Robert Russell Bennett, Richard Rodgers, and “Victory at Sea”
By George J. Ferencz
(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. In 1957 and 2008, Bennett received Tony Awards recognizing his orchestrations for Broadway shows. His collaboration with Richard Rodgers led to his scoring of “Victory at Sea.”)
“Victory at Sea” isn’t an unknown to most everyone here at TapsBugler. It was NBC-TV’s WWII documentary series of 26 half-hour episodes, first broadcast in 1952-53 and earning a long afterlife in syndication and then home video. The series is what’s now termed a “compilation documentary,” using period footage from all of America’s service branches as well as from 13 other nations, the Axis countries included. For those used to Ken-Burns-style documentaries, this is almost the antithesis: sparse narration, no panning around on still photos, and a full-bore orchestra rather than melancholy violin, piano, or mandolin dropping in occasionally.
And that brings us to VAS’s music. Each half-hour episode had a nonstop score, opera-like, recorded by about 55 of the NBC Symphony’s musicians when they weren’t rehearsing, performing, or recording for Toscanini. You’ve seen the official credits: “Music by Richard Rodgers”—“Arranged and Conducted by Robert Russell Bennett.” Even the Guinness Book of World Records credited Rodgers with 13 hours of composing for decades, sad to say. It’s no secret what Rodgers actually contributed: twelve “themes” in piano form, most of them 12 to 24 bars long, with no instrumental suggestions at all; I could play them for you at the piano in about 15 minutes. A couple themes were just lead sheets, without even harmonies and bass lines fully filled out.
Robert Russell Bennett’s “arranging” for VAS included endless transformations of the Rodgers themes, but then hours and hours of outright composing. Each episode, actually, includes an average of less than six minutes of Rodgers material in any form.
Musicians here know the published “Victory at Sea” medleys that Bennett himself turned out for both band and orchestra. They’re still included on patriotic concerts today—and even performed by the Navy Band to open the dedication of the National World War Two Memorial. If playing these medleys has never been much of a thrill for you, that’s perhaps because they’re not much more than just eight or nine of the Rodgers VAS themes strung together, just like a Broadway musical “selections” medley. All that thrilling music you know from watching the series on video or listening to the commercial VAS LP recordings? Hardly a trace of it in that medley, unfortunately—‘cause that music’s almost certainly Bennett’s own composing.
There’s volumes more I could tell you about VAS—I have a book in progress just now—but since Jari Villanueva invited me to contribute, something bugle-related is in order! It’s hard to imagine the background score for a WWII film or newsreel not offering up bugle calls, but Bennett—a WWI bandmaster himself—seemed to avoid routinely quoting them in VAS, except for very special occasions.
Let’s take a peek at something from Episode 18, “Two if By Sea.” Spotlighted are the 1944 assaults at Peleliu and Angaur (military historians can debate their justification elsewhere!). This particular VAS installment is distinctive for several reasons: (1) the sparsest narration of any VAS episode—while quoting not only from Pacific Fleet Communiques but from also from Goethe, Clausewitz, Whitman, and the Bible(!); (2) unlike most WWII newsreels, plenty of unflinching gore and death here; (3) Not one note of Richard Rodgers (other than the opening-credits tune), being 100% composed—and of course orchestrated—by Bennett.
You’re encouraged to watch the whole thing, but my focus is the two appearances of “Call to Quarters” at 20:55 (flute solo) and 21:40 (violin solo) in EP18, as wounded Marines are evacuated to waiting hospital ships.
Here is “Call to Quarters”
As the bugle call is presented here in VAS we happen to be in F# major at the moment, with tender Bennett harmonizations that remind us of the huge creative toolkit that he—the onetime Nadia Boulanger student—brought to any creative task, whether as “arranger” or composer:
For an example of “what did Richard Rodgers actually write?” I’ll turn to the celebrated “Guadalcanal March.” The melody is heard several times in VAS, and was chosen for exploitation and then fall 1952 publication even before the series’ viewers actually heard it.
The Library of Congress shows us what Rodgers wrote: the melody for two strains, with a countermelody to the first, plus an incomplete harmonic framework: that’s it. Everything else is Robert Russell Bennett’s contribution:
You can view the manuscript online at https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010507/
You might know the “Guadalcanal March” from Erik Leidzen’s 3-minute band arrangement published in 1952, or a slightly longer version for orchestra that’s been recorded, but you can hear it at full length only in Episode 6, “Guadalcanal”: from 19:42 to 24:39:
There’s no getting around Bennett (“Russell” to his friends, never “Robert” or “Bob”) being best remembered for his Broadway work—orchestrations for all or part of 300+ musicals between 1922 and the 1970s. Then there are his published orchestra and band medleys from many of these shows, workable for amateur groups but thrilling when played by top professionals. For wind band, he composed a couple dozen pieces, but the best-known pair are those the Eastman Wind Ensemble recorded in the 1950s: “Suite of Old American Dances” (1949) and “Symphonic Songs for Band” (1957). Yet there’s so much more: violin pieces recorded by Heifetz, orchestral symphonies, a first opera produced at Juilliard in 1935, with several future Metropolitan Opera stars in the cast, and so on. Trumpeters will know his “Rose Variations” solo with concert band, written for the great James Burke to play with the Goldman Band.
Bennett’s Hollywood years, mostly 1935-1940, offered him both outright composing and plenty of arranging, which he once described as “providing whatever the composer left out.” He helped “orchestrate” films credited to Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman and others—and then scored films for the same songwriters he’d collaborated with in New York: Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, and Porter.
If you’d like to know more about “Victory at Sea”—the series’ creation more than the music—I got a chance to speak about it at the World War Two Museum in New Orleans back in 2019:
I’ll finish with a plug for Bennett’s autobiography, “The Broadway Sound,” which was left unpublished at his passing in 1981. As its editor I helped get it to press in 1999, and I assure you it wasn’t ghostwritten: he wrote it all out longhand for his typist. The book is still in print, and always available used on eBay and elsewhere. It’s a great chance to get to know a man described to me by many of Russell Bennett’s peers as “the nicest guy in the music business”!
George Ferencz is the editor of Bennett’s memoir “The Broadway Sound” (1999) and author of “Robert Russell Bennett: A Bio-Bibliography” (1990). He is the leading authority on Bennett’s life and work, and regularly serves as consultant to conductors, performers, and researchers in the U.S. and beyond. He recently retired from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he taught music theory, ear-training, and arranging.