By Robert Walton
Why do strings, especially those in a symphony orchestra, have such an effect on audiences, like transmitting a sublime message? Especially a composition with a lovely melody and beautiful harmonies. And like any gathering of performing instrumentalists, there’s always a distinctive air of mystery about the music. But more than that, the sound they create can be the most thrilling it’s possible for humans to produce. Think of it as a jumping off point for the listener to use his/her imagination in whatever way they choose. Add appropriate words and it can become a religious experience as, for example, in Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. If there happens to be a handy choir around, there’s nothing else in the world that can beat that combination. Even the most unmusical ear can be affected in some small way by the forces of the most powerful and biggest artistic outburst.
So where do strings originate? They’re influenced entirely from the sound of the human voice. Even a wordless chorus or made-up lyrics can be a most moving experience. So the next time you sing with a group, remember you were once part of the most precious natural component waiting to be re-invented and played by man-made means. Although violins, violas, cellos and double basses were discovered and perfected by experts (Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari), it’s still our vocal chords, which inspired such a universal auditory creation.
Arrangers Ferde Grofé and Bill Challis were largely responsible for introducing classically orientated string sections into the dance band and jazz worlds via bandleaders Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. Gershwin’s sensational Rhapsody in Blue was the culmination of these three cultures. After a modest string quartet Artie Shaw got hooked on a larger section, but the first real genius of string backings was Axel Stordahl who single-handedly gave them total legitimacy in the world of popular music for Frank Sinatra. In the process, Stordahl paved the way for Nelson Riddle.
Finally, and perhaps more than any other style, strings became the mainstay of light music (concert music in America) especially between 1940 and 1960, which was constantly heard on cinema newsreels and radio in general. This is sometimes called “The Golden Era of Light Music” when the finest practitioners of the highly specialized art of mood or production music reached its zenith - Eric Coates, Charles Williams, Sidney Torch, Clive Richardson, Wally Stott (Angela Morley), David Rose and many others. Before anyone screams out “What about Farnon?” I was just coming to him. In the 20th century, Robert Farnon was without doubt the greatest composer, arranger and string writer of them all! André Previn was absolutely right.
Strings are unquestionably the most versatile family of instruments, in the variety of sound production available to them, but the woodwind and brass families are fully as influential to a large orchestral texture when it comes to the importance of their contributions (of course context is always a primary factor), and in their origin have the same references to the human voice in terms of sound production.
That said, I will also point out that there were plenty of other viable arrangers of standards and composers of light selections during the Golden Age which I would roughly extend from about the mid-30's through about the early 60's or so, and this I feel is a generous time frame as others might with to restrict it a bit further. I put it this way because many of our beloved arrangers who survived into a later period began to cheapen and coarsen their respective styles in the interest of commercialization, or eventually dropped out of the picture altogether. It is undeniable, at least as I see it, that what we had during that Golden Age as I refer to it, began to slowly lose its former viability, although I'm certain that many might disagree. and I'm open to debate on this issue. As it is, I am struggling to find the right words for what I am trying to say.
As for the arrangers themselves, I am surprised that Bob did not list such notable figures, many even more renowned than those he named, such as Leroy Anderson, Morton Gould, Andre Kostelanetz, Victor Young, George Melachrino, Mantovani (in particular) his pre-Charmaine recordings), and notably, Percy Faith. Of course, I recognize that with many of these figures they had one or more staff arrangers working for them to produce the sound they desired while others who did their own work to this end.
However, and I believe that I have made this comment in the past - although Robert Farnon fully deserves inclusion among the greats when it comes to viable arrangements of songs well known or otherwise, or in regard to the quality of their original compositions - to make an absolute statement and say that he was the best is for me a personal judgment that I for one would never express about any figure - not even among the great classical composers. I might have my own personal favorites, and these for me might form a composite picture, each one complementing the others, furnishing what the next one might lack - but I would never under any circumstances state that one figure without question towers over all the rest. These figures, each and every one of them, were only human and subject to the same flaws and foibles as the rest of us, and I am fully ready to own that even amongst my particular favorites there are original compositions and arrangements that I happen to like a good deal less. This will be different for each of us, but regardless, there is no absolutism when it comes to such artistic judgments, and it is frankly quite foolish to consider otherwise.
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