26 May

Robert Farnon on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in Canada

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We have all done it at some time: you make a list of your favourite tunes then return to it in later years and make alterations.

While Robert Farnon was in Canada in Spring 1983 conducting at the National Arts Centre, lan Alexander was in the Toronto CBC studio talking to Robert in the Ottawa studio about his choice of music and his career. The interview (broadcast on 12 August 1983) started with a short burst of "The Happy Gang".

IAN. Your name is not mentioned in that list but you spent some years working on that show for CBC.

BOB. Yes I was one of the beginners, we started around 1938 I stayed until joining the army in 1941. I was expecting to hear my voice there but didn’t hear it.

IAN. What was the experience like - live radio I guess.

BOB. Absolutely marvellous anything went, we could do absolutely anything we liked and sometimes did. It was just a joy five days a week going down there; it was a shame to take the money.

IAN. I get the feeling that work like that and a lot of the other work that you’ve done - studio work with people like Percy Faith, can we call it "commercial work", hones a musician’s craft.

BOB. Yes that’s quite true. I must confess I enjoyed doing "The Happy Gang" but was set on writing serious music and in those days no one could make a living writing classical music so I joined the Gang and earned my bread and butter. I really enjoyed it of course but in my spare time I wrote more serious music.

IAN. Now back before even the "Happy Gang" I believe you put in a stint with the orchestra I’ve just mentioned, Percy Faith, I remember back in the sixties I was working as music director of an "Easy Listening" station on the West coast and the Canadian content regulations had just come in. We did try for a while to justify Percy Faith’s music as Canadian but really he did leave this country in mid-career didn’t he?

BOB. He did, as a matter of fact I played with Percy on trumpet at the same period I was working with "The Happy Gang"; it all happened around the same period.

IAN. A hectic sort of schedule then.

BOB. Oh but great fun!

IAN. Now we are calling this a kind of "Desert Island Discs" with Robert Farnon; Bob has indicated some of the music he likes to listen to and he would like to share with our national radio audience this evening. Bob I am interested in your first choice because it’s one that I enjoy very much, a classic piece of music.

BOB. It most certainly is lan and there’s a little story attached to that, I was introduced to the song by Canadian soprano named Doreen Hume who became very famous in Britain and we worked together many times over there. Before she returned to Canada she presented me with this recording by Madeline Gray of "Bailero" from "Songs of the Auvergne"; this is my favourite tune and the most familiar.

IAN. Let’s listen now to "Bailero" by Joseph Cantaloube.

+++ +++ +++

IAN. The passage of time has not sullied the beauty of that performance, a recording made more than half a Century ago as you can hear from the surface noise in 1930. Bob you worked with a number of singers over the years and one in particular Tony Bennett.

BOB. Yes I have done a lot with Tony - radio, television and a few concerts; he’s an absolute delight to work with, beautiful chap!

IAN. He’s strikes me as a musicians’ musician impeccable in terms of everything being in its place, everything happening just right.

BOB. Yes that’s exactly what happens. He is wonderful in that way when rehearsing a new arrangement he listens to it and doesn’t interrupt in the wrong places. He sings the song and appreciates the arrangement, especially if it’s a good one, Sinatra is exactly the same.

IAN. You have not only conducted for these gentlemen you have also recorded with them and other singers, Cleo Laine for example.

BOB. Yes I have done albums with Sinatra, Lena Home, Sarah Vaughan and Tony, They have asked me to provide the arrangements.

IAN. We have an album here which was not on your list but I have put it on mine, I thought it would be fun to sample, It’s an album made in concert on the 100th anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall. Tony Bennett the featured vocalist, a picture on the back with you conducting a large symphonic orchestra.

BOB. Yes I remember that.

IAN. Quite an occasion that must have been, What was the year?

BOB. In the early seventies I think.

IAN. Just looking at the sleeve - 1971 in fact.

BOB. That’s right.

IAN. A decade ago, there’s a poster here, sold out of course I thought we might sample it, was there a favourite?

BOB. I wondered what you have chosen?

IAN. I like "Get Happy".

BOB. Yes super.

+++ +++ +++

IAN. The London Philharmonic Orchestra really swinging to the tasty baton of Robert Farnon. That really does swing and jump. Was it hard to make a symphony orchestra sound like a show band?

BOB. Normally it is but Tony adds that little extra magic; he’s the one who made it swing, one way or another.

IAN. Now your career took a turn to England during the war years, in fact it was the war that took you to England first.

BOB. Yes I went over with the Canadian Army in 1944.

IAN. You worked with the BBC as well as concerts.

BOB. Yes but mostly broadcasting. There were three AEF orchestras, Glenn Miller with the American band, George Melachrino with the British and myself with the Canadian. We shared concerts for the troops throughout the country and eventually on the Continent.

IAN. Bringing things up to date I know that in more recent times the BBC has found it uneconomical to have as many orchestras on the payroll as it has in the past, a situation that probably did not make you too happy.

BOB. Unfortunately they disbanded five or six orchestras just a couple of years ago. Fortunately for me light music is very popular on the Continent in Holland, Belgium, France, Scandinavia and that has replaced the loss of performances in Britain for me and other light music composers.

IAN. Of course listeners across the country will know we are happy that Robert Farnon is back with some regularity to conduct concerts with Canadian orchestras. You are in Ottawa with the N.A.C.O. and as I am a former Vancouverite I know you have been out to Vancouver to conduct the V.S.O. many times.

BOB. That’s right I have.

IAN. One of the Desert Island discs you picked is a recording by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

BOB. Yes I am very fond of Respighi’s music. This is quite a coincidence: coming over to Vancouver last May in-flight music was playing a record of "Pines of Rome". I thought what a beautiful performance that is, I looked up the in-flight magazine and lo and behold it was the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

IAN. Why don’t we listen to part of that performance now, it’s from a CBC recording, I wondered if it would be appropriate to play the showiest part.

BOB. Yes delightful.

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IAN The fourth and last section. Bob talking about great orchestras, you are very kind and generous about Canadian orchestras but certainly one of the lushest sounds of North American orchestras has to be that created by The Philadelphia Orchestra, honed over many years under Eugene Ormandy.

BOB, That’s quite true lan, I had the experience of providing a piece of music for them just before the beginning of the war, I had written my first Symphony and it had been played by The Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It was recommended to Eugene, he performed it in 1941.

IAN. I wonder that would not have been the complete programme, you were keeping some very good company.

BOB. Very good: one was Debussy a very good composer and I was very proud of my work; his "Afternoon of a Faun" was much better, which I would like to chose as my next selection.

IAN. A tender age to write a symphony.

BOB. It took me three years but I was so busy trying to make money to devote all my time to it. I finished it when I was about twenty two.

IAN. In terms of your musical taste you enjoy light music as well as what we call serious music.

BOB. Yes with the stress on romance, I am a romantic old trout.

IAN. That’s the thread that combines the two. We are also talking about the people you have worked with over the years. We heard from Tony Bennett, working with Frank Sinatra and many others and someone I think you got to know quite well, George Shearing - a great pianist.

BOB. Yes we first met when he was still in Britain working with Stephane Grappelli in a club in London.

IAN. Someone who went the opposite way to you across the Atlantic!

BOB. He went west and I went east to Britain. We did not meet again until two years ago when we made a recording with his trio and a large orchestra. My favourite is "A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square".

IAN. A wonderful tune; let’s hear it now. It comes from an album called "On Target".

+++ +++ +++

IAN. I am very interested in your next choice from the original cast recording of "Carousel"; how did it manage to slip in here?

BOB. Well I am a romantic and also a family man and they go together. The "Soliloquy" from "Carousel" is such a beautiful tale, first the girl and then the boy, very close to my heart, I have a tear or two each time I hear it.

IAN. John Raitt performing, one of the things one always thinks of with Rodgers and Hammerstein especially with the show that preceded "Oklahoma"; they created a seamless interwoven kind of musical theatre.

BOB. Yes they most certainly, my goodness all of their music is so delightful, I have arranged an awful lot of it.

IAN. When you talk about music for the Broadway stage the role of the arranger is a crucial one, maybe we could talk about that. A score comes from a team such as Rodgers and Hammerstein - it’s really the arranger who lifts it off the page and makes it work in the theatre.

BOB. In most cases I think the arranger was Robert Russell Bennett who did a wonderful job of scoring for them.

IAN. What kinds of things are involved, what kind of challenges, for the arranger in this kind of music.

BOB. The worst thing Ian is we are the last ones to get at it. They have made all the changes then they throw it at us and say arrange it. We go ahead and sure enough at rehearsals one of the singers finds parts are a little too high for her. We go back to the drawing board, not a very pleasant task but usually rewarding in the end.

IAN. You arranged a symphonic version of "Porgy and Bess" at one point in your career.

BOB. Yes that was a recording with The London Philharmonic Orchestra.

+++ +++ +++

IAN. We want to move back to the more serious side of the repertoire for our next music and I am interested in your choice here. We are going to hear "Nimrod" from "The Enigma Variations" by Sir Edward Elgar. I am interested in the performance you have chosen, the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn. A couple of things strike me about this: one is that with Previn we have someone who very much straddles the "Pop" as well as the "Classical" world. I have also found a quote from Previn talking about you. He says you are the greatest string writer in the world.

BOB. Well that was an overstatement, very kind of him to say but that’s not the reason why I chose the record.

IAN. Interesting to hear Previn because his career has really gone into serious music but that’s not how he began.

BOB. No it is not; he has done an awful lot for both Light music and Classical in Britain. Changed the scene entirely in many ways, brought visual to shows on television and presented them so beautifully making it very interesting to look at an orchestra, even though there were a few bald heads in view. Beautiful to watch the way he managed it.

IAN. Why "Nimrod"?

BOB. I think it has a tune all of its own. After he wrote it he said "Have I got a tune?" Indeed he had.

+++ +++ +++

IAN. We are coming to a pair of twentieth century composers who I believe have had an influence on your own musical career.

BOB. Very much indeed, you are referring to Stravinsky and Bartok.

IAN. Let’s start with Bartok, a personal connection there as well as a musical one.

BOB. Well not truly a personal one but I had the opportunity of meeting him in New York very shortly before he died. He was doing a concert in the McDowell Hall in New York with his wife and one or two instrumentalists. During the interval I went back stage and met my idol. I must say I found his music very positive since first hearing it. He walked up to the stage - it was like God walking I was so impressed by him.

IAN. In what way was he an influence… how important to your own compositional style?

BOB. Not composition wise, I suppose it was in his colour variation and his daring from time to time. Although I went in other directions when writing daring music, he gave me the courage to experiment.

IAN. You have chosen "Divertimento for strings". Let’s hear it now from a 1970 recording, Neville Marriner conducting The Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

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IAN. I guess it must be wonderful to be in London and hear all those fine orchestras.

BOB. A pleasure and a joy. From time to time we have the pleasure of working with them as session players, they love to come and do a recording with a singer or an instrumentalist.

IAN. Interesting because did not The Academy first sort of grow up with people who had other principal jobs. Now The Academy has become their main occupying work.

BOB. As you say they are now fully employed.

IAN. Now Stravinsky.

BOB. Ever since the age of twelve I have loved his music especially his Ballet music. In fact he once inspired me to write a ballet. It was not very good. I put it under the piano.

IAN. Don’t slide over it that way - tell us more!

BOB. It was not completely lost; I used lots of themes from it in later works when I took up writing "Light" music. One of the pieces I called "Jumping Bean". That will give you some idea of its content.

IAN. I hope your biographer is listening and will use that information.

IAN. The score still exists.

BOB. It does.

IAN. Back to Stravinsky.

BOB. It concerns a broadcast he did on the BBC. He could not let the conductor alone, keen that it would be right he would appear on his hands and knees pointing out parts of the score… "No not that way, this way", glasses perched on his forehead, it was a lovely scene. After the session I was introduced to him.

IAN. What age was he then?

BOB. Mid-seventies.

IAN. Still very active

BOB. Oh yes I saw him nearly ten years later conducting at The Royal Festival Hall.

IAN, Now for his "Firebird" - Stravinsky conducting The Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

+++ +++ +++

IAN. Going over this list your modesty has omitted a single piece of your own for us to play.

BOB. I do not enjoy listening to my music that much.

IAN. Can I impose on you and play a little anyway.

BOB. Oh yes of course.

IAN. You are a trumpet player yourself.

BOB. Yes, but I started on violin when very young, at the age of fifteen I switched to percussion. I joined my brother’s college orchestra, they were very short of brass so I decided to take up trumpet. It remained with me until I gave it up.

IAN. A kind of pragmatic choice then?

BOB. Yes.

IAN. You say you did not like playing violin but you do enjoy writing for it.

BOB. I love the sound but found it too difficult to play.

IAN. I mentioned the trumpet because I want to play a piece of your own titled "Scherzando for Trumpet and Orchestra" played by the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra conducted by Eric Wilde. The soloist is Raymond Parcells.

BOB. I have not heard this performance. It was originally written for the trumpet player in The Chapel Royal Orchestra in Copenhagen, commissioned in 1953. He did not record it, just played it from time to time with various orchestras. Then it was taken up by Mel Broiles, first trumpet of the Metropolitan Orchestra who did record it.

IAN. Let’s hear it now.

+++ +++ +++

IAN. You had not heard that before.

BOB. No but a very good version.

IAN. You show no mercy on the soloist.

BOB. I believe some ended up with lips bleeding!

IAN. I wonder if you have done much work on a specific player… does it help to know who you are writing for?

BOB. Yes it does help a lot. I wrote a piece for trumpet player Mel Broiles who plays for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I recently wrote a Concerto for him that he has played several times. It is in three movements that again is a tour de force, he said "Why do you do this to me, a fellow trumpet player?"

IAN. He thought you should have more sympathy.

BOB. He is such a fantastic player he had no trouble with it at all.

IAN. I know someone else you have written for is Harmonica virtuoso Tommy Reilly who, like yourself, is originally from Canada but now lives in England. Do you see much of him.

BOB. Yes we work quite a lot together, a lot of broadcasts on the Continent, television in Britain, and we made a recording of "Prelude and Dance" which I wrote for him many years ago.

IAN. I want to hear that because I believe while in a concentration camp he honed his skill as a harmonica player?

BOB. I think it was because he was originally a violin player. He said there were so many good violinists around he decided to take up harmonica instead, in 1935 or 36. He is now the world’s number one in the opinion of a lot of other people besides myself, a fine player.

I AN. He has made the harmonica a legitimate concert instrument.

BOB. I am sure he has; he is greatly respected and has had so many good composers write for him - Jacobs, Malcolm Arnold and others.

IAN. And yourself of course.

BOB. May I tell you a little fun joke regarding that. He was after me for years to write something as he is with other composers, providing he does not have to pay us. He was in Australia when I sent him a first draft, and when he got back to England he rang me and said the only difficult part is the last section, I will play a little over the phone. I said that’s absolutely perfect, but it goes twice as fast as that. He hung up.

IAN. Did you change it?

BOB. No I didn’t.

IAN. We will now hear that music, two men intimately involved in its construction.

+++ +++ +++

IAN. Next you have chosen the last part of Joseph Poulenc’s Concerto in "G" for organ and orchestra.

BOB. That choice came about because my son David studied organ about ten years ago coming to me with all sorts of material asking for my criticism. He brought the record to me and we both agreed that the last part was the most beautiful writing for the organ that we had ever heard. I said I would like that played at my funeral although I would not be able to hear it.

IAN. The soloist E. Power Biggs, the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Let’s hope that will not happen for very many years.

+++ +++ +++

BOB. Thank you Ian - you are going to end with that are you?

IAN. Certainly not - in fact I want to throw a few names at you because you have met with so interesting musicians in your long and distinguished career; perhaps if I mention a few of them you can say what they bring to mind.

BOB. Yes.

IAN. Sarah Vaughan.

BOB. She was a joy to work with. On first hearing I did not like her voice, her vibrato was too wide, she shouted, very peculiar sound. When working with her rather than listening to recordings I fell in love with her singing. We did a record in Copenhagen that was an experience for both of us; she sang with a young Danish choir who sang better in English than most choirs in Britain, absolutely super. Sarah was a "doll" to work with - I have worked with her since on radio and television, we are great friends now, we smoke the same brand of cigarettes.

IAN. We won’t mention the brand, this is non-commercial radio. Now another great lady of popular song who has been back in the limelight lately due to her one woman show, did you catch it?

BOB. Lena Horne - no I did not, but I have the recording.

IAN. The great stories she told coupled with her sheer energy, well over two hours carrying the whole ball along.

BOB. Remarkable I saw a sort of junior version in person. Not just music, she talked about everything, a "sweety" to work with too.

IAN. Finally let’s talk about two other orchestra leaders, arrangers and people who you have associated with. One name springs to mind, Henry Mancini.

BOB. Oh yes, I have met him once or twice, I am a great admirer of his music; there’s a chap who knows how to write a tune, my goodness, I hate him.

IAN. Like yourself he has written much for the screen, big and small. We were talking earlier about the challenge as an arranger for Broadway I suppose there are many problems when you have to synchronise your score to the action.

BOB. It’s just a craft that you learn, not that difficult really. In musicals it’s even simpler because we record all the music before the film is shot. Sometimes we are the last to get at it - Henry would tell you they want everything yesterday - you have thirty or forty minutes of music to write, which can be a bit of a bind although enjoyable. It’s up on the screen not just a one-off and will last if it’s a good score.

IAN. You don’t feel compromised musically.

BOB. Not at all; when doing a dramatic film it can inspire you because you have a chance to see the product before writing. That’s a joy to have the inspiration.

IAN. Remind us of some of the scores you have written.

BOB. "Captain Horatio Hornblower" comes to mind, one of the swashbuckling sea stories I did. A case in point because they brought certain sections to have a look at so I could go home filled with ideas of what to write, so not difficult at all. I did the last Hope & Crosby film "The Road to Hong Kong" - I killed the series, but it was fun to do! I did "Gentlemen Marry Brunettes" where I sang in place of Scott Brady who did not have a voice; no one else was available so I was drafted in. They did not pay me.

IAN. Was that the start of a whole new career or a one-off?

BOB. No I sounded no better than in "Happy Gang".

IAN. One more classical choice: you talk about good tunes and enjoy the virtuoso show piece - this is Ravel’s "Daphnis and Chloe".

+++ +++ +++

IAN. It’s been great fun talking with you. Wonderful stories and anecdotes - a wonderful career and by no means over; what are working on at the moment?

BOB. I am writing a piece for The Canadian Brass, pushing the pencil as hard as I can. I wrote something about five years ago played here in Ottawa with a full orchestra but they wanted something for just the quintet.

IAN. Will this reflect the light hearted music you sometimes write?

BOB. No this is a serious piece.

IAN. When can we hear it.?

BOB. I have not finished writing. They are very kind… "whenever you can get around to it", not a good thing to tell a composer.

IAN. We look forward to hearing it, in the mean time my sincere thanks. I wish it had been face to face. We are glad you are back in Canada and hope to see much of you in the near future.

BOB. Thank you it has been an absolute pleasure.

Footnote from Paul Clatworthy : When this project was first mooted I had it in my mind that Farnon had earlier been featured on "Desert Island Discs" whilst living in England and it would be interesting comparing the selection. With the help of Vernon Anderson I received a list: "Soliloquy" John Raitt; "The Kid from Red Bank" (Hefti) Count Basie’s orchestra; "Music for strings Percussion and Celesta" (Bartok) The LPO; "Daphnis and Chloe suite No 2" (Ravel) French National Radio Orchestra; "My Man’s gone now" (Gershwin) sung by Anne Brown; "Iberia" (Images no 2) (Debussy) Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; "Thank heaven for little girls" (Lerner and Loewe) Andre Previn and pals; "Nimrod" (from Enigma variations) (Elgar) LPO. Bob made this selection on the first of June 1959.

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About Geoff 123
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.