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)
Peter Worsley adds to this existing review:
The Aspidistra Bank Holiday Afternoon Concert this year is planned to take place on the27th May 2019 at Lauderdale House, Highgate Hill, London N6 5HG, starting at 2:30 pm.
The programme has not been fixed as yet, but details will be added as soon as they are.
BMG 5053844533 (54:26)
How Great Thou Art, Where Have All The Flowers Gone / Here’s To The Heroes, Cinema Paradiso, You Raise Me Up, Mattinata, Volare, Silent Night, and seven other tracks.
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra ● Philip Ziegler
Sony 19075871612 (54:43)
14 tracks incl. Somewhere in My Memory (from ‘Home Alone’), Hedwig’s Theme (from ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’), First Aid (from ‘Gremlins’), Walking in the Air (from ‘The Snowman’), Papa Elf (from ‘Elf’), Bless Us All (from ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’), Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (from ‘Meet Me in St Louis’), and White Christmas (from ‘Holiday Inn’)
ROMANTIC MOMENTS ll
Decca Classics (CD+DVD) 2640791
Around the World, Sunrise Sunset, Strangers in the Night, Sail Along Silvery Moon, Evening Prayer (from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’), Gem hab’ ich die Frau’n gekűsst (from ‘Paganini’), Dorfschwalben aus Österreich, Du schwarzer Zigeuner, Morning Hymn (from ‘Sound of Music’), Red Roses for a Blue Lady, El cóndor pasa, Träumerei, The Way Old Friends Do, Vilja Song, An der schönen blauen Donau [On the Beautiful Blue Danube], Amazing Grace...
conducted by John Wilson
Warner Classics 9029555123 (123:00)
Although he is now a big name in classical circles, I am guessing that for John Wilson our kind of music is still his first love. This is the charismatic conductor in lighter mode. His 70-piece orchestra, with its big band element, specialising in numbers from the golden years of Hollywood and Broadway musicals, has been wowing BBC Proms audiences every year since 2009 and must be one of – if not the best – orchestras of its kind in the world.
Written by Peter Burt
BBC Philharmonic ● John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5222 (66:09)Aaron Copland (1900-90) devotees will no doubt have been waiting for this release – the last in a series – recorded in March this year at MediaCityUK, Salford. I favourably reviewed the first here in January 2016, devoted as it was to the composer’s popular ballet music.
Robert Farnon’s arrangement
Analysed by Robert Walton
These days we’re constantly bombarded with attractive specials from supermarkets and shops like “buy one and get one free”. In a Robert Farnon arrangement you get “three for the price of one”. The song comes first (often from the “Great American Songbook”) followed by the actual arrangement and then to top it all it’s full of elements of his own compositions both serious and light. There is no musician on earth who has the ability to mix and match with a sound that is completely unique. He re-invented the word taste. Wherever you happen to land on any of his recordings, even briefly, it’s unmistakably Robert Farnon and often all under 3 minutes. To hear Farnon is to hear an open-minded composer who has absorbed such an enormous amount of music, put it all together and created his own universe. In fact every time I listen to a Robert Farnon arrangement I can’t help feeling Hollywood lost out to his talents (similar to those of MGM’s Conrad Salinger). It’s understandable though because Farnon fell on his feet in so many ways when he came to England and stayed. Of course he was a remainer!
It’s unusual for a songwriter to praise a specific arrangement, but Arthur Schwartz did just that when he personally corresponded with Farnon, singling out Louisiana Hayride from the album “Something To Remember You By” as one of the finest orchestrations and performances he’d ever heard.
Starting straight but soon let loose into swing mode, the first thing I noticed about this brassy piece of big band/light orchestral music is that Farnon keeps the whole thing under control. It could have so easily descended into chaos under another conductor. Also there’s always a temptation with this kind of material to show off. The fact that he kept his cool and made it simple was the very reason that made it attractive.
After a chorus, things begin to warm up with a little Bach-ish like polyphony between the brass and saxes and snatches of the sort of tricky woodwind one might hear in a light orchestral Farnon score. And keeping things moving, a touch of the Ted Heath sound from the saxes. The strings enter for the last time before the drummer (remember Farnon in his youth was one?) keeps the orchestra under strict order with his sticks. There are some echoes of Pete Rugolo in this final section.
Robert Farnon has always been associated with strings but let’s not forget his brilliance with brass and wizardry with woodwind. In fact the whole orchestra is his world.