Robert Farnon’s 100th birthday
By Robert Walton
July 24th 2017 is exactly 100 years since Toronto-born Robert Farnon first saw the light of day. Much of my knowledge and praise of him has trickled down through my JIM articles especially in the miniatures. It’s amazing what one learnt from the music. Bob used to regularly ring me with a comment or two about my latest article. He appreciated my musical analyses and sometimes gave me details of the back-stories of his Canadian impressions.
Why does music move us? It’s a very personal thing really. There are many reasons we are affected, mostly impossible to fathom, but in Farnon’s case it’s a totally spiritual experience covering all the emotions especially in his magnificent miniatures. The great JS Bach affected us in much the same way. Farnon’s might be brief but they contain such a huge range of melodic and harmonic originality that they come up fresh every time. Each aspect of the music sends out an unspoken message of positiveness and hope. Normal language ceases to exist as the music does the talking.
Take Melody Fair for example. This radiant classically orientated two and a half minute masterpiece demonstrates Farnon’s natural sense of musicianship in which every element slots perfectly into place. Like a river it flows beautifully from start to finish. There never was or indeed ever will be such perfectly formed pieces of creativity. Strangely you get more for your money with a miniature.
In Farnon’s obituary I omitted to mention his arrangements of popular songs from shows and films. It was the first time many overseas fans ever heard his work. However they were generously sprinkled with the seeds of his miniatures.
It’s hard to believe 100 years have passed since he came into the world but his music from symphonies and film soundtracks right down to those towering miniature masterpieces, continue to excite the old guard and thrill the up-and-coming generations,
Although Robert Farnon is generally regarded as the greatest arranger of his generation, he surely must also be a strong contender for the title “Greatest Miniaturist of the 2Oth century”. Just as Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, each lasting only a few minutes, is an entire world of music in miniature, so too are Farnon’s light orchestral pieces. Unfortunately because of his association with background music and particularly signature tunes, he never received the serious recognition he deserved. Only when his music is completely divorced from its original purpose and treated independently on its own merits, will it be properly appreciated. It may take a little time, but make no mistake that will come.
As well as his memorable music, it is not generally known that many musicians and arrangers including myself have reason to be grateful for his generosity with help and advice.
Happy 100th Bob!
Upon reading this article, although I basically agree with much that was stated, nevertheless I have to demur in a few instances.
There is no question whatever in regard to Robert Farnon's miniatures, as Bob refers to them - they have introduced me to the work of this composer, and I have diligently followed much of what he turned out both as a composer and as a recording artist featuring his very individual arrangements of popular standards and musical comedy favorites.
However, I have not found this to be the case with his more extended works, several examples of which I have listened to, such as "Cascades by the Sea" which Bob has commented on recently. I was not particularly taken with it - I did not feel a strong sense of structure or purpose, and I could say the same about the extended works that I heard many years ago at a BBC presentation at Lincoln Center - I stated in a recent comment that I found nothing in any of these extended works to write home about.
But when it comes to the shorter selections, there is no question of the composer's genius, and his having earned the right to stand alongside some of the other equally great in this genre.
I would say the same regarding his arrangements of popular favorites and musical comedy selections. They were superlative in their own way - some were really and truly exceptional - but I would never go out on a limb to say that he was the greatest in this field as I could name many others who turned out selections and arrangements that were equally great.
The comparison of his miniatures to the 48 Preludes and Fugues of J.S. Bach caused me to raise an eyebrow. We are comparing the music of two totally different genres here, and I could never accept the analogy that Bob is attempting to create. Moreover, J.S. Bach was quite successful in the many extended works that one could point out amongst his choral works - Mass, passions, cantata, along with the concertos and orchestral suites, as well as the keyboard suites and unaccompanied suites and partitas. Robert Farnon has not produced any extended work in my humble opinion that I would consider viable although his miniature pieces - it is clear he was essentially a miniaturist - will indisputably hold the boards for a long time to come. But to drag J.S. Bach or Mozart or any of the classical greats in to make a comparison in my opinion is simply mixing two genres that belong separate in discussion. I have full respect for the work of Robert Farnon within the range of his strongest work.
Nevertheless, despite these factors that I felt compelled to bring up, I am still in basic agreement with the overall point of this article.