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RCA Mono LPs
Part 3

Continuing with my survey of outstanding
RCA mono LPs with this single entry.

Richard Rodgers
Victory At Sea Symphonic Suite

NBC Symphony Orchestra
Arranged & conducted by Robert Russell Bennett

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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 Victory At Sea

LP Label: RCA LM-1779

 

  From October 26, 1952 to May 3 1953, Americans were enthralled with television's first comprehensive documentary of the world war they had helped to end only seven years before. Over 13,000 hours of allied and captured axis footage were distilled into 26 half-hour episodes, concentrating on naval operations by all sides in every theatre of the war. The task of scoring this production with nearly uninterrupted music fell to Richard Rodgers, known until then as the popular composer of such musical theatre hits as Babes in Arms, Pal Joey, Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific and The King And I.

Not to be confused with an "original soundtrack recording," which LM-1779 definitely is not, Victory At Sea is one of the first attempts at creating a two-sided "suite" for the LP from an extended original source. Rodgers' thirteen hour score was distilled into a "symphonic suite" of nine movements by Robert Russell Bennett, the man who originally scored Rodgers' music for the television series and who is most responsible for the lush and evocative sound of the orchestra that is its trademark. Once we hear Victory At Sea's stirring opening flourish, especially over the image of a relentless swelling sea, you'll never forget it. (Which reminds me that Victory At Sea is now available complete in a four-DVD set from NBC News and The History Channel.)

In my first article on RCA mono's I questioned the legitimacy of Berlioz' subtitle of "A Dramatic Symphony" for his Romeo et Juliette. I admit this was something of a literary conceit in an attempt to stimulate some thinking about what makes for a symphony. But in the present instance, I can truly feel the eyebrows of our illustrious music editor rise beyond his hairline. "Symphonic! Victory At Sea?" he exhorts, righteously. Well, "Yes," I reply, meekly, "the music is scored for symphony orchestra and it is a suite in the sense that its several movements are drawn from a larger work of nearly continuous music. And in this way, is it all that different from say 'The Nutcracker Suite'?" In any case, I'd like to make a small plea for Victory At Sea as legitimate concert music. And, whatever your verdict, this recording should not be absent from your shelf (wherever you file it), even if you already own the later stereo version.

To begin with, unlike Volumes 2 & 3 of Victory At Sea (in stereo), the first recording was conceived as an integrated concert, not merely random incidental music. (RCA's Living Stereo Volume 1 is pretty much a re-recording of the content of the original mono.) Listening to both sides of LM-1779, we have not only the feeling of the breadth of the naval challenges across the four years of the American involvement, but a single idea -- more so, I propose, than Holst's Planets, also called a "Suite" by the composer. While Victory Ay Sea certainly lacks the harmonic and textural invention and scope of The Planets, it ain't no MacDowell Indian Suiteneither.

The most famous "Symphonic Suite" is, doubtless, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, a piece much more substantial than its easy popularity suggests. Its four movements, though programmatic, are rightfully a symphony I would argue -- certainly no less so in this regard than Beethoven's Pastoral. Alas, Victory At Sea can make no such claim. While each of its movements are developed to the point that they have beginnings, middles and ends; and, taken together, form a kind of dramatic narrative, the work pretends to be no symphony.

No, it is more along the lines of The Planets, that the Rodgers/Bennett piece is constructed. In both cases, the various movements, seven in the case of The Planets, nine for Victory At Sea, are mini-dramas strung together in an identifiable style of dramatic intent. It could even be argued that Victory At Sea has a more coherent structure than The Planets, as it moves seamlessly and purposefully from command to R&R to anticipation to battle. Somehow, a series of astrological representations doesn't quite have the same urgency, though their varied moods follow one another in an agreeable sequence.

While Victory At Sea shares with Scheherazade a magisterial introduction suggesting (to me, at least) the limitless, rolling power of the sea, the two works have little enough in common to be awarded the same subtitle. The movements of Victory at Sea are considerably shorter (maybe half again as long as a typical pop song.) Yet there exists a degree of dramatic and musical exploration within each of its morceaux worthy of the form. Consider the final simultaneous working of the two themes of Gualdalcanal March, or how the melody that opens D-Day is developed into the greatest multi-national invasion the world had ever seen.

Four centuries earlier, a "suite" referred to a series of contrasting dance movements, originally played on a single instrument, often the lute, scarcely integrated by anything more than the fact that its movements were usually in the same key. By the late nineteenth century, the notion of a "suite" would extend to excerpted fragments of a larger work, such as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, a purely commercial enterprise whose objective was to make for an appealing, marketable concert piece without the expense of a staged production.

By the way, it can't be missed that much of the score for Victory At Sea consists of march forms of one sort or other, or that the "horseplay" in Hard Work and Horseplay could have trotted right out of Oklahoma. Marches have more in common with dance movements than you might think at first blush. They are simple, direct, stirring and kinetic; and, for the most part (J.S. Bach being the singular exception), not particularly taxing on the intellect.

In the twentieth century, arranging suites from opera and ballet scores became commonplace. For Graduation Ball, Antal Dorati would string together melodies by Johann Strauss, Jr. from a variety of sources to create a popular and effective ballet. Instead of separating the bits into separate movements, Dorati constructed transitions so as to create an uninterrupted dramatic flow of some length. Other arrangers have done their versions of more or less the same music for competing productions.

This same approach: integrating separate musical moments into a whole also extended to film scores. There is an excellent example of this on Warners WS-1322, where over three hours of Max Steiner's music for Gone With The Wind has been distilled into a gratifying, uninterrupted sweep covering both sides of the LP. (Please ignore the hype on the jacket, which seems calculated to mislead.)

So, am I suggesting that film or TV scores should be considered "classical" music? By no means. By definition, such music doesn't qualify. For one thing, this music hasn't been around long enough. Nor de we usually find the music for King's Row or Citizen Kane on a symphony orchestra's subscription series--though perhaps that omission should be reconsidered. Even though God gave us the Boston Pops and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony for just a purpose, there is a considerable repertoire that crosses over: the aforementioned "Nutcracker Suite," many an opera overture, one or another Porgy & Bess symphonic suite, operetta in general. I'll leave it there.

Robert Russell Bennett was a well-known arranger for the musical theatre and film long before he met the challenge of Rodgers' gargantuan score. Give a listen sometime to the way he recreates and blends motives from Jerome Kern songs for the background in the Astaire/Rogers film version of Swing Time. His Symphonic Suite from Porgy & Bess is the best thing on RCA's two record set, "The Serious Gershwin" featuring Morton Gould. Bennett was a longtime collaborator of Rodgers. And his contribution to Victory at Sea cannot be overvalued, not only in his choice of material for the suite, which is a completely satisfying listening experience at one go, but in the originality and appropriateness of his orchestration.

Audiophile collectors are, or should be, well acquainted with RCA's Living Stereo recordings of Victory at Sea's sometimes subtle, oftentimes thrilling, always uncannily fitting music. However, Bennett's symphonic suite arrangement for the first LP was so ideal that the stereo Volumes 2 & 3 suffered by comparison to the genius of the original. There are no corresponding sequelae in mono.

The mono original was cut in 1953; the three volumes in stereo in the late fifties. Comparing Volume 1 of the stereo with the mono original is very telling. The movements of the suite are more or less identical in both recordings, though Hard Work and Horseplay begins side 2 of the mono, and ends side 1 of the stereo. The stereo is lush and relaxed. We hear deep into its rich textures and marvel at its spatial presentation. On the other hand, the fact that the record was destined for home audio theatre is self-consciously evident at all turns. There are exaggerated entrances here and there whose intention seems to be to show off the new technology (as by the upper strings in the final statement of the Song of the High Seas.)

The mono, however, is a more incisive reading, closer in spirit to the war and to the pictorial document that was the most watched and most highly praised television documentary for years to come. Despite its relatively constrained aural scope, its changing moods are better contrasted and more emotively layered. Sonically, it is surprising how uncluttered the textures are rendered; how vividly and ferociously the drama is revealed. The Dark Red Shaded Dog is very good; the original Red Seal is better.

 

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