Robert Farnon as I see him, hear him and love him.
An affectionate tribute by MARC FORTIER
Intro : just a few bars … don’t be afraid …
I have been very fortunate to be raised listening to radio in my far North city of Jonquière, Province of Québec, Canada in the forties [Fortier..?) and fifties for I have listened to a lot of Robert Farnon’s compositions as themes of many CBC radio productions. At the time, I did not know the man behind the music and this revelation came decades later.
Gene Lees, the one and only Gene Lees, Jack of All Trades and Master of All, did ask me one day (years ago) "Do you know that tune?" He whistled it and I replied: "Of course!" He added a few others and the answer was always the same: I knew the music by heart. We were in Los Angeles, the weather was cool and the beer was cold at the Rodeo Bar in Beverly Hills. It was there that I met the man behind the music of Jumping Bean, Peanut Polka, Gateway to the West, Main Street and so many others.
Then came John Parry who shipped me, one day, a full box of LPs, documents and cassettes of various productions by the Guv. I was in awe! I think that he had understood from a previous conversation in Toronto that I was a fan and that I seriously needed to "finish my education …"
Thanks to both. Without them, maybe I would never have made the connection between the superb music and the superb man.
As I see him …
It is sufficient to see a photo of Mr Farnon and myself to get the message: he is a giant and I am ... who I am. At 5’6’’, I have been accustomed to deal with taller people (Mr Farnon, Gene Lees, Henry Mancini among others in the music field) and it never bothered me. The body size is not an issue here.
But the voice is!
Mr Farnon’s voice always fascinated me by its roundness, its solidity, its warmth and all the harmonics embellishing the primary tones. He always sounds like a 45 year old opera baritone at his best! Mozart would have chosen him for a role in many of his operas.
His profound and calm voice serves to show him as a man who has no fear, no regrets and no afterthoughts. He is a living example of the best philosophy a man can ever stick to: Live and let live !
And I think he does and always did.
After many years of correspondence by mail, fax and telephone, I first met Mr Farnon in Toronto on October 24th of 1997 at Manta Studio where many composers and arrangers gathered to see the man and listen to his teachings. I emceed the event with composer Victor Davies.
Besides him in front of that selected crowd of one hundred musicians, I felt smaller than ever, both physically and musically. We were all living a very special moment and we could feel the aura surrounding the Guv.
But, as soon as his voice filled the studio with its unique roundness and warmth, everyone felt as if he or she had known Robert Farnon for … let’s say … a year or two. This, of course, excluded old friends who had known him for decades like Pip Wedge and a few others.
As I hear him …
The Robert Farnon sound is a unique component of the universal symphonic world: it is pure, clean, new, fresh and always surprising as the man himsef.
Many a music analyst will scientifically conclude that Mr Farnon sounds a lot like Ravel or Delius and I dare say that it is all wrong: Robert Farnon sounds a lot like Robert Farnon.
More seriously, if I had to select a single composer of symphonic music to whom Robert Farnon compares in terms of style and perfection of orchestra writing, I would not hesitate: Antonin Dvorak !
Dvorak had inherited from Beethoven the strictness of the form and the luminosity of the colours. No fooling around, no detour, no fuzziness and no fill-ins: from the first bar to the last with the essentials, all the essentials and only the essentials. With no grey zone, no useless verbiage, no show-off and no disputable choices as far as harmony, counterpoint and instrumentation are concerned. Always the perfect balance.
At the Manta meeting in 1997, a student said that his teacher had told him this: Composing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Mr Farnon did not hesitate and replied : Exactly the opposite, young man !
And that is exactly how I hear the music of Robert Farnon: like Beethoven, it flows from source in a uninterrupted wave of sound and one would think that it had been written forever. It is natural because it pours from strict inspiration without any sweat, any hard labour and any concession to rules, tricks or camouflage.
This is where the separation is made between the Mozarts and Salieris, between those who have it all and those who have some of it.
As I love him …
Everyone has been told one day or the other by some fellow who knows things we do not that: Good guys never win !
Well, I have news for them. I have personally known a few big winners who happen or happened to be very good guys. Artists who reached the top with their sole talent, who made friends everywhere they set foot and who commanded respect, admiration and affection without really trying … They are or were simply like that: good talented fellows! ‘Name dropping’ is not my cup of tea but here it can illustrate my point: Vladimir Golschmann (who gave me conducting lessons), Morton Gould with whom I travelled over the hemispheres (North and South America, Europe, Africa and Australia) and Henry Mancini with whom I had good talks and a very respectful rapport (among those who left us) have been most successful, wealthy and beloved by everyone around. GOOD WINNING GUYS !
And, among those still here (and for a long time, I hope), how about Gene Lees, the man who really knows everything and who is one of the most lovable person I ever met. He also happens to be a superstar when time comes to write and talk about music and, knowing him for decades now, I know that he has won it all: fame, respect, affection, admiration and wealth!
How about that for Good guys who never win?
And now, the cherry on the sundae : Robert Farnon. Can anyone be, at the same time and for a whole life, a gentle giant simply loved by all those who have had the privilege to know him? Can there be a better example of fame and success in our field acquired through talent and goodness alone?
It must be quite a feeling to have achieved the greatest goals in one’s life and to have always been nice and easy with everyone… Ask Robert Farnon!
This article appeared in Journal Into Melody, Issue 159, June 2004.
Marc Fortier is well-known to music-lovers in Montreal. He has been responsible for keeping Robert Farnon’s name and music known in his native Canada for many years. Marc played a vital role in the 1997 celebrations in Ottawa, when Robert Farnon was honoured during his 80th year. As a result of Marc’s pressure (which involved copious amounts of correspondence and personal approaches), SOCAN and the Film Composers’ Guild also lent their support to this event, which Marc had been planning since 1991, hoping that the special concert could be staged at the time when Robert Farnon was celebrating his 75th birthday. Unfortunately this did not happen, but Marc’s persistence finally paid off with the memorable series of concerts which took place in Ottawa in October/November 1997, conducted by Victor Feldbrill.
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