Calling All Workers
Analysed by Robert Walton
Eric Coates wasn’t called the first English King of light music for nothing. He was a superb craftsman, brilliant orchestrator but more importantly his personal flare for melody put him in a class of his own. His irresistible tunes were simple and direct and always passed the ultimate test - they could be whistled. In modern terms they were ‘commercial’. Like ‘The Waltz King’ Johann Strauss Junior, Coates made an art form out of light music by giving it the sort of credibility classical music enjoyed. How did he accomplish all this? By first immersing himself as a performer in serious music in the early part of the 20th century. During his time as principal violist with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra (from 1912) he was absorbing all styles of music as well as being in the unique position of learning about baton technique and interpretation from the great conductors and performers of the period. Effectively he attended continuous free lectures at the “university” of the orchestra, but always with an eye on, and indeed an ear for, writing lighter music. Like many young would-be composers he felt he could produce works as good, if not better, than some of those he was playing. And he was probably right. As early as 1915 he had written a suite From the Countryside. So the scene was set for what turned out to be one of the most remarkable careers in light music.
Fast-forward 25 years to 1940 when as an established composer, Coates penned Calling all Workers, the signature tune of “Music While You Work”. A short fanfare heralds one of his best known marches and indeed what is now regarded as one of the most famous orchestral marches of all time. Strangely it never quite worked when arranged for brass band. I don’t know whether he intended to have a lyric, but how about these words for openers? “Now the BBC is Calling all Workers today, to be part of the music and fun all the way!” I can’t think of a snappier march than this toe-tapping tune to keep up the morale of the wartime workforce.
But we have to wait for the second theme to discover the real Eric Coates. Cheerful, syncopated and positive though the opening was, this smooth joyous melody tugs at your heartstrings in a way that no other composer quite achieved and fits perfectly in the context of the march. Taking a leaf out of the Elgar songbook, Coates captures the indomitable spirit of the British people with a tearful tune the whole nation and the free world could relate to. But was it entirely his own? I have a theory he may have been influenced by Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, albeit indirectly. (I was once accused of copying the same bit for my Bells of Old London which up until then I had never heard. More likely my song was influenced by Coates!). Then the strings becoming decorators play second fiddle to the brass who blaze away with the melody in a more high profile presentation.
Back to the top for the final chorus of this Coates classic and on reaching the moving second theme he achieves a truly triumphant effect by slowing it right down, eventually bringing it to a complete stop. This is an excellent example of a “thinking” composer using his classical background to make the most of tempo changes. For the third time the fanfare is incorporated, announcing a spectacular finish.
Long after that sparkling finale has faded away, it’s that haunting melody with ballad-like overtones which lingers in the memory. And interestingly, Coates’ musical heir Robert Farnon made no apologies for being inspired by the older composer’s tender march themes, a tradition surprisingly started by Wagner.
A quick guide to the four main periods of classical music are Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th century. However there is one I sense is at great risk of becoming extinct like many animals and birds. Now called “The Great American Songbook” it’s the first 60 years of the 20th century containing a true Golden Era never before achieved in music. You’d think the later bilge brigade with guitar obsession monotony would have insured it from disappearing, but for some reason our kind of music is currently in a truly fragile state. It simply doesn’t deserve such a final fate as falling out of favour.
Essentially a crooning age, it’s a multi-faceted melodic and harmonic journey featuring jazz, big bands and light orchestras. From that, many societies (including the Robert Farnon Society) came out of the woodwork, providing music with a huge coverage of popular styles. And as for song titles, many have become great standards like You Go To My Head with symphonic overtones. Classical purists refuse to recognize their place in history. They don’t know what they’re missing!
But I still fear the worst. Little by little those gems of the past are beginning to be heard less and less. Why? The media is largely at fault neglecting them. It’s got nothing to do with the next generation outdoing the previous one. Perhaps the songs became just too professional with experts covering every angle. The world got sick of the best of everything and fell for a world of amateurs - ghastly voices and awful ditties purporting to offer a more poetic reality.
I am almost pleased to think I won’t be around to hear what’s next on the pop agenda. Why can’t our music be considered as important as classical? After all it didn’t affect the world of serious music. Their epochs remained set in stone as it were. Maybe it’s a bit early in history to elevate them but one day I’m sure the crooners will win the day and receive the praise they deserve.
I know it’s been all said before, but with the style in the process of doing a “Titanic”, how would it end? I’m absolutely positive though in the final analysis our music will eventually find its rightful place and join that illustrious band of great composers and lyricists.
Without any doubt I go as far to say there will never be an era like it because the world itself has never been in such a state and out of control. It was inevitable that something had to save it - music!
Major Melodies in Minor Keys
By Robert Walton
Sitting at the piano doodling away like Jimmy Durante, searching for songs in the minor, I soon learned they don’t come easily. After all, most popular ditties are in major keys, which are far more common and freer. Unexpectedly the first minor that came to mind was Beethoven’s Bagatelle in A minor for piano, better known as Fur Elise. It seemed harder and harder for another one to come up but I persisted.
Then suddenly Gershwin’s Summertime from “Porgy and Bess” filled the void. Now I was getting somewhere but I had to work at it. Another song from two top American writers Rodgers and Hart was My Funny Valentine. Although officially in a major key it’s considered by many musicians as being in C minor, the relative minor of E Flat. The sound is so minorish that E Flat doesn’t stand a chance.
Why then are minor keys so rare? Perhaps it’s because their form is so rigid that songwriters are limited to the miserable melodies that traditionally inhabit them. Jewish tunes like Bei Mir Bist Du Schon, My Yiddishe Momme, Hava Nagila and Nature Boy (based on the Yiddish song Be Calm my Heart) are very much on the agenda, qualifying as part of the general Arabian sound and beyond. The well known Shadow of your Smile begins in the minor but some of the other full minors include Minnie the Moocher, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, Volga Boat Song, All My Love, Angel Eyes, Anniversary Song, Autumn in New York, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, Big Noise from Winnetka, Come Back to Sorrento (starts in the minor), El Choclo, 42nd Street, Greensleeves, and I’m a Fool to Want You. Just some of the miracles cooked up by folk songs and by man himself.
Of course minor keys are found in many cultures and are not necessarily slow. Fast rhythmical pieces are just as valid in a city or backwater. eg Tzena Tzena Tzena.
What other tunes can we think of? Berlin’s How Deep is the Ocean starts out in the minor but ends in the major. Other pure ones are I Will Wait For You, Istanbul, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Autumn Leaves and Take Five.
I was wondering how I would finish this little minor manifest when again Beethoven grabbed some of the limelight, this time with a movement from a piano sonata - the 3rd from his Pathetique. Very minory. It’s one I have played since childhood and deserves pride of place in this little study of the sad keys.
However there’s always one you don’t expect. It comes from the dashboard of my new car. They pop up everywhere!
By Robert Walton
When it became the norm to add conjoining chords (especially minor ones) to the notation of a song, which contained the very basic tune, quality popular music had really arrived. These jazz influenced harmonies (often a minor 7) enormously helped to make the melody flow so much better. Before that it was a stark, stiff and primitive state of pure ugliness. Just a little imagination was needed to produce beautiful standards with clever lyrics. It also helped top vocalists like Crosby and Sinatra interpret them even though they didn’t read music. And these chords must have also influenced the improvement in sheet music and thousand-tune books for pianists.
Another aspect that occurs with such a big change, is the penultimate note to the final one can be absolutely gorgeous given the right arrangement. In a current Republic of Ireland TV bank commercial, two vocalists singing the words (“It took a long time to come”) give a completely new meaning to just the simple process of arriving at the end of a phrase. In fact I must admit it makes me cry every time I hear it. We sometimes take these ordinary chords for granted but occasionally we have to be reminded how really powerful they are. So in many ways the sound of unknown artists (even if they’re not Singers Unlimited) can give a new meaning to a very basic melodic journey. Absolutely no need for huge resources to impress - just the voices.
The great J S Bach contributed to the groundswell of smoothing and amalgamating the music. Hard to keep him out of anything musical. In fact it could be said Bach practically invented music! It’s this simple process that has helped produce some wonderful standards - the pinnacle of popular music. Just like the classics belong to a definite period, so the music of the Great American Songbook between 1920 and 1960 is now a permanent part of that era and will remain “set in stone” forever. You Can’t Take That Away From Me!
By Robert Walton
If you’re interested in American politics, you will know Nancy Pelosi was the 52nd Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. It was big news when the break-in of her San Francisco residence occurred in which her businessman husband Paul suffered serious injuries from an intruder.
Every time she appears on television, I’m reminded of another Pelosi who was in the music business - songwriter Don Pelosi. He was born Leonardo Domenico Pelosi in North London, the son of Domenico, an Italian from Picinisco, a historical town in the Lazio region. The young Pelosi was born within the sounds of The ‘Bow Bells’ of the church of St. Mary le-Bow. He grew up in Clerkenwell or ‘Little Italy’ in London. (The only other Pelosi I knew was a Welsh priest).
Whenever the great song standards of the 20th Century are discussed, it’s a fair bet that The Stars Will Remember from 1947 will not be amongst them. Why? It might not be in the top echelon of evergreens but this pretty little British ditty can’t be ignored. After all it was recorded by Steve Conway, Robert Farnon (Dick James), Vera Lynn, Scotty McHarg, Vaughn Monroe, Monte Rey and Billy Thorburn. My favourite version of the song from the 1948 film “Smart Girls Don’t Talk” was by one of the most underrated vocalists of the 1940s, Howard Jones with Joe Loss and His Orchestra.
However the most notable recording was by Frank Sinatra with Axel Stordahl’s Orchestra. On the current Google this isn’t even mentioned unless you specifically ask for it. I thought that Sinatra’s connection would have easily warranted an automatic inclusion.
I was first attracted to this plaintive melody because it was easy to play by ear. It’s a no-frills tune, some might say quite ordinary, but it’s that very directness which distinguishes it from other songs of the post war era. It’s an intuitive melody which may well have come to the composer on the spur of the moment. Whilst there’s a definite hymn-like quality about it, the tune would make an excellent national anthem. Listen to the brass at the close of the Joe Loss arrangement.
Unlike most quality ballads with the climax near the end, this one gets to the point very quickly. As early as bar 5 the tune swells quite naturally on the word “stars” appropriately on a top D supported by a major 9 chord, repeating the title in a highly emotive way. And then as an afterthought the words “so will I” are tagged on. Some may have thought that was the actual title. (Strangely enough twenty years earlier there was a song actually called So Will I ).
The listener has now got the message loud and clear. Every time the whole phrase occurs, it tugs at your heartstrings. Bringing a celestial element into the equation is perhaps the ultimate romantic illusion taking the song out of the common place into the rare. It worked well on this occasion. Lyricist Leo Towers keeping his feet firmly on the ground, doesn’t forget earthly things like a rose and a kiss. But his lyrical masterstroke, although he wouldn’t have been aware of it then, was quoting the song which has become the best known in the entire golden era of popular music, As Time Goes By.
Still in the written key of C, the tune slips effortlessly into a totally predictable middle section where we find our lovesick lover in a lonely lane, whose only company are those friendly stars. Harmonically nothing special happens, and yet step by step the melody quickly builds into a modest but perfectly formed climax alighting on the word “call” after the brokenhearted lover imagines he or she hears the ex lover’s voice. So what is the appeal of the song? In a word, simplicity. There are many more ‘star’ songs but none tells this touching little tale so evocatively in a way we can all relate to. And it’s underplayed so brilliantly that one really feels for the unfortunate victim. In such an uncomplicated setting, the pain and suffering seem truly genuine. A perfect match of words and music.
But even when this much neglected song falls into complete oblivion, at least we can be reassured that the stars will remember, and come to think of it, so will I!
Music For Romance
Analysed by Robert Walton
The American practice of using surnames as first names has always appealed to me, firstly because they’re different and secondly they sound more engaging and impressive. One that comes immediately to mind is Manning Sherwin (1902-1974). (a name not a million miles from Gershwin).
Born in Philadelphia, Sherwin went to Columbia University and had a long career in musical theatre and films. He was known for “Empire of the Sun” and “Hi Gang”. However his main claim to fame was as tunesmith for one of the best songs of the 20th century - A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square with words by Eric Maschwitz written for “New Faces”. From Binnie Hale’s 1939 operetta “Magyar Melody”, Albert Sandler gives his typical Palm Court treatment of Music for Romance - a world away from Berkeley Square.
Essentially it’s a fast waltz introduced by a series of impressionistic harmonies - the sort that Dizzy Gillespie borrowed for bebop. It’s essentially a piano solo with orchestra starting the number off in a 1930s/40s style. Of particular note is the excellent touch of the pianist. The orchestra stays for the bridge and together they continue to support each other in this section. The bridge returns quite quickly with our soloist resuming his role.
Now we come to the highlight of the piece with a subtle upward key change when violinist Sandler gets mesmerized by the tune and treats it with the utmost respect by slowing it down and squeezing every inch out of its beautiful melody. Only Sandler could do that in his own special way. If you listen carefully you will hear the Sherwin harmonic style even in this comparatively straight tune. Most composers never completely lose it.
Back to the orchestra as it gradually builds up to the original tempo while the piano performs an accompanying role for a well-controlled ending. Finally a word about Sandler’s tone. He never applies any tricks but sticks closely to the tune without any apparent effort. The result is pure perfection. He has no need to be a prodigy because his vibrato is so absolutely “natural”. And there lies the word that sums up this artist of extraordinary talent. There aren’t many left now!
Golden Age of Light Music - the 1940s
Guild GLCD 5102
New Leroy Anderson CD
IAIN SUTHERLAND CONCERT ORCHESTRA.
ALTO ALC 1324
"Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) was arguably the most successful 20th century American composer of light orchestral music, at a time when the genre was known internationally. Sadly, opportunities today to hear the music of Anderson and many other highly gifted composers of music in the lighter vein are exceptionally rare, so it is through the medium of recordings that we can still experience, and react to, such wonderfully inspired and attractive music as we find on this CD.
Iain Sutherland was for many years conductor of BBC's "Friday Night is Music Night" broadcasts (one of the very few regular programmes to feature this style of music), and his performances of music of this character are endemic to a conductor who seems to have these pieces as part of his cardio-vascular system. Throughout this highly enjoyable CD, the performances are just as they should be - this colourful and attractive music benefiting hugely from the quality this gifted conductor brings to it.
Iain Sutherland's Concert Orchestra is made up of excellent players and of full orchestral strength. The recordings are excellently balanced. But, the main attraction is the music itself - a piece such as "Serenata" is manifestly inspired; once heard, this wonderful music becomes quite unforgettable. Highly recommended.
With acknowledgements to ‘/Musical Opinion’ / Classical Music Magazine
by Robert Walton
When David Rose wrote Holiday for Strings he probably had no idea how much it would influence a whole generation of light orchestral composers. His original formula of a bustling opening and sweeping middle section soon became a universal model. Every light music writer in the 1940s and 1950s fell completely under its spell, especially with the use of pizzicato. Rose’s employment of plucked strings clearly had its classical roots in the popular Pizzicato Polka (Johann Strauss 2nd/Josef Strauss) and in the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony.
Even the great Victor Young was inspired by Rose’s format. The unconventional angular opening of his Bright Lights gives the impression of a modern piano concerto. Certainly you couldn’t hum the repetitive segment of Bright Lights like you could Holiday for Strings, but the idea is obviously borrowed from the English-born composer. It’s a sort of 20th century Bach playing with polyphony.
Then suddenly the rhythm section with a rhumba beat sounding like an introduction to The Trolley Song, announces the imminent arrival of the eagerly anticipated middle section. We are immediately enveloped by Young’s dazzling arco string extravaganza, while the ‘piano concerto’ style of the first part continues in an accompanying role, skillfully incorporated into the mix. Listen out for a suggestion of Ellington’s I Got It Bad and a touch of Trevor Duncan’s High Heels?
So what’s Victor Young going to do now? Why, get the orchestra to play 16 bars from the top! That’s what. You might well say, “it goes on a bit”. But clearly Young knows what he’s doing because it all makes musical sense. Then the piano is given a solo spot playing the first half of the middle section. There’s every likelihood that Ray (“Sparky’s Magic Piano”) Turner was the pianist often heard with Young. The strings dying to rejoin the orchestra become subtle opportunists weaving their way back in and eventually succeeding. Guess what happens in the coda? You’re absolutely right; those 16 bars are brought back and neatly finish the job. I expect by now you’ll be able to whistle that difficult phrase!
Victor Young might have been indebted to Rose, but at the same time he in turn created a classic unlike any other in the light orchestral canon.
Bright Lights (Young) from The Golden Age of Light Music “The Composer Conducts”
Available on Guild Records (GLCD 5214)
Metropolis (Jack Brown)
New Century Orchestra/Sidney Torch
Analysed by Robert Walton
There was a time when the name ‘Jackie’ Brown flashed regularly across our television screens as a highly rated electronic organist. But he was much more than that. He used his actual first name as a mood music composer and later changed to the more informal ‘Jackie’ when he became Billy Cotton’s TV Band Show’s personal assistant and conductor. Talk about multi-talented!
By the way, the New Century Orchestra (Francis Day & Hunter) was quite similar to the fabled Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra who both used to record on Saturday mornings at EMI’s Abbey Road studios. Each combination had a polished slickness especially in up tempo numbers. Of course with Sidney Torch conducting the session, it was guaranteed to be a success. It was such a shame when Chappell’s were compelled to record in Denmark - it was never the same again. Thank goodness most of the light orchestral classics had already been recorded in London!
The fast energetic mood of Metropolis instantly establishes itself with xylophone, strings and woodwind telling the listener in no uncertain terms what is being described. Then we go into a syncopated section still with the opening orchestration popping in as if to say “we haven’t gone away”. Listen to the bubbling “QHLO”-type brass adding their bite to the business of busyness.
This is followed by a typical “singing” middle section as heard in many a mood piece (originally conceived by David Rose) but one is not allowed to forget the energy and vitality of a large city like New (“we never close”) York with its thousands of vehicles and people 24/7. The sound clings like a snail and won’t let go. Thanks to the Greeks for their contribution to the English language and indeed the title.
From now until the end, with quotes from the BBC radio comedy series “Take it from Here”, the orchestra has an “away day whale of a time” juggling with all the elements provided by the arranger. The orchestra stops twice as trumpets prepare for the finale. In essence it’s a “free for all” as the instrumental traffic jam jumps for joy to escape the rigidity of the score, and as in reality gives the impression of total discipline. Lovely little bit of pizzicato worth waiting for.
But of course eventually it all comes together. Metropolis has all the right ingredients to illustrate a very 20th century scene. It might not be quite as thrilling as New York in a Nutshell by Acquaviva’s Orchestra but the bare bones of a concrete jungle are just as effective! And if you listen very carefully you might just hear the word Metropolis intoned deep within the orchestra.
Guild Light Music GLCD 5102 The 1940s
In Search Of The World’s Most Beautiful Tune
By Robert Walton
It might sound like an impossible task to find the world’s most beautiful tune but with so much current research going on in other walks of life, we may as well add “music” to the list and see what we come up with. The question is where do you begin such a mammoth undertaking? And what are your judgments based on?
I don’t quite know why I first thought of waltzes when faced with this huge assignment, but because they are tighter than the common or garden 4 in bar, the tune is more immediate. Waltzes are far more attractive and adaptable, and though perhaps more famous in a dance context, they frequently turn up in larger works like symphonies. Tchaikovsky came to my mind immediately with his gloriously natural Waltz of the Flowers, which oozes effortlessly out of its elegantly spontaneous-sounding origins. This is totally unlike the compositions of Johann Strauss II, which were written for special requirements on the dance floor but later immortalized for seated audiences in orchestral arrangements.
Musicians outside Bath’s Pump Room with their pre-recorded accompaniments play many of the greatest tunes. One, which is performed regularly, is the beautiful melody Meditation from Massenet’s Thais which surely must be fairly high up the “Immortal Tune” hit parade. Other melodies which move, are Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Saint-Saens’ The Swan. Of course you can’t produce a list like this without having a Puccini. One Fine Day from Madame Butterfly is a classic, which turned harmony upside down.
Vaughan Williams’ haunting Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis well deserves a place in such company. Imagine being in the congregation of Wells Cathedral hearing the hushed Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It’s strange but most well known composers don’t seem to produce hits. Williams’ The Lark Ascending was also a big favourite but it was the rhythmic section I first heard used as the theme for a documentary on the Pilgrim’s Way. Often it’s the orchestration that appeals. For instance Beethoven’s Ode to Joy leaves me cold compared with the end of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony featuring a choir which has to wait patiently for their big moment. Most music, which really moves, is from unlikely sources. As a toddler my mother used to play the opening of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude while I did a carpet crawl away from the sound of “thunder”. Rachmaninov’s gorgeous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is in a class of its own.
In popular music one of its most memorable melodies of the 20th century just has to be David Raksin’s Laura and Rose’s masterly middle section of Holiday for Strings.
On the swing front there’s one tune from the entire Ted Heath library which has been a constant bug bee in my bonnet - Dave Bee’s Obsession. Back in the 1940s the Melachrino Strings recorded a series of short classics often featuring the lower strings, the most outstanding of which was Benjamin Godard’s haunting Berceuse from “Jocelyn”.
And moving on to modern light orchestral music, I passionately believe Robert Farnon’s Melody Fair deserves a special place in the whole universe of music. Tony Bennett’s ex-manager Tony Tamburello, rated this two and a half minute miracle as immortal. I couldn’t agree more!
My current personal favourite is Hubert Parry’s spine-tingling Jerusalem (I can’t get enough of it!) Strange but I never heard Jerusalem until I was in my teens. What a pleasant shock! It was a world away from Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory although the beautiful Nimrod is full of hope.
But pop pickers, still at number one after all these years is Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) composed by an unknown Irish street musician.