By Robert Walton
One place my wife and I had always wanted to see was the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And conveniently now living in the Republic of Ireland, we were in the perfect position to visit this minor Wonder of the World. When we eventually did get around to catching up with the famous formation near Portrush Co Antrim we weren’t disappointed. Associated with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean in the Tertiary Period about 60 million years ago, this mass of basalt columns caused by volcanic activity left a lasting impression on us.
So, stimulated by Ireland’s most distinctive geological creation, my wife suddenly had a bright idea. “Let’s go to Limavady while we are in the area”. What’s so speciaI about Limavady, I hear you cry? It only happens to be the home of Danny Boy, that’s all! Knowing we weren’t a million miles from the market town, we followed the map in a southwesterly direction towards the origin of a ‘musical’ Wonder of the World... the Londonderry Air, better known as Danny Boy. Many musicologists believe it’s the world’s most beautiful melody. I wouldn’t argue with that. Certainly Mozart or Beethoven couldn’t come up with such a perfect composition.
After we parked, we were welcomed by a smiling traffic warden who assured us she had already done her rounds for the day and after our free hour we could stay as long as we liked. We were beginning to warm to Limavady! At the tourist office we received yet another greeting from a charming girl who was clearly impressed with our prior knowledge and interest in the song.
Right opposite on a pub wall was a huge picture of schoolteacher Jane Ross who first heard the tune on a market day in 1851. It was played by local blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry who was more than happy to repeat it so that Jane could write it down. The violinist was a native of a rural townland called Myroe. He used to perform outside the Burns and Lairds Shipping Line Office opposite Jane Ross’s house. Some historians believe the tune was influenced by an ancient ditty known as O’Cahan’s Lament. Perhaps, said sceptics, Jane composed it herself in the same way that Fritz Kreisler had fooled everyone that some of his tunes were attributed to various 17th and 18th century composers. However the general consensus was that Jane was merely the annotator.
She apparently sent the manuscript to a music collector friend in Dublin, George Petrie, President of the Society and Publication of Irish Melodies who published it in 1855. Eventually it went viral as The Londonderry Air. The haunting tune remained wordless for many years despite attempts at finding the perfect match. The world would have to wait until 1913 when Bath lawyer Fred Weatherly wrote the definitive lyric to the tune sent from his sister-in-law in America. In fact it had been written in advance. Incredibly Fred had the title Danny Boy already in his files, whose words miraculously fitted the melody.
So if you ever find yourself in Limavady spare a thought for Jane Ross the true saviour of Danny Boy. To this day a Blue Plaque hangs on the wall of her home at 51 Main Street Limavady commemorating one of the world’s most sublime songs. Jane is buried in Christ Church graveyard just across the road. Over the years Danny Boy has been recorded by thousands of artists and orchestras from John McCormack to Elvis Presley.
But in my experience one of the most moving versions of Danny Boy was by a 90 year old resident of a Ballinrobe care home, Mary from the Irish village of Ballyfarnon. And talking of Farnon, the greatest orchestral arrangement just has to be that of Robert Farnon.
George Shearing Quintet with String Choir
Analysed by Robert Walton
Most professional singers make it a practice to do a thorough sound and familiarization check before performing on stage, especially one that’s new to them. Dame Vera Lynn was no exception and lucky enough to have the expertise of her fastidious husband Harry Lewis who always made sure that everything was just perfect. I was her pianist in the mid-60s when the three of us entered the Stoke-on-Trent venue to give it the once over.
As we walked in, the public address system was playing what I can only describe as “music from heaven”. I immediately went into a kind of trance and my goose pimples became instantly active. Vera and Harry couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but I was in another world transfixed to the spot. After making enquiries the engineer in the control room informed me it was the title track of George Shearing’s album “Touch Me Softly”. Near the end of Shearing’s gorgeous arrangement, ravishing strings go literally into overdrive in what I call “tone apart” harmony. Let me explain. On the piano, the right hand plays the chord of say G, while the left hand plays the chord of F (both 2nd inversions). Play them together and the dissonance it creates is absolutely mind-blowing, especially when you move them up and down in tones. (Much more daring than say Debussy or Ravel). When I discovered these discords, I thought they were pure Bartok but a Royal Schools of Music professor insisted they were just borrowed from jazz.
Why do “far out” harmonies appeal to us? Of course, our DNA has a lot to answer for. On my father’s side, their whole passion was music. His aunt was an excellent piano teacher (she dumped me because I wouldn’t practise) while his mother was an incredible sight reader. But it wasn’t all one sided. My mother was a Chopin fanatic.
Guilt can be part of it too. After purchasing Ted Heath’s Strike Up The Band with its abrasive high brass, I remember feeling guilty (almost naughty) because my parents might object. After my classical music training, to be suddenly swept up by all this dissonance was a life changing experience. Overnight it seemed I had found the key to a new world of sound. The discords dug deep into my soul literally hurting the senses but what a discovery. At first it jars but gradually one becomes accustomed to paradise!
A brilliant solo violin begins this brief concerto-like introduction in a thrilling way that totally gripped me. The opening of Touch Me Softly is actually a trailblazer for what’s to come. As soon as the Quintet chords are sounded, you know you’re in Shearingland and when the strings enter for the first time, the nimble fingers of the maestro confirm something special is on its way. This is no Tatum or Peterson but a very gentle George with his own tasteful piano, keeping everything as musical and relaxed as possible with overall control by Milton Raskin. This section is virtually repeated with some more dreamy like doodling from Shearing.
Then what we’ve all been waiting for, the symphonic strings suddenly erupt into a dazzling display of a sort of frenzied fusion between Schoenberg and Farnon, creating one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard. It’s a sheer miracle that this very small part of the track happened to be playing that day in Stoke. The coda is an extension of the opening. I wonder how you reacted when you first encountered those Shearing strings?
“Touch Me Softly”. George Shearing
Capitol LP T1874
(Larry Coleman, Buddy Dufault)
Axel Stordahl’s Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton
Composer (of I Should Care and Day by Day), vocalist, arranger and conductor, Axel Stordahl’s main claim to fame was as musical director and advisor to Frank Sinatra during the first decade of the singer’s career. Axel is the Danish form of Absalom but even after all this time some disc jockeys still call him “Alex”. He is largely credited with bringing pop arranging into the modern era. More specifically he was a pioneer of symphonic-style backings in a popular context. Kostelanetz was the orchestra-only equivalent. Make no mistake though, Stordahl was just as capable of conventional big band arranging.
A native New Yorker from Staten Island, he was born Odd Stordahl in 1913 to parents of Norwegian descent. Stordahl worked his way up as sideman/arranger for Bert Block and Tommy Dorsey (playing fourth trumpet and singing in a vocal trio). His gorgeous arrangements for Dorsey blossomed into perfect accompaniments for Sinatra at the studios of Columbia Records. One of the best examples of a Stordahl orchestration was Everybody Loves Somebody. (I recall wondering why that excellent 1948 song wasn’t already a hit, but 16 years later Dean Martin got around to it). Axel was conductor/arranger on nearly all Frank Sinatra records from 1943-1953. Oddly, Stordahl didn’t get a single mention in Marmorstein’s “The Story of Columbia Records!”. A pallid complexion, softly spoken and a sensitive musician, Stordahl suffered from a rheumatic heart. His interest in serious music, particularly Frederick Delius, influenced his ballad charts.
Sinatra and Stordahl eventually parted company, the crooner going to Capitol. However Stordahl conducted Sinatra for his first date at the new label and recorded several light orchestral 78rpm discs also at Capitol. (By the way Capitol is strictly pronounced Capi-TOL as it’s spelt, not Capi-TAL). When I was a radio announcer, the powers that be insisted on it. It’s important to remember there would be no Riddle without Stordahl, who paved the way for Nelson to be his natural successor. And talking of the composer of High Strung, it might be worth mentioning that an earlier Dufault (François) born in France in 1600 was considered one of the greatest lutenists of his time.
In the 21st century, the title High Strung (grammatically speaking it should be “highly-strung”) became even more appropriate in terms of the state of anxiety that affects so many people today. Once again the David Rose sound is in the frame with a labour intensive exercise from the very start. Instead of pizzicato (as in Holiday for Strings) it’s just regular arco, quickly changing to the woodwind and before we know it, we’re back to the strings.
Then taking another leaf, this time out of the Rose middle section formula, Stordahl heads for the heights with a horn and a strong string tremor. Soon we’re back at the start for a brief repeat of that exercise. Then unlike Holiday for Strings the main melody slows right down, beginning with a suggestion of the opening of TwelfthStreet Rag and the Du Und Du waltz. A piano joins the strings for some romantic meanderings in the manner of Leonard Pennario’s Midnight ontheCliffs.
Then seven assertive string chords re-introduce the by now familiar melody in its original fast state but this time we go quickly into another glorious Rose-like quake (with a hint of Robert Farnon’s Portrait of a Flirt). And finishing on a nervous note, High Strung is brought to a conclusion by the timpani.
In the second half of the 1940s the light orchestral world was turned on its head when the musical baton was handed on from Rose to Farnon, who gave the style a fix that changed light music forever. (Just shows you that even Stordahl was well acquainted with the Farnon style). Who wasn’t!
High Strung Axel Stordahl Orchestra Capitol 78 rpm CL 14047
Stanley Black’s version analysed by Robert Walton
It was back in the mid-1950s as a member of the New Zealand Territorial Armed Forces, I was sent to the Whangaparaoa Peninsular in the north of the North Island for a weekend’s exercise. The Army, not exactly noted for any cultural or refined qualities, surprised everyone with the playing of German composer Paul Lincke’s tune Beautiful Spring over the public address system. It perfectly reflected the glorious Saturday morning we awoke to. Mind you, some of the boys weren’t quite as enthusiastic as me. It was the performance and especially the arrangement by the Stanley Black Orchestra, which caught my ear. So military matters were the last thing on my mind.
The opening of this recording reminded me of some of the radio signature tunes heard on the BBC Light Programme in the 1940s and 50s. In fact Stanley Black conducted many of these post WW2 themes even if he didn’t actually arrange all of them himself. Thrilling trumpets act as a sort of attention-grabbing “fanfare”, followed by the melody played by trombones and woodwind. The arrangement really comes alive when the strings suddenly sweep in, buzzing below individual trumpets that come together in a harmonic block like the opening.
Now we are in pure Farnonland as a flute and pizzicato strings continue the tune, answered by muted brass. In my view this sound is the rhythmic kernel of the finest in light orchestral music. David Rose started the ball rolling in America in 1944 with Holiday for Strings, but Robert Farnon took the formula to new heights never surpassed.
Hard to keep the strings away but in this very specialized environment they are fundamental to the style. There is nothing in serious music that sounds anything like this. With brass interjections and the harp demonstrating its ability with two showy swells, unison strings continue to play the tune. Calmer sustained woodwind led to brass surrounded by pizzicato and busy arco strings.
Then a section of rich close harmony strings with the melody. Suddenly we go into four emphatic brass beats that sound like a march coming on, interspersed with a glorious short string passage. But back to the march with a touch of timpani and brought to a final halt by the brass. If by now you’re somewhat out of breath and staggered with how this average tune was transformed.... put the blame on Angela! Morley of course. Well, who else?
On Blue Decca 78 rpm (F.10351)
Analysis of the Melachrino version by
Occasionally for commercial purposes, a record is released which has absolutely nothing to do with the image or style of the official artist. In the case of Vaughn Monroe, that smooth big band ballad operator, was quite happy to take a back seat while The Maharajah of Magador was sung by Ziggy Talent. It proved to be a million seller, even though the main name on the label was Monroe’s.
Another example of “fooling the listener” in the light orchestral medium was Butantan played by the Melachrino Orchestra conducted by George Melachrino. While in a same genre there really wasn’t a hint of the famous Melachrino string sound about it. OK then, perhaps slightly! This very un-Melachrino-ish piece of Latin American music in rhumba tempo was released on a 78rpm disc in 1954. Maybe that’s why years later it was often spotted in piles of unwanted second- hand records. Anyway it appealed to me and I felt it was worthy of taking apart for examination. Sometimes the completely unexpected can be irresistible. The first three notes fit perfectly into this Caribbean type title.
Brass and strings provide the momentum in the opening of this composition. Did you notice at the very start, the recording engineer realizes he has a problem? The volume is too low but he quickly pulls it up to match the general level of the piece. Hard to believe this was actually released! And there was also a tempo problem when the orchestra gets too fast for the rhythm section, but eventually it corrects itself. When Butantan is repeated, plunging strings stress in no uncertain terms on the last “tan”. It’s about now one becomes aware of the orchestral Latin duvet surrounding a bed of strings.
The harpsichord begins the next phrase with lots of that forced string sound. Gradually we get back to the start with it getting softer and softer and ending in a very relaxed West Indian way.
By the mid-50s light classical items were becoming a thing of the past. There must have been pressure on Melachrino at EMI to modernize and have more Latin or novelty type things like more popular groups were churning out. Hence the emergence of pieces like Butantan.
“A Glorious Century of Light Music” Guild Records GLCD 5200
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of the Light Music Society Magazine,and is reproduced here by kind permission.
The Farnon Musical Lineage
Interview with Thomas Farnon
by Dan Adams
In Robert Farnon, we have an undisputed great of the Light Music Genre. In fact, we could argue that he all but created a form of light music, the ripples of which have been felt ever since. The effect on Bob’s immediate family has clearly also been profound.
Robert’s son David is a composer and conductor also, who has produced music for dozens of popular TV shows including Jonathan Creek, Miss Marple and Spongebob Squarepants. During the 1980s, David’s work was largely in conducting and he has worked with numerous prestigious orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, London Symphony and London Philharmonic.
Robert Farnon’s brother, Brian, was a bandleader and his other brother Denis was also a TV composer. Now, another generation of Farnons is making waves in the music world. Robert’s niece Nicola is a celebrated Jazz musician and his grandson Thomas is a film composer.
Thomas has worked with film composers as illustrious as Hans Zimmer as well as contributing music for a variety of films including The Dark Knight Rises, Churchill and Hacksaw Ridge. Recently, Thomas has co-founded Chromium Music Group, a boutique music house and has been releasing albums of his non-film work under this label. The first album, A, was released last year and this year he released his second album Reverie. Both albums are for piano and string orchestra and evoke numerous emotions and images for the listener. This interview with Thomas was conducted shortly after the release of the Reverie album.
The first thing I’d really like to ask is a relatively general question – do you yourself have any particular memories of Robert Farnon?
I have lots of great memories of Grandpa. Musically, one that stands out is that I helped him to sort his Music library out. We both lived in Guernsey, so I would go to his house and we would rifle through his back catalogue together, tidying up the sheet music and archiving it. I would ask him lots of questions, and it was very inspiring as a child to get a behind the scenes look at how he did his thing! Aside from that, we used to talk a lot, be it about our shared love of Arsenal, or how my piano playing was going. He also tried (and failed) to get me playing the drums at one point; I still have the practice pads….
Clearly you’ve had a very musical upbringing with your studies, but was there also an influence from your grandfather on your musical development?
Hugely- the music I grew up with was Grandpa's and my Dad’s [ David]. I think it’s very inspiring seeing someone do something that feels like a hobby as a job. I think harmonically I've taken a lot of inspiration from him, we loved similar composers, Debussy, Ravel etc. and I used to and still do listen to his music a lot. “ How Beautiful Is Night”, “Intermezzo For Harp” and “Lady Barbara” in my opinion are three of the most beautiful tunes written, so its pretty good stuff to be inspired by. Talking to him about how things used to be done was also slightly scary, to think when he was writing Hornblower, the first time the director heard the music would have been on the scoring stage, nowadays it goes through what seems like a lot of demos before it gets recorded!
Was there a great awareness of Robert’s relative celebrity status in the family, and were the family often reminded of this through the number of radio or TV broadcasts of his music?
For sure, I think everyone was really proud of him, his music and what he’d achieved, I have his Grammy in my studio now for inspiration…. At the same time, he was also just a lot of fun to be around, great sense of humour and always had a good story!
Naturally, Robert Farnon was noted for his light music compositions and an identifiable style, but do you know much of the composer’s relationship to his own music? I’m thinking in terms of the pieces he remains best known for (Jumping Bean and Portrait of a Flirt) and did he ever feel a bit too closely associated with those pieces, given the breadth of his work in music for concert platforms including the 3 symphonies?
I never spoke to him about that personally, but having talked with Dad about it in the past, I think the works that were most important to him were his “concert and light” works. Although a brilliant arranger I think he always wanted to be known for his concert works, whether the famous ones were in the latter bracket I would imagine so, but I'd be guessing.
So, onto your own music- you’re known for having worked with people like Hans Zimmer on major film scores- were these very positive experiences and were there unforeseen challenges along the way?
Positive, hard work and rewarding! I was lucky to start with some great film composers early on and learnt a lot from them. Although I went to music college, I gained most of what I know about how to get a film score done from actually doing it and being ‘chucked in at the deep end’. I'm sincerely grateful for having the opportunity to go about it this way.
You’ve recently released two albums: A and Reverie. Can I ask what the impetus was for these particular releases?
The real impetus was to write something away from films and just standalone music. When you're writing film music, it's dictated entirely by the picture. I wanted to flip that on its head and have the music in charge. I also got to spend a fair bit of time writing the music; deadlines are often tight on films whereas this was a lot more relaxed and lots of chances to reflect on what I'd written and tweak it till it was just right.
For me personally, the music on these albums conjures fairly vivid imagery, were there images- film-related or not- that influenced the tracks on these releases?
'A' was about emotions, so different emotions that we all feel and representing those in music, Reverie was a dream, so the whole album is based on dreaming, the first track carrying you into a dream, and then different things that happen inside a dream and then the last track snaps you out of the dream. We recorded Reverie in the big hall at AIR studios, so it has a big spacious washy feel to it as opposed to A being very direct.
It is interesting to me that both your grandfather’s music and your own has a fairly distinctive aesthetic style, both in fact connected to writing for string instruments. Is there a particular quality about working so much with piano and string orchestra that appeals to you musically?
I love strings and piano, perhaps too much… but I think I'm really at home writing for them. I know what they can do and when you’re writing lots of dense harmonies, you learn your way of balancing it and know that it’ll work. I also think having 40 people breathing emotion into something together as a section is a fantastic power. It's always the most exciting day going to the sessions and hearing it come to life.
Lastly, are there any future plans/releases that you’d like to share at this point, or is this under wraps for the time being?
Yeah, there’s an album called Solace I'm writing at the moment for choir (trying to wean myself off strings) that I'm recording next month for a summer release and a couple of film projects to be released this year ! I will keep you updated.
Many thanks for the interview, and I hope the answers are of interest!
Dan Adams © 2019
Arranged by Russ Case
Analysed by Robert Walton
Back in the days of 78 records some of the best numbers would have slipped through the net if it hadn’t been for the phenomenon of B sides. Many of them were so beautiful they often musically outshone the hit itself. Hence the practice of meticulously checking both sides. So I was assigned to the “Case!”
One of the first such discs that caught my attention was the unforgettable Haunted Heart from the Broadway musical revue “Inside USA” on the reverse of Bing Crosby’s A Bluebird Singing In My Heart on Australian Decca. I really fell in love with that song - a song as strong as Schwartz & Dietz’s better-known Dancing In the Dark. And of course it helped the way Bing crooned it. But what I couldn’t get my head around was the fact it was so under-recorded, especially instrumentally. However over the years the song gradually became so renowned that everyone wanted to get in on the Haunted Heart act. These include Vic Damone, Bill Evans, Guy Lombardo, Jane Monheit and Renée Fleming but I’ve got news for the vocalists. It had all been done before and much better. Bing Crosby of course and Perry Como accompanied by no less than the star of this article, Russ Case.
However the real hero of this song had no competition whatsoever - Jo Stafford - pop singer extraordinaire who absolutely out-sang everyone, even opera singers who dared to have a go at this virtual “aria”. I would love to hear Stafford tackle a few real arias by Puccini or Verdi.
So let’s hear Russell D Case’s gorgeous arrangement of Haunted Heart played by his orchestra. It contains all the nuances and subtleties of a most distinguished song, nothing clever but just a simple, straightforward orchestration of a tune that asks for nothing more. I think tenderness is the word that covers it perfectly. A marvelous blend of oboe, horn and strings start the track leading into this evocative melody, with rubato playing a vital role in the first section. After a deliberate stop the piece goes into a Latin American tempo. With perfect restraint the brass adds a certain piquancy to the finished product followed by a close and personal bassoon. The whole thing might take just over two minutes but what pure pleasure a single light orchestral number can bring.
100 Greatest American Light Orchestras - 3
Guild Light Music GLCD 5253
by Alexander Gleason
The classic Robert Farnon discography is one of the great triumphs of musical research from the pre-computer days, when collating information about a composer's life & works was nothing short of damned hard labour (many's the hour I've spent laboriously trawling through catalogues and periodicals at the old National Sound Archive in South Ken)
Thanks to the combined efforts of David Ades, Don Furnell, Michael Maine and Alan Bunting, a definitive listing of Farnon's musical works was achieved (and, happily, it's viewable on this site). Likewise, the filmography which was part of that publication (also viewable here) is a fair work of research too, dealing with 25 feature films and the three documentaries ..... AHA! However, there's the problem – not so hot on the docs, I'm afraid. In the boys’ defence, information about documentary films was not readily available in the 1970s, and unlike the discography, the filmog has never really been updated, so I'm pleased to say, I think I can now clarify some (if not all) of the missing info on the short films (not in chronological order)
Firstly there is "This is London" (released in 1956 not 53) made by Associated British Pathe (i.e. Pathe News) for the British Travel Association – a good sturdy London travelogue designed for the American tourist market. Narrated by Rex Harrison – at that time probably America's best known Englishman (My Fair Lady) -- it's a 17 minute lightening tour around the sights of the capital. The score is a big orchestral tour-de-force played by the Symphonia orchestra – with nice title music including the Big Ben motif and a very pleasing bustling shopping theme. Many Farnon enthusiasts will already know this film; it's Bob on fine 50s form. It's been viewable on YouTube for several years now – 'London' and 'Rex Harrison' should be enough for the search box.
That one was pretty straightforward – the next one took me many years to solve. The filmography lists 'Time and Space' produced for Time-Life/Longines date unknown, and I spent far too much time scouring the databases and film library catalogues for that title, to absolutely no avail. Finally, the answer came – again thanks to YouTube.
Just about all the details above turned out to be wrong.
"Travelling through Time" is a 1965 largely animated documentary made for Rolex and PanAm Airlines (odd combination) – it deals with the concept of timekeeping, its history and how it will be adapted for the forthcoming space-age. It looks and sounds American, until you see it's researched and written by E.V.H. Emmett (the voice of Gaumont British News for some thirty-odd years). The score is minimal, but there are a few nice hints of the Farnon jazzy big-band sound, which I'm sure will please many.
'Rolex' 'Pan American' will be quite suitable key-words for a YouTube search
(It is incidentally a sequel to a 50s colour documentary – The Story of Time with a brilliant score by Guy Warrack – also worth viewing if you're interested in watches!)
Finally, 'Red Cross Documentary' (c.1946) remains a work in progress.
For perhaps three decades I have grappled with this one, and I think I have almost got it. I believe it to be a charity appeal short; more like1948 called "Just in Case" with a Farnon orchestral score conducted by Muir Mathieson. The British Red Cross have an archive, but very few films – they do however have this one and with their help, I hope to view it shortly, and will make a further report.
With any luck, after all these years, we will soon have all the Farnon documentary scores sorted out and included in a properly revised and definitive filmography.
Analysed by Robert Walton
The sounds of nature, and particularly those of birds have always appealed to serious composers. It was Messiaen who religiously notated the songs of all French birds classifying them by region. In his “Pastoral Symphony” Beethoven gives us the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo. The latter has it all to itself in “On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring” by Delius. However perhaps the best known and much loved work in the classical field is Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.
But I believe the most subtle and effective bird compositions are to be found in British Light Music especially around the middle of the 20th century. If you’re familiar with the genre, you’ll know the finest of these were produced by the Chappell Recorded Music Library.
At first hearing, the casual listener might easily dismiss Up With The Lark as an innocuous piece of background music. Certainly in the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra’s repertoire it’s one of the lesser-known titles simply because it hasn’t got a memorable melody. That may be, but what’s lacking tune-wise is more than made up for in the atmospheric department. It was definitely not an “in-your-face” piece of mood music, so could easily pass you by.
This early 1947 classic offered plenty of clues as to its creator and origins. Above all, Up With The Lark demonstrated Robert Busby’s meticulous attention to detail and total command of orchestration, as well as contributing in no small part to that unique sound for which the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra is famous. Together with household names like Robert Farnon and Sidney Torch, backroom boy Busby brought his own brand of freshness to the genre. Up With The Lark describes a typical early morning scene when most of us are still sleeping. It’s an understated portrait of “rise and shine”
Something stirred as gentle strings start the proceedings of this very British sounding sunrise, followed by the trumpets that quietly herald a new day with a soft “fanfare” decorated by some industrious woodwind. The strings then come into their own with, what for me, is the defining moment of the whole piece - an all too brief magical moment, free from the confines of conventional form. It’s perhaps depicting the skylark’s downward dive to her nest on the ground, but at the same time trying not to give away its flight path. Now a bouncy little melody featuring the strings ends in two excitable flurries leading back to the opening played by the woodwind. You need to concentrate though because everything happens so quickly. The strings stay with the action with some delightful decoration. The brass returns for a further “fanfare”, while the lark provides another spectacular display of descending precision aeronautics.
Suddenly Up With The Lark undergoes a complete change of mood and direction as brass and strings crescendo up to a higher key. Gradually it dawns on me that the composition, with echoes of Eric Coates is in fact a march....and has a melody! The mood may seem a million miles from this rural/urban scene but on second thoughts it’s probably the ideal rhythm to get up and go. As we near the end of this section, notice how Busby squeezes every ounce of emotion out of the beautifully climaxed tune. But you can’t keep the “fanfare” away for long, because back it comes with flutes, harp, strings and oboe. And proving there’s never a dull moment, the oboe’s solo is cut short making way for a flute trill, followed by an even more dramatic one with string support (similar to the signature tune of Edgar Lustgarten’s “Scotland Yard” series). But it’s straight back to the top for a rerun of that delightful opening dawn chorus.
In the coda instead of a final “fanfare”, we get a sustained brass chord, over which the lark floats back down to earth. This is met by a busy bassoon and the rest of the woodwind. After a string chord provides the first part of a perfect ending, we hear the instrument Clive Richardson was fond of, the haunting vibraphone pipped at the post by the harp.
Up With The Lark played a vital role of an exciting new chapter in the history of descriptive music. Robert Busby’s seemingly effortless brushstrokes show him to be a true pioneer of musical canvasses. It’s so compelling you almost forget the music and become lost in this gorgeous idyll.
Inevitably it’s bound to draw comparisons with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, a fifteen minute Romance for violin and orchestra. Conversely Up With The Lark is a two and a half minute hands-on reality check of nature. Perhaps Busby’s piece should be renamed The LarkDescending !
The original recording of Up With The Lark, played by the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch, is available on the Guild CD “String Fever” (GLCD 5150)
Robert Farnon’s arrangement
Analysed by Robert Walton
These days we’re constantly bombarded with attractive specials from supermarkets and shops like “buy one and get one free”. In a Robert Farnon arrangement you get “three for the price of one”. The song comes first (often from the “Great American Songbook”) followed by the actual arrangement and then to top it all it’s full of elements of his own compositions both serious and light. There is no musician on earth who has the ability to mix and match with a sound that is completely unique. He re-invented the word taste. Wherever you happen to land on any of his recordings, even briefly, it’s unmistakably Robert Farnon and often all under 3 minutes. To hear Farnon is to hear an open-minded composer who has absorbed such an enormous amount of music, put it all together and created his own universe. In fact every time I listen to a Robert Farnon arrangement I can’t help feeling Hollywood lost out to his talents (similar to those of MGM’s Conrad Salinger). It’s understandable though because Farnon fell on his feet in so many ways when he came to England and stayed. Of course he was a remainer!
It’s unusual for a songwriter to praise a specific arrangement, but Arthur Schwartz did just that when he personally corresponded with Farnon, singling out Louisiana Hayride from the album “Something To Remember You By” as one of the finest orchestrations and performances he’d ever heard.
Starting straight but soon let loose into swing mode, the first thing I noticed about this brassy piece of big band/light orchestral music is that Farnon keeps the whole thing under control. It could have so easily descended into chaos under another conductor. Also there’s always a temptation with this kind of material to show off. The fact that he kept his cool and made it simple was the very reason that made it attractive.
After a chorus, things begin to warm up with a little Bach-ish like polyphony between the brass and saxes and snatches of the sort of tricky woodwind one might hear in a light orchestral Farnon score. And keeping things moving, a touch of the Ted Heath sound from the saxes. The strings enter for the last time before the drummer (remember Farnon in his youth was one?) keeps the orchestra under strict order with his sticks. There are some echoes of Pete Rugolo in this final section.
Robert Farnon has always been associated with strings but let’s not forget his brilliance with brass and wizardry with woodwind. In fact the whole orchestra is his world.