By Robert Walton
Over the years I have always been aware that string man George Melachrino was an occasional singer in the dance band world but I had never heard him, let alone seen him in that role. He had already been employed by Ambrose, Carroll Gibbons and Bert Firman. Therefore imagine my surprise and delight at finding him on a recent video on the Internet on Google. Until then he was just a handsome face in a photo on some long forgotten record or CD disc. Now for the first time I was seeing him “live” as it were, filmed by British Pathé at the Embassy Club in 1940 with a 9-piece orchestra.
Holding his violin, he was dressed more like a Lieder singer in a Tuxedo about to render the well known Great American Songbook standard Fools Rush In. It was the completely unexpected formality of his presentation that staggered me. I thought it’d be a casual performance like a member of the band briefly leaving his chair. But this was totally out of character, like a recital from London’s Wigmore Hall. His excellent tenor voice gave the 1940 tune an almost classical treatment. I bet its writers Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom would have been amazed. This was just another example of Melachrino’s many talents. His clear voice made him more than a cut above any old crooner. And his conducting ability must have stood him in good stead for his first big studio job with the Austrian-born tenor Richard Tauber in 1945. Remember Melachrino was also a multi-instrumentalist. As well as a very good violinist he had mastered the viola, oboe, clarinet and saxophone. All these abilities made him a perfect leader of an orchestra. Rather like composer-arranger Robert Farnon who also as a multi-instrumentalist had a head start in the business.
So from a tiny violin a few inches long given to him by his stepfather, George became conductor of two of the world’s finest light orchestral combinations, the Melachrino Strings and Orchestra. In his childhood he was given manuscript paper and instead of coloured chalks, a pencil to play with. At 4 years of age he composed his first piece Up the Mountains because the pattern of the notes resembled just what it said, the title. Even then he was a class act!
After arriving back in the UK in 1965 after a holiday in New Zealand, I learnt of the sudden tragic death of the man himself which was more than a blow, because literally only the night before, I met George Melachrino’s agent in Chelsea and was about to offer some of my own tunes for the company.
As my friend Graham Miles has posted two versions of a piece by Peter Yorke entitled "Fireflies" which are distinctly different by virtue of length, I will take a moment to touch on this particular subject, as it raises some very interesting questions to which there may be myriad answers.
In the case of two recordings of a piece that are noticeably different in length, in the sense that one has material that the other lacks, we first have to ask ourselves which came first and is the original version, to ascertain whether the composer expanded on his original, or on the other hand in the reverse eventuality, whether he cut a short portion from what he originally had, and finally, whether it was rather a matter of cutting it in the recording process to enable it to fit on the side of a 78 or 45 RPM single disc.
Whatever the truth of what may actually have occurred in these cases, it is inevitable that some subjective preference will enter into it when making a judgment.
I do not claim any position of being a final arbiter in such cases. I can only judge each instance of such on its merits as I receive them. I am already aware that there could well be opinions sharply differing from my own, but I have no choice in this matter, as these selections are not being examined as though part of a college course in composition.
To get underway with what I am referring to, I will start with Robert Farnon's "Journey into Melody." Most of us might know that the piece originally had a far more elaborate introduction, making a full circle of keys in the process. This may be heard in the piece's original recording by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra under Charles Williams. Reportedly Farnon himself decided to shorten the introduction to lead directly into the main melody, resulting in the form most of us are familiar with. For whatever reason, this was more satisfactory to him as being "better balanced" structurally, but as I am at frequent pains to point out, we do not all receive a given piece of music in the same manner individually, and of necessity would include the composer as well. I for one feel that the original extended introduction adds a searching quality at the beginning that gives it a whole new dimension, and I actually prefer the piece in that form and always so play it at the piano.
With Farnon's "Pictures in the Fire" the reverse appears to have occurred as the piece evolved, as one can note by comparing the earlier recording by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra with the later one by Farnon's own orchestra. In the process, Farnon added in a short phrase to smoothen out a transition within that central modulating section that in a previous article I had written covering this piece I had referred to as "bluesy." I feel that the piece is definitely improved by this short addition, with any feeling of abruptness evident in the earlier version completely remedied, so in this case I will prefer the piece in its later state.
But it should not be assumed from any of the above that I would always by inclination prefer a longer version of a piece when comparing two versions side by side.
To take yet another Farnon selection, "Lake of the Woods" where here too we have alternate presentations; a simpler, normal length presentation in the normal A-A-B-A form of a ballad as given by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra, and the later one by Farnon with his own orchestra as part of the album "Canadian Impressions" in which the piece is expanded out to include a whole middle section before returning to the B-A of the opening. In this case, at least for me, it is a matter if stylistic incompatibility, at least as I receive it, between this new middle section and the original outlying portions with which I have difficulty in reconciling with one another. For that reason, I will continue to prefer the shorter version on the older recording. Moreover, I see the rather veiled sound quality here as a clear advantage as obviously the purpose of this piece is to convey a certain atmosphere, not to have every last detail of it rendered vividly clear.
Haydn Wood's "Soliloquy" is another example of what I am referring to. I actually found myself in a brief dialogue with the blogger, John France on this piece and expressed my reactions to the piece and to the two versions of it.
The shorter version appears on a recording by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra under Robert Farnon; the longer version with the Slovak Radio Orchestra under Ernest Tomlinson.
As I advised Mr. France on that blog (it appears that hitherto he had been quite unaware of Farnon's shorter version), with my present information, it is quite impossible to know whether Wood expanded his piece from what he originally had, or trimmed away material from his original in the other eventuality, or perhaps Farnon in his efforts to fit the piece on the side of a single edited the piece to that end (quite expertly, one would think, if such were the case).
In any event, my preference is decidedly for the shorter version, which I invariably use when performing it. Listening to the longer version, I get the inevitable impression that it starts on an indeterminate chord in the middle of nowhere, and that the piece actually begins a few bars later. Moreover, in the reprise section, I feel that by the very nature of the material, it is quite unnecessary to go over every last bar that appeared earlier, and as I have just stated, I will continue to maintain for reasons stated my firm allegiance to the shorter version.
Some years ago, Robert Walton, one of the Society's regular contributor, wrote an essay on a piece by Edward White that I was hitherto unfamiliar, entitled "Caprice for Strings." I found it to be a rather unusual piece, but because of its rather erratic course I found that I was having difficulty in following it so that it made sense to me. At that point Tony Clayden stepped in to graciously share with both Robert and myself a recording of this same piece purporting to be the original, with additional material that was removed in the later recording.
I listened to this, and as a result of this added material I now for the first time found that I could better understand what the piece was about as the sections now held together more coherently. Moreover, some of the instrumental effects that Bob had described I could now hear for the first time, as I could not hitherto on the version that Bob had originally posted.
Further details of what I am referring to may be seen in my comments about this piece at the time it was posted.
Clive Richardson's "London Fantasia" is another example of what I am referring to. The original version was recorded by Mantovani on two sides of a 12" single disc, featuring Monia Liter at the piano, and is the only version I have cultivated, as it is the fullest version.
Richardson himself recorded it subsequently, with both Charles Williams and with Sidney Torch, and both versions have a small piece cut out. As he has recorded it in this fashion on both occasions, it must be presumed that he so preferred it for presentation, but others listening to it might very conceivably feel differently about it and would prefer it in its original form or at least it's more extended version if it came afterward.
The matter of having to economize in order to fit a selection on the side of a single disc can often necessitate some forced adjustments, some of which, in a recording I have posted of myself at the piano on both YouTube and Facebook I have actively sought to remedy.
Thus, with Percy Faith's arrangement of "If I Loved You" and David Rose's arrangements of "Why Do You Pass Me By" and "All I Desire," in each of which there is an obvious attempt to offer two presentations of the song, using existing material I have added extensions so that both presentations structurally have the full A-A-B-A scheme.
With Peter Yorke's "Blue Mink" I have added a slight extension to end the piece more smoothly so that it is not as abrupt, remembering that this is for listening purposes rather than as background music from a mood library. And in a planned second recording, I will be taking the middle slower section of Yorke's "Whipper Snapper," expanding it out to include more of the material from the faster section, being that this was the apparent intent in what is there presently, aborted due to the necessity once again of fitting the selection on the side of a single disc.
I hope that my notes have been informative and as always I will invite comments back.
Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton
The Chappell recorded music library created quite a stir in the music business when it came into being in 1941 with a series of 78s specifically designed for the use of radio, films and especially newsreels. Not only were they perfect for the job but many of the compositions proved to be extremely popular in their own right with the public as well. Many were released as singles. In fact the whole world embraced them. Never in the history of music was there such a unique sound with the highest quality of original tunes, brilliant arrangements and outstanding performances. A Window of Wonder! If it hadn’t been for the requirement of background music, these sounds might never have seen the light of day.
Occasionally some films used them for their entire soundtracks. I forget the title of the first one I saw in 1957 but the music clearly made an impression on me. It became a sort of quiz when I kept guessing what the next title was. Mind you although it was a novel idea, the music was not really suitable for soundtracks. There’s still nothing that can beat commissioning an official composer for such an enterprise to have overall control over the music and dealing personally with each scene.
The second movie I saw which used Chappell mood music recordings was from 1948 entitled “It Happened in Soho” starring Richard Murdoch. It opened with Robert Busby’s “Big City”. I discovered it in the current television series “Talking Pictures”. It was like Charles Williams with a big difference - a touch of Farnon. Williams was the first composer selected for the series. He was very professional and a great craftsman and his style became the prototype for many of the tunes that followed, but sometimes he lacked the emotional input and modern harmonies that later writers wrote.
A thrilling opening quotes Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, London Bridge is Falling Down and suitable fill-in music emanating from Busby’s pencil. The whole track might be only 1:27 but what a great introduction. After more movement, a gorgeous string melody assisted by flutes and bells gradually climbs the heights providing the necessary passion and intensity. We are now completely immersed into Busby country. The end is essentially the same as the start with a flourish, before the bells highlight a glorious finish.
Analysed by Robert Walton
This is a song written in 1939 by a certain Siberian weather forecaster named Irving Berlin. It was inspired by a conversation between him and the British/Hungarian film producer Alexander Korda in a New York taxicab. The Munich agreement had just made both men momentarily miserable. The producer asked Berlin if he’d written a war song yet. A few blocks later the composer came up with a tune and lyrics. His head must have been swimming with tunes! (Perhaps something for Esther Williams was also brewing in the brain).
It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow was first heard in the 1940 Broadway musical Louisiana Purchase introduced by Irene Bordoni. It was recorded by Bea Wain and Tommy Dorsey with vocal by Frank Sinatra. Another Berlin “day” tune was the more grammatically correct It’s A Lovely Day Today from his 1950 musical “Call Me Madam”.
Despite it being virtually forgotten, It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow, a strongly optimistic melody in the key of C, still stands up well in the 21st century rather like a hymn. I remember it well. It was 1940 and I was at kindergarten. Come to think of it, it would have made an excellent national anthem. Most state-inspired tunes are pretty boring. Everyone remembers the strain but can’t actually place it. Like The Stars Will Remember the second 8 bar phrase suggests the song is about to finish but it’s only a false alarm. They both work. The melody of It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow has Vera Lynn written all over it rather like We’ll Meet Again, which became her theme. A Berlin tune always seems to find its way to just the right artist and sounds like it wrote itself. Two other tunes that attached themselves to Lynn and were also all the rage at the time: There’ll Always Be An England and another American original The White Cliffs Of Dover.
However the sensational thing about It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow was its perfect climax near the end on the word SAY (F minor). Very few songs have such a well placed summit with a large natural pause, giving the last few words “tomorrow is a lovely day” maximum emphasis. It’s as if the tune has been in a kind of knot and after direct contact with SAY has immediately untangled. I don’t know about you, but every time I land on something like this, I get a real feeling of peace and tranquility while wallowing in the wonderful sound it creates. It’s the greatest compliment a song can receive.
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