Analysed by Robert Walton
Soundtrack music compilation from the first “Just William” film.
For many years discerning light music lovers often wondered what influenced those light orchestral classics of Robert Farnon. My own theory is that from a very early age he was a virtual living, breathing sponge, possessing an innate ability to absorb all kinds of music from classical, through jazz to popular. Everything was fair game. Of course there were obvious borrowings from bebop, Bartok, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Eric Coates and David Rose. But we mustn’t forget those incidental ingredients that went into his creative cauldron to be called upon when needed. (Australian composer Ron Grainer was a stickler for keeping any good ideas that came to him on file for possible future use). But it was Farnon’s early serious works like his symphonies that contained clear evidence of an original style developing. He may not have realized it then, but little by little he was edging towards a new kind of music that in the mid-40s would suddenly blossom into a full-blown genre influencing a whole generation of arrangers and composers.
It was just Robert’s luck to hitch a ride to England courtesy of the Army during the latter days of WW2, who as Captain Bob Farnon conducted and arranged for the Canadian Band of the AEF. To suddenly find himself in London, one of the world’s important centres for music must have been something of a culture shock. However the British capital, apart from picking itself up after hostilities, was also the hub of a burgeoning light orchestral industry. Knowing he had a talent for this very specialized music, Robert had clearly come to the right town, so he stayed. The problem was he badly needed an element of luck, despite being well known through his broadcasts.
And then quite out of the blue an offer to write some film music came up. What he didn’t know was that this would lead to something completely unexpected - his dream of composing orchestral miniatures. Two “Just William” movies provided exactly that. The first, “Just William’s Luck” in 1947, gave him the perfect opportunity to release all that material which had been cooped up and lying dormant. It was quite enough to be in a position to compose and arrange a soundtrack, but to have some of the world’s finest orchestral players was the icing on the cake. All he had to do now was come up with the goods. Although it was a light-hearted film, the scope it provided for different moods was vast. It was his big chance to dig deep into his musical baggage and show the powers that be what he was really capable of.
For starters the impressive opening credits of “Just William’s Luck” proved he could easily create a big orchestral sound. Listen to those string flourishes anticipating a certain Flirt. Then we go straight into William’s cheeky theme that probably inspired Willie The Whistler. Farnon was a born orchestrator and like a kid in a toyshop was having fun and doing exactly as he fancied. Then back to that majestic start with the strings already pre-empting “Spring in Park Lane” and “Maytime in Mayfair”.
His ideas were never corny, just right for the action and jam packed with atmosphere. Had he been in Hollywood he would, I believe, have been immediately grabbed for “Lassie!” Did you notice a certain bean, ripe for development, jumping up and down trying to get noticed? And Farnon’s flare for tiptoeing tension sounded like an English “Tom and Jerry”. He was a master of the ‘wrong’ note which was absolutely right in a Farnon context and discords which might have jarred the untrained ear were pure joy to the converted. Playful woodwind didn’t know it, but were ‘rehearsing’ for what would soon become the norm in Farnon’s world. He might have even influenced the mystery and intrigue of the music for Lustgarten’s “Scotland Yard”. In fact there was music for every conceivable type of mood and occasion.
In effect this tightly edited soundtrack is a sneak preview of all the minutiae that would become the building blocks for those magnificent miniatures - little journeys of self-discovery. Remember they were still in the gestation period. Multiple births were expected very soon ..........Jumping Bean, Portrait Of A Flirt, Journey IntoMelody and most appropriately A Star Is Born!
“Just William’s Luck” and “William Comes Town”
are both from “MELODY FAIR” on Jasmine Records
Bob has given us an interesting history of how Robert Farnon's unique style came into being, including influences along with a mini-biography. While I have no reason to question anything in his article, I would wonder about some of the influences on Robert Farnon's style that were mentioned, in particular Rachmaninov and Bartok, as opposed to the lack of inclusion of Delius (and perhaps as a consequence some of Grainger). But I found the biographical history fascinating, even though as I stated in a previous comment, I no longer hold RF in awe as I once did.
A number of years ago, the BBC Orchestra presented a concert in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center here in New York City, a sort of pops concert, within which a number of extended works by Farnon were included, which I personally found to be nothing to write home about. But I would never argue about the worth of several of his shorter selections, including the four that Bob mentioned at the end of his article.
Listening to this piece, obviously meant as background to an animated film, I found it to be just that. It only makes sense if one views the film simultaneously, and not otherwise, as its course is too erratic and has no independent structure of its own; consequently, I would not bother to further cultivate it, or to listen to the companion piece in the "Just William" series.
To be sure, there are a number of fascinating instrumental effects, as Robert Farnon was a very adept orchestrator - in the field of light music, this skill is almost a necessity, but as I may have said before, it should not be abused but simply serve its purpose without unduly attracting attention to itself for its own sake. I strongly feel that the structural elements of a piece of music are its most important factor; that which gives it coherence so that it can be easily followed. These pieces were not intended to be heard in that manner, and thus divorced from their original purpose in being, there is no longer any interest in direct listening.