Andre Kostelanetz and His Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton
As a child I didn’t really take much notice of André Kostelanetz apart from the name. It was years later I discovered his orchestra at a New Zealand friend’s holiday cottage near Auckland. It was the dawn of the long-playing disc and the “bach” was littered with his albums. So that was when I became aware of so-called commercial “mood” music. For me Kostelanetz was a pioneer of 20th century light music having been one of the first to take the Great American Songbook seriously and arrange it for a large combination.
Russian-born in 1901, Kostelanetz arrived in America in 1922 working temporarily as a singers’ accompanist but it was radio that launched his career with a 65-piece orchestra. His attention to detail of the technology of early recording was legendary. Apart from his arranging skills, the unique Kostelanetz sound was largely created by his choice of microphone positioning, a specially built floor for violins and a carpet for trumpets to absorb their sound so as not to drown the fiddles. I could never understand why the piano often sounded so far away.
So let’s examine one of his most famous recordings used as the signature tune for BBC Radio’s “Family Favourites”. I have always been fascinated by the introductory 13 seconds, which wasn’t included in the theme so let’s start right at the beginning. The humble celesta begins this classic Kostelanetz arrangement accompanied by quiet strings. Then something stirred in the orchestra and before we know it, after a piano and harp glissando, lower strings robustly start the tune whilst the remainder decorate in harmony. After an upward gliss, the brass takes over while unison strings sharply embellish the melody. At last, rich violins get a chance to play the tune followed by a little extension. Then we have a jazzy taster of the Kostelanetz woodwind sound, a ha’peth of harp, seven repeated muted trumpet notes and a short traditional light music intro.
A mellow old-fashioned clarinet solo with singing strings is interrupted by swinging brass and a darting flute. The woodwind continues the tune with pizzicato strings while arco strings finish the phrase. Brass, strings, horn and a solo oboe bring the piece to a close. A lovely violin solo is played, followed by a bluesy end with the strings having the final say.
In conclusion, there’s plenty of evidence that André Kostelanetz must have laid the foundations for Robert Farnon. You’ve only got to listen to a Kostelanetz score to hear for yourself how Farnon was undeniably influenced. He burrowed into the world of Kostelanetz to unearth many of the hidden facets of his music. The celesta alone was a favourite device. Of course the strings in all their various dimensions had perhaps the most enormous effect on Farnon’s psyche. The other André (Previn) considered Farnon’s string writing the finest, but we all knew that, even before Previn confirmed it. However perhaps the most unexpected feature was Kostelanetz’s merging of a dance band within all this symphonic-like framework later developed by Farnon. It’s one aspect we don’t always associate with Kostelanetz. And yet in it’s own way is as distinctive as the strings. Also we mustn’t forget Farnon’s straight woodwind flare clearly derived from the Kostelanetz model. To complete his “training” the brass too must have taught Farnon a thing or two.
One thing they had in common was that they both died on islands. Kostelanetz in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1980 and Farnon at his home on Guernsey in 2005.
Can be heard on the
very first “Golden Age
of Light Music”
Guild GLCD 5101