Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) was an arranger, composer, and conductor who orchestrated the scores of more than three hundred Broadway musicals over a period spanning four decades
Robert Russell Bennett
Bennett was born into a musical family. His father, George Robert Bennett, played the trumpet and the violin in the Kansas City Philharmonic orchestra. His mother, May Bradford, was a piano teacher. He had one sister. Bennett began to exhibit his musical gifts at the age of three, when he picked out on the piano the melody of a Beethoven sonata that he had heard his mother play. The following year the family moved to a farm south of Kansas City to aid Bennett's recovery from polio. His parents provided most of his schooling. During this period his mother taught him to play the piano and his father gave him lessons on a number of brass and woodwind instruments. When the senior Bennett organized a local band, his son was proficient enough to sit in for any absent member.
When Bennett was fifteen, his family returned to Kansas City, where he became a student of the Danish-American musician Carl Busch, studying harmony, counterpoint, and composition. Between lessons he played second violin in the Kansas City Symphony under Busch's direction. (He also played third base for a local semipro ball team.) To pay for his musical education, Bennett played piano in dance halls, movie theaters, and theatrical pit orchestras— discovering in the process his affinity for popular music.
In 1916 Bennett moved to New York City with just $200 in savings in his pocket. Again, he supported himself playing the piano in restaurants and dance halls. His first serious musical employment was with the music publishing house of George Schirmer, Inc., where he was hired as a copyist. When the United States entered World War I, Bennett was able to enlist in the army infantry despite some lingering disabilities from polio. Assigned to a headquarters unit back in Kansas City because of a crippled foot, Bennett organized and conducted army bands and scored dance arrangements. After the armistice, Bennett returned to New York where, on 26 December 1919, he married Louise Merrill, daughter of the headmistress at a finishing school where he had given music lessons. They had one daughter, Beatrice Jean.
Bennett applied for a position as orchestrator at T. B. Harms and Company, at that time the top music publisher in Tin Pan Alley, the center of Manhattan's music industry. The interview won him a chance to audition; he was instructed to orchestrate a Cole Porter tune, "An Old Fashioned Garden," which became the biggest hit of 1919, and Bennett was hired. Soon he was orchestrating entire productions.
Orchestrated Work of Major Composers
It has been said that Bennett is the reason why musical arrangers get their names on theater programs today. His orchestrations embraced the work of every major composer of Broadway musicals for an entire generation: Rudolph Friml (Rose Marie, 1924); Vincent Youmans (No, No, Nanette, 1925); Jerome Kern (Show Boat, 1927; Roberta, 1933; and Very Warm for May, 1939); George Gershwin (Of Thee I Sing, 1931, and Porgy and Bess, 1935); Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun, 1946); Cole Porter (Kiss Me, Kate, 1948); Burton Lane (Finian's Rainbow, 1947); and Kurt Weill (Lady in the Dark, 1941). He even re-orchestrated Georges Bizet's opera Carmen for the all-black production, Carmen Jones (1943). Perhaps his best-known work was with Richard Rodgers, for whom he orchestrated Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959), among others. The best-known works of the latter part of his career are his orchestrations for Fritz Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960). For both of these shows, Bennett collaborated with Philip J. Lang.
Bennett's astonishingly rapid method of orchestration was legendary. Watching a number two or three times in rehearsal, he was able to score it from memory, often turning out eighty pages of orchestrations a day. Thus, he occasionally had more than twenty shows running at the same time and almost never fewer than four or five per season.
Studied in Paris
In 1926, after successfully orchestrating more than sixty musicals, Bennett threw over this lucrative career to go to Paris to study classical composition with Nadia Boulanger. In 1927 and 1928 he won Guggenheim Fellowships enabling him to continue these studies. During this period he composed two symphonies, a ballet, and a oneact opera. In 1931 he was among the winners (along with Aaron Copland, Ernest Bloch, and Louis Gruenberg) of a contest sponsored by RCA for the best musical work by an American. The following year he collaborated with Robert A. Simon on a full-length opera, Maria Malibran, which opened at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in 1935 to mixed reviews. Ironically, the RCA award led to many commissions as an arranger; so many, in fact, that his work as a composer languished. However, in the late 1930s Bennett provided original music as well as orchestrations for a number of Hollywood productions, including Show Boat (1936), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and Rebecca (1940). During this period he composed the music for the Lagoon of Nations at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and 1940. In 1943 Bennett was commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post to write a symphony on The Four Freedoms, based on the famous Norman Rockwell painting done for that magazine. Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, played it many times, as did other orchestras throughout the country during World War II.
The new medium of television gave additional scope to Bennett's abilities. In 1952 he orchestrated the Richard Rodgers score for the naval history of World War II, called Victory at Sea. Recordings of this score continued to sell well for many years. During the 1950s Bennett again worked periodically in Hollywood. For one of his orchestrations, Oklahoma! (1955), he won an Oscar. Tall, slender, and distinguished, Bennett was sometimes likened to the film star Ronald Coleman. His hobbies were tennis, baseball, and pool, and every morning he studied the racing form to place bets. He died in New York City at the age of eighty-seven.
Structured and Melodic Compositions
Conservative in both style and outlook, Bennett avoided the atonal mode of much serious twentieth-century music. His compositions are generally structured and melodic. Unlike the many composers with whom he worked, Bennett did not place great value on his efforts as an orchestrator. "The orchestrator's value is his sensitiveness to melody," he said once. "If the melody has something to say, he can put colors into the outlines. If the melody has nothing to say, he is powerless." Bennett took a rather snobbish view of Broadway show tunes. "Don't confuse this with music," he once told an interviewer. "I make my living with the Gershwins, the Porters, and the Kerns, but for my own consumption, no. When I have time to myself, I study the scores of the great masters." The passage of time has proven him wrong on two counts: both on what constitutes "music" and on the value of his contribution to it.
New York Times, October 24, 1943; August 19, 1981.
Opera News, July 1993.