Kansas City native Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) was Broadway’s pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator for most of his career. His ease with instruments enlivened the scores of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and many others. He was composer in his own right, having studied with the renowned Parisian teacher Nadia Boulanger. He wrote nearly 200 original pieces for several media, including two dozen works for wind band. The best known of these are his Suite of Old American Dances and the Symphonic Songs for Band.
Bennett wrote Symphonic Songs for Band 1957 on a commission from the National Intercollegiate Band, which premiered the piece at Salt Lake City’s Tabernacle. Subsequent early performances by the Goldman Band and the University of Michigan Symphony Band featured Bennett as guest conductor. According to George Ferencz, Bennett scholar and editor of the latest full-score edition of the piece, Bennett provided the following note for the piece’s performance with the Goldman Band:
Symphonic Songs are as much as suite of dances or scenes as songs, deriving their name from the tendency of the principal parts to sing out a fairly diatonic tune against whatever rhythm develops in the middle instruments. The Serenade has the feeling of strumming, from which the title is obtained, otherwise it bears little resemblance to the serenades of Mozart. The Spiritual may possibly strike the listener as being unsophisticated enough to justify its title, but in performance this movement sounds far simpler than it really is. The Celebration recalls an old-time country fair; with cheering throngs (in the woodwinds), a circus act or two, and the inevitable mule race.
Symphonic Songs sheet music for sale on the Canadian Brass website. Includes a nice bit of history on the piece.
Broadway.com tribute to Bennett on the eve of the 2008 Tony Awards.
Google books preview of “The Broadway Sound”, Bennett’s autobiography and selected essays, edited by George Ferencz.
Now for a performance. It’s the Tokyo Kosei! And they are very fine indeed, but they miss some of the spirit of the piece. For instance, I think the first movement needs to be a little faster and a bit looser and more heartfelt in the lyricism. Then they breeze a little too easily through most of the Spiritual. Their energy at the beginning of the Celebration is perfect, but then they use the wrong kind of whistle in the middle. So use this recording only as a reference: