Robert Farnon - a tribute by Robert Walton
There are two vital elements you need to ensure the success of any venture or undertaking - talent and timing. That can be anything from inventions to mountain climbing. And it's no different in music. When a true original emerges, it's a fair bet these two components have played a major part. For instance, notwithstanding their undeniable gifts, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms probably would never have scaled the heights in their field, had not the musical climate been ideal.
But let's not forget those Cinderellas of music, the miniaturists. For some reason they were often unfairly perceived as the poor relation and unfortunately most of them never ranked beside the supreme masters. One miniaturist who did, and wrote almost exclusively for the piano was Chopin whose music will live forever. We might not have thought of him as a miniaturist, but he was just as important as any of the great symphonists.
Chopin and Farnon had much in common. For a start they were both incurable romantics, albeit in different centuries, who composed hauntingly beautiful melodies with unusual harmonies and colours, but because their compositions were "purpose built" they did not translate well to other settings. In fact so perfect were they in their original state there was no need to! One notable exception, however, was Farnon's arrangement of Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu in C Sharp Minor in which he somehow managed to successfully transcribe one of the piano's most popular pieces into a perfect orchestral showcase. A unique meeting of two great minds! They both relished writing challenging parts; Chopin with his etudes designed to improve piano technique like the fiendishly difficult Black Keys Study, and Farnon with his demanding scores, culminating in the ultimate test for strings and woodwind, Main Street.
Another thing Chopin and Farnon shared was the love of their respective homelands, Poland and Canada, reflected in their music. One big difference though between the two composers was their choice of titles. Chopin preferred abstract ones referring to musical forms like nocturnes, preludes, impromptus and mazurkas, whilst Farnon's were clearly representational. Mind you Farnon's hands were tied to some extent by publishers' requirements.
His "instrument" of course was the orchestra, and even though he wrote a number of extended works, he will always be remembered for his unique contribution to the Lilliputians of music. Farnon may not have been a miniaturist in the classically accepted sense like Debussy, Grieg and Mompou, but his work remains a towering landmark. Most of Farnon's pieces were around the two and a half minute mark, but despite their brevity were not the shallow products of a throwaway society like pop music. In Farnon's hands the mighty miniature was a small but perfectly formed work of art, and in its own way every bit as intricate and sophisticated as a symphony.
Once these anonymous work horses for radio, films and television, had escaped the confines of background music, they took on a life of their own becoming an accepted part of the fabric of popular music. Because of their originality, there's no way they would have remained undiscovered.
After World War 2 everyone was upbeat and optimistic. There had never been a moment in musical history quite like it. The conditions were perfect. Light orchestral music was about to be changed forever. Just as Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong revealed the recipe for jazz in the film "High Society" with Now You Has Jazz, so master chef Robert Farnon giving away his secrets, took a little light music, added some French impressionism and seasoned it with jazz. "Now You Has Farnon!" By cleverly synthesising these three disciplines into one distinct idiom, they emerged as pure Farnon.
Although this new style of music was daring at times, it never jarred, but sort of seeped into our subconscious as if it had been around forever. But even with his preoccupation with fresh harmonies and novel orchestral effects, Farnon neverforgot the importance of that most vital element, melody. In a world where it had become unfashionable, he proved it was very much alive and well. You can always identify a Farnon tune because of its sheer Ravel like radiance often showcased by the strings.
The mood music miniature has a lot in common with the pop song. If the composer doesn't grab the listener's attention in the first few seconds he will probably lose them. Farnon was an expert at keeping his audience and as an instant scene setter he had an uncanny knack of being spot on with whatever subject he was trying to depict.
Jumping Bean was particularly apt, as was Melody Fair, Playtime, Journey into Melody, Peanut Polka, In a Calm, Portrait of a Flirt, How Beautiful is Night, Manhattan Playboy, Westminster Waltz and Proud Canvas.
Two of Farnon's favourite moods were the dramatic (for example Gateway to the West) when he demonstrated an innate sense of grandeur, and the mysterious (like Lake of the Woods) showing he was a master of mesmerising. Farnon's penchant for dramatic climaxes became one of his best known trademarks. But he made his name with those brilliant light cameos heard all over the world. The tunes with their scintillating orchestrations are now part of our culture and have become as familiar as mainstream pop and classical music, though very few people can name them.
While Farnon's music was clearly a 20th century creation, there is an undeniable timelessness permeating it. From the primitive pentatonic scale (in the aforementioned Main Street) dating back to 2000 BC, heard in the cultures of China, Japan, India, Africa, Scotland and the American Indians, through the simplicity of Gregorian chant, to the highly complex chord sequences of bebop, Robert Farnon's compositions represent a microcosm of musical history. If ever a volume is published of his works, it might well be named "Miniatures Ancient and Modern!"
Although Robert Farnon was generally regarded as the greatest arranger of his generation, he surely must also be a strong contender for the title "Greatest Miniaturist of the 20th century." Just as Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues, each lasting only a few minutes, is an entire world of music in miniature, so too are Farnon's light orchestral masterpieces. Unfortunately because of his association with background music and particularly signature tunes, he never received the serious recognition he deserved. Only when his music is completely divorced from its original purpose and treated independently on its own merits, will it be properly appreciated. It may take a little time, but make no mistake that day will come.
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