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. 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. His mother also taught his academic lessons until he was twelve due to health concerns.
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, who 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 proved an obstacle and 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.
Upon his discharge in 1918, he returned to New York. 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. 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.
Although Bennett would work with several of the top names on Broadway and in film including George Gershwin, such as his score for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, Shall We Dance, 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. When orchestrating Kern’s Show Boat, Bennett would work from sketches laid out quite specifically by Kern, which included melodies, rough parts, and harmonies. 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 beginning with Oklahoma! in 1943. But Bennett’s most legendary contribution to the partnership, however, occurred during the scoring of the television series Victory at Sea (1952–3).
Many of Bennett’s original works came about through direct commission, such as the 1939 New York World’s Fair (“A TNT Cocktail”), CBS radio (“Hollywood” for orchestra), and the League of Composers (“Mademoiselle” for the Goldman Band). In spite of his prolific output, which included the opera Maria Malibran (libretto by Robert A. Simon, 1934), 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. A significant number of commissions were initiated by Robert Austin Boudreau, a former member of the Goldman Band, and his American Wind Symphony, including the Ohio River Suite and West Virginia Epic. 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).
But it was for his popular arrangements, such as Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture and Gershwin in Hollywood, that Bennett is perhaps best remembered. 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. In later years, Bennett again developed major health problems but 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.
In my collection, I have the following works composed or arranged by Bennett.
Abraham Lincoln: A Likeness in Symphony Form (1929).
Gershwin in Hollywood.
Sights and Sounds: An Orchestral Entertainment (1929).
Symphonic Scenario from Richard Rodger’s Victory at Sea.