actually a German dance related to the polka:

The “Western One Step” is actually based on a dance called the Texas Tommy, which was probably a brothel dance (“Tommies” being women of the night, if you know what I mean).  Here we can see the dance, but you’ll have to imagine the sound:

The “Wallflower Waltz” is just a 20th century take on the classic Viennese waltz, which you can see here:

In the “Rag”, Bennett pushes the limits of his chosen 2/4 time, creating wild syncopations and 2-against-3 patterns, all in the spirit of ragtime music.  Here’s a simple example of a ragtime dance:

More info:

Robert Russell Bennett on wikipedia.

Robert Russell Bennett on IMDB.

Bennett bio on Naxos.com.

Broadway.com tribute to Bennett on the eve of the 2008 Tony Awards.

Google books preview of “The Broadway Sound”, Bennett’s autobiography and selected essays, edited by George Ferencz.

Suite of Old American Dances on wikia program notes, the Concord Band, and in full, 22-page analysis by David Goza of the University of Arkansas (worth the read!).

Suite of Old American Dances was the senior choice for librarian, piccolo/flute player, and love of my life Lisa Samols ’04.  We played it again that summer in Columbia Summer Winds.  We also played it at our exchange concerts with Dartmouth College in 2008.

Victory at Sea is a 1950s television documentary series that chronicles the Pacific theater of World War II from the American perspective. Famed Broadway composer Richard Rodgers (South PacificThe King and IThe Sound of Music) composed 12 themes to form the basis of the series’s music.  Robert Russell Bennett is credited as orchestrator for the series (as he was for several Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals), but in reality he composed the bulk of the music for the 13-hour series using Rodgers’s themes as his basis.

The Austin Symphonic Band performs Victory at Sea:

Several Youtube excerpts of the Victory at Sea documentary.

victoryatseaonline.com

Music site at victoryatseaonline.com – has lengthy excerpts of the music with several of the main themes contained in Bennett’s Symphonic Scenario.

Victory at Sea on the Museum of Broadcast Communications website.

Victory at Sea on the Internet Movie Data Base.

Richard Rodgers biography on Wikipedia.

Robert Russell Bennett biography on Wikipedia.

Kansas City native Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) was Broadway’s pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator for most of his career.  His ease with instruments enlivened the scores of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and many others.  He was composer in his own right, having studied with the renowned Parisian teacher Nadia Boulanger.  He wrote nearly 200 original pieces for several media, including two dozen works for wind band.  The best known of these are his Suite of Old American Dances and the Symphonic Songs for Band.

Bennett wrote Symphonic Songs for Band 1957 on a commission from the National Intercollegiate Band, which premiered the piece at Salt Lake City’s Tabernacle.  Subsequent early performances by the Goldman Band and the University of Michigan Symphony Band featured Bennett as guest conductor.  According to George Ferencz, Bennett scholar and editor of the latest full-score edition of the piece, Bennett provided the following note for the piece’s performance with the Goldman Band:

Symphonic Songs are as much as suite of dances or scenes as songs, deriving their name from the tendency of the principal parts to sing out a fairly diatonic tune against whatever rhythm develops in the middle instruments.  The Serenade has the feeling of strumming, from which the title is obtained, otherwise it bears little resemblance to the serenades of Mozart.  The Spiritual may possibly strike the listener as being unsophisticated enough to justify its title, but in performance this movement sounds far simpler than it really is.  The Celebration recalls an old-time country fair; with cheering throngs (in the woodwinds), a circus act or two, and the inevitable mule race.

More info:

Robert Russell Bennett on wikipedia.

Symphonic Songs sheet music for sale on the Canadian Brass website.  Includes a nice bit of history on the piece.

Robert Russell Bennett on IMDB.

Bennett bio on Naxos.com.

Broadway.com tribute to Bennett on the eve of the 2008 Tony Awards.

Google books preview of “The Broadway Sound”, Bennett’s autobiography and selected essays, edited by George Ferencz.

Now for a performance.  It’s the Tokyo Kosei!  And they are very fine indeed, but they miss some of the spirit of the piece.  For instance, I think the first movement needs to be a little faster and a bit looser and more heartfelt in the lyricism.  Then they breeze a little too easily through most of the Spiritual.  Their energy at the beginning of the Celebration is perfect, but then they use the wrong kind of whistle in the middle.  So use this recording only as a reference:

The 2008 revival of South Pacific was a Broadway sensation.  The production won seven 2008 Tony awards (out of eleven nominations) and enjoyed great popular and critical support in its run at the Lincoln Center Theatre.  The musical tackles issues of racial prejudice against the backdrop of the American war effort in the South Pacific during World War II.

The original Broadway production premiered in 1950 and won all ten Tony Awards for which it was nominated.  It also received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1950.  It was the fifth collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.  They based their work on two short stories by James A. Michener from his book Tales from the South Pacific.

This video of Harry Connick Jr. introducing the 2008 Tony Award performance pretty much sums up the show’s cultural and musical value:

Now some other links:

Richard Rodgers biography on Wikipedia.

Oscar Hammerstein biography on Wikipedia.

Rodgers & Hammerstein on Wikipedia.

Arranger Robert Russell Bennett biography on Wikipedia.

South Pacific on Wikipedia

Broadway revival homepage

New York Times review of Broadway revival.

Finally, a bonus video: “Some Enchanted Evening” very convincingly performed on The View in 2008:

Brooklyn’s Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, were among the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the 1920s and 30s, with countless popular songs and six Broadway musicals to their name.  But George (1898-1937), who wrote all of the music to Ira’s lyrics, longed for a place in the classical music pantheon.  In 1924, his Rhapsody in Blue for piano and band (later orchestra) established his credentials as a serious composer.  Its use of jazz elements within classical structures became a hallmark of Gershwin’s style.  His Piano Concerto in F and An American in Paris continued in this direction, culminating in his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.  Despite his success in the classical arena, Gershwin’s requests for lessons with other major composers were repeatedly denied.  Arnold Schoenberg, for example, told him “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”

Porgy and Bess is based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy.  It follows the adventures of Porgy, a crippled black beggar in South Carolina.  All of its major roles are black characters, which has led some to see the opera as racist.  These concerns have largely given way to the beauty and intensity of the music, helped by Ira Gershwin’s insistence that the opera only be performed with a black cast.  Because of this requirement the opera is rarely given a full staging.  However, the many memorable numbers from the opera can be heard regularly in a variety of arrangements such as the one we are playing.

Porgy and Bess on Wikipedia.

Origin of the opera and detailed story synopsis on classical.net.

A preview of Heyward’s Porgy on Google Books.

Porgy and Bess on PBS Great Performances.

About the composer:

Gershwin.com – the official Gershwin family website.

George Gershwin bio at balletmet.org.

Another Gershwin bio, with portraits, at naxos.com.

And now some video!

The South Jersey Area Wind Ensemble plays the James Barnes arrangement of Porgy and Bess, played be the Columbia Summer Winds in the 2010 under the baton of Bill Tonissen:

There is also a Robert Russell Bennett version of Porgy and Bess for band, called the Porgy and Bess Selection.  Unfortunately there are no decent recordings of this at my disposal, including the CUWE recordings in 2003 and 2006, which are marred by a terrible recording device and a terrible performance venue (Miller Theatre) respectively.

An excerpt from the opera itself, as recorded for film based on a 1986 Glyndebourne Opera production:

There are several other clips like this on YouTube which you can find if you click around a bit.

Finally, a bonus: Gershwin plays his hit “I Got Rhythm” in 1931.