05 May

Robert Farnon: His Place in the History

By  Philip L. Scowcroft
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by Philip L. Scowcroft

The light music of these islands over, say, the past century and a half is a huge corpus of light orchestral pieces, operetta and musical comedy, balladry, music hall and other songs, film and TV music, band music, much music for children and other students and perhaps other things, contributed by many hundreds, even thousands of pens. I myself have compiled notes on some 2300 British born or British domiciled composers of light music and do not suppose for one moment that is the whole story. In any case that figure includes only those active during the 20th century. The 19th century will supply hundreds more.

These two and a half thousand (or more) composers contributed to the magnificent heritage of British light music in a myriad of different styles. To start with Sullivan — and he is not a bad place at which to start — he was, and still is, recognised as a great eclectic, bringing elements of Handel, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Verdi and other major composers plus influences like Victorian hymnody and balladry to create what is a clearly Sullivanesque style. Edward German was, even in 1900, reckoned as Sullivan's natural successor and his idiom is in many ways not dissimilar, but with the influence of the 19th century French music more predominant. Eric Coates's early orchestral works, especially the attractive Miniature Suite of 1911, strikingly resemble Edward German, though Coates soon added other elements, not least the up-tempo dance music of the 1920s, to create a characteristically Coatesian style. Coates was not a man of the theatre but many other great British light music were — Sidney Jones, Lionel Monckton, Haydn Wood, Arthur Wood, Hubert Bath, Alfred Reynolds, even Roger Quitter — and their music, even when purely orchestral or instrumental, has a singable lyricism which is both enjoyable and memorable. Many of them would have acknowledged a debt to German and, through him, Sullivan.

I could go on in this vein for a long time, but it is high time for us to arrive at Robert Farnon who was active on the British light music scene for considerably longer than Sullivan, German, Coates (whom Farnon much admired), the Woods, Reynolds and any of the rest: a total of some sixty years — a remarkable span which few, if any, composers in whatever idiom, can match, and that ignores the work he did pre-war in his native Canada, arranging for radio shows and the Percy Faith Orchestra and, at the opposite end of the contemporary musical spectrum composing a number of 'classical' works which are still capable of delighting us.

So what did Bob Farnon bring to the British light music heritage, which was so long established by the time he came to England in the early to mid-1940s? Some opportunities, like the composition of ballads and music hall ditties which some of his forebears had exploited were outmoded or becoming so, while available work for the theatre was much reduced after 1945 compared with its earlier balmy days. As we have seen, Farnon brought experience as a composer of 'serious' music (even symphonies) and it is perhaps apposite to notice that many light music figures were classically trained and that several of the composers we have mentioned — Sullivan, German, Haydn Wood and Hubert Bath, among them — had had ambitions to be serious musicians. Additionally, Farnon brought experience in popular music, both in Canada and as Conductor of the Canadian Forces Band during the war and a transatlantic brashness soon to be typified in one of his best known movements, Jumping Bean. The word 'brashness' is not intended in a derogatory sense; rather it is an attempt to suggest the exciting breath of fresh air that Farnon brought to British light music.

This 'fresh air' was, it soon became apparent, particularly suited to the provision of 'mood music' (or production music), for the publisher's recorded music libraries with which — and particularly with Chappell’s — Bob Farnon became involved both as composer and conductor. This provision reached a peak in the 1950s but declined gradually thereafter. Many others became involved in it — Sidney Torch, Charles Williams, Ronald Hanmer, Trevor Duncan and dozens of others — but, with all due respect to their very considerable talents, most would agree that RF did that kind of thing better than anyone. One has only to think of A La Claire Fontaine, Portrait of a Flirt, Westminster Waltz, State Occasion and All Sports March - and of course Jumping Bean (to pick six sharply contrasting examples) to make a point.

Another thing Bob did particularly well was writing film music and he once said that the opportunity to write for British films was the main factor in persuading him to stay this side of the Atlantic to make his career in music after the war was over. The Golden Age of British films and film music spans approximately the years 1935-65, when the music was often provided by some of the greats in British classical music — Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Bliss and Alwyn are just five. Farnon again supplied a new dimension, his work being (not unnaturally) more Hollywood-influenced than that of many others writing for the British large screen in mid century. Examples of Farnon's contribution are Spring in Park Lane, Captain Horatio Hornblower and Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. Before long television provided further opportunities and there we can exemplify Colditz, whose march takes its place beside Coates' most famous marches and is surely immortal, and Four Freedoms.

As we all know, light music generally speaking went into a period of decline after the early 1960s but Bob proved to very adaptable and survived what for some others were relatively lean years. Work for films and television helped him to do so, as did his continuing work in providing orchestrations of popular, even pop songs. In this he drew on his unrivalled practical experience of instrumentation (was it Andre Previn who dubbed him the best writer for strings in the business?). He remained active well into his eighties. Not only did he earn the deep respect of his fellow practitioners as composer and director of light or lightish music but, ever urbane, he was on warm, friendly terms with many of them and was in some cases not above giving them practical help when this was required. As just one example of this he completed the Mountbatten Suite, which his great friend Sir Vivian Dunn had begun as a tribute to his friend Lord Louis.

To sum up, my own impression is that Bob Farnon not merely performed brilliantly, whether as conductor, arranger or composer in the field of "light music" — however we define that notoriously difficult expression — for longer than any of his forbears or contemporaries in that field, but that he was arguably more versatile than any of them (I have not yet mentioned his interest in brass band music; many of his most famous pieces were arranged for that medium and the Une Vie de Matelot was adopted as a test piece for the National Championships in 1975). He overcame, triumphantly, difficulties that some of his predecessors had not had in that, for a substantial part of his career he had to contend with relative public apathy and indifference to several of the lighter forms of music. That being so, he will surely have been grateful for the support of the Robert Farnon Society and of other people and institutions who have helped bring about the resurgence of interest in light music during the last years of the 20th Century and the first years of the 21st. In this resurgence we may salute him as both leader and inspiration.

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