Robert Farnon: a legend of light music
For most of the second half of the 20th century, Canadian-born Robert Farnon was generally regarded as the greatest living composer of Light Orchestral music in the world. Farnon was also revered as an arranger of quality popular songs, having influenced most of the top writers on both sides of the Atlantic during the second half of this century. He has also produced some memorable film scores, and could have earned considerable fame and fortune had he decided to settle in Hollywood. But it is our good fortune in Britain that he chose to make his home with us.
He was born on 24 July 1917 in Toronto, Ontario, the third of four children. The eldest was his sister Norah; the other three were boys who all made their careers in music. Older brother Brian (born 27 November 1911) has enjoyed a glittering career on the US West Coast - at one time with Spike Jones and more recently at resorts such as Lake Tahoe. Younger brother Dennis (13 August 1923) achieved universal fame through his quirky scores for the "Mr. Magoo" cartoons. He also wrote a great deal of music in later years for London publishers’ background music libraries.
While still in his teens, Bob Farnon became a household name through his many programmes on radio, especially the long-running "Happy Gang". He occupied the lead trumpet chair in Percy Faith’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Orchestra, also contributing vocal arrangements for the show. In 1940 Faith decided to leave for greener pastures in the USA, and Farnon was invited to take over the baton. This provided a wonderful opportunity to develop his arranging skills, bringing him to the attention of Paul Whiteman and Andre Kostelanetz.
Like so many young writers, he yearned to create more serious works, and by 1942 he had composed two symphonies which were performed by leading orchestras in North America. He tended to be somewhat dismissive of these works (to the disappointment of his admirers), and all suggestions that they should be polished for new performances were politely, but firmly, declined. Perhaps his reluctance was due to the fact that he has "borrowed" some of the themes from both symphonies for his later works.
As conductor of the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, Farnon came to Britain in September 1944, working alongside Glenn Miller and George Melachrino, who fronted the American and British bands.
At the end of the war Farnon took his discharge in Britain, finding the musical scene more suited to his talents, so that he could work in films, radio and the recording industry. In Britain he had discovered an area of music previously little known to him. We call it Light Music (not an entirely satisfactory title for a musical form which can embrace many different styles). In North America it tends to be labelled "Concert Music", but during Farnon’s adolescence it rarely entered into his musical ambit.
But that is not to say that he was ignorant of its possibilities. He had been working on a series of "symphonettes" which were later to form the basis of compositions such as "Willie The Whistler" and "Jumping Bean". One valuable musical aspect of World War II was that musicians conscripted into the forces were no longer subjected to commercial pressures, so they could develop their ideas to test public reaction, without having to worry about the financial consequences of any failures. Farnon revelled in the freedom that this offered, but he need not have worried about disappointing his public: they were delighted with each and every one of his innovative ideas.
Which brings us neatly back to the British musical scene, as discovered by Captain Robert Farnon. For the first time he heard the music of Eric Coates, Haydn Wood, Charles Williams and the other exponents of Light Music ... and he realised just how closely his own ideas had, unknowingly, been moving in their direction. Of course, he brought a virile, north American freshness and approach which might have seemed to be at variance with the slightly more "genteel" British style. In truth, the work of Farnon and his young contemporaries breathed new life into a musical form which could well have faded away during the 1950s.
Farnon did not confine himself to Light Music. After all, he had been brought up in an atmosphere of big bands and show music. While living in Toronto he made frequent visits to New York, where he would call in at Minton’s, generally regarded as the birthplace of "bebop". It was not rare for him to be asked to join a jam session. His close friends at this time included Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson; those friendships were to endure throughout their lives.
Despite a very demanding schedule of broadcasts for the Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme of the BBC, Farnon managed to do some "moonlighting". His colleagues remember how he used to listen to American broadcasts on short wave radio, writing down the notes of the latest hits as they were being performed. During his spell in Faith’s orchestra he had learned how to "switch off" from his surroundings and work on a score -- something that did not always endear him to Faith!
Farnon’s inventive ideas were soon noticed by our own bandleaders. Lew Stone, Ambrose and Ted Heath were not slow to add Farnon scores to their libraries, and soon after taking his discharge Farnon joined the Geraldo Organisation as an arranger. When Geraldo travelled to the USA in 1947, for a while Farnon took over the Band for its broadcasts and recordings. It is perhaps surprising (as well as disappointing) that more Farnon scores from this period did not find their way on to commercial recordings - after all, the afore-mentioned bandleaders all had good recording contracts. Just recently researchers cataloguing the Geraldo library have been amazed at the amount of Farnon material it contains.
The Robert Farnon Orchestra began to broadcast regularly on BBC radio and television, both in its own programmes and also supporting big stars such as Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields. Decca signed Farnon as a ‘house conductor and arranger’, and his name appeared on numerous 78s providing backings for the likes of Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields, Denny Dennis, Paul Carpenter, Beryl Davis, Reggie Goff, Dick James, The Johnston Brothers, Scotty McHarg, Donald Peers, Ronnie Ronalde, Norman Wisdom, Anne Shelton .. and even the Ilford Girls Choir. Vera Lynn’s first big US hit - "You Can’t Be True Dear" - also featured the Farnon Orchestra.
Naturally he was anxious to bring his own music to the public’s attention. Thanks to his radio broadcasts, British listeners were starting to notice the bright, fresh Farnon sound, and towards the end of 1948 Decca released one of the finest Light Music 78s ever recorded - "Jumping Bean" coupled with "Portrait Of A Flirt". These two Farnon originals have become part of the folk lore of British Light Music, and they undoubtedly influenced a generation of composers in this genre.
Although it has to be said that he never received the promotional support he deserved from his record company, his contract with Decca produced many fine albums which became models of orchestration, often copied by leading arrangers on both sides of the Atlantic. Andre Previn called Farnon: "The greatest living writer for strings". John Williams (writer of "Star Wars" and many of Hollywood’s best scores during the past 30 years) happily acknowledges his debt to Farnon, as did the late Henry Mancini. Other top writers who are not ashamed at being labelled "Farnon sound-alikes" include Johnny Mandel, Patrick Williams, Don Costa, Patrick Williams, Angela Morley, Marty Paich ... the list is almost endless.
Over 40 films have benefited from a Farnon score, notably "Spring In Park Lane", "Maytime in Mayfair" and "Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.".
From the 1940s onwards Farnon has produced a steady stream of Light Music cameos, which have been used regularly by radio and television stations around the world - often as signature tunes (eg. "Colditz", "The Secret Army"). Pieces such as "Jumping Bean", "Portrait Of A Flirt", Journey Into Melody, "A Star Is Born" and "Westminster Waltz" have become standards, instantly recognisable, even if the title may sometimes elude the listener. His more serious works have included "A La Claire Fontaine", "Lake Of The Woods", "Rhapsody For Violin and Orchestra" and "Cascades To The Sea".
By the end of the 1940s he had established himself as a "name" in Britain. For the next 20 years he composed hundreds of pieces of Light Music, mostly for Chappell’s Recorded Music Library. During this period he also arranged countless popular songs for broadcasts and recordings, conducted his orchestra in numerous radio and television programmes and made a series of LPs that have become prized collectors’ items. His concert tours took him to many parts of Europe and Canada; he worked briefly in the USA and was always in demand for film scores. Commissions flowed in from the BBC and others. Notable works in this area included "The Frontiersmen", "Rhapsody For Violin and Orchestra", "Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra" (for harmonica virtuoso Tommy Reilly), and "Saxophone Tripartite", commissioned by the Musicians’ Union for another Canadian musician, Bob Burns.
In other words, Farnon was a busy working conductor / composer / arranger who was fortunate to be around at a time when radio stations, in particular, were still actively supporting live music. This helped to gain him the public recognition which made many of his other activities possible.
Inevitably nothing stays the same, and as the end of the 1960s approached many of Farnon’s colleagues found that broadcasters and recording companies no longer needed so many of them. But Farnon’s international reputation ensured that his career would take a new -- and perhaps even more illustrious -- direction.
In 1962 Farnon was musical director on "The Road To Hong Kong" with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Joan Collins. ("They blamed me for killing off the series!" he joked recently. "It was the last ‘Road’ film they ever made!")
Then in June of that year, Farnon arranged and conducted Frank Sinatra’s one and only British album "Great Songs From Great Britain". It had a mixed reception at the time, partly due to Sinatra’s voice sounding a little tired - not surprising, because he was just completing a world tour when the sessions (in the middle of the night) took place. In fact Sinatra refused to let one track "Roses of Picardy" be included, and it was many years before the album was released in the USA, although it had been available in the rest of the world. A few years ago the CD issue included "Roses of Picardy", and contemporary criticisms now seem harsh. Even if Sinatra does struggle occasionally to hit the top notes, the Farnon scores stand out.
The next year Farnon was in Copenhagen recording an album for Sarah Vaughan - "Vaughan With Voices" which also featured the Danish Svend Saaby Choir. Clearly he had secured his place among the elite of top arrangers for the biggest stars.
Farnon’s long and fruitful association with Tony Bennett began in 1968. Together they made several classic albums, a television series and appeared in many concerts, notably a charmed occasion on 31 January 1971 when Farnon conducted the London Philharmonic for Bennett at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the building’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
During the past 25 years many other top singers and instrumentalists have expressed the wish to have Farnon arrange and conduct for them. Clashing commitments and problems over contracts have prevented some from proceeding, the most disappointing being on-off projects with both Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Although they’ve performed in concerts and on television, Farnon never managed to achieve his ambition to record with either of these long-standing friends.
But the following list of some collaborations which have taken place is impressive: Tony Coe, saxophone (recorded 1969); Singers Unlimited ("Sentimental Journey" in 1974, and "Eventide" in 1976); Lena Horne (for "Lena - A New Album" in 1976); Ray Ellington (1978); George Shearing ("On Target" 1979/1980 and "How Beautiful Is Night" 1992); Jose Carreras (1983); Pia Zadora ("Pia and Phil" 1984, "I Am What I Am" 1985); Sheila Southern (1986); Eileen Farrell ("This Time It’s Love" 1990/1991, "It’s Over" 1991, "Here" 1992/1993, "Love Is Letting Go" 1994/1995); Joe Williams "Here’s To Life" (1993); J.J. Johnson ("Tangence" 1994); Eddie Fisher in 1995 - yet to be released; and with Carol Kidd in 1998.
Farnon’s work has often been recognised by his peers. In Britain the foremost awards for the music (as opposed to the entertainment) industry are the Ivor Novello Awards. Farnon’s tally: "Westminster Waltz" in 1956; "Sea Shore" 1960; "Colditz March" 1973; and "Outstanding Services to British Music" in 1991. Across the Atlantic Farnon received Grammy nominations for arrangements in 1976 for "Sentimental Journey" (on a Singers Unlimited album) and in 1992 "Lush Life" (sung by Eileen Farrell). He finally reached the top for Best Instrumental Arrangement of 1995 - "Lament" on the J.J. Johnson album "Tangence".
For 46 years Farnon lived on the Channel Island of Guernsey, where he continued to compose and arrange until the end of his life. During his 80th year several concerts of his music took place, both in Britain and in Canada, and BBC Radio-2 broadcast a special Tribute to him in its Arts Programme just a few days after his birthday - on Sunday 27th July 1997 at 11.00 pm. Earlier on the same day Bob was in London at the Bonnington Hotel for an afternoon and evening of celebrations (including a Dinner) arranged by the Robert Farnon Society, at which many of his friends and colleagues from the music business were present.
Perhaps the most memorable celebrations for Robert Farnon’s 80th year took place in his own homeland. In October 1997 he was invited to Toronto, where he met many fellow writers at a special gathering organised jointly by the Guild of Canadian Film Composers and the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada. He then went on to Ottawa, to attend three concerts at the National Arts Centre on 30, 31 October and 1 November. The National Arts Centre Orchestra was conducted by Victor Feldbrill in a splendid programme of original compositions and arrangements by Robert Farnon, one of the notable highlights being a performance of his "Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra". During this visit Farnon was the centre of attention from the local media, with many reports of his visit appearing on radio and television programmes, and in the local and national press.
During his Canadian visit, Farnon was commissioned to compose a major work for piano and orchestra. The result is his ‘Concerto for Piano and Orchestra - Cascades to the Sea’ (1998), which has already been broadcast in Britain and the USA. It was issued on a commercial CD by Vocalion in 2002.
The general resurgence of interest in Light Music has meant that Robert Farnon’s true genius as one of the major composers of the 20th Century is now being fully recognised. His importance was finally acknowledged by his homeland: he was awarded the Order of Canada early in 1998.
In the Spring of 2003, the British record company Vocalion, in association with the Robert Farnon Society, completed a major project to reissue Robert Farnon's Decca albums from the 1950s on new CDs. His music is also appearing on other labels, mainly thanks to the efforts of The Robert Farnon Society.
Early in 2004 Robert Farnon completed a new Symphony – his third – which he dedicated to Edinburgh, having been captivated by the city on a visit to the Edinburgh Festival. Appropriately the first performance of this importance work was programmed at the Usher Hall on 14 May 2005, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Iain Sutherland.
Sadly Robert Farnon died in Guernsey on Saturday 23 April 2005, just three weeks before the premiere of his symphony. He was 87, and incredibly was still working on new compositions. His last major work was a Bassoon Concerto, which Farnon composed especially for the American virtuoso Daniel Smith. Entitled "Romancing the Phoenix", Robert had been discussing the finer points of the score at the beginning of April.
With his passing the world of Light Music has lost one of the greatest composers and arrangers of the last century.
Copyright: David Ades, 24 April 2005
Robert Farnon in 2000.
We extend our sincere thanks to Mark Leightley for kindly allowing us to reproduce his photograph on our website.