Analysed by Robert Walton
One of the most underrated light orchestral composers, arrangers and conductors of the 20th century was unquestionably Peter Yorke. He successfully introduced the element of surprise into his work and in some ways was even more symphonic than George Melachrino. Yorke was a master of the dramatic gesture. A typical example of what I mean is in “Till The Clouds Roll By” selection. Listen to the connecting passage between Who and Ol’ Man River. Talk about putting an instant stamp on your music. No one slept during a Yorke performance, especially live!
His formula probably had its roots in his 1930’s soundtrack work for British films and especially as chief arranger for Louis Levy’s Gaumont British Film Orchestra. The opening of “Blue Skies” (1946) has a suggestion of “James Bond”, showing that Yorke was clearly ahead of his time. Everything he wrote contained constant references to serious music, and how effective it was. Yorke was also an enthusiast and expert of the big finish. Above all he was a ‘mood’ writer in its purest form.
And for those of you familiar with his film selections, you’ll know, unlike Eric Coates for example, he had a natural feel for jazz, having appeared as pianist/arranger with many British dance bands. His brilliant string writing was full of imagination and humour, but the sound most associated with Yorke, (a total antidote to all the drama) were his shimmering, simmering saxophones. Unlike Wilbur Schwartz’s clarinet lead for Glenn Miller’s reed section, Yorke opted for a pure saxes-only subdivision. Lead by golden-toned soprano saxist Freddy Gardner, there’s never been a blend to equal it in all music. Reverberating around the world, it was one of the most unique sounds in the light orchestral firmament.
From a personal point of view, I owe a lot to Peter Yorke’s film selections, because that’s exactly where I first heard some of the great standards which have remained with me ever since. He had a knack of somehow getting under the skin of a tune and treating it with genuine respect. Also his medley format probably acted as a model for both Wally Stott’s selections for Sidney Torch and his symphonic suites for Stanley Black’s Kingsway Promenade Orchestra.
There’s quite a bit of drama too in the real life story of Yorke. I call it a “Tragedy in Triplicate”. Firstly the maestro himself died at the relatively young age of 63. His soloist, alto sax supremo Freddy Gardner passed away at 39, whilst Yorke’s stylish singer Steve Conway with a similar timbre to Al Bowlly, was taken from us far too early at the age of 31. Thank goodness so much wonderful material had already been committed to wax by the talented trio. Gardner’s alto sax solo classic was I Only Have Eyes For You while Conway’s Souvenir de Paris somehow captured the atmosphere of the French capital as never before.
Away from his film selection commitments, Yorke also arranged for other popular singers of the time. One of his best string backings was For You for Donald Peers. I once spoke to Peers in New Zealand about that arrangement and he totally agreed.
After all that background information, let’s take a close look now at that very English sounding tune, Melody Of The Stars, but be prepared for a slight shock at the start, especially if your volume control happens to be a little too high. Yes, Yorke’s at it again! Just as we’re beginning to settle down to this lovely gentle tune, two musical “clunks” remind us that Peter is lurking. The first chorus gathering up a bit of steam comes to a typically positive end that only Yorke could dream up.
Then an even lovelier lighter section takes over, but don’t be fooled by its apparent Yorke-ish charm. Be prepared for a series of menacing warning shots creating tension before returning to the main tune. As Melody Of The Stars gradually builds for the last time, listen out for Yorke’s unique melodic style at the closing moments of this stirring piece. Briefly leaving the light orchestral world behind, we enter what could almost be the triumphant finale of a Mahler symphony.
Compared with an earlier elegant and dainty age of 1930s light music, Peter Yorke introduced more daring features into his “Roaring 40’s” orchestrations, while at the same time composing some of the most beautiful melodies of our time.
Revisiting the work of Peter Yorke after all these years has been a total revelation and joy, finally recognizing his amazing talent and true worth in the world of popular music and particularly light orchestral music. In this genre, Yorke had no rivals!
Melody Of The Stars is available on
“The Show Goes On” Guild Light Music