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
Arranged by Russ Case
Analysed by Robert Walton
Back in the days of 78 records some of the best numbers would have slipped through the net if it hadn’t been for the phenomenon of B sides. Many of them were so beautiful they often musically outshone the hit itself. Hence the practice of meticulously checking both sides. So I was assigned to the “Case!”
One of the first such discs that caught my attention was the unforgettable Haunted Heart from the Broadway musical revue “Inside USA” on the reverse of Bing Crosby’s A Bluebird Singing In My Heart on Australian Decca. I really fell in love with that song - a song as strong as Schwartz & Dietz’s better-known Dancing In the Dark. And of course it helped the way Bing crooned it. But what I couldn’t get my head around was the fact it was so under-recorded, especially instrumentally. However over the years the song gradually became so renowned that everyone wanted to get in on the Haunted Heart act. These include Vic Damone, Bill Evans, Guy Lombardo, Jane Monheit and Renée Fleming but I’ve got news for the vocalists. It had all been done before and much better. Bing Crosby of course and Perry Como accompanied by no less than the star of this article, Russ Case.
However the real hero of this song had no competition whatsoever - Jo Stafford - pop singer extraordinaire who absolutely out-sang everyone, even opera singers who dared to have a go at this virtual “aria”. I would love to hear Stafford tackle a few real arias by Puccini or Verdi.
So let’s hear Russell D Case’s gorgeous arrangement of Haunted Heart played by his orchestra. It contains all the nuances and subtleties of a most distinguished song, nothing clever but just a simple, straightforward orchestration of a tune that asks for nothing more. I think tenderness is the word that covers it perfectly. A marvelous blend of oboe, horn and strings start the track leading into this evocative melody, with rubato playing a vital role in the first section. After a deliberate stop the piece goes into a Latin American tempo. With perfect restraint the brass adds a certain piquancy to the finished product followed by a close and personal bassoon. The whole thing might take just over two minutes but what pure pleasure a single light orchestral number can bring.
100 Greatest American Light Orchestras - 3
Guild Light Music GLCD 5253
by Alexander Gleason
The classic Robert Farnon discography is one of the great triumphs of musical research from the pre-computer days, when collating information about a composer's life & works was nothing short of damned hard labour (many's the hour I've spent laboriously trawling through catalogues and periodicals at the old National Sound Archive in South Ken)
Thanks to the combined efforts of David Ades, Don Furnell, Michael Maine and Alan Bunting, a definitive listing of Farnon's musical works was achieved (and, happily, it's viewable on this site). Likewise, the filmography which was part of that publication (also viewable here) is a fair work of research too, dealing with 25 feature films and the three documentaries ..... AHA! However, there's the problem – not so hot on the docs, I'm afraid. In the boys’ defence, information about documentary films was not readily available in the 1970s, and unlike the discography, the filmog has never really been updated, so I'm pleased to say, I think I can now clarify some (if not all) of the missing info on the short films (not in chronological order)
Firstly there is "This is London" (released in 1956 not 53) made by Associated British Pathe (i.e. Pathe News) for the British Travel Association – a good sturdy London travelogue designed for the American tourist market. Narrated by Rex Harrison – at that time probably America's best known Englishman (My Fair Lady) -- it's a 17 minute lightening tour around the sights of the capital. The score is a big orchestral tour-de-force played by the Symphonia orchestra – with nice title music including the Big Ben motif and a very pleasing bustling shopping theme. Many Farnon enthusiasts will already know this film; it's Bob on fine 50s form. It's been viewable on YouTube for several years now – 'London' and 'Rex Harrison' should be enough for the search box.
That one was pretty straightforward – the next one took me many years to solve. The filmography lists 'Time and Space' produced for Time-Life/Longines date unknown, and I spent far too much time scouring the databases and film library catalogues for that title, to absolutely no avail. Finally, the answer came – again thanks to YouTube.
Just about all the details above turned out to be wrong.
"Travelling through Time" is a 1965 largely animated documentary made for Rolex and PanAm Airlines (odd combination) – it deals with the concept of timekeeping, its history and how it will be adapted for the forthcoming space-age. It looks and sounds American, until you see it's researched and written by E.V.H. Emmett (the voice of Gaumont British News for some thirty-odd years). The score is minimal, but there are a few nice hints of the Farnon jazzy big-band sound, which I'm sure will please many.
'Rolex' 'Pan American' will be quite suitable key-words for a YouTube search
(It is incidentally a sequel to a 50s colour documentary – The Story of Time with a brilliant score by Guy Warrack – also worth viewing if you're interested in watches!)
Finally, 'Red Cross Documentary' (c.1946) remains a work in progress.
For perhaps three decades I have grappled with this one, and I think I have almost got it. I believe it to be a charity appeal short; more like1948 called "Just in Case" with a Farnon orchestral score conducted by Muir Mathieson. The British Red Cross have an archive, but very few films – they do however have this one and with their help, I hope to view it shortly, and will make a further report.
With any luck, after all these years, we will soon have all the Farnon documentary scores sorted out and included in a properly revised and definitive filmography.
Analysed by Robert Walton
The sounds of nature, and particularly those of birds have always appealed to serious composers. It was Messiaen who religiously notated the songs of all French birds classifying them by region. In his “Pastoral Symphony” Beethoven gives us the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo. The latter has it all to itself in “On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring” by Delius. However perhaps the best known and much loved work in the classical field is Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.
But I believe the most subtle and effective bird compositions are to be found in British Light Music especially around the middle of the 20th century. If you’re familiar with the genre, you’ll know the finest of these were produced by the Chappell Recorded Music Library.
At first hearing, the casual listener might easily dismiss Up With The Lark as an innocuous piece of background music. Certainly in the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra’s repertoire it’s one of the lesser-known titles simply because it hasn’t got a memorable melody. That may be, but what’s lacking tune-wise is more than made up for in the atmospheric department. It was definitely not an “in-your-face” piece of mood music, so could easily pass you by.
This early 1947 classic offered plenty of clues as to its creator and origins. Above all, Up With The Lark demonstrated Robert Busby’s meticulous attention to detail and total command of orchestration, as well as contributing in no small part to that unique sound for which the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra is famous. Together with household names like Robert Farnon and Sidney Torch, backroom boy Busby brought his own brand of freshness to the genre. Up With The Lark describes a typical early morning scene when most of us are still sleeping. It’s an understated portrait of “rise and shine”
Something stirred as gentle strings start the proceedings of this very British sounding sunrise, followed by the trumpets that quietly herald a new day with a soft “fanfare” decorated by some industrious woodwind. The strings then come into their own with, what for me, is the defining moment of the whole piece - an all too brief magical moment, free from the confines of conventional form. It’s perhaps depicting the skylark’s downward dive to her nest on the ground, but at the same time trying not to give away its flight path. Now a bouncy little melody featuring the strings ends in two excitable flurries leading back to the opening played by the woodwind. You need to concentrate though because everything happens so quickly. The strings stay with the action with some delightful decoration. The brass returns for a further “fanfare”, while the lark provides another spectacular display of descending precision aeronautics.
Suddenly Up With The Lark undergoes a complete change of mood and direction as brass and strings crescendo up to a higher key. Gradually it dawns on me that the composition, with echoes of Eric Coates is in fact a march....and has a melody! The mood may seem a million miles from this rural/urban scene but on second thoughts it’s probably the ideal rhythm to get up and go. As we near the end of this section, notice how Busby squeezes every ounce of emotion out of the beautifully climaxed tune. But you can’t keep the “fanfare” away for long, because back it comes with flutes, harp, strings and oboe. And proving there’s never a dull moment, the oboe’s solo is cut short making way for a flute trill, followed by an even more dramatic one with string support (similar to the signature tune of Edgar Lustgarten’s “Scotland Yard” series). But it’s straight back to the top for a rerun of that delightful opening dawn chorus.
In the coda instead of a final “fanfare”, we get a sustained brass chord, over which the lark floats back down to earth. This is met by a busy bassoon and the rest of the woodwind. After a string chord provides the first part of a perfect ending, we hear the instrument Clive Richardson was fond of, the haunting vibraphone pipped at the post by the harp.
Up With The Lark played a vital role of an exciting new chapter in the history of descriptive music. Robert Busby’s seemingly effortless brushstrokes show him to be a true pioneer of musical canvasses. It’s so compelling you almost forget the music and become lost in this gorgeous idyll.
Inevitably it’s bound to draw comparisons with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, a fifteen minute Romance for violin and orchestra. Conversely Up With The Lark is a two and a half minute hands-on reality check of nature. Perhaps Busby’s piece should be renamed The LarkDescending !
The original recording of Up With The Lark, played by the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch, is available on the Guild CD “String Fever” (GLCD 5150)