A Door Will Open
(John Benson Brooks - Don George)
Analysed by Robert Walton
It constantly concerns me that one of the greatest periods in musical history could eventually be totally forgotten (it is “now” in some circles), in spite of the fact that millions of people were so devoted to it. Because of records, radio, stage and screen, it really was the soundtrack of their lives. One thing that’s often forgotten was the sale of sheet music which was an industry in itself.
This unique era of invention occurred in the 20th century roughly between 1920 and 1960, and like some endangered species, is at real risk of becoming extinct and disappearing without trace. During those forty or so golden years of popular music and jazz, we were entertained by some of the finest singers, songs and greatest light orchestras of all time. Nowadays their presence in the media is virtually a non-event especially with the young. Some of them have never even heard it. It was initially called Tin Pan Alley but grew from that humble status into perhaps the most original music ever. After all, serious music was divided into periods: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Early Romantic, Late Romantic and Post ‘Great War’ Years.
Vocalists were the main vehicle for spreading the tunes but even though Bing Crosby recorded A Door will Open in 1945, it almost got away. If it wasn’t for Robert Farnon we might never have heard it. In fact in many cases we relied upon orchestras to cover neglected melodies and keep them fresh. Anything he arranged was guaranteed to do that, and as well as demonstrating his creative process, Farnon brought a symphonic feel to popular music as no one else ever did.
Borrowing five notes from the opening of Lecuona’s The Breeze and I the oboe starts the introduction off, followed by the orchestra echoing the melody rising up like a sunrise into the ether to join his world. Soon, sighing soft strings sing their way through the song supported by a discreet rhythm section.The oboe returns to provide part of the “answering” service. Later when woodwind and strings eventually reach the second part of the melody it bursts into life, when miracle-worker Farnon inserts one of those classic flute interjections (guaranteed to produce goose pimples!) as heard in many of his own masterly miniatures.
At around this time it gradually dawns on the listener that this pretty average ditty has been transformed into a beautiful song. As we end the chorus a sudden pause occurs at the climax with an attractive descending scale-like passage. It’s oboe time again with a musical message that everything is about to wind down in readiness for a typical Farnon “sensitively controlled emotional flight of fancy”. It’s as if the players are given carte blanche. The orchestra goes back to tempo primo, gently making its way to the end with a pleasant little crescendo suggesting Sailing By before coming to rest. Finally we’re briefly reminded of that brilliant acrobatic flautist who performs another rapid woodwind wire-walk.
A thousand years from now one wonders how this unique music will be rediscovered or even remembered. Five top performers head this fruitful 40-year era all influenced in some way by jazz. Don’t forget J S Bach was finally recognized several centuries after his death. (Sounds like a quote from Jimmy Durante!) We can only hope the same could happen to Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Robert Farnon. One couldn’t possibly leave out the name Farnon. He was a direct musical descendant of Debussy and Ravel employing Impressionism quite naturally as the source of his arrangements and compositions. I’m sure this African-European blend from this super lineup will still stir the soul. However one must be reminded in universal terms, it all happened in the twinkling of an eye, or perhaps even a twinkling of a star!
From dreary Lieder, it blossomed into the full flowering of the most incredible variety of superior songs. Poets and talented tunesmiths came out of the woodwork to meet the demand. Besides jazz it was also folk, classical music and opera which influenced this all-too brief immortal treasure trove.
Incidentally, lyricist Don George also wrote the words of Yellow Rose of Texas, while John Benson Brooks composed the music for You Came a Long Way from St Louis.
A Door will Open is on “Two Cigarettes in the Dark” Vocalion CDLK 4112.
I have read Robert Walton's recent article, and have to comment on several grounds.
I fully understand his well placed concerns at the outset of his article, and feel that what he is referring to is the result of a whole new generation of listeners with totally different expectations (and dare I say it) different standards.
What is presently occurring is very sadly inevitable. The process may or may not have taken longer in the UK than in the USA, due to the fact that in the UK the light music tradition is older and far more solid, as I have regretfully observed in an article I have written for the RFS many years ago, but the inevitable process is still occurring.
The offerings of today at musical events are a far cry from what many of us have grown up with and understandably have come to love and cherish.
Many of the light music figures whose work we have so enjoyed have gradually disappeared from the scene. Of those who remained longer, the quality of their work gradually cheapened, in the interest of commercialization, as Reuben Musiker put it so well in his excellent book on the subject. It is also a reason why, in most cases, when there are multiple versions of a selection or arrangement by the same light music conductor, I will almost always urge the interested listener to seek out the first version offered by that conductor.
At one time, at least here in New York City, up until at least the early 80's from which point the events steadily diminished, a plethora of outdoor summer music events were being offered, all over the city, in the form of light classics as well as band concerts, some even commencing in late June and running through mid-October. These have ultimately have disappeared; the outdoor events now consist of a sort of popular music of a far lesser quality, which I and others attend chiefly for the outdoor environment, but I at least do not come with the expectation of any lasting musical fulfillment, such as for example one such concert I remember as conducted by Robert Russell Bennett offering the Beethoven Egmont Overture, the R. Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1, and his own Suite of Old American Dances. This sort of wonderful offering is presently as dead as the dodo.
The serious classical music field has not been immune to this sort of cheapening of standards either. The offerings have largely boiled down to the "101 Greatest Works of Music" which are offered year in and year out, punctuated by a new work by an unknown composer, most likely of a nature that very few of us would care to cultivate any further, all to keep alive the illusion that music is still a living, breathing art (if so, certainly not the best way to go about it). Much of what I refer to is a reflection of what is taught to students in their curriculums in music learning institutions, ultimately based on what will draw in the most money.
A young conducting student, emerging from such a learning process, well equipped to do a bang up job on any of the Big Three Stravinsky ballets, will flounder helplessly without a clue of how to proceed, if handed a score by Elgar (outside the UK), late Strauss or late Sibelius, by Dohnanyi or Weiner, Berwald or Halvorsen, or D'Indy or Glazunov.
This is why I feel that all this material, even if not performed in public concerts, should be preserved on recordings, and here I am referring to light music of yesteryear as well as serious music by composers such as those named above. Tastes do change over several generations, and what may seem to today's generation as less engaging, future generations may well find something to draw the attention and to further cultivate.
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Getting back to Bob's article, I find that he is now referring to arrangements of songs that might otherwise be forgotten. For me, the arrangements of a set melody by a given figure are equivalent to that individual's own compositions, often infused as they are with the same individuality, given that person's own creativity. But here I would like to raise an objection to a point I often have seen in Bob's articles.
I raise absolutely no question that Robert Farnon was one of the greatest arrangers in the field, and will not ever deny that distinction to him. However, I will raise a strenuous objection when I see him described as the very greatest, when I know for a fact that there are arrangements on recordings by Andre Kostelanetz, Morton Gould, Leroy Anderson, David Rose, Percy Faith, and the lesser known Domenico Savino that I could describe as equally great and equally individual. Indeed, as one example, I find the song "The Birth of the Blues" in Morton Gould's setting (original Columbia recording) as actually superior to the one by Robert Farnon.
I basically like Farnon's work, as much as the next one, although as with any other figure I would hardly say that I like absolutely every last note he committed to paper. When David Ades, after some initial correspondence between us, endeavored to persuade me to join the RFS, he had to convince me that the group deals with music of other light music conductors and composers as well as Robert Farnon.
Farnon is simply one figure in this genre for me, one of the greats, to be sure, but among others equally great. And with that in mind, I would not be so presumptuous as to suggest that any one of these could be considered as greater than any of the others.
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As for Bob's analysis of the selection he is writing about, I have already expressed my feelings in past comments about the concentration of attention on the instrumentation rather than on the overall essence of the piece. Moreover, I would raise a serious question about any influence of Debussy or Ravel on Farnon's work. Of Delius very possibly, in certain selections, but hardly of either of the two Frenchmen, if at all. If anyone else hears it, I would like specific examples pointed out to me.
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