Analysed by Robert Walton
One of the most underrated light orchestral composers, arrangers and conductors of the 20th century was unquestionably Peter Yorke. He successfully introduced the element of surprise into his work and in some ways was even more symphonic than George Melachrino. Yorke was a master of the dramatic gesture. A typical example of what I mean is in “Till The Clouds Roll By” selection. Listen to the connecting passage between Who and Ol’ Man River. Talk about putting an instant stamp on your music. No one slept during a Yorke performance, especially live!
His formula probably had its roots in his 1930’s soundtrack work for British films and especially as chief arranger for Louis Levy’s Gaumont British Film Orchestra. The opening of “Blue Skies” (1946) has a suggestion of “James Bond”, showing that Yorke was clearly ahead of his time. Everything he wrote contained constant references to serious music, and how effective it was. Yorke was also an enthusiast and expert of the big finish. Above all he was a ‘mood’ writer in its purest form.
And for those of you familiar with his film selections, you’ll know, unlike Eric Coates for example, he had a natural feel for jazz, having appeared as pianist/arranger with many British dance bands. His brilliant string writing was full of imagination and humour, but the sound most associated with Yorke, (a total antidote to all the drama) were his shimmering, simmering saxophones. Unlike Wilbur Schwartz’s clarinet lead for Glenn Miller’s reed section, Yorke opted for a pure saxes-only subdivision. Lead by golden-toned soprano saxist Freddy Gardner, there’s never been a blend to equal it in all music. Reverberating around the world, it was one of the most unique sounds in the light orchestral firmament.
From a personal point of view, I owe a lot to Peter Yorke’s film selections, because that’s exactly where I first heard some of the great standards which have remained with me ever since. He had a knack of somehow getting under the skin of a tune and treating it with genuine respect. Also his medley format probably acted as a model for both Wally Stott’s selections for Sidney Torch and his symphonic suites for Stanley Black’s Kingsway Promenade Orchestra.
There’s quite a bit of drama too in the real life story of Yorke. I call it a “Tragedy in Triplicate”. Firstly the maestro himself died at the relatively young age of 63. His soloist, alto sax supremo Freddy Gardner passed away at 39, whilst Yorke’s stylish singer Steve Conway with a similar timbre to Al Bowlly, was taken from us far too early at the age of 31. Thank goodness so much wonderful material had already been committed to wax by the talented trio. Gardner’s alto sax solo classic was I Only Have Eyes For You while Conway’s Souvenir de Paris somehow captured the atmosphere of the French capital as never before.
Away from his film selection commitments, Yorke also arranged for other popular singers of the time. One of his best string backings was For You for Donald Peers. I once spoke to Peers in New Zealand about that arrangement and he totally agreed.
After all that background information, let’s take a close look now at that very English sounding tune, Melody Of The Stars, but be prepared for a slight shock at the start, especially if your volume control happens to be a little too high. Yes, Yorke’s at it again! Just as we’re beginning to settle down to this lovely gentle tune, two musical “clunks” remind us that Peter is lurking. The first chorus gathering up a bit of steam comes to a typically positive end that only Yorke could dream up.
Then an even lovelier lighter section takes over, but don’t be fooled by its apparent Yorke-ish charm. Be prepared for a series of menacing warning shots creating tension before returning to the main tune. As Melody Of The Stars gradually builds for the last time, listen out for Yorke’s unique melodic style at the closing moments of this stirring piece. Briefly leaving the light orchestral world behind, we enter what could almost be the triumphant finale of a Mahler symphony.
Compared with an earlier elegant and dainty age of 1930s light music, Peter Yorke introduced more daring features into his “Roaring 40’s” orchestrations, while at the same time composing some of the most beautiful melodies of our time.
Revisiting the work of Peter Yorke after all these years has been a total revelation and joy, finally recognizing his amazing talent and true worth in the world of popular music and particularly light orchestral music. In this genre, Yorke had no rivals!
Melody Of The Stars is available on
“The Show Goes On” Guild Light Music
During the course of my travels over the light music segment of the music repertoire, through various selections, some familiar, others less so, I came upon a rather unique situation upon revisiting a piece that I've known for the longest time.
That piece is David Rose's "Gay Spirits," which was one of the earliest light music selections that I acquainted myself with, and incidentally, even before encountering the composer's "Holiday for Strings" which would inevitably remind me of "Gay Spirits," as these two pieces are remarkably similar in their bearings. But I didn't know the name of the selection due to its manner of usage as accompanying music in what they refer to in the UK as a test card and in the USA as a test pattern. As hours of daily broadcasting have considerably expanded over the years, one is much less likely to encounter these intervals between live broadcasts, at least here in the USA. But due to the circumstances of my initial exposure to this piece, I was not to obtain the much desired particulars about it - the title and composer - until a few more years had passed. And this latter took place on a radio show entitled, "The Charlie Stark Music Shop" which I had occasion to refer to when commenting on Bob Walton's analysis of "Frenesi."
In one of my earliest articles on this site, "Differing Versions of the Same Set Light Music Selections," I compared differing versions of the same pieces as presented by different conductors. In some cases, the versions were identical though by diverse conductors who adopted different tempos or emphasized different facets of the piece. In others, the orchestration was noticeably different or perhaps the piece was in some manner abridged or extended, either by revision or by the necessity of fitting the selection on a single 78/45 RPM side. But in all these cases, the piece still remained essentially recognizable and thus easily identifiable as such.
In the case of "Gay Spirits" I have noted a situation that is totally different from anything I referred to above, as here we have a transmogrification of a piece that is utterly different from the original presentation of it, though still bearing the same title. It uses only one small feature of the original and then proceeds along quite its own lines. Those who are expecting to hear an updated version of the original will likely emerge from it quite disappointed, at least if they have a special affection for the original version, as I have.
To be sure, the so-called original version I refer to that came out on disc in the early 1950s was preceded by an earlier version, evidenced by comparing this with the piano sheet music publication of the piece. In this latter, the introduction to the main idea is slightly longer by a few bars and the reprise section is given in its entirety. More than likely, Mr. Rose felt compelled to make these very slight abridgements out of concern whether the complete version could be handily fit on the side of a single disc.
In 1964, in the process of scoring for a film entitled "Quick before it Melts," he used a small portion of this material in this film, and subsequently, in a desire to preserve some of this on disc, created a boiled down version of it, not necessarily in the same order as appearing in the film, and not necessarily in the identical arrangement. This result was released on disc under the same title, "Gay Spirits," as the one that appeared years before, although to all intents and purposes this was an entirely different piece and should clearly not have borne the same title as the earlier one.
Upon listening to it, I heard a rather hard introductory gesture which eventually leads into the lyrical middle section of the earlier piece, in the version that it first appears (with strings) but not identically - I have noted some very slight changes in the melody. This leads to its own middle section - somewhat engaging as to specific material but still difficult for me to relate to the other main idea that was formerly the middle section.
Eventually, this is reprised, and at the end of the statement there is a move that almost suggests that we will next hear the flute version of this melody as in the original, but this does not occur; very soon after, the piece abruptly ends.
One may regard it as a reminiscence of a moment from the film, as obviously Mr. Rose desired to preserve it for some reason, but as an independent movement, for me it simply does not work, although I have already encountered opinions to the contrary, favoring this piece over the original "Gay Spirits." In any event, I would invite debate on this issue.
I should point out that the sister piece, the far better known "Holiday for Strings," has similarly been knocked around for all sorts of usage - I recently watched a choreographic sequence with Cyd Charisse using a version that had a few deviations - with such frequent re-usage, this is bound to occur. But I have encountered nothing with this piece such as I have with "Gay Spirits" and I would hope that the newer piece bearing that title but sharing little in common will never come to supplant the earlier one which I continue to regard as one of David Rose's most quintessential creations.
And I will add that in 1955, Mr. Rose made some changes in regard to "Holiday for Strings," regarding the reprise which was somewhat expanded, and a completely different ending, featuring a slight allusion to the middle section idea. It is still recognizably the same piece, with none of the total overhaul that occurred with "Gay Spirits." But in general, I prefer the more straightforward reprise of the earlier version.
Analysed by Robert Walton
[Written before the composer underwent a change of identity to Angela Morley]
Just mention the name Wally Stott/Angela Morley and that’s your guarantee of the highest quality music. And that’s not just in the orchestration department that was this composer’s first forte. Once ‘up and running’ with compositions for the Chappell Library, all Stott’s tunes just oozed with class from the word go. There was no stopping him after the first effort A Canadian in Mayfair inspired by his great hero Robert Farnon’s Portrait of a Flirt. Although unquestionably influenced by Farnon, Stott went on to develop a very personal style that became quickly established in the world of light music.
Take Lap of Luxury, for example, written in 1957. It might not have been immediately obvious but the model for this composition was Farnon’s Westminster Waltz even though Lap of Luxury was in 4/4 time. I must admit I never noticed this until I took a closer listen. The harmonies might have been more complex but there was no denying the spell of Farnon isn’t far away.
After a brief mysterious introduction and not wasting any time getting down to business, we go straight into the ravishing Lap of Luxury, effectively Westminster Waltz as a foxtrot. But not for long. The melody soon goes off on its own tangent aided by some rich chords giving the feeling of absolute opulence. One might say from ‘lush’ to plush! If this tune doesn’t give you goose pimples I don’t know what will. After two gorgeous jazzy chords we’re back to Westminster Waltz territory again with an oboe solo and much less tension. Completing the first chorus the strings in close harmony produce another dazzling display of pure diamond-studded glitz.
Taking a leaf out of Stott’s Tinkerbell, two bars of playful warm-up woodwind continue to play when the tune restarts enriching the proceedings. Climbing to a new key the final 16 bars only confirm his arranging prowess with his love of strings shining through.
The lack of a bridge doesn’t seem to matter, as some compositions just don’t need one. And the fact that there are virtually no filler passages is a tribute to such a strong tune that just playing it through does it full justice.
The Chappell recording of Lap of Luxury is available on the Guild CD “The Show Goes On” (GLCD 5149)
Artie Shaw version analysed by Robert Walton
Whenever I play Frenesi in public, I normally get absolutely no reaction whatsoever from anyone in the audience. I don’t know what that says about my playing or indeed about one of the catchiest Latin American melodies ever. Surely you would think Artie Shaw’s fifth million seller of 1940 would have left some sort of impression. The problem could be that the actual tune is not exposed enough in the William Grant Still arrangement but gets drowned in too much improvisation. So if you weren’t a big band fan, it wouldn’t mean a thing. Mind you, Latin tunes have always tended to appeal to the jazz fraternity. You hardly ever hear Frenesi these days on radio but when you do it’s often mispronounced as “Fren-acey”. Just to set the record straight the correct pronunciation rhymes with “Tennessee”.
Here in Galway in the Republic of Ireland there are two recent exceptions to the lack of response I was experiencing, proving that multiculturalism is alive and well. The first at this year’s Claregalway Garden Festival occurred while I was playing a piano purposefully left out to encourage people of all ages and standards to tickle and tackle the ivories. As I went into Frenesi out from the crowd popped a Spanish lady who immediately began singing this classic in her own language. I couldn’t believe my ears! After so many years of silence I was completely bowled over and thrilled by this unexpected turn of events and welcome intrusion. And luckily the key of C seemed to suit her perfectly. I demanded a rerun and without hesitation she instantly obliged. I was in heaven. Now I understood why Frenesi meant “frenzy” in Spanish!
The second occasion was in Ballinrobe at a local care home when I got the shock of my life on hearing someone whistling Frenesi as I was playing it. He turned out to be a Cuban and a new member of staff - not a million miles from Mexico where it was originally composed for the marimba. Must be something to do with the genes or DNA. Again I was totally taken aback. Reveling in the opportunity of having a soloist I continued forth in my new found role as accompanist. Incredibly not one person seemed to notice this unusual musical partnership!
If it hadn’t been for Shaw’s health problems caused by pressure of work, Frenesi might never have surfaced. For it was while recovering in Mexico that Shaw, looking for new material, heard the song played by a mariachi band. It proved to be one of his biggest hits.
So let’s take a closer look at this million selling record that most of the world has apparently never heard of. Basically it’s a series of improvisations by various members of the orchestra with very little Shaw. In 1940, Artie returned with a brand new 33-piece band including 13 strings that were still something of a novelty in the world of swing. The touch of a light orchestra with a dance band was irresistible. Farnon in embryo. If an introduction makes me smile like this one does, I know I’m in for something really special.
Lovely soothing strings lead straight into Shaw’s gorgeous clarinet tone and unique vibrato. The first 8 bars are played straight enough but thereafter Artie goes his own way. So if you were interested in the tune for its own sake, now’s the time to digest it before it gets lost in the rainforest of the arrangement. At least the middle 8 is played straight by Jack Cave on flugelhorn. Clearly swing is now the name of the game, as Shaw proceeds to jazz-up the melody, although to be fair you can still make out the tune. At the end of the first chorus there’s a delightful string quote from the 91-year-old Manhattan sounding as fresh as the day it was born.
The brass swing along nicely for 8 bars, changing key and leading to a 16 bar section featuring strings and flugelhorn. A bar of woodwind decoration harks back to the musical style of Laurel & Hardy, while in the next break we get two bars of Latin American rhythm sounding like Spike Jones invading the middle of a foxtrot. Then a whole chorus is delivered by a tenor sax, followed by a piano playing the middle 8 with flute support. Manny Klein gives us a classy 8 bars of muted trumpet as only he can. Then the band takes us back to Shaw for his final fling for one of the most sudden endings in Big Bandom. The quiet tune descends six notes down the scale to a tango-like finish featuring the single note of the flugelhorn dying away.
Could it be possible that the arranger had a mental block and ran out of ideas? Maybe there was a deadline for getting Frenesi finished? Perhaps the copyist had been screaming for the score? Or even more bizarre, could the time limit on the actual making of the recording in the studio have run out? Whatever the reason, I have to say against all odds it somehow comes off. And after all this analysing, I have to admit it’s beginning to grow on me.
Starting with the sensational Begin The Beguine in 1938, Shaw’s discs sold like hot cakes clocking up eight million by 1941. Surely this must have constituted some sort of record!
My father had the opportunity of actually seeing Artie Shaw’s US Navy Band live in New Zealand during WW2. Before that the band had seen plenty of action in the Pacific Theatre playing jungles, aeroplane hangers, ship decks and even in remote areas camouflaged for protection from enemy attack. My father’s verdict on the music - absolute bilge! Obviously Dad didn’t dig these newer fellas!
LSO version conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras
Analysed by Robert Walton
In the first half of the 20th century, the ‘Uncrowned King of Light Music’ was Eric Coates, tunesmith extraordinaire, whose music provided the soundtrack to millions of people’s lives, but many wouldn’t have had a clue who wrote it. Like most instrumental music, much of it remained anonymous, unlike his songs that spoke for themselves. Coates though, was much more than just a master of melody. His brilliant orchestrations were tailor-made for his tunes and conducting them himself meant he had complete control over their interpretation. His marches proved to be the most popular, like Calling All Workers, Knightsbridge March, Television March, and TheDam Busters March.
But some of the most important Coates’ compositions were his lovely laid-back pieces with a romantic or rural flavour. As early as 1915, he had written a suite From TheCountryside. Later on he cornered the ‘millpond’ market, with his calm, unhurried, and peaceful creations. One of the first I heard as a boy was the beautiful intermezzo By The Tamarisk of 1925, used as the signature tune for a 1940s Australian radio programme called “The Junior Naturalist’s Club”. It was inspired by a patch of shrub in front of the composer’s Selsey cottage on the south coast of England. I once spotted a grove of the small trees myself on the sea front at San Sebastian in Spain.
By The Sleepy Lagoon was written in 1930. Selsey has a lot to answer for, because Coates’ most famous composition was inspired by the view on a warm summer’s evening looking across the “lagoon” from the east beach at Selsey towards Bognor Regis. The sea at that time of day is an incredibly deep Pacific blue, but it appeared pink like an enchanted city with the blue of the Downs behind it. Who needs to go halfway around the world for inspiration, when you’ve got everything in your own backyard?
Sleepy Lagoon (as it was later called) was not a purpose-built popular seller like David Rose’s Holiday For Strings. It became one by a series of circumstances. Songwriter Jack Lawrence discovered the piano version and wrote a set of lyrics that Coates thoroughly approved of. The song eventually found its way to bandleader Harry James but in fact the words were never used for his version. In his wildest dreams Eric Coates never expected his By The Sleepy Lagoon (originally described as a Valse Serenade), would turn into a foxtrot let alone achieve international hit status. The day Paul McCartney was born, the number one song on the Hit Parade was Sleepy Lagoon by Harry James, an unprecedented occurrence for an English light orchestral composition.
But let’s return to By The Sleepy Lagoon in its original form for a stereo recording of 1956. This gentlest of melodies must surely be the ultimate in the relaxation department and would easily qualify as one of the best examples of a tranquil tune from a vanished era. No wonder it was chosen as the signature tune for the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs”. For many years the dark brown voice of its creator Roy Plomley intoned over the music “How do you do Ladies and Gentlemen. Our castaway this week is”........
The 4 bar introductory vamp accentuating the second beat, immediately sets the scene, as this most famous string strain surreptitiously seeps in. It’s one of those iconic moments in light music history. Right on cue the goose pimples swing into action with the first of four 10 note leaps from the starting note of middle C in the key of C. You would be forgiven for thinking it might sound strained. Not at all. It floats effortlessly upwards, soft landing on a high E before coming to rest an octave below, cheered on by muted brass. Did you notice extremely subtle trills in bars 2 and 6, showing Coates’ attention to detail? He certainly knew how to create a mood. The next telling moment is in bar 7 when we bask in a gorgeous D9 chord while the brass stay in situ. After the opening jump, things calm down considerably as we meander in a relatively low range in a melody we’re all too familiar with.
The least known part of By The Sleepy Lagoon is the middle section but this natural extension is very much part and parcel of the whole concept and perfectly slots in. However the lagoon constantly beckons and we quickly return to our comfort zone. The last leap brings us back once more into this lovely tune ending in the coda with a mixture of the melody and the opening vamp.
Perhaps it might be a good idea at this point to show you the Lawrence lyrics that Coates loved. But the words weren’t quite all Lawrence’s. The first 5 notes of the song and the words of the title must have been the work of the composer.
“A Sleepy Lagoon, a tropical moon and two on an island”
“A Sleepy Lagoon and two hearts in tune in some lullaby-land”
“The fireflies gleam, reflects in the stream, they sparkle and shimmer”
“A star from on high, falls out of the sky and slowly grows dimmer”
“The leaves from the trees all dance in the breeze and float on the ripples”
“We’re deep in a spell, as nightingales tell of roses and dew”
“The memory of this moment of love will haunt me forever”
“A tropical moon, A Sleepy Lagoon and you!”
Despite those attractive lyrics, Sleepy Lagoon is far better known without them. If you want to hear it sung, feel free go to Google for versions by Doris Day and Dinah Shore. The latter’s honeyed-toned contralto was perfect for the job.
No, I haven’t forgotten the presence of seagulls on the “Desert Island Discs” theme. Thank goodness they were not the new breed of ‘attack’ gulls!
“By The Sleepy Lagoon” LSO available on Guild CD “More Strings In Stereo” (GLCD 5159)
Analysed by Robert Walton
Soundtrack music compilation from the first “Just William” film.
For many years discerning light music lovers often wondered what influenced those light orchestral classics of Robert Farnon. My own theory is that from a very early age he was a virtual living, breathing sponge, possessing an innate ability to absorb all kinds of music from classical, through jazz to popular. Everything was fair game. Of course there were obvious borrowings from bebop, Bartok, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Eric Coates and David Rose. But we mustn’t forget those incidental ingredients that went into his creative cauldron to be called upon when needed. (Australian composer Ron Grainer was a stickler for keeping any good ideas that came to him on file for possible future use). But it was Farnon’s early serious works like his symphonies that contained clear evidence of an original style developing. He may not have realized it then, but little by little he was edging towards a new kind of music that in the mid-40s would suddenly blossom into a full-blown genre influencing a whole generation of arrangers and composers.
It was just Robert’s luck to hitch a ride to England courtesy of the Army during the latter days of WW2, who as Captain Bob Farnon conducted and arranged for the Canadian Band of the AEF. To suddenly find himself in London, one of the world’s important centres for music must have been something of a culture shock. However the British capital, apart from picking itself up after hostilities, was also the hub of a burgeoning light orchestral industry. Knowing he had a talent for this very specialized music, Robert had clearly come to the right town, so he stayed. The problem was he badly needed an element of luck, despite being well known through his broadcasts.
And then quite out of the blue an offer to write some film music came up. What he didn’t know was that this would lead to something completely unexpected - his dream of composing orchestral miniatures. Two “Just William” movies provided exactly that. The first, “Just William’s Luck” in 1947, gave him the perfect opportunity to release all that material which had been cooped up and lying dormant. It was quite enough to be in a position to compose and arrange a soundtrack, but to have some of the world’s finest orchestral players was the icing on the cake. All he had to do now was come up with the goods. Although it was a light-hearted film, the scope it provided for different moods was vast. It was his big chance to dig deep into his musical baggage and show the powers that be what he was really capable of.
For starters the impressive opening credits of “Just William’s Luck” proved he could easily create a big orchestral sound. Listen to those string flourishes anticipating a certain Flirt. Then we go straight into William’s cheeky theme that probably inspired Willie The Whistler. Farnon was a born orchestrator and like a kid in a toyshop was having fun and doing exactly as he fancied. Then back to that majestic start with the strings already pre-empting “Spring in Park Lane” and “Maytime in Mayfair”.
His ideas were never corny, just right for the action and jam packed with atmosphere. Had he been in Hollywood he would, I believe, have been immediately grabbed for “Lassie!” Did you notice a certain bean, ripe for development, jumping up and down trying to get noticed? And Farnon’s flare for tiptoeing tension sounded like an English “Tom and Jerry”. He was a master of the ‘wrong’ note which was absolutely right in a Farnon context and discords which might have jarred the untrained ear were pure joy to the converted. Playful woodwind didn’t know it, but were ‘rehearsing’ for what would soon become the norm in Farnon’s world. He might have even influenced the mystery and intrigue of the music for Lustgarten’s “Scotland Yard”. In fact there was music for every conceivable type of mood and occasion.
In effect this tightly edited soundtrack is a sneak preview of all the minutiae that would become the building blocks for those magnificent miniatures - little journeys of self-discovery. Remember they were still in the gestation period. Multiple births were expected very soon ..........Jumping Bean, Portrait Of A Flirt, Journey IntoMelody and most appropriately A Star Is Born!
“Just William’s Luck” and “William Comes Town”
are both from “MELODY FAIR” on Jasmine Records
Pete King’s arrangement analysed by Robert Walton
For many years now my Guild collection of the “Golden Age Of Light Music” has been providing me with a perfect soundtrack for afternoon tea. But more than that, it has become something of an everyday quiz for country folk, in my case living on a farm at the edge of Europe in the far west of Ireland. I try to identify the tunes, composers, arrangers and orchestras from a vast treasure trove of titles. This virtual ‘university’ of music helps to maintain the brain as well as entertain.
One afternoon during a catnap, my ears were suddenly alerted to what I thought was Nelson Riddle. Imagine my surprise when I looked down the mystery menu and saw it was Pete King’s Orchestra playing Mind If I MakeLove To You. Without words I’d completely forgotten it came from “High Society” sung as a rumba by Frank Sinatra to Grace Kelly, probably arranged by Riddle. It’s a very good song but somewhat overshadowed in the film by Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, True Love and Well, Did You Evah, and not typical Porter. But the irresistible slow-paced, relaxed King arrangement had me completely hooked. Incidentally Peter Dudley King (1914-1982) arranged the original mood music albums for Jackie Gleason as well as charts for Bing Crosby, Eddie Fisher, Dean Martin, Julie London and Kay Starr.
This spellbinding tune featuring the strings could easily have come out of a Dmitri Tiomkin film score like Return To Paradise. On the second phrase at bar 9 it goes unexpectedly up a semitone giving it an even more exotic flavour, placing it firmly in Polynesia or Asia. The melody then moves quite conventionally to a natural cadence. On the repeat it sounds even more magical with the woodwind in control.
The bridge, with a haunting violin solo, isn’t really a bridge as we know it, more a filler using material from the main tune in preparation for the final thrust. The strings erupt into one of most exciting climaxes and endings ever. In the coda the familiar Riddle tremors are once again strongly felt. I am almost tempted to declare Mind If I Make Love To You has out-melodied Night andDay! (By the way there are suggestions of two other songs in Mind If I Make Love To You - Mack TheKnife and Morecambe & Wise’s theme tune Bring Me Sunshine).
Miind If I Make Love To You is available on the
Guild CD “Melodies For The Starlight Hours “ (GLCD 5196)
The London Promenade Orchestra version
Analysed by Robert Walton
I first heard Caprice for Strings quite by chance in 1953 on a radio programme in New Zealand from 1YA Auckland. Because there was no back announcement, it remained unknown until I wrote to the station for information. Until then, the only Edward White composition I knew was TheRunawayRocking-Horse, the first ever light orchestral number that hit me for six in 1947. For me it was the most important composition in the genre since the million selling hit Holiday forStrings burst upon the scene in 1943. Caprice for Strings on the other hand, was recorded in 1946 but because it wasn’t commercially released, remained something of a ‘dark’ horse! Compared to TheRunawayRocking-Horse, it seemed almost classical in style but I had no idea it was the work of White. (Strangely enough, 1953 was also the year of another string-only feature Scrub,Brothers, Scrub, a clone of Caprice for Strings. According to the composer Ken Warner, Scrub, Brothers, Scrub refers to articulating repeated notes by means of a back and forth movement of the bow across the string. Hence the word “scrubbing!”)
The caprice or capriccio was a term first applied to some 16th century Italian madrigals but is now usually free in form and of a lively character. A typical capriccio is fast, intense and often virtuosic in nature. That seems to describe Caprice for Strings in a nutshell. It’s one of the classiest busy busy tunes in the light orchestral canon. So join me as I attempt to dissect it, trying to keep up with this frantic melody.
The first thing that occurred to me about such a ‘serious’ composition is the unexpected use of the rhythm guitar throughout the piece - virtually unheard of in the London Promenade Orchestra’s repertoire. To be honest I never noticed it the first time, possibly because of the poor quality of primitive wireless, which no doubt accounts for my original impression of a more classical arrangement. Anyway, the very presence of a guitar immediately reveals White’s dance band credentials in much the same way that Robert Farnon’s jazz roots are evident in his music. It’s a very demanding workout for strings, calling for absolute precision. No resting on one’s laurels and certainly no room for any “dead wood” amongst the players, which would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Just one player not pulling his or her weight can totally ruin a recording.
Of all the hyperactive compositions in light music, Caprice for Strings has to be one of the most difficult to get your head around. With all those fast notes in such a restricted range, the melody takes a bit of figuring out, but as soon as you’ve got the general idea it stays with you. In the key of G, this tight tune sounds to all intents and purposes like the rhythm of an automatic weapon. The note, which gives the phrase its character, is that of the constantly recurring E flat. Come to think of it, with appropriate words it could almost be adapted into an early form of rap! Heaven forbid, I hear you cry!
In the first break, arco violins go into pizzicato mode whilst the lower strings still bowed answer from below with some vital punctuation. Away we go again with all strings restored to arco, but before we know it, yet another break. (And I promised there would be no idleness in this exercise!)
Now for some welcome light relief from all this labour intensive concentration as the violins come up with three lots of beautiful broad downward brushstrokes, each time heading for the heights. This was the undoubted highlight of Caprice for Strings, the moment the piece came to life. Like The Runaway Rocking-Horse, Teddy White could always be relied upon to dress up his compositions freshly and imaginatively. As ever, the eager strings are in the wings waiting to dive in at the exact moment.
Then, serving as a complete contrast, the strings are given a new lease of life with a lovely lyrical tune of their own providing its own decorations as well as bending the melody when it takes their fancy. Finally it’s back to the start for a rerun of the wizardry of White bringing this brisk Bach-ish blend of bustling busyness to an abrupt close.
You may have noticed 2016 happens to be the 70th year of the creation of Caprice for Strings. So let’s celebrate the birth of one of the early masterpieces from the Light Orchestral Hall of Fame by simply giving this pioneering piece of pure poetry in motion an extra listen!
"Caprice For Strings" is available on "The Golden Age of Light Music: Grandstand: Production Music Of The 1940s” -- Guild Records GLCD 5220
I have been covering quite a wide range when writing these Notes and Suggestions essays, but I must say, I never imagined that I would be writing such an essay on this particular work. Of course, it comes from the fact that I attended a performance of it recently at Carnegie Hall as part of the Mid-America series where it is very often presented, usually conducted by the composer himself. And subsequently, I listened to a few performances of it on YouTube as I sometimes do when a work makes a sufficient impression on me so that I might want to partake of it further.
Mr. Rutter is a fairly popular, accessible and well known composer as contemporaries generally go. His style is a very interesting admixture of the pop offerings of recent years as exemplified by Andew Lloyd-Webber, combined with which is a strong influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Thus either of these aspects are to a considerable degree tempered by the other. Not every listener of serious music (or practitioner for that matter) will necessarily take to it, and one enthusiast of Mahler I met in recent years, hailing from the UK, admitted to me, regarding John Rutter, that "his sweet tooth was not sufficiently developed" to appreciate this music. To be sure, although my degree of appreciation is considerable, for a fact I do not necessarily like every note that he has put to paper, as will be seen. Overall, however, what I do admire, is the concerted effort to communicate with a prospective audience, which I feel in the final analysis is what is most important, and what I am speaking about is the music itself as distinct from what its intended purpose or symbolism may be. I additionally state this because most of what we are likely to hear of Mr. Rutter's music is written for chorus and choral ensembles.
Nowadays, the works of Mr. Rutter one is most likely to hear in performance are (listing them in the order that I acquainted myself with them) the Gloria, Requiem, and Magnificat. Of these three, the Requiem in my opinion is the work that best retains is essential quality throughout (except for its very opening which I will get to). The Gloria contains some wonderfully magnificent writing within its two outer movements, expressing for me full vitality and joy of life, but I have always intensely disliked the middle movement as suggesting the very antithesis of life, although the D Flat Major outburst two thirds of the way through does tend to stabilize matters for a short time. Any symbolic explanation I might be given in regard to this movement would mean nothing to me or cause me to change my impression. As for the Magnificat, the opening idea and indeed the entire first movement is the best part of the work, at least in my opinion, and we really welcome it when it is reprised at the very end. Listening to the second movement, I have always felt a need and an urge to find myself back in the first movement for some reason!
I have to mention for the moment the words of my dear late friend David Randolph who I'm sure would subscribe to what I'm bringing out.
Mr. Randolph was a firm believer in the essential absoluteness of music. That is to say, he endeavored to deal with whatever music he dealt with purely as music, claiming that the only thing that music in essence was capable of expressing was itself. This was even despite the fact that most of his conducting was involved with choral music.
For my part, I agree in the sense that we have only the music to deal with, that no two people will hear a given work in the same way. In this particular instance, I respond to the emotions that are suggested by the music but prefer to come up with my own mental images upon hearing the work, as with any other. In other words, I am not interested or concerned with any religious aspects upon which the work was purportedly based, nor do I subscribe to the notion that the work is constructed in the form of an arch with the fourth movement (which is a very short interlude) as the focal point. I prefer to hear this work in strictly my own way, my own manner, and in so doing, still feel that I am not in any way violating its essence.
When I mentioned this work to Mr. Randolph, he unaccountably told me that he was somewhat turned off by the rather "popsy" sound of the main idea in the first movement. As he supposedly did not come from such a background, this statement would be understandable. Speaking for myself, I have a very generous appreciation of the lighter forms of music, at least of a sort presented in good taste, and I have even written essays on some of these. It is all according to what one was brought up to appreciate - everyone's experience in this regard is different, but neither better nor worse than the next one's, and one should never feel ashamed of one's predilections or feel compelled to explain them away - we are all entitled to our preferences and to our likes and dislikes.
That said, I will now get on with this work. At the very outset, there is a passage which I must confess I find myself disliking, in the sense that the apparent atonality has nothing whatever to do with the rest of the work, and I cannot fathom its purpose. To be explained the symbolic meaning of it in context would tell me nothing. Nevertheless, it is something to get through until we emerge into some aspect of tonality - first on a second inversion F Major chord, with the bass moving upwards from C to D which eventually changes to a dominant of the prevailing key of the movement, G Major.
The rises and falls in dynamics should obviously be observed to the fullest for the proper emphasis wherever required. The main idea, wherever it may appear (in the choral parts) must always receive full priority. About two thirds of the way through it appears in the male voices while the female have some counterpoint against this. Until the latter take over the idea at the end of the phrase, the former must remain in front. Similarly, at the very end, as the movement is dying out over a tonic pedal, the imitations must always favor the voices that have the idea in its original position; i.e., on the downbeat.
Mr. Rutter frequently adjusts notation for singers apparently believing that in an alternate form it might be easier to read. I am always in favor, on the contrary, of notation that directly expresses what is really taking place in the music. Thus in this case, I would retain the one sharp in the key signature clear through (from the point that we first settle on G) even when the music has several flat accidentals, simply because the prevailing feeling is always on G. Put another way, a signature should always be directly reflective of the tonal sense, not necessarily of the presence or absence of certain accidentals. The profusion of F Naturals and E Flats is no sufficient reason to drop the one sharp signature.
In the next movement, it should be obvious that the solo cellist's intonation (on a part that appears and reappears intermittently throughout the movement) must be very accurate, considering that the part has numerous accidentals even though falling into recognizable melodic and intervallic patterns. The choral part will be subdued for the most part, except for any occasional swell in dynamics which are always important to bring out. The tonal feeling is a quasi C Dorian - not out and out in that mode - but rather making use of that scalar configuration that suggests it. The inconclusiveness of the whole thing should indicate that this movement is clearly not meant to be performed independently, nor as a matter of fact are any of the others. This quasi C Dorian by its nature will fall directly forward into the next movement, which with its very clear F Major will by nature provide a very direct tonal resolution.
This following movement, coming perfectly in its situation, is a most gorgeously beautiful affair which one should be able to listen to for its own sake and revel in, and not worry about any religious aspects that have been connected to it. Music often has the power to reach us on its own terms without any further intervening aspect, and we should be able to accept it on that basis without concern about any textual matters. This is why whenever I hear this movement (which frankly can move me to tears) I try to just listen to it and not to any words as I feel that the music is standing well above any such considerations. This, I'm sure, is what David Randolph would strenuously argue for.
The ending is most affecting and can be broadened for maximum effect. The soprano (who can do a lot for the whole movement's presentation independently of the text) should carefully place her last note, the high A, in such a manner as to be prepared to hold it for a duration, along with the orchestra. And this final moment should be given with the utmost delicacy of feeling.
I have commented on the following movement in a previous commentary on choral music generally, when I was dealing with both the Mahler Eighth Symphony and the Beethoven C Major Mass. This next fourth movement is a very short interlude serving almost as a reaction against the explicit sweetness of the preceding. The eighth notes of the parallel fourths at the opening should be given plenty of emphasis and accentuation, with a degree of declamation.
Previously, I have stated that this movement works admirably in its place within the total scheme but on the contrary is not a good setting of the liturgy - in this case the Sanctus section. The idea of compressing a whole section of liturgy into the space of a minute and a quarter - a Sanctus, Pleni, Hosanna, Benedictus, and Hosanna - simply does not work in that sense, in my humble opinion. I prefer to distance myself as far as possible from the text in this section so as not to spoil the beautifully musical effect of this coming where it does.
The C Major tonic sections should get plenty of emphasis, with a sharp pull back in dynamics in the portions that go into the submediant and later flat submediant. The culminating tonic sections, with the scalar tonic to dominant melodic canonic effect, will come out much stronger. And as I want nothing to do with the textual aspect of it, I would omit the up beat eighth notes to the motive as sounding rather affected even though necessitated purely by textual considerations and no other - musically they may be easily dispensed with.
The next movement, again, follows directly from what has just preceded. The dynamics at the outset are a sharp contrast, being very mysterious and rather lugubrious, somewhat as the first movement began, although in this case the tonal orientation remains very clear as continuing on C. The chorus enters with a motive which consists of a note with movement up a step and then immediately back, repeating this in sequence downwards. This is the basis of most of the movement, and only the dynamics need to be observed faithfully. Midway through, the tonal basis changes from C to F and then the dynamics should really pick up as forming the climax of this whole section.
When we finally emerge from this into a passage that is much more transparent and at the same time much more reflective, it should be obvious that the dynamics need to be pulled back, with a clear diminuendo as we come into this. The flute solo should be clearly heard and its prominence can do a lot for this passage. And the chorus should be quite subdued in its execution of this moment. I have mentioned the influence of Vaughan Williams regarding Mr. Rutter's work; one may note that in this passage that influence is quite pronounced, with in some measures actual quotations.
This ultimately dies out on an E Major chord as mediant of the key, with the definite intent of picking up from this point with the outset of the next movement. Mr. Rutter clearly wants the latter to follow segue, and most performances respect his wish, which to me seems quite legitimate. In fact, it is entirely possible to directly join the movements together by immediately starting the descending motive that begins the sixth movement directly upon the E Major chord of the preceding having been quitted. I would not consider to this end an overlap between the two and in fact never favor such devices. But on the other hand I have heard a performance or two in which there was a movement pause between the two sections which for me would be utterly perverse in this situation.
The movement that we now enter, with its prevailing oboe solo, should be taken in a very direct and unassuming manner. Its simple beauty almost rivals that of the third movement previously discussed. We learn that it was independently conceived from the remainder of the work but it should be no more independently performed than would be the case with any of the other movements - context is the most important factor in that regard.
There are some really touching moments, and the most should be made of them in performance, and noted by a listener aside from any textual considerations. At the point where we return to the opening material about midway through, a slight ritard to fall into it would be entirely appropriate.
The harmonies are altogether traditional, but as is often the case, particularly at cadences, an out and out dominant seventh is always assiduously avoided. Toward the end, it would almost appear that conventional harmonies will prevail, but the final cadences remain plagal.
Again, the outset of the final movement comes as a direct reaction to the preceding; the outset being dark and mysterious, although the feeling of E Flat Major comes fairly early, at first suggested rather indirectly. The soprano is given one more solo, and once again, needs to place her last note, a high B Flat, with extreme care - it should not be belted out by any means. All dynamics, I need hardly reiterate - need to be very diligently observed; there is a swell midway within this section and a pull back to the point where it ends.
In the vast majority of performances I have observed, the soprano soloist remains standing after completing her contribution, and does not reseat herself until the forgoing has finally passed into the next and concluding G Major section in 3/4. It is a very fine stage direction, and really should be observed as it is directly responsive to the music, and thus visually very satisfying. It may well be Mr. Rutter's own direction, but in any event, it would be wrong for the soprano to immediately plop down upon completing her solo work.
With the ensuing section, much of it will speak for itself, much of it quite beautiful, but unfortunately I have to make two comments regarding certain features which often bother me when I listen to this work.
One is the use of an enharmonic circle, occurring only once in this situation throughout this work, but the Magnificat is replete with this device. The fact that these always seem to proceed sharpwards, or against the natural direction of tonal movement creates for me an unsettling effect (has the composer ever considered writing some of these to proceed flatwards?). As thus evidenced in the Magnificat, it could almost be pointed out as a mannerism. This observation might be considered petty by some, but I am describing the effect that this has on me.
The other point would be the moment of reprise of the main material of the first movement. There is a solo oboe line that leaps up an octave and overlaps with the reprisal presentation at the first moment. I'm sure that there must be a symbolic explanation for it, which would normally not interest me, but for me this presents itself as a rough edge which a conductor somehow has to deal with, and not simply leave as it appears; perhaps a rebalancing, perhaps a dropping of the oboe line down an octave so that it will not stick out where not intended, perhaps to eliminate it altogether - I could not say at this point, but it is clearly as I see it something that must be given some attention, a detail that would be lost on most audience members but still a bit jarring to very sensitive ears.
The formal reprise now proceeds much like it did in the first movement, moving directly to the closing passage almost exactly as we had it before, only on this occasion more of a broadening might be appropriate as it is the very end of the work.
I sincerely hope that my comments here have been of some help. I always endeavor to write an essay of this type on a work that I feel merits this type of attention and careful study. As usual, I would welcome all comments.
Analysed by Robert Walton
There are very few tunes that make me cry. Sometimes Mahler or Farnon unleash a mini ‘Niagara’ in me, but Previn’s utterly sublime theme of total tranquility from the 1961 film “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” has all the elements to produce a similar reaction. Even the melody is crying out to be heard! For me it evokes some of man’s finest qualities: hope, joy, kindness, unselfishness and of course love. It’s like a religious experience. Only music can truly convey such feelings. Previn possesses a natural gift to tug at your heartstrings. The old romantic!
The story is about the lazy good-for-nothing grandson of an Argentinian beef tycoon who eventually finds his manhood as a member of the French resistance during World War 2. Sounding like the love theme from a big biblical movie, the first time I heard it I went into an emotional state from which I didn’t move until the music stopped. Like David Raksin’s Laura, it gives the impression of being based on a single fragment and then developed. It just grabbed me and there was nothing I could do about it. I was totally hooked!
I presume that’s how the Love Theme from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was born. Later Alan and Marilyn Bergman came up with a great lyric for Barbra Streisand entitled More In Love With You. (Incidentally Laura’s lyricist, Johnny Mercer had once encouraged Alan to become a songwriter). Without words, this poignant Previn tune remained comparatively unknown until Streisand included the song on her 2003 “Movie Album” finally giving it the recognition it deserved. And violinist Itzhak Perlman’s recording didn’t do it any harm reaching an even wider audience. Although André eventually got fed up with writing film music, he must have been pleased with this one. Don’t forget he’d come a long way since “Challenge To Lassie”.
In the bridge, the music moves on to a completely new level of film writing with a nod to atonality, but still making musical sense. Schoenberg by stealth perhaps! Clear evidence of venturing into tuneless territory in the style of the man who broke all the rules. After all, André and Arnold once played table tennis together in Los Angeles, so something must have rubbed off! If you’re interested in learning more about atonality, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a good way to gently ease yourself into it. More and more music lovers have found the effort worthwhile. Certainly Percy Faith’s brilliant arrangement does it full justice. It only confirms my view that André Previn is without doubt the world’s most multi-talented musician.
“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”
Love Theme by Percy Faith’s Orchestra
is available on the Guild CD ”Non-Stop to
Nowhere” (GLCD 5206).