By Robert Walton
Over the years I have always been aware that string man George Melachrino was an occasional singer in the dance band world but I had never heard him, let alone seen him in that role. He had already been employed by Ambrose, Carroll Gibbons and Bert Firman. Therefore imagine my surprise and delight at finding him on a recent video on the Internet on Google. Until then he was just a handsome face in a photo on some long forgotten record or CD disc. Now for the first time I was seeing him “live” as it were, filmed by British Pathé at the Embassy Club in 1940 with a 9-piece orchestra.
Holding his violin, he was dressed more like a Lieder singer in a Tuxedo about to render the well known Great American Songbook standard Fools Rush In. It was the completely unexpected formality of his presentation that staggered me. I thought it’d be a casual performance like a member of the band briefly leaving his chair. But this was totally out of character, like a recital from London’s Wigmore Hall. His excellent tenor voice gave the 1940 tune an almost classical treatment. I bet its writers Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom would have been amazed. This was just another example of Melachrino’s many talents. His clear voice made him more than a cut above any old crooner. And his conducting ability must have stood him in good stead for his first big studio job with the Austrian-born tenor Richard Tauber in 1945. Remember Melachrino was also a multi-instrumentalist. As well as a very good violinist he had mastered the viola, oboe, clarinet and saxophone. All these abilities made him a perfect leader of an orchestra. Rather like composer-arranger Robert Farnon who also as a multi-instrumentalist had a head start in the business.
So from a tiny violin a few inches long given to him by his stepfather, George became conductor of two of the world’s finest light orchestral combinations, the Melachrino Strings and Orchestra. In his childhood he was given manuscript paper and instead of coloured chalks, a pencil to play with. At 4 years of age he composed his first piece Up the Mountains because the pattern of the notes resembled just what it said, the title. Even then he was a class act!
After arriving back in the UK in 1965 after a holiday in New Zealand, I learnt of the sudden tragic death of the man himself which was more than a blow, because literally only the night before, I met George Melachrino’s agent in Chelsea and was about to offer some of my own tunes for the company.
As my friend Graham Miles has posted two versions of a piece by Peter Yorke entitled "Fireflies" which are distinctly different by virtue of length, I will take a moment to touch on this particular subject, as it raises some very interesting questions to which there may be myriad answers.
In the case of two recordings of a piece that are noticeably different in length, in the sense that one has material that the other lacks, we first have to ask ourselves which came first and is the original version, to ascertain whether the composer expanded on his original, or on the other hand in the reverse eventuality, whether he cut a short portion from what he originally had, and finally, whether it was rather a matter of cutting it in the recording process to enable it to fit on the side of a 78 or 45 RPM single disc.
Whatever the truth of what may actually have occurred in these cases, it is inevitable that some subjective preference will enter into it when making a judgment.
I do not claim any position of being a final arbiter in such cases. I can only judge each instance of such on its merits as I receive them. I am already aware that there could well be opinions sharply differing from my own, but I have no choice in this matter, as these selections are not being examined as though part of a college course in composition.
To get underway with what I am referring to, I will start with Robert Farnon's "Journey into Melody." Most of us might know that the piece originally had a far more elaborate introduction, making a full circle of keys in the process. This may be heard in the piece's original recording by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra under Charles Williams. Reportedly Farnon himself decided to shorten the introduction to lead directly into the main melody, resulting in the form most of us are familiar with. For whatever reason, this was more satisfactory to him as being "better balanced" structurally, but as I am at frequent pains to point out, we do not all receive a given piece of music in the same manner individually, and of necessity would include the composer as well. I for one feel that the original extended introduction adds a searching quality at the beginning that gives it a whole new dimension, and I actually prefer the piece in that form and always so play it at the piano.
With Farnon's "Pictures in the Fire" the reverse appears to have occurred as the piece evolved, as one can note by comparing the earlier recording by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra with the later one by Farnon's own orchestra. In the process, Farnon added in a short phrase to smoothen out a transition within that central modulating section that in a previous article I had written covering this piece I had referred to as "bluesy." I feel that the piece is definitely improved by this short addition, with any feeling of abruptness evident in the earlier version completely remedied, so in this case I will prefer the piece in its later state.
But it should not be assumed from any of the above that I would always by inclination prefer a longer version of a piece when comparing two versions side by side.
To take yet another Farnon selection, "Lake of the Woods" where here too we have alternate presentations; a simpler, normal length presentation in the normal A-A-B-A form of a ballad as given by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra, and the later one by Farnon with his own orchestra as part of the album "Canadian Impressions" in which the piece is expanded out to include a whole middle section before returning to the B-A of the opening. In this case, at least for me, it is a matter if stylistic incompatibility, at least as I receive it, between this new middle section and the original outlying portions with which I have difficulty in reconciling with one another. For that reason, I will continue to prefer the shorter version on the older recording. Moreover, I see the rather veiled sound quality here as a clear advantage as obviously the purpose of this piece is to convey a certain atmosphere, not to have every last detail of it rendered vividly clear.
Haydn Wood's "Soliloquy" is another example of what I am referring to. I actually found myself in a brief dialogue with the blogger, John France on this piece and expressed my reactions to the piece and to the two versions of it.
The shorter version appears on a recording by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra under Robert Farnon; the longer version with the Slovak Radio Orchestra under Ernest Tomlinson.
As I advised Mr. France on that blog (it appears that hitherto he had been quite unaware of Farnon's shorter version), with my present information, it is quite impossible to know whether Wood expanded his piece from what he originally had, or trimmed away material from his original in the other eventuality, or perhaps Farnon in his efforts to fit the piece on the side of a single edited the piece to that end (quite expertly, one would think, if such were the case).
In any event, my preference is decidedly for the shorter version, which I invariably use when performing it. Listening to the longer version, I get the inevitable impression that it starts on an indeterminate chord in the middle of nowhere, and that the piece actually begins a few bars later. Moreover, in the reprise section, I feel that by the very nature of the material, it is quite unnecessary to go over every last bar that appeared earlier, and as I have just stated, I will continue to maintain for reasons stated my firm allegiance to the shorter version.
Some years ago, Robert Walton, one of the Society's regular contributor, wrote an essay on a piece by Edward White that I was hitherto unfamiliar, entitled "Caprice for Strings." I found it to be a rather unusual piece, but because of its rather erratic course I found that I was having difficulty in following it so that it made sense to me. At that point Tony Clayden stepped in to graciously share with both Robert and myself a recording of this same piece purporting to be the original, with additional material that was removed in the later recording.
I listened to this, and as a result of this added material I now for the first time found that I could better understand what the piece was about as the sections now held together more coherently. Moreover, some of the instrumental effects that Bob had described I could now hear for the first time, as I could not hitherto on the version that Bob had originally posted.
Further details of what I am referring to may be seen in my comments about this piece at the time it was posted.
Clive Richardson's "London Fantasia" is another example of what I am referring to. The original version was recorded by Mantovani on two sides of a 12" single disc, featuring Monia Liter at the piano, and is the only version I have cultivated, as it is the fullest version.
Richardson himself recorded it subsequently, with both Charles Williams and with Sidney Torch, and both versions have a small piece cut out. As he has recorded it in this fashion on both occasions, it must be presumed that he so preferred it for presentation, but others listening to it might very conceivably feel differently about it and would prefer it in its original form or at least it's more extended version if it came afterward.
The matter of having to economize in order to fit a selection on the side of a single disc can often necessitate some forced adjustments, some of which, in a recording I have posted of myself at the piano on both YouTube and Facebook I have actively sought to remedy.
Thus, with Percy Faith's arrangement of "If I Loved You" and David Rose's arrangements of "Why Do You Pass Me By" and "All I Desire," in each of which there is an obvious attempt to offer two presentations of the song, using existing material I have added extensions so that both presentations structurally have the full A-A-B-A scheme.
With Peter Yorke's "Blue Mink" I have added a slight extension to end the piece more smoothly so that it is not as abrupt, remembering that this is for listening purposes rather than as background music from a mood library. And in a planned second recording, I will be taking the middle slower section of Yorke's "Whipper Snapper," expanding it out to include more of the material from the faster section, being that this was the apparent intent in what is there presently, aborted due to the necessity once again of fitting the selection on the side of a single disc.
I hope that my notes have been informative and as always I will invite comments back.
Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton
The Chappell recorded music library created quite a stir in the music business when it came into being in 1941 with a series of 78s specifically designed for the use of radio, films and especially newsreels. Not only were they perfect for the job but many of the compositions proved to be extremely popular in their own right with the public as well. Many were released as singles. In fact the whole world embraced them. Never in the history of music was there such a unique sound with the highest quality of original tunes, brilliant arrangements and outstanding performances. A Window of Wonder! If it hadn’t been for the requirement of background music, these sounds might never have seen the light of day.
Occasionally some films used them for their entire soundtracks. I forget the title of the first one I saw in 1957 but the music clearly made an impression on me. It became a sort of quiz when I kept guessing what the next title was. Mind you although it was a novel idea, the music was not really suitable for soundtracks. There’s still nothing that can beat commissioning an official composer for such an enterprise to have overall control over the music and dealing personally with each scene.
The second movie I saw which used Chappell mood music recordings was from 1948 entitled “It Happened in Soho” starring Richard Murdoch. It opened with Robert Busby’s “Big City”. I discovered it in the current television series “Talking Pictures”. It was like Charles Williams with a big difference - a touch of Farnon. Williams was the first composer selected for the series. He was very professional and a great craftsman and his style became the prototype for many of the tunes that followed, but sometimes he lacked the emotional input and modern harmonies that later writers wrote.
A thrilling opening quotes Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, London Bridge is Falling Down and suitable fill-in music emanating from Busby’s pencil. The whole track might be only 1:27 but what a great introduction. After more movement, a gorgeous string melody assisted by flutes and bells gradually climbs the heights providing the necessary passion and intensity. We are now completely immersed into Busby country. The end is essentially the same as the start with a flourish, before the bells highlight a glorious finish.
Analysed by Robert Walton
This is a song written in 1939 by a certain Siberian weather forecaster named Irving Berlin. It was inspired by a conversation between him and the British/Hungarian film producer Alexander Korda in a New York taxicab. The Munich agreement had just made both men momentarily miserable. The producer asked Berlin if he’d written a war song yet. A few blocks later the composer came up with a tune and lyrics. His head must have been swimming with tunes! (Perhaps something for Esther Williams was also brewing in the brain).
It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow was first heard in the 1940 Broadway musical Louisiana Purchase introduced by Irene Bordoni. It was recorded by Bea Wain and Tommy Dorsey with vocal by Frank Sinatra. Another Berlin “day” tune was the more grammatically correct It’s A Lovely Day Today from his 1950 musical “Call Me Madam”.
Despite it being virtually forgotten, It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow, a strongly optimistic melody in the key of C, still stands up well in the 21st century rather like a hymn. I remember it well. It was 1940 and I was at kindergarten. Come to think of it, it would have made an excellent national anthem. Most state-inspired tunes are pretty boring. Everyone remembers the strain but can’t actually place it. Like The Stars Will Remember the second 8 bar phrase suggests the song is about to finish but it’s only a false alarm. They both work. The melody of It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow has Vera Lynn written all over it rather like We’ll Meet Again, which became her theme. A Berlin tune always seems to find its way to just the right artist and sounds like it wrote itself. Two other tunes that attached themselves to Lynn and were also all the rage at the time: There’ll Always Be An England and another American original The White Cliffs Of Dover.
However the sensational thing about It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow was its perfect climax near the end on the word SAY (F minor). Very few songs have such a well placed summit with a large natural pause, giving the last few words “tomorrow is a lovely day” maximum emphasis. It’s as if the tune has been in a kind of knot and after direct contact with SAY has immediately untangled. I don’t know about you, but every time I land on something like this, I get a real feeling of peace and tranquility while wallowing in the wonderful sound it creates. It’s the greatest compliment a song can receive.
By Robert Walton
One place my wife and I had always wanted to see was the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And conveniently now living in the Republic of Ireland, we were in the perfect position to visit this minor Wonder of the World. When we eventually did get around to catching up with the famous formation near Portrush Co Antrim we weren’t disappointed. Associated with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean in the Tertiary Period about 60 million years ago, this mass of basalt columns caused by volcanic activity left a lasting impression on us.
So, stimulated by Ireland’s most distinctive geological creation, my wife suddenly had a bright idea. “Let’s go to Limavady while we are in the area”. What’s so speciaI about Limavady, I hear you cry? It only happens to be the home of Danny Boy, that’s all! Knowing we weren’t a million miles from the market town, we followed the map in a southwesterly direction towards the origin of a ‘musical’ Wonder of the World... the Londonderry Air, better known as Danny Boy. Many musicologists believe it’s the world’s most beautiful melody. I wouldn’t argue with that. Certainly Mozart or Beethoven couldn’t come up with such a perfect composition.
After we parked, we were welcomed by a smiling traffic warden who assured us she had already done her rounds for the day and after our free hour we could stay as long as we liked. We were beginning to warm to Limavady! At the tourist office we received yet another greeting from a charming girl who was clearly impressed with our prior knowledge and interest in the song.
Right opposite on a pub wall was a huge picture of schoolteacher Jane Ross who first heard the tune on a market day in 1851. It was played by local blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry who was more than happy to repeat it so that Jane could write it down. The violinist was a native of a rural townland called Myroe. He used to perform outside the Burns and Lairds Shipping Line Office opposite Jane Ross’s house. Some historians believe the tune was influenced by an ancient ditty known as O’Cahan’s Lament. Perhaps, said sceptics, Jane composed it herself in the same way that Fritz Kreisler had fooled everyone that some of his tunes were attributed to various 17th and 18th century composers. However the general consensus was that Jane was merely the annotator.
She apparently sent the manuscript to a music collector friend in Dublin, George Petrie, President of the Society and Publication of Irish Melodies who published it in 1855. Eventually it went viral as The Londonderry Air. The haunting tune remained wordless for many years despite attempts at finding the perfect match. The world would have to wait until 1913 when Bath lawyer Fred Weatherly wrote the definitive lyric to the tune sent from his sister-in-law in America. In fact it had been written in advance. Incredibly Fred had the title Danny Boy already in his files, whose words miraculously fitted the melody.
So if you ever find yourself in Limavady spare a thought for Jane Ross the true saviour of Danny Boy. To this day a Blue Plaque hangs on the wall of her home at 51 Main Street Limavady commemorating one of the world’s most sublime songs. Jane is buried in Christ Church graveyard just across the road. Over the years Danny Boy has been recorded by thousands of artists and orchestras from John McCormack to Elvis Presley.
But in my experience one of the most moving versions of Danny Boy was by a 90 year old resident of a Ballinrobe care home, Mary from the Irish village of Ballyfarnon. And talking of Farnon, the greatest orchestral arrangement just has to be that of Robert Farnon.
George Shearing Quintet with String Choir
Analysed by Robert Walton
Most professional singers make it a practice to do a thorough sound and familiarization check before performing on stage, especially one that’s new to them. Dame Vera Lynn was no exception and lucky enough to have the expertise of her fastidious husband Harry Lewis who always made sure that everything was just perfect. I was her pianist in the mid-60s when the three of us entered the Stoke-on-Trent venue to give it the once over.
As we walked in, the public address system was playing what I can only describe as “music from heaven”. I immediately went into a kind of trance and my goose pimples became instantly active. Vera and Harry couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but I was in another world transfixed to the spot. After making enquiries the engineer in the control room informed me it was the title track of George Shearing’s album “Touch Me Softly”. Near the end of Shearing’s gorgeous arrangement, ravishing strings go literally into overdrive in what I call “tone apart” harmony. Let me explain. On the piano, the right hand plays the chord of say G, while the left hand plays the chord of F (both 2nd inversions). Play them together and the dissonance it creates is absolutely mind-blowing, especially when you move them up and down in tones. (Much more daring than say Debussy or Ravel). When I discovered these discords, I thought they were pure Bartok but a Royal Schools of Music professor insisted they were just borrowed from jazz.
Why do “far out” harmonies appeal to us? Of course, our DNA has a lot to answer for. On my father’s side, their whole passion was music. His aunt was an excellent piano teacher (she dumped me because I wouldn’t practise) while his mother was an incredible sight reader. But it wasn’t all one sided. My mother was a Chopin fanatic.
Guilt can be part of it too. After purchasing Ted Heath’s Strike Up The Band with its abrasive high brass, I remember feeling guilty (almost naughty) because my parents might object. After my classical music training, to be suddenly swept up by all this dissonance was a life changing experience. Overnight it seemed I had found the key to a new world of sound. The discords dug deep into my soul literally hurting the senses but what a discovery. At first it jars but gradually one becomes accustomed to paradise!
A brilliant solo violin begins this brief concerto-like introduction in a thrilling way that totally gripped me. The opening of Touch Me Softly is actually a trailblazer for what’s to come. As soon as the Quintet chords are sounded, you know you’re in Shearingland and when the strings enter for the first time, the nimble fingers of the maestro confirm something special is on its way. This is no Tatum or Peterson but a very gentle George with his own tasteful piano, keeping everything as musical and relaxed as possible with overall control by Milton Raskin. This section is virtually repeated with some more dreamy like doodling from Shearing.
Then what we’ve all been waiting for, the symphonic strings suddenly erupt into a dazzling display of a sort of frenzied fusion between Schoenberg and Farnon, creating one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard. It’s a sheer miracle that this very small part of the track happened to be playing that day in Stoke. The coda is an extension of the opening. I wonder how you reacted when you first encountered those Shearing strings?
“Touch Me Softly”. George Shearing
Capitol LP T1874