Rediscovering The Bennington Battle March
Bennington Battle Day is August 16th. The day marks a turning point in the American Revolution, when British forces were defeated near Bennington in 1777. This year, we're rediscovering some music associated with this Vermont holiday.
In 1927, for the 150th anniversary of the battle, Bennington virtuoso pianist Ernest Murray composed his new "Bennington Battle March," rarely heard today. VPR Classical hosts James Stewart and Linda Radtke have been exploring the story behind this music.
James Stewart: That is the opening melody of the "Bennington Battle March." It’s pretty tuneful, in the spirit and tradition of John Philip Sousa. I’m at the piano in VPR’s Stetson Studio One with my colleague and music historian Linda Radtke and we're going to explore the story of the "Bennington Battle March" together. Linda, Welcome.
Linda Radtke: Thanks, it’s great to be here.
JS: First, Linda, I want to ask you: Can you give us some context for this music?
LR: British General John Burgoyne’s army needed to get to the supply depot in Bennington for supplies and horses mostly, but they were confronted with the American forces led by General John Stark, who was later aided by Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys. A lot of them were untrained - the British called them “uncouth militia” – and they prevailed. And then, after that in October, Burgoyne surrendered at the Battle of Saratoga. So, it is a very important battle and that’s why it’s a legal holiday in Vermont.
JS: And that means that it’s celebrated every single year on Bennington Battle Day. And in 1927 - the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary - there was a huge celebration.
LR: It was, and you can look at the program from the local papers: concerts and parades, historic pageants and dedication of monuments, a lot of important dignitaries were there. It was amazing. This was when they dedicated this march. And the parade – they had a parade from downtown to the monument. It was three miles long with fife and drum corps, veterans, National Guard, fraternal organizations like the Odd Fellows, Daughters of the American Revolution. And that was one of the biggest events in the decade in Bennington, and this is where we first heard the march.
JS: And that’s when composer Ernest Murray dedicated this march as a way to celebrate the Battle of Bennington in music. And you know, marches like this, like songs, have forms. Songs have verses and choruses and marches have a form as well. They always start off with an introduction and this one is no exception. Then we have a couple of melodies. And then there’s the trio section, which is usually the most familiar. Then there is my favorite part, called the break strain, which is the moment inbetween a soft section and a loud section. You can just hear the low brass playing that part.
LR: I can definitely hear those trombones. It would be wonderful with a marching band. And we learned, James, that it was orchestrated at one time for the Guild Band in Bennington in 1961, but those parts are lost so you get to play all the instruments in the band.
JS: It’s a lot of fun. Let’s get to the composer behind the music, Ernest Murray, a well-known and beloved pianist from Bennington who passed away in 1955 at the age of 59. Linda, we don’t know a lot about Ernest, but what can you tell us about his life?
LR: Well first, backing up, thinking about your own community. We always have these dedicated musicians who work for decades, and they’re beloved or they’re feared or they’re both, but people bring back memories of those musicians. And in his obituary in the Evening Banner, it says that he played for decades at the State Line Restaurant. Maybe that’s where that jazz comes in. He’s a piano virtuoso, and from the obituary it says that "old timers will remember his rapid fire accompaniment at the theater in the old library building and later at the Uptown Theatre." And his son, Raymond Clifford Murray, used to sneak into the Harte Theatre that was in the Opera Block on Main Street in Bennington. They had vaudeville and silent movies and, he liked to hear his father play.
JS: You can kind of hear a bit of the silent film and a little bit of jazz if you slow it down. There are some really nice moments.
We had a special opportunity to learn more about the music and the composer. I had a chance to speak with Monica Murray, his daughter, who lives in Bennington. And she shared some details about Ernest Murray’s life and his music. She wrote us a beautiful letter and it’s in wonderful cursive.
LR: Oh my goodness, it’s so artistic.
JS: She shared some stories with us.
LR: One of the stories, James, is that Ernie Murray didn’t have a car and he had this gig for decades at the State Line Restaurant over the New York border. And so he used to go home at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, walking the railroad tracks. And the milk train would come by and he would flag them down and they would give him a ride to North Bennington where he lived.
JS: Well, speaking of rides, another story that Ernie loved to tell was how this march was published. He got with a lawyer friend of his, Reuben Levin, and they got into an old Ford Model A, traveling from Bennington to Boston and along the way they popped every single tire and they drove into the city on the rims of that old Ford, in order for them to get this published. It wasn’t just published here in Vermont, it was published all around the country.
LR: Which means he had hopes that this would become a national march. And here we find a lot of small publishing companies in villages, where actually they were more responsive in a way to the local community, because you could just walk downtown with a piece of music you had composed for maybe the Grange or Old Home Day or school or community. And that tradition resulted in a lot of sheet music.
JS: Later in his life, the year before he died, Ernie Murray, suffering from arthritis, was able to give us a sense of how he perceived his own music, his own march. Here he is on an archival cassette tape held at the Bennington Museum as recorded by his son, Raymond.
JS: He plays it so fast! And it’s in a different meter than it’s written. It’s almost not even the same piece any more. I just love hearing his voice at the beginning. He’s just such a personality.
LR: But also you could tell that he could improvise so well even on his own composition, that he wasn’t stopped by what was on the page.
JS: And it’s this piece of music that the Evening Banner wrote about in June of 1927 announcing its publication. The Banner wrote: “Several music critics have expressed an opinion that it is one of the best marches written in recent years." Linda, there have only been a handful of performances of this piece over the years. It just hasn’t been played or recorded very often. As a historian, tell us: Why does that happen to a piece like this with such historic ties to Vermont?
LR: Well the term, James, is “occasional music.” It was written for a particular occasion. Some of those pieces remain in our memory and get played over and over, but so many of them fall into obscurity - into a piano bench or up in an attic. You can find them at tag sales and they just didn’t catch on. People would have these pieces of sheet music to try out on their piano or on their Estey Organ. The Estey Organ company in Brattleboro was the largest organ manufacturer in the world. So a lot of communities, a lot of farm houses, had pianos or Estey Organs. That’s where this piece would have been heard - more in the home or in a social gathering.
JS: Until we get to rediscover them.
LR: That’s right.
Check out all of the events for this year's observance of Bennington Battle Day.
Peter Engisch was the audio engineer and John Van Hoesen was our producer.