This is one of my absolute favorite band pieces. I’ve conducted it 3 times, including once at my wife’s request, and once again at my return to Dartmouth College with the CUWE in 2008. In fact, hearing this piece as a freshman in the Dartmouth Wind Symphony under Max Culpepper in 1997 (along with Lincolnshire Posy and Holst’s First Suite – what a program!) probably started me down the road to becoming a band director. So I’m in a little bit of shock that I haven’t written about it yet! Time to fix that.
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 was inspired to write the Suite of Old American Dances in 1948 and 1949 after hearing a very special Goldman Band concert:
When Edwin Franko Goldman arrived at his 70th birthday it was celebrated by a concert sponsored by the League of Composers. For the concert (January 3, 1948) the engaged the Goldman Band of New York and asked Dr. Goldman to conduct his own band in honor of his own anniversary. Louise and I went to that concert and I suddenly thought of all the beautiful sounds the American concert band could make that it hadn’t yet made. That doesn’t mean that the unmade sounds passed in review in my mind at all, but the sounds they made were so new to me after all my years with orchestra, dance bands and tiny “combos,” that my pen was practically jumping out of my pocket begging me to give this great big instrument some more music to play.
Thanks to Edward Higgins’s excellent full score edition of the piece for that quote (and all of the other Bennett quotes to follow).
Bennett came up with a five movement suite that he titled Electric Park, after an actual place in his native Kansas City where, as a youth, he heard all of the day’s popular dances (click here for pictures). He called the park “a place of magic to us kids. The tricks with big electric signs, the illuminated fountains, the big band concerts, the scenic railway and the big dance hall. One could hear in the dance hall all afternoon and evening the pieces the crowd danced to.” His publisher, presumably with marketing in mind, retitled the piece as Suite of Old American Dances.
The Cincinnati Wind Symphony performs the whole piece, all 5 movements:
Bennett’s source material was all real, living American dance of the day. Let’s break it down one movement at a time.
The Cakewalk originated in Southern plantations as sort of a game for African-American slaves. Dancers would do impressive-looking struts and kicks, often while dressed mockingly in the fashion of their white masters, and sometimes while also balancing something on their heads. Often there would be a prize of a piece of cake, hence the term cakewalk. Here’s what it looked like:
I love the beach scene at the end there!
Here’s a very genteel version of the Schottische, which is actually a German dance related to the polka:
The “Western One Step” is actually based on a dance called the Texas Tommy, which was probably a brothel dance (“Tommies” being women of the night, if you know what I mean). Here we can see the dance, but you’ll have to imagine the sound:
The “Wallflower Waltz” is just a 20th century take on the classic Viennese waltz, which you can see here:
In the “Rag”, Bennett pushes the limits of his chosen 2/4 time, creating wild syncopations and 2-against-3 patterns, all in the spirit of ragtime music. Here’s a simple example of a ragtime dance:
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.
Suite of Old American Dances was the senior choice for librarian, piccolo/flute player, and love of my life Lisa Samols ’04. We played it again that summer in Columbia Summer Winds. We also played it at our exchange concerts with Dartmouth College in 2008.