Robert Russell Bennett

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Robert Russell Bennett

Birthdate: (87)
Death: 1981 (87)
Immediate Family:

Son of George R. Bennett and May Bennett
Half brother of Robert Russell Bennett

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Immediate Family

About Robert Russell Bennett

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.

Life and career

Early life

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.

The Bennett family moved to a farm in Freeman, Missouri, when Bennett was four, to speed his recovery from polio. By that time, he had demonstrated his aptitude for music and his remarkable ear by picking out the finale of Beethoven’s "Moonlight" Sonata on the white keys of the piano. By his early adolescence, his father often called upon him to play any given instrument as a utility member or substitute player within Bennett’s Band in Freeman. In his autobiography, Bennett recalled finding a ragtime tune on the piano at age ten and being informed by his mother that such music was trash—this lesson taught him to be, as he called it, a “life-long musical snob.” His mother also taught his academic lessons until he was twelve due to health concerns; his health remained an obstacle when Bennett later decided to join the Army.

Early career

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, Kansas. He valiantly attempted to improve the “disgraceful” musical standards of the unit, but found his efforts thwarted when the Spanish flu swept through the post in 1918. 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.

Broadway arranger

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.

With Jerome Kern

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."

With Richard Rodgers

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 George Gershwin

With Gershwin and his Broadway musical scores, Bennett would work from annotated short scores (dual folios for piano with general suggestions for which instruments would play what.) He worked very closely as Gershwin's assistant during the period in which Gershwin composed his score for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, Shall We Dance, 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.”

Other commissions

Sergei Rachmaninoff was engaged in writing a 2-piano reduction of his Piano Concerto No. 4, containing his final revisions, when death overtook him. Robert Russell Bennett completed the reduction at the request of Rachmaninoff's widow.

Musical profile

Schooled by his mother to disdain popular music, Robert Russell Bennett found the dichotomy between his serious compositions and his arranging work to be a lifelong struggle. In spite of his prolific output, which included the opera Maria Malibran, more than seven symphonies, a large variety of chamber works, and at least five concertos, his 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. In his composing, Bennett brought to bear his considerable talent for orchestration as well as a gift for conceiving melodies and harmonic structure in his head; longtime Bennett copyist Adele Combattente (of Chappell Music) confirmed his ability to write parts in score order, as opposed to filling in leftover parts and doublings as he completed primary melodic lines. He nearly always scored directly in ink, rather than pencil.

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. The AWS traveled via American rivers and waterways, inspiring several works with nautical themes, including the Ohio River Suite and West Virginia Epic. Boudreau would provide a basic concept to Bennett, who would complete the new work rapidly and who would always attend the premiere. Boudreau recalls, “We never offered him a lot of money for those commissions…He was an elegant person. He was always more interested in music than in dollars.”

Many works were written for his musical acquaintances, including Hexapoda and a concerto for violinist Louis Kaufman, Tema Sporca con Variazoni for duo-pianists Appleton and Field, Suite for Flute and B flat Clarinet for Frances Blaisdell and Alex Williams, and the Rondo Capriccioso for Georges Barrére (Bennett's friendship with flutists William Kincaid and John Wummer prompted other chamber works).

Later years and legacy

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 of liver cancer in 1981. His memory rests largely on the popular arrangements which so conflicted the composer, but those who knew him also remember him as a close friend and gracious mentor. Robert Shaw wrote, “And it is just as certainly because of his kindness, honesty, humor, and wisdom that our hearts are warmed to see Robert Russell Bennett without peer in his field.” Robert Russell Bennett is also known to have mentored Broadway and concert arranger William David Brohn; they first worked together on the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Show Boat.

List of Works (incomplete)


Bennett's book Instrumentally Speaking was published in 1975 by Belwin-Mills, but is now out of print. His autobiography, Nor Is Not Moved—A Music Arranger's Story, was nearly complete at the time of his death in New York City, and was edited and published later (1999) in the book The Broadway Sound ISBN 1-58046-022-4. George Ferencz, the world expert on Bennett and professor of music at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who edited The Broadway Sound, has also written a thoroughly researched bio-bibliography about the composer.

Original compositions (selected)

Broadway arrangements and orchestrations (a selection)

Concert Arrangements

Awards and honors

The Tony Award for orchestrations has only existed since 1997; Bennett was given a Special Tony Award in 1957 and again in 2008 "in recognition of his historic contribution to American musical theatre in the field of orchestrations, as represented on Broadway this season by Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific." Other honors have included his Oscar for the film Oklahoma!, a 1962 Emmy award, television's Christopher Award in 1960, the City of New York's Handel Medallion in 1967, Los Angeles's honorary Scroll in 1979, and an honorary doctorate from Franklin and Marshall College in 1965.

Bennett was the first president of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC).

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Robert Russell Bennett's Timeline

Age 87