05 May

Notes on a Possible Performance of Two Robert Farnon Selections, Consisting of Poodle Parade and Pictures in the Fire

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An article by William Zucker.

Again I turn my attention to some outstanding items in the field of light music, an area that unfortunately has been either neglected or else subject to a degree of condescension.

One might understand better my own stand in this matter when I state that in all genres of music, there is that which may be described as good or on the other hand inferior.  In this case, I make the distinction between these two by stating that in the first case the quality, in a considered opinion, would be that where a lover of serious music would still take a certain delight in.  On the other hand, that belonging to the second group could be described as akin to wallpaper or background music, and necessitating no further attention, except to say that admittedly opinions will differ as to just where this line of distinction should be drawn, as we all hear various musical works in our own manner, listen in regard to our own preoccupations, and most important, form our own images absolutely regardless of what the composer's original inspiration might have been or of any coincidental biographical occurrences.

I should point out that first of all, I am a pragmatist, in the sense that I take music as I find it. That is to say, I lay it out and examine it further to determine its real essence as I see it and how it may be made to best sound.  This perhaps is not as fashionable a view today as it might have been say around the turn of the 19th/20th century, and perhaps in that sense I might be considered an anachronism, perhaps to a degree controversial as well.  But I set my thoughts down to cause people who hopefully read my notes to think, even if they might not accept my premises.  I should hasten to add, perhaps as a consequence of what I have just stated, that I am no friend of any authentic movement, nor do I believe in slavishly following a printed score, including the watermark on the page if it comes to that, without any further thought or asking any questions.  A score at best can be only a rough guide to what is intended; one must be prepared to read between the lines or rather the notes - otherwise a performance will totally lack spontaneity and be rendered as altogether dry and lifeless and without any real interest.

In my descriptions I resort to a lot of technical terms.  There are several reasons for this:

First of all, as I am unable to reproduce in musical notation any examples of what I am referring to, I have to strain to describe exactly what it is that I am endeavoring to point out in any given score.  At the same time, I frequently refer to tonal relationships which I feel is an important factor in any composition.  I mention these because they are a very powerful governing factor in the structure of a piece - in a sense they are our compass points - and in actuality, I feel that it would be desirable in any event for my readers to have at least a very basic knowledge of some of the musical elements when dealing with a piece of music.  There are many books on the subject that will set these definitions down in a manner that the average listener will be able to absorb and understand.

I have gone into this rather extensive dissertation as I have included some new members of my reading audience in these descriptions, so I felt it desirable to give a summary of what my essays on the performances of various works (as well as my impressions of live concerts) are really about.  I will quickly add that I do not do these professionally, but simply share my views with those who are colleagues or interested listeners of my personal acquaintance.

Robert Farnon in his time was a consummate creator of light music of the most engaging and creatively original sort, and his own arrangements of popular standards had a distinction to them not to be found in that of many others engaged in this sort of work.  He performed and recorded with some of the top popular vocalists of the day, but we are here dealing with him as a composer.  I have picked out two of what I consider as among his best single sided selections, although as with any composer, to be perfectly candid, I would never claim to admire absolutely every note he has written any more than I would that of any serious composer - even from the great classical period, and I have written essays on the performance of works ranging from J.S. Bach to Mahler and R. Strauss, and hope to extend this to eventually include such names as Elgar, Sibelius, and Vaughan Williams.   But I should sum this up by stating that I only write such essays on works that have in some way very strongly and favorably left their impression on me to induce me to write such an essay.  I must also confess herein to a certain lack of zeal for many of the fashionable trends in music of today and at least one generation previous.

Anyway, enough of this introductory dissertation and to get on to the pieces I am dealing with here.  I consider Poodle Parade by Robert Farnon as worthy enough to spend time on, and I value it quite highly compared to other similar pieces written in this genre.

We begin with an introduction which immediately gives us a representation of what will become the main material of this piece. It goes through an enharmonic circle flatwards by downward major thirds, which takes three measures to return us to the original key, with the fourth measure engaged in providing a perfect cadence, followed by four measures of accompaniment to set the feeling and rhythmic pace of the whole.  Following this, the piece proper with its main material gets underway.

I must caution the conductor that the tempo - hopefully a suitable one for the general character and mood of the material - once established is never to be varied; there is no place in this entire piece that would call for such bending of tempo despite the contrast of ideas, especially within the middle section, to be dealt with in due course.

The main idea itself is a rather jaunty affair that skips around the range of the instrument executing it, with a liberal sprinkling of chromatic decoration to spice it up.  It is characterized by a certain "joie de vivre" which is very infectious and should be reflected in the performance.

The second strain moves up by sequences for each phrase, and the attendant crescendo should be very carefully graded; at the end of which, following the accent at the mini-climax, it must be seen to that the re-entrance of the main idea following this second strain will not be swamped on its first note.  A certain pulling back is clearly desirable to ensure a clearer re-entrance just referred to, and perhaps the up beat notes might be taken just a bit heavier in dynamics for just that moment, to allow for this.

We now come to the middle section following two transitory bars, in which I must unfortunately state that there are some issues that have come up - not in the piece as I know it, but rather in commentary that I have been reading, which I will get to after first dealing with what is presented first hand.

We have a lyrical theme which contrasts nicely with the sprightliness of the ideas that we have had hitherto.  Quite obviously, this melody should get full priority over everything else that might be taking place at this point.  In the background, we have a rather energetic byplay in the accompanying instruments - this may incidentally serve a function of filling in harmony along with those parts already so engaged. but the chief interest of it is rhythmic.  As such, it must be seen to that it serves purely in that function and is never permitted to interfere with the melody taking place,  The melody itself must be heard in a completely integral manner, so that the last note of a phrase may be heard to progress to the first note of the next phrase despite the break in this melody.  And the background byplay must never be heard independently so that the attention is misdirected toward it.  (I hope that I am making the point I'm struggling to put across.)

As the melody actually has triplet quarters in its course in various places, the four sixteenths per normal quarter in the background may be seen to provide a very engaging rhythmic contrast which should be latently felt, as it will give the melody a character of its own without obtruding itself.  The repetition of what I just outlined is given with further dynamic energy and consequently fuller scoring, but the whole general approach should be exactly the same.

The second strain of this middle section is again in contrast, with a degree of syncopation, and with all instruments participating engaged in the same manner unilaterally so that there is no rhythmic counterpoint involved here.  The modulations by sequence are another welcome change, as to this point we have never left the main tonic F Major.  We return to the lyrical idea with an eventual softening in dynamics and with the last bar before the cadence repeated in a further diminuendo, leading to the reprise which I see as one of the best handled I have come across in this genre; very smoothly done and thus a pleasure to listen to.

The reprise is virtually identical to what we had earlier with the main section, and thus all nuances, etc. should be applied exactly as before.  There is a slight expansion at the end as the main part gets a rather charming cross imitation treatment taking two additional bars (not to be considered as one line as I so often suggest in other situations).  After this cadences, the opening or introductory gesture reappears to round off the piece, and the whole closes with an energetic perfect cadence.

The issue that I referred to regarding the middle section concerns a review of a recorded performance where it is claimed that a counter melody may be heard here that could not be heard in the original recording (the only one I am truthfully familiar with).  I am not in any way doubting the veracity of the statement I read, but I am objectively questioning, and very seriously, the purpose of having a counter melody in addition to what is taking place, especially with the rhythmic complications that I referred to.  As the section as I know it seems absolutely perfect in its presentation, I personally would feel that any additional detail, which I would see as intrusive, would only spoil the effect.  It is possible that the composer had originally conceived the piece with that addition which did not come out in the recording, but based on what my senses tell me, especially after a lifetime in music, I feel constrained to stick to my guns on this issue.  A similar matter has arisen with another work by the same composer, entitled a la Clair Fontaine, where I actually have heard the additional and to me intrusive material, but I will not go into that on this occasion.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let me at this point proceed to the other piece of Mr. Farnon's that I have selected, Pictures in the Fire, within which let me assure that there are no such issues such as I have mentioned regarding this latter piece, at least none that I know of.

Overall, it has a searching, almost improvisatory character that really endears itself, quite different from the usual A-A-B-A configuration that is the usual scheme in most pieces in this genre (akin to a popular ballad).  This piece has a form all of its own, and let me add, I thoroughly enjoy playing this over on the piano (as I hear it - what I hear I find particularly easy to translate, without the aid of a score, as would be necessary in many other instances). The character that I am attempting to describe is akin to many of those ruminative works by Frederick Delius, many though not all of which I can similarly absorb myself in.

Mr. Farnon has frequently departed from or elaborated on the more usual A-A-B-A scheme, and I would like to cite here another conception that I greatly admire - the original elongated version of Journey Into Melody, perhaps less familiar to most, but the overall effect for me is far more interesting and engaging than the more familiar shortened version, as the momentarily ambiguous, searching introduction gives the rest a whole different perspective, and I definitely advocate the retention of this version in the repertoire of those conductors who specialize in the field of light music.

Anyway, getting on with this piece, Pictures in the Fire, I first have to make a general comment regarding tempos.  As the movement overall is quite free, with, as will be presently seen, much in the way of ritards and piu mossos as expressive devices, the most I can suggest would be to adopt a tempo for the respective sections that might seem the most reasonable and rational - neither too slow or too fast - but simply based on common sense when dealing with material of this sort.

The opening idea, which will carry over for a short distance, consists of an arpeggiated motive which reaches out to a note foreign to that arpeggio and repeatedly turns upon itself in basically coming back to that note.

There should be a considerable ritard on the II-V progression as we approach the perfect cadence introducing the tonic D Major for the first time, upon which we may resume the original tempo we started with.  The motive at this point, given by the solo violin (which assumes a primary factor in this piece) is similar to what was offered in the opening and frankly introductory section, but in this instance the arpeggiated motive reaches downward rather than upward as it did at first.

Those who simply read by what is on the printed page and so attempt to analyze what is taking place might be apt to think of this as a sort of counterstatement or response to the opening gesture, but if one actually would use one's ears, one would realize that such an analysis is erroneous.  The tonal movement always plays an enormous role in the proceedings, so that the appearance of the tonic at that point for the first time should be perceived as the point where the piece first really does get underway, regardless of what may take place later on. What the ear will pick up is of paramount importance despite how the composer may have thought of it originally.

The violin solo statement, after that one reference to the opening material, proceeds along quite its own lines, and as we approach the end of this manifestation, we may take a ritard, and especially hold the bars situated on the subtonic C Major before further proceeding.

After the C Natural in the bass has resolved downward to B, the transient modulations or rather key digressions range far and wide.  I would suggest at this point pushing things just a little - very carefully - until we arrive at the submediant major B Major, a relationship which is perfectly chosen, as it betokens a key area directly allied with the principal key, with a total absence of any tonal conflict or polarity.  At this point, we may for the moment settle into a stable tempo, perhaps the same as we had in the first portion.  The bluesy suggestions in the harmony add a tone of wistfulness and are most appealing in this context.

The texture for the moment breaks off and we proceed to an element calling for more earnestness of expression, so once again, we may push the proceedings just a bit, although we are still in B Major.  I of course here refer to the portion where the top part proceeds upwards F Sharp G Sharp D Sharp C Sharp F Sharp B etc.

At the end of this portion we must slow down again as we arrive at a frankly improvisatory display, consisting actually of a double enharmonic circle sharpwards for the most part by major thirds (meaning major mediant to major mediant).  Everyone of the phrases here should be considerably elongated in tempo and thus should increase as we move through the final stage of this, with the reappearance of the solo violin and its replacement by the oboe in the very last measure.

Thus, having come this way in this searching, rather tentative manner, with a considerable (though not excessive!) hold at the very last moment, a D Major chord, that of our original tonic, signifies a return to our original opening for this piece, to be given in precisely the same manner as at first, appropriately to be considered a Come Prima at this moment.

When we arrive at the original perfect cadence we had before and the solo violin re-enters as on the first occasion, after the first arpeggiated downward motive, the aim on this occasion is to sum up the piece as a whole.  We remain on a tonic pedal for the remainder of the piece ultimately to fully cadence the whole plagally.  The violin, after the first phrase, proceeds to rise to the stratosphere of its register, and for this entire statement, from its final re-entry to the closing bars, where it sustains the high D, a heartfelt mode of expression is very much desired here and should be indulged in by the soloist to the fullest - which is of course not to say that the solo violin's earlier appearances should have a lesser degree of expression, but simply that this particular factor is more of an issue here.  And the closing D Major chords by the orchestra will bring the piece to a fully satisfactory conclusion.

I have great pleasure in dealing with material of this nature even though I realize that much of it has fallen out of fashion; fortunately, there are some specialists in this field who are seeking to keep this genre alive.

I must regretfully comment that, while I am from the USA, having gone through examples of light music from various sources, must regretfully comment that the old tradition of both producing light music by skilled practitioners as well as the audiences for such, was always far more advanced in the UK than anything on the musical scene in this country.  This is not to say that we do not have something of our own to show for it - we do, after all, have our own strengths in this area, but I have to note that we have never produced a composer of light music so thoroughly embedded in this tradition than has the UK with Eric Coates, Albert Ketelbey, Edward German, and Haydn Wood, and I could name many others in this category.  The music of Robert Farnon is simply a further development of this same tradition.

Unfortunately, this sort of music appears to have become virtually a lost art, and the audiences for such appear to be not as extensive as in former times.  Personally, I would love to be informed that I am completely wrong in my assumption, with examples to show for it amongst some of our own, although as I will repeat, we do have our own strengths, but of a tradition that has for the most part lesser viability, and regrettably so.

As usual, I welcome all comments.

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1 comment

  • William Zucker posted by William Zucker Thursday, 18 June 2015 03:31

    At the time I wrote this particular essay, I was familiar only with Robert Farnon's original recording of "Poodle Parade" although I had read possibly in an issue of the JIM Magazine of a later version of the piece, wherein, due to its superior recording quality, one could note a countermelody in the middle section of the piece the allegedly could not be herad on the original recording. I had continually questioned the idea of this, as seemingly unbeneficial to the section as it would interfere with the presentation of the main lyrical melody, the clarity of which one would properly think would matter most of all. And I maintained my firm opinion that no countermelody would be desirable at that point, regardless of what Mr. Farnon may have actually intended.

    Subsequently, I have been enabled to listen to later versions of this piece, by Mr. Farnon himself as well as by one Leslie Jones, and have come to discover that there is no countermelody at all; what is notably different about these later recordings is that one can hear the accompanying byplay in the other parts much more clearly. Opinions may differ on this, but I personally feel that this enhanced clarity in the recording is not necessarily for the good, as now the main melody is to be balanced forward much more in order to maintain its integrity against this more prominent accompanying background. As a result, I will continue to prefer Mr. Farnon's original recording of "Poodle Parade," and will say the same regarding his original recording of "A La Clair Fontaine" which I have had occasion to refer to several times already in the JIM publication.

    As for "Pictures in the Fire," I have noted that the earlier recording by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra, is lacking a few bars; specifically those that I refer to in the description with the harmonies that have a "bluesy effect." By the time Mr. Farnon made the recording with his own orchestra, the bard in question were inserted, making for a much smoother and less abrupt transition. I have briefly referred to this in one of my other essays posted on this site, and accordingly, am given to greatly prefer this latter version by his own orchestra.

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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.