06 Apr

Polka Dots and Moonbeams

By  Robert Walton
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(Burke; Van Heusen)
Nelson Riddle’s arrangement analysed by Robert Walton

A Debussyian pug-nosed dream starts straight in with a short simmering shimmering vision of a country-dance. Then the strings play a magnificent symphonic-like surge in the whole-tone scale that completely overwhelms me. It might be only an impressionist effect from the main tune of Polka Dots and Moonbeams but the way Riddle scores it, we are almost into Sibelius territory. After recovering from this dramatic opening, things soon settle down as we arrive at a more conventional introduction for an arrangement of this 1940 popular song that was Frank Sinatra’s first hit vocal with Tommy Dorsey. The tension disappears when we drop down to the actual key of the song (F) with the rhythm section playing in a slow foxtrot tempo.

Jimmy Van Heusen’s beautiful melody is tailor made for Riddle as he effortlessly applies his own close harmony style to it. You’ll immediately notice he pays special attention to detail. On bar 3 (“I felt a bump”...) he unexpectedly makes the strings go soft, echoing the first two bars. It’s back to the original volume on bar 5 (“Suddenly I saw”...) then soft again on bars 7 and 8. It’s an extremely subtle effect and works every time. Very few popular arrangers use this classically inspired device. The same pattern is then applied to the next 8 bars.

As the strings continue into the bridge, one doesn’t miss the woodwind or brass at all. Riddle is perfectly happy with strings only. So are we. He was born to write for them. Again he softens the whole thing halfway through. In the final 8 the same moderately loud and soft tones prevail. In a repeat of the bridge the melody is unusually carried by the lower strings. You mightn’t be aware of it but we have just changed key to G.

In the last 8 the listener luxuriates in an abundance of string sounds, but all slotted in perfectly, creating a sound as rich and ravishing as a popular song will allow. Riddle’s constant “loud and soft” routine has never been incorporated so effectively in such a setting. And more than anything else it’s all so incredibly simple: no going off on a tangent. One vital ingredient that needs mentioning though are the brilliant lyrics of Johnny Burke, not least his highly original description of the young man’s potential partner for life referred to so lovingly in the opening gambit. Incidentally listen to the lovely last chord which is a gorgeous Gmaj 9,11+.

Can be heard on
“More Strings in Stereo”
Guild GLCD 5159

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.