by Forrest Patten
When I first heard of the passing of my friend Robert Farnon, I realized that a warm and glowing light had ceased to shine. It's hard to put into words how one feels when losing an individual who has been your musical benchmark... the one that you compare everybody else's work to. I know that there will be many articles and tributes covering Bob's prolific musical output (and deservedly so). My personal memories are laced with humor; and Bob enjoyed laughing.
Over 30 years ago while still in college, I wrote a "fan" letter to Robert Farnon care of Chappell's in London. Thanks to John Parry, he forwarded my letter and, as a result, I received a personal response from the "Guv'nor" himself. He also alerted me to the Robert Farnon Appreciation Society (as it was known then) and I soon received an invitation to join from Secretary David Ades. I have been a member ever since.
In 1980, Bob was asked to be a guest conductor for the Vancouver Symphony Pops Orchestra in British Columbia. On the bill, too was fellow Canadian singer Edmund Hockridge. I decided to travel north from California and attend the concerts and to write a review for JIM. Following the opening night concert, I made my way backstage to Bob's dressing room. I knocked on the door and he answered. I told him I was looking for Harry Rabinowitz. He looked a little puzzled until I introduced myself and he broke into laughter.
Bob had brought his daughter Debby along on the trip so, following the next evening's scheduled concert, I invited them both to Trader Vic's at the Vancouver Bayshore Inn. After several libations, Bob tactfully mentioned that the two of them had not eaten dinner. A little surprised, I told them that I would be more than happy to take them to dinner at Trader Vic's but, as late as it was, Bob wanted something a little less exotic. Driving the two of them back to the Georgia Hotel, we stopped at a little burger joint called Hamburger Mary's. Debby scurried in returning with a couple of burgers and some onion rings. The two of them seemed more than happy. I felt bad though because it wasn't my intention to get them loaded with potent exotic drinks on an empty stomach! Bob and Debby were just too polite to mention that they had not had dinner prior to the concert.
The RFS gatherings at the Bonnington Hotel could also set the stage for some memorable, fun moments. When Nancy and I attended our first London meeting in 1994, we were standing close to the entrance and the sign-in desk. In walks Bob preparing to officially sign the guest book. I took one look at him and blurted out, "My God. They'll let anyone in here!" We both broke into laughter and gave each other a hug. Bob got his revenge, though. At the next meeting we attended in 1996, Bob saw us arrive and cheerfully announced to the group (in which he was talking to), "Please excuse me. I have to go over and talk to my father." Again, more hugs and laughter.
And then, there were the telephone calls. You never knew what kind of a greeting you would get when Bob called. One day at our San Francisco office, Nancy picked up the phone and Bob said, "This is your hot Latin lover from Liverpool." I don't think that Nancy has ever quite recovered from that one. Another time, he'd simply say something like, "This is Bob. I'm calling from Guernsey. You know, where the cows are."
In addition to his wonderful sense of humor, there was also a very deep and soulful side to Robert Farnon. I will always cherish the many personal conversations we had over the years regarding his music and recordings. I remember telling Bob how much I loved his light flute cameo piece "La Casita Mia." He told me that it was one of his favorites as well, but felt that listeners weren't as familiar with it. We also shared a mutual love of Claude Debussy's "Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun", specifically the version performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Regarding his two concert works "From The Highlands" and "From The Emerald Isle", Bob confessed that he much preferred the Irish Suite to the Scottish Suite. When Chappell Music asked Bob to write a waltz in the style of Richard Rodgers, he did just that even borrowing the first seven notes of a Rodgers classic. Just compare those first seven notes of "Younger Than Springtime" to those of "Westminster Waltz." Bob had the last laugh, though. He won an Ivor Novello award for "Westminster Waltz", although he'd tell you that he came up with his melody before Richard Rodgers did! Bob also didn't like stress.
I will truly miss our talks. Bob totally understood the current state of the music business and how his compositions (as well as light music in general) were not as much in demand as they once were. This is why a number of his later works took on a more serious "concert hall" approach. Yet he told me how grateful he was to have so many of his earlier recordings available once again on CD. His hope is that future generations will now have the opportunity to hear and to study his music. Bob also told me that he wanted his library of scores to go to the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa.
The last time I spoke to Bob was on the morning of Thursday, April 14. He called just to check in and to tell us of his latest activities. He said he was writing daily and was very excited about the upcoming May 14th premiere of his "Edinburgh" symphony, as well as the recent completion of his concerto for bassoon ("Romancing The Phoenix.") I told Bob that we were off to Canada for our 10th wedding anniversary and wished he could join us for high tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. He said he'd love to but didn't think that the nurses at the facility would let him. He sounded very upbeat and encouraged by his physical progress.
How fortunate we are (in the RFS) to have personally known Bob. For those who have never attended a London meeting or have worked with him professionally, you'll know the man by his music.
Bob, you helped to shape my musical life from the very beginning. You taught me to listen to the melody, bass line, and to listen to all of the little extra embellishments in an arrangement. You have provided some of the most pleasurable, memorable and evocative compositions and arrangements of all time. And, most importantly, you shared your personal friendship. We will not forget you.
Thank you, good friend, for sharing God's great gift of music and harmony with all of us.
May the orchestras and conductors of the world perpetuate your musical legacy.