Four Studies of Important Arrangements of the Classic Song Laura
Morton Gould’s arrangement
Analysed by Robert Walton
This is the first of four studies of important arrangements of the classic song Laura in the order they were scored.
In light music many of my favourite violin solos were played anonymously, mainly because they were just part of a faceless session orchestra. For me the finest violinist in the genre who has remained nameless is the brilliant soloist on Music In The Air by the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch. If anyone can identify him I would be very grateful.
So for once it’s marvelous to know the name of the instrumentalist. In this case it’s the American classical violinist Max Pollikoff who created the “Music In Our Time” series which commissioned and premiered hundreds of new serious works. However in the highly specialized world of light orchestral music, the solo violin tended to play in its upper register but on this occasion it’s at the lower end of its range sounding almost like a viola.
In my view, David Raksin’s Laura (1944) is one of the most beautiful melodies to grace the 20th century. Let me hasten to add, this fragment from the film of the same name wouldn’t have existed as a song without Johnny Mercer’s wonderful words. Such a complex tune would have probably remained unknown but for two “minor” miracles - the lyricist’s input and Raksin’s chords. So let’s see what Morton makes of it.
The arrangement played by rich strings (never saccharine) basically sticks to the original sheet music harmonies which are so gorgeous they hardly need altering. Pollikoff creeps in with a most haunting interpretation. I never fail to be moved to tears by his understated playing and tender vibrato. Lush strings come back for the second phrase after which the soloist again returns to caress the title. Note he always enters on the name itself “Laura”, not before. Completing the melody for the first time the stirring string section fulfils its mission with all it can muster.
Then the violin gives the impression of preparing to head for the heights to continue soloing, but in fact when it reaches the top it simply joins the other fiddlers acting as an enricher and melting into the crowd. At this point listen out for some very effective rubato which suits Laura down to the ground. And speaking of altitude, the “viola” returns to terra firma on the words “The laugh that floats on a summer night that you can never quite recall”.
Back to the strings for the main tune with a little touch of tremolo before some vintage céleste to taste. The tutti climax is absolutely stunning but Max Pollikoff’s final offering just has to be the highlight. It’s also an opportunity to hear his all-round ability on the instrument. Gould’s uncomplicated ending does full justice to his highly sensitive arrangement of one of the outstanding evergreens of all time, let alone the Great American Songbook. This 1947 Morton Gould setting was probably one of the first non-vocal versions to be recorded for the commercial market.
Robert Farnon’s arrangement
Analysed by Robert Walton
This track from the LP “Presenting Robert Farnon” was recorded in 1950 and produced by Tutti Camarata. It was a fantasy of Farnon’s to hear a large string aggregation play his setting of Laura. Well, thankfully he finally got his chance and his dream came true.
Without any preamble, he goes straight into the tune achieving far more impact than any introduction. After all, it worked perfectly well for When I Grow Too Old To Dream, Always and To A Wild Rose on the same disc. The famous Farnon strings in slow foxtrot tempo caress the lovely Laura as only they can. In the first break on the word “light”, the céleste provides some sprightly movement over a sustained chord (“misty light”). This small keyboard instrument sounding like the glockenspiel was a favourite decorative device of Farnon’s at the time, as well as being part of the backing behind vocal numbers.
In the next pause on the word “hall”, four lower string “brush” strokes give her portrait a bit more interest. The céleste returns to add some colour in the next section (“The laugh that floats on a summer night that you can never quite recall”). Typically Farnon doesn’t overdo the ornamentation at this early stage keeping it comparatively straight.
Then the arrangement starts to ever so slightly go up a gear (“and you see Laura”) with his unique unison violins gathering intensity and height but sounding like no other orchestrator. It’s hard to believe violins on the same note would instantly identify Farnon the founding father, but this master of mood music carries us all up into the ether whether we want to or not. To end the first chorus (“She gave your very first kiss to you”) back we go to a rich warm low-key affair slowing right down.
The harp then emulates a bell tolling, as if heralding a stirring solo in a violin concerto, interspersed by some glorious Gould-like swells. Never has popular music been so elevated. The strings gently conclude this lazy laid-back look at Laura by also providing some downward chromatic decoration with the harp for the coda. After landing on the home harmony, restless strings, not quite finished, take a little wander before finally coming to a halt. Note the irresistible dissonance between the sustained last note of the tune and the wayfarers. It’s all part and parcel of the Farnon genius.
David Rose’s arrangement
Anaysed by Robert Walton
The trademark Rose string sound (tune on top of a violin chord in the treble and celli on the same melody note two octaves below) instantly hits you for six as it declares this 1952 arrangement open. This calling card is Rose’s “fanfare!”. Never faraway in a Rose score is the oboe, a distinct reminder of the music of Victor Young at the start of an LP of Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose” read by Herbert Marshall. In Rose’s case the oboe makes its presence first felt in a fast descending scale, only to be assailed by the opening chord again. But we’re not quite through with the woodwind as the mellow bassoon adds its homage to our special lady.
After all that, we’re finally off with Rose’s rubato-ing strings sounding very much in control of the strain of this beautiful Italian, Spanish and English girl’s name. It’s the feminine form of the Late Latin male name Laurus. The oboe is back playing over “misty light” and the strings take us onwards to “the hall” when muted brass act as fillers, joined by a rhythm section, before taking over the tune with “The laugh that floats on a summer night”. Decorating the word “night” the violins produce an ethereal effect using harmonics. This is followed by a woodwindy “that you can never quite recall”.
Subdued strings, now minus rhythm, (“And you see Laura”) with a harp, clarinet and flute for company, move on to another sudden outpouring of emotion with a French horn ‘swimming’ inside the chord. And then gradually the strings build up for the end with small outbursts of musical steam like an unpredictable volcanic geyser site. The final wail from the “wall of sound” with echoes of the opening is repeated softly.
If ever a song was “felt” by an arranger then this must be it. Riddle did it with Vilia. But Rose takes Laura even further by becoming totally involved with the song and living every nuance. This is achieved by simply following his musical conscience. A melody and lyric of such distinction deserves no less.
Composed, arranged and conducted by David Raskin for the New Philharmonia Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton
Before we talk about the music, it might be worth recounting how Raksin got selected as composer for the 1944 film “Laura”. He was chosen quite by accident as it happened. There had been problems in the preparation of the production; so much so, it had become a “don’t touch it with a bargepole” picture, as anyone connected with it could be tainted. Otto Preminger wanted the studio’s top man Alfred Newman, but Al already had more films than he could handle. Bernard Herrmann turned it down on the basis that if it wasn’t good enough for Newman, it would hardly be suitable for him.
At the time, Raksin was considered too unconventional and inexperienced. But they’d reached the bottom of the barrel so Newman reluctantly assigned Raksin to do the job. Now for the first time Raksin was called to a screening in Darryl Zanuck’s darkened projection room. One of the scenes was to be cut quite savagely but the composer protested that no one would understand that the detective (Dana Andrews) was in love with Laura. There was a horrified hush as Zanuck asked who that was. An assistant informed him that it was Raksin. After more discussion, the composer incredibly got his way and Zanuck granted him permission to try. So Raksin’s chutzpah paid off. The composer was given the weekend to come up with a theme, otherwise Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady would be used. A tall order! As luck would have it, Raksin found what he was looking for just in time, and Laura was born, albeit only on a scrap of melody.....by Monday!
A truly radiant symphonic opening sets the scene for what promises to be a really special arrangement, more a fantasy really. When the horns come in, a feeling of hope fills the air, just like Venus, the Bringer of Peace from Holst’s “The Planets Suite”.
Hard to keep the oboe out of any arrangement, but there it is in all its plaintive glory singing out the first four bars of Laura twice. Some Farnon-like flute figures follow continued by the oboe. A single horn plays the tune if not accurately, but composer Raksin is perfectly free to do exactly what he likes. After all, the year was 1975. The second time the horn is joined by a glockenspiel that taps out some decorative notes in the appropriate places. Then the oboe and clarinet provide a bit of dramatic interest before the strings play with the melody before handing it on to a superb violin soloist. Wish we could have heard more of him/her. Then another soloist appears on the scene. It’s amazing how the sound of a cup-muted trumpet transports us instantly back to the Big Band Era.
Then cutting in on the last part of the tune, Raksin waltzes Laura around the ballroom in much the same way as Riddle did in the introduction of A Handful of Stars for Nat “King” Cole.
Now we get really symphonic with the New Philharmonia showing us what they’re made of. Never has the song had such a glorious treatment. Probably the most dramatic its ever received. Later in a subtle passing moment, the horn somehow manages to remind me of Mozart’s 4th Horn Concerto, while the oboe adds its colour to the kaleidoscope.
Finally the Big Band Era is again represented by that lone soloist giving the song that little touch of nostalgia that even a large symphony orchestra can’t quite reproduce.
posted by William Zucker
Friday, 27 November 2020 03:22
A potentially very interesting article. It touches on a point I frequently bring out, that a song writer frequently is just that, creates a melody, and the remainder is taken care of by arrangers who in their diverse manners are really the heart and soul of what we hear. For every arranger in a sense is setting forth by his interpretive arrangement what the melody means to him. And these various attempts, despite the identity of the same succession of melodic notes, impress as totally different compositions; their individuality dependent on their arranging skills. Indeed, with the best of them, the listener can often receive the illusion that these were meant to be heard in that manner and is inconceivable differently presented.Report Comment Link
I have never particularly delved into the various settings of "Laura," and in fact, at this point I don't even know the extent of Raksin's musicianship, whether the so-called implied harmonies we hear are really his own. But there are other songs that I have made a particular study of when it comes to diverse arrangements. I had mentioned Raksin's "Ruby" (Victor Young, Percy Faith, Richard Hayman, Les Baxter) some time ago in response to an article written by Bob some time ago; other examples that come to mind are Carmichael's "Stardust" (Andre Kostelanetz, Morton Gould, Robert Farnon, David Rose), Porter's "Begin the Beguine" (Andre Kostelanetz, Morton Gould, Ray Bloch), Arlen's "That Old Black Magic" (Andre Kostelanetz, Morton Gould, David Rose), Richard Rodgers Waltz Medley (Morton Gould, Leroy Anderson), South Pacific Medley (Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson), and so forth. Each of these that I mention and many that I haven't each have their own individual validity as individual creations irrespective of what the original song writer may have had in mind; they are in effect original compositions in the recognizable manner of the arranger in question.
(I will parenthetically state here that regarding one of my articles posted on the site, that David had the chance to read it before he passed on so that it never made it into the JIM magazine but he did express particular delight that I gave such emphasis as to the importance of the arranger in these situations. incidentally, we find such situations in the serious classical field as well, and in fact right through the performing repertoire going back even to the baroque period of Bach and Handel.
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I stated at the outset of my comment that this was a potentially interesting article, and certainly in my opinion, it could have been, had we been given an overview picture of each of the arrangements that Bob is talking about. Unfortunately, what I found upon reading this was the same preoccupation with instrumental detail as to what instrument is playing in what bar, and what instrument takes over in the next bar over phrase, which to me conveys nothing regarding what really differentiates one arrangement from another - the overall character or feel of the arrangement. I felt almost cheated as far as receiving information as to what the overall picture is about and how it differs from any of the others. I myself have never attempted an article among such lines, but I'm now thinking that it might be an excellent exercise for me.
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