BENNETT: Abraham Lincoln / Sights and Sounds
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Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981)
Abraham Lincoln: A Likeness in Symphony Form (1929)
Sights and Sounds (An Orchestral Entertainment) (1929)
As Broadway's leading orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett worked with the likes of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers on more than three hundred shows. He also completed almost two hundred serious works of his own, including symphonies, operas, choral, vocal and chamber works and pieces for wind band.
Born in Kansas in 1894, Bennett routinely substituted for whatever player was absent from his father's band He studied with the Danish composer and conductor Carl Busch, founder of the Kansas Symphony Orchestra, leaving there to take up work in New York in 1916.
Bennett's first theatre orchestrations date from 1920, often working on over twenty shows a season. But he never lost sight of serious composition and in 1926 put arranging on hold and left to study, mostly in Paris and Berlin. The legendary Nadia Boulanger was a teacher who praised him as 'a true artist'. Recognition too came in the form of an 'honourable mention' (for his first symphony) in the pages of Musical America.
In Paris and Berlin in 1927-28, on a Guggenheim Scholarship, he noticed an RCA Victor competition with a prize of 25,000 dollars for an outstanding orchestral composition, with a small prize for a lighter piece of music. He submitted the two works on this disc - the patriotic Abraham Lincoln and the abstract orchestral painting of Sights and Sounds. Both pieces were scored for an enormous band of musicians and are of large proportions.
RCA Victor's jury consisted of Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky, Frederick Stock, Rudolph Ganz and Olga Samaroff. They decided no work was better than any other to win outright and awarded five prizes to Aaron Copland's Dance Symphony, Louis Gruenberg's Symphony, Ernst Bloch's Helvetia and two 5,000 dollar awards to Bennett's pieces.
Despite their huge orchestral forces, Bennett's prizewinners were then published Abraham Lincoln was first performed by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in October 1931, with a second performance given a fortnight later at the dedication of the Juilliard School's new auditorium. For this, Bennett wrote his own programme notes, drawn from below.
The first movement of Abraham Lincoln is in sonata form opening with a theme emphasising his simplicity and sweetness, before its grand return. There is the suggestion of a rhythm dear to the mid-West fiddlers and banjoists a hundred years ago. A second theme expresses Lincoln's sadness on cellos and bass clarinet. It comes to a climax, to be cut off by a drum and a hint of The Union Forever. A development section follows, the music becoming more confident before the sadness of the second theme returns serenely.
The slow movement (Hi, Affection and His Faith) tells the story of Lincoln's first love affair at a time 'when women were worshipped'. At one point a confused march appears in half the orchestra whilst the others remind us of 'the noble phrases of the statesman'.
The third movement (Hi, Humor and His Weakness) depicts the human side of Lincoln, the man who 'delighted in telling risque stories and playing pranks'. It is a Scherzo with a central barn dance. Finally, Hi, Greatness and His Sacrifice depicts the 'triumph of a great soul' an orchestral picture of his assassination ending with the 'sound as of a thousand chimes and a final chant in memory of the great soul that has passed away'.
Sight, and Sounds, also for an orchestra of Mahlerian proportions, was not premiered until 13th December 1938 under Izler Solomon in Chicago. It was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1943, when Bennett again wrote the programme notes.
The piece is designed as 'an abstract painting'. An opening representation of Union Station, all 'bustle, clanging and excitement' leads to a bridge passage, a recitative for trumpet 'over a background of sustained saxophones and faint percussion'.
A new section is now prefaced by xylophone and small drum counting off with a sequence of A-B flat' and the 'trumpet offering comments' against the xylophone. Pictures of Lowbrow and Highbrow, follow and then comes Speed, a moto perpetuo 'with a terrible warning of the terrible end to which it leads'.
Bennett's two Victor prize winners ushered in his greatest years as an orchestral composer. He spent the late 1930s in Hollywood, mostly at RKO studios, after which he was active on network radio in New York. Yet his original works came forth regularly, with the patriotic fervour of the World War Two years prompting many performances. Nowadays, his concert band works such as Suite of Old American Dances and Symphonic Song, for Band together with his Symphonic Picture of Porgy and Bess (arranged from Gershwin's opera) remain popular in the USA.
Bennett died in 1981, just as Broadway was beginning to rediscover and 'restore' many of the 'golden-age' musicals he arranged and orchestrated. This too has led to a revival of interest in his own compositions such as Hexapoda (1940) for violin and piano and the Violin Concerto (1941), both praised by critics of the day. The work, on this disc are a vivid testament to Bennett's heartfelt Americanism, striking musical imagination and compelling orchestral technique.
George J. Ferencz
Revised: David Doughty