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Robert Russell BENNETT (1894-1981)
Suite of Old American Dances (1949) [16:42]
Down to the Sea in Ships (1968-9) [14:02]
Four Preludes for Band (1974) [11:17]
Symphonic Songs for Band (1957) [14:09]
Autobiography for Band (1976-77) [13:41]
Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra/Clark Rundell, Mark Heron (Down to the Sea and Symphonic Songs)
rec. Royal Northern College of Music Concert Hall, Manchester, 16-17 January 2016
CHANDOS CHAN10916 [70:28]

Enthusiasts of Robert Russell Bennett will know the details of his life and work. However, for many listeners a few biographical details may be of value. Bennett was born in Kansas City, Missouri on 15 June 1894. His early training in music was with his parents, where he often played in his father’s band. Formal studies ensued with Carl Busch and Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He made arrangements and orchestrations of over 300 Broadway shows and musical comedies. His many highly-regarded achievements in this field include Oklahoma, Showboat, My Fair Lady and the Sound of Music. He was also active in film music, producing original music and arrangements for more than 30 films. One of his best known ‘original’ works is the symphonic suite of music derived from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. From the age of thirty, Bennett devoted himself to so-called ‘serious’ music which has included the ‘Abraham Lincoln’ Symphony, the opera, Maria Malibran, Hollywood for orchestra, and the Symphony for Fritz Reiner (1963). The composer died in New York, aged 87 on 18 August 1981.

Many of Robert Russell Bennett’s works were written or arranged for wind band. The present CD features original works for that medium. The first work is the relatively well-known Suite of Old American Dances. This was specifically composed for concert band in 1949. The composer wrote that:

‘As far as notes for the program are concerned, there's no particular purpose in mind in the composition of the Suite except to do a modern, and, I hope, entertaining version of some of the dance moods of my early youth. Another equally important purpose was to do a number without any production tie-up such as World’s Fairs and municipal pageants, for symphonic band…’

It is exactly what he achieved. There are five movements: Cake Walk, Schottische, Western One-Step, Wallflower Waltz and a Rag. At the time of composition, big band/swing, crooners, blues and bebop were the predominant styles of music in America, with country and western making inroads. The present suite is deliberately ‘antique’ and does not really address ‘modern music.’ What the composer has achieved, I think, is a parody of the original dances: he has updated them for the ‘swing era’, without losing their original impact and ethos. An orchestral version of this work was made in the following year.

In 1952 NBC made a massive, 26-episode television documentary, Victory at Sea, based on the naval exploits of World War II. The composer of the soundtrack was nominally Richard Rogers. However, it is now understood that Bennett composed a much greater proportion of the score than Rogers. In 1968, the same documentary company made Down to the Sea in Ships, which was a major study of ‘maritime activity’ past and present, from passenger ships to fishing boats, powered by oars, sail, steam and diesel. Bennett provided an idiomatic score, which married a musically pictorial portrayal of the sea with a number of well-known sea songs, including ‘Blow the man down’, ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ and, ‘Sally Brown.’ It is a fine evocation of the sea and the human race’s attempt to encompass it. The Suite is in five movements.

I appreciated the tribute Richard Russell Bennett paid to a number of leading lights in the world of theatre. The Four Preludes for band were written in the early 1970s and was premiered by New York’s Goldman Band in 1974. The four ‘stars’ were George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern. This music is neither an arrangement of these luminaries’ work, nor is it pastiche. I would call it an impressionistic study which evokes, rather than quotes, these men. The musical language is occasionally a little more ‘modernistic’ in places than other works on this CD, but this is never taken to extremes.

The three Symphonic Songs for Band are enjoyable pieces which some composers would have declared was a ‘symphony.’ It was composed in 1967 for America’s National Intercollegiate Band. The three movements reflect a serenade, a spiritual song and a celebration. A feature of this music is the largely diatonic tunes in each movement: they are invariably heard against rhythmic backgrounds of various complexities.

The final number on this CD is the Autobiography. The liner notes explain that Bennett had often been asked to musically ‘chronicle his colourful life.’ The resultant work was the seven-movement Autobiography composed during 1976-77. The work represents the ‘seven ages of man’ as defined by Shakespeare. Each piece is quite short, and apart from the title, provides no real biographical detail whatsoever. The composer eventually published the autobiographical The Broadway Sound (1981) which allows musical historians to align the work to his life events. The liner notes provide details of each movement and the allusions. From the listeners’ point of view, this may or may not be essential information. It is an entertaining Suite which does not stand or fall on biographical detail.

The Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra under the conductors Clark Rundell and Mark Heron have presented the listener with a splendid introduction to the wind band music of Richard Russell Bennett. It is a well-balanced programme that explores a wide-range of musical inspiration. A glance at the composer’s catalogue reveals many more such works. Let us hope that this is ‘Volume 1’ of a series of three or four CDs of this delightful, satisfying and agreeable music.

John France



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