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 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.
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 Piano Sonata No. 14 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 taught the Broadway and concert arranger William David Brohn.
Bennett also did the orchestrations for the 1936 film version of Show Boat, and for the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! Some of his stage orchestrations were used in the 1958 film version of South Pacific, and the 1956 film version of The King and I.
Bennett was also responsible for The Many Moods of Christmas, a 1963 48-minute medley of Christmas carols , arranged especially for the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra. They recorded it that year, and in 1983, Robert Shaw re-recorded it with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Bennett was the first president of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC).