Analysed by Robert Walton
One of the most underrated light orchestral composers, arrangers and conductors of the 20th century was unquestionably Peter Yorke. He successfully introduced the element of surprise into his work and in some ways was even more symphonic than George Melachrino. Yorke was a master of the dramatic gesture. A typical example of what I mean is in “Till The Clouds Roll By” selection. Listen to the connecting passage between Who and Ol’ Man River. Talk about putting an instant stamp on your music. No one slept during a Yorke performance, especially live!
His formula probably had its roots in his 1930’s soundtrack work for British films and especially as chief arranger for Louis Levy’s Gaumont British Film Orchestra. The opening of “Blue Skies” (1946) has a suggestion of “James Bond”, showing that Yorke was clearly ahead of his time. Everything he wrote contained constant references to serious music, and how effective it was. Yorke was also an enthusiast and expert of the big finish. Above all he was a ‘mood’ writer in its purest form.
And for those of you familiar with his film selections, you’ll know, unlike Eric Coates for example, he had a natural feel for jazz, having appeared as pianist/arranger with many British dance bands. His brilliant string writing was full of imagination and humour, but the sound most associated with Yorke, (a total antidote to all the drama) were his shimmering, simmering saxophones. Unlike Wilbur Schwartz’s clarinet lead for Glenn Miller’s reed section, Yorke opted for a pure saxes-only subdivision. Lead by golden-toned soprano saxist Freddy Gardner, there’s never been a blend to equal it in all music. Reverberating around the world, it was one of the most unique sounds in the light orchestral firmament.
From a personal point of view, I owe a lot to Peter Yorke’s film selections, because that’s exactly where I first heard some of the great standards which have remained with me ever since. He had a knack of somehow getting under the skin of a tune and treating it with genuine respect. Also his medley format probably acted as a model for both Wally Stott’s selections for Sidney Torch and his symphonic suites for Stanley Black’s Kingsway Promenade Orchestra.
There’s quite a bit of drama too in the real life story of Yorke. I call it a “Tragedy in Triplicate”. Firstly the maestro himself died at the relatively young age of 63. His soloist, alto sax supremo Freddy Gardner passed away at 39, whilst Yorke’s stylish singer Steve Conway with a similar timbre to Al Bowlly, was taken from us far too early at the age of 31. Thank goodness so much wonderful material had already been committed to wax by the talented trio. Gardner’s alto sax solo classic was I Only Have Eyes For You while Conway’s Souvenir de Paris somehow captured the atmosphere of the French capital as never before.
Away from his film selection commitments, Yorke also arranged for other popular singers of the time. One of his best string backings was For You for Donald Peers. I once spoke to Peers in New Zealand about that arrangement and he totally agreed.
After all that background information, let’s take a close look now at that very English sounding tune, Melody Of The Stars, but be prepared for a slight shock at the start, especially if your volume control happens to be a little too high. Yes, Yorke’s at it again! Just as we’re beginning to settle down to this lovely gentle tune, two musical “clunks” remind us that Peter is lurking. The first chorus gathering up a bit of steam comes to a typically positive end that only Yorke could dream up.
Then an even lovelier lighter section takes over, but don’t be fooled by its apparent Yorke-ish charm. Be prepared for a series of menacing warning shots creating tension before returning to the main tune. As Melody Of The Stars gradually builds for the last time, listen out for Yorke’s unique melodic style at the closing moments of this stirring piece. Briefly leaving the light orchestral world behind, we enter what could almost be the triumphant finale of a Mahler symphony.
Compared with an earlier elegant and dainty age of 1930s light music, Peter Yorke introduced more daring features into his “Roaring 40’s” orchestrations, while at the same time composing some of the most beautiful melodies of our time.
Revisiting the work of Peter Yorke after all these years has been a total revelation and joy, finally recognizing his amazing talent and true worth in the world of popular music and particularly light orchestral music. In this genre, Yorke had no rivals!
Melody Of The Stars is available on
“The Show Goes On” Guild Light Music
I cannot contain my excitement over my discovery this afternoon of the day I'm writing this comment, that only a few days prior, a whole bunch of Peter Yorke selections (hitherto unfamiliar to me) have been posted on YouTube, originating from an unknown source. These appear to have been excerpted from a series of albums devoted entirely to Peter Yorke's work, so that one can get a comprehensive sample of his work, coming from albums titled as follows:
"Country Villages," "Wartime Drama," Hollywood Glamour and Romance," "Light Activity," "Industrial Wartime," and this appears not to be the end of this as more selections may be expected out of these albums and elsewhere.
My prior comments on and enthusiasm for Mr. Yorke's work remain exactly the same. The selections I've listened to thus far show the same individuality as those I'm more familiar with, always holding the attention, as they are never generic in any way as so many other light music selections often can be.
As I previously stated, perhaps in the JIM magazine; some of the selections appear to have been originally intended as background music for documentaries or newsreels by their extreme brevity and not really meant to stand on their own, despite their considerable quality - which makes me speculate that the composer would have been well advised to expand some of these shorter selections into full fledged pieces.
Nevertheless, these are extremely engaging pieces that really do hold the attention, and I feel that many of Bob Walton's statements in his article are really quite apropos - "Symphonic" - "Element of surprise" - "Nobody ever slept through a Yorke performance, especially live" - really sums it up. It is inevitable that in this group of pieces, I would prefer some over others, but regardless, I would still recommend a listen to those enjoy light music of a variety that comes close to serious music, and particularly to anyone having a particularly affinity with Peter Yorke's work as representing the absolute best in the category of light music.
It has been quite a day for me. Firstly, this morning I listened to and watched a video presented on YouTube by a poster with whom I've formed an on line friendship with, and whose videos I've been regularly critiquing, offering personal opinions as to how I receive them. Today, I viewed a video using snatches of selections by Frederick Delius, in which the videographic realization was so well matched to the music, which rarely occurs for me, as I usually prefer to take an absolutist approach to the music and allow my brain to evolve its own images, however subconsciously. However, in this case, I felt that the result was so successful as to cause many Delius doubters out there (there are unfortunately far too many of those, I'm sorry to say) to finally sense what the music of this composer was about. Incidentally, from this source I have also viewed works in all genres including a number of light music selections.
Now later on in the day, I find Bob Walton has written an analysis of a work by a favorite light music figure of mine; namely, "Melody of the Stars" by Peter Yorke. Now I have extolled on the virtues of Peter Yorke's work on many occasions, and have posted a comment on David Ades' article in the Legends section of the site, as well as having contributed words of my own on his work in the JIM magazine. Under the circumstances, I could scarcely disagree with anything that Bob says in his analysis, even if we came upon our opinions of Peter Yorke's work via entirely different respective routes; Bob's by virtue of the film music and various arrangements of popular standards (with and without Freddie Gardner), and myself through his many light music selections. In the article in the Legends section, David listed a number of original Peter Yorke selections, and in my comment, I listed fully as many additional ones.
The vast majority of those I have listened to I find to be completely exemplary and definitely worthy of closer attention.
Peter Yorke worked notably in the dance band field, was one of the most sought after arrangers during the 1920's and 1930's, and in fact during the late 20's, there is a very rare recording of him as a jazz pianist which may be heard on YouTube, which at the same time betrays his essentially classical background. I understand that in his earlier years he worked as a church organist with a choir - please correct me if I'm wrong - but a classical background would be indispensable for this sort of work.
Although my prime focus has always been on his own light music selections, and I tend to give less attention to his arrangements of popular standards, there are in fact some that I could single out as at least in my own opinion worthy of individual attention. I've always particularly liked his setting of Berlin's "Lady of the Evening" and "The Girl that I Marry," along with Herbert's "Moonbeams," and I'm sure there are others here and there that I could pick out if I thought about it for a while.
I don't know about any comparison with George Melachrino, although that one's compositions are noteworthy in themselves - but getting back to Peter Yorke and the suggestion of classical strains in his music, his "Ascot Enclosure" does bring to mind for me the celebrated Coda from the third act of Glazunov's ballet "Raymonda," and one may find this sort of thing in the work of practically every top notch light music composer and arranger, for as I may have mentioned before, the best of them were classically trained, and it does show in their work.
Listening to this work, "Melody of the Stars," I found it to be somewhat heavier in texture than what I'm accustomed to hearing from this source, but none the worse for that. It makes its point cogently, although I felt that the composer seemed to lose his way in passing to the middle section, but that was simply the impression I got on a first hearing.
Unfortunately, Peter Yorke was hardly alone when it came to our favorite figures being taken from us prematurely.
Leroy Anderson and Percy Faith both passed on in their late 60's, and Victor Young, one of my own personal favorites on this side of the Atlantic was tragically taken from us when only 56.
Just as with my on line friend who posted one of her best videographic realizations today, at least in my opinion, Bob Walton has similarly given us one of his best analyses to date, even if perhaps I am a bit prejudiced in favor of the figure to whom he has given attention on this occasion.