Dateline: 1 March 2003

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This new Vocalion CD completes the major project to reissue Robert Farnon’s great Decca albums from the 1950s

"The Songs of Britain" and "Stephen Foster Melodies"

The Songs of Britain Decca LF1123





    5. STRAWBERRY FAIR (Trad.)

    6. ANNIE LAURIE (Lady Scott)


    8. EARLY ONE MORNING (Trad.)

Stephen Foster Melodies [The Robert Farnon Octet] Decca LF1034



  3. DEEP RIVER (Trad.)




  7. SWEET AND LOW (Tennyson, Barnby)



17 APRIL IN PARIS (Vernon Duke) LF1020

18 INVITATION WALTZ (Richard Addinsell) LF1020 F9530

19 JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS (Cole Porter) LF1020 F9530

20 KISS ME AGAIN (Victor Herbert) LF1020

21 SHADOW WALTZ (Harry Warren, Al Dubin) LF1020

22 DONKEY SERENADE (Friml, Stothart, Wright) LM4509 F9185

23 PERSIAN NOCTURNE (Robert Stolz) LM4509 F9264

24 THE WALTZING CAT (Leroy Anderson) F10005

25 PROUD CANVAS (Robert Farnon) DFE6470

26 BIRD CHARMER (Robert Farnon) DFE6470

27 JOCKEY ON THE CAROUSEL (Farnon, Buchel) DFE6470

28 WESTMINSTER WALTZ (Robert Farnon) F10818 45-F10818

DFE series Decca 7" EP 45
F series Decca 10" 78 45-F 7" 45
LF series Decca 10" LP
LM series Decca 10" LP

Recording History

28.1.49 Donkey Serenade
18.5.49 Persian Nocturne
27.10.49 Swannee River, Deep River, Camptown Races
28.10.49 Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming, Sweet and Low, Beautiful Dreamer
4.5.50 Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Oh! Susanna
9.5.50 Just One of Those Things, Invitation Waltz
10.5.50 April in Paris, Kiss Me Again, Shadow Waltz
2.10.52 Waltzing Cat
27.4.53 ‘The Songs of Britain’ – all tracks
2.7.56 Westminster Waltz
12.2.58 Proud Canvas, Bird Charmer, Jockey on the Carousel – these three tracks were recorded in stereo, but originally issued on the EP only in mono

It is likely that the Stephen Foster tracks, and the 1958 sessions, were recorded at Broadhurst Gardens in London. The other tracks were probably recorded at Kingsway Hall.

Robert Farnon and his Orchestra

Vocalion CDLK4174

As many members of the Robert Farnon Society already know, Robert Farnon is a self-confessed lover of folk music, so when Decca asked him to arrange and conduct a selection of famous airs associated with the British Isles in honour of the Coronation of H.M Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, it was like being let loose in a sweet shop and told to savour all the goodies on the shelves.

It was perhaps a pity that he was only allowed a 10" LP, but it has to be remembered that long-playing records were expensive luxuries in the early 1950s, and the smaller discs (the same size as the familiar 78s they were gradually replacing) were considerably cheaper than the 12" ‘big brothers’ that would eventually become the standard format of sound reproduction.

Nevertheless in his album The Songs of Britain Bob Farnon managed to create eight brilliant orchestrations that cleverly captured, in turn, the majesty, romance, humour, sentimentality and sense of tradition that are intrinsic values inherent in the finest folk melodies that have been handed down through many generations.

The selection opens quietly with the fife and drums announcing the approach of a military band, which soon turns out to be a full concert orchestra. The British Grenadiers is probably the most famous march associated with the British Army, and Farnon’s clever score gives the impression of a band marching by on parade, finally moving on into the distance – until the final chords! Delicate strings support a solo viola in an unusual setting of Drink to me only with thine eyes. This is a very old song: Ben Jonson’s lyric dates from the 17th century, with the melody originally published as a glee around one hundred years later. The idea of lapsing into a 20th century slow foxtrot might alarm purists, but in the skilful hands of Farnon it works admirably. (It is not always easy to distinguish between the viola and a cello. Bob assures us that he used a viola in this arrangement; as he put it to us just recently – "Thanks to William Walton, the viola became a respectable instrument!")

The Lincolnshire Poacher is a carefree vagabond, who may be the scourge of local landowners, but is regarded as a popular hero for his harmless lawbreaking. Robert Farnon is a master at portraying humour in music, and his witty arrangement also suggests that the poacher enjoys the occasional drink as the climax to his escapades. In complete contrast the focus shifts across the Irish Sea from England to the Emerald Isle, for perhaps the most famous of all the folk melodies to emanate from that mystical realm. The strings predominate in Farnon’s affectionate and sensitive setting of The Londonderry Air, a work that has achieved popularity throughout the world. It is regarded as a genuine folk melody, having been handed down through many generations until it was eventually published in the middle of the nineteenth century.

It’s back to England where rustic merry-making is the order of the day in Strawberry Fair, with the muted brass, wood-winds, perky strings, and xylophone all clamouring for attention. After a brief pause to restore their energy levels, the dancers regroup for one final major burst of merrymaking. Robert Farnon next takes us north of the border to Scotland for Annie Laurie, the only non-traditional work in this collection, although Lady Scott’s melody has long achieved the status of a national air. It is introduced by the oboe, leading to a big swell of strings that dwells and lingers upon the passionate melody, subsequently taken up by the full orchestra.

The remaining area of Britain to be represented is Wales, and Farnon’s gift of being able to conjure up a serene, pastoral mood is perfectly suited to All Through The Night. Solo violin and harp set the tender scene right from the start, with the strings of the orchestra soon surging to embrace this ethereal melody.

To conclude this journey around the British Isles, we return to England for Early One Morning. Farnon originally orchestrated this bouncy folk song when he was musical director for the film "Spring in Park Lane" (1948). He re-worked his score for this album, using as the opening passage the sequence where Anna Neagle is seen walking along a fashionable Mayfair Street, only to be somewhat surprised when her front door is opened by Michael Wilding, instead of her usual butler. Such things used to happen in films light years ago! In one of his typical scores like this, Farnon employs the whole orchestra, so we hear the wood-winds almost in a question and answer session with the strings and muted brass. The melody happily flits around until it is finally, and firmly, grasped by the full orchestra which majestically builds into one of the finest musical climaxes that Robert Farnon has ever created.

The second 10" LP featured on this CD is Stephen Foster Melodies played by The Robert Farnon Octet (as opposed to the full orchestra, on all the other tracks). The smaller instrumentation allowed for a kind of chamber music quality which certainly suits some of the numbers, which were mostly composed in the middle of the 19th century, and would therefore have been played at the time by similar sized ensembles, both professional and amateur.

Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania on 4 July 1826, the ninth in a family of ten children. He died in New York on 13 January 1864, and during his 37 years he became America’s first professional popular songwriter, with more than 200 songs to his credit. Reports suggest that he received a basic formal musical training from a German immigrant, Henry Kleber, and he started writing songs when he was only 14; his first big success was Oh! Susanna, published in 1848. His inspiration seems to have been the singing and dancing of negroes he heard as a child on the wharves of the Ohio River, and he was profoundly affected by the traditional minstrel shows. Occasionally he employed lyric writers, but most of his best-known works featured his own words and music.

He married Jane McDowell in 1850, and composed Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair for her in 1854 when they were separated. (Way Down Upon the) Swanee River is also known as The Old Folks at Home and it appeared in 1851 which seems to have been one of Foster’s busiest years for new works. He wrote it for the famous Christy Minstrels, and Foster apparently permitted E.P. Christy to name himself as the composer. Camptown Races had been published the year before, and it became very popular with children; its alternative title was Gwine to Rune All Night - an unusual line to the ears of the many singers who have performed it over the years.

Come Where my Love Lies Dreaming was probably another tribute to his lost love. It comes from 1855 at the start of a five year period which saw far fewer new songs than previously. By the time Foster wrote Beautiful Dreamer in 1862 he was again producing numerous works at an increasing rate. But when he died from a fall induced by a fever that would have been easily curable today, he had just 37 cents in his pocket. His lack of riches can be blamed on the absence of enforceable copyright laws, and the impracticality of collecting performing rights fees at that time.

Two numbers in this collection are apparently not the original works of Foster. Sweet and Low surely evolved as a spiritual, with lyrics ‘borrowed’ from Alfred Tennyson. It would seem that a Joseph Barnby published it in 1863, claiming it as his own. Deep River also appears in reference books as a traditional black spiritual, published in 1917, but who is to say that many years before it had not reached the ears of Foster and his contemporaries?

Over the years, within the RFS there have occasionally been conflicting views about whether or not Bob actually conducted – or indeed arranged – the tracks on this LP. Your Editor discussed this with Bob at some length when writing the notes for this CD, and the explanation that follows will hopefully settle any friendly arguments once and for all! Bob clearly remembers conducting the sessions, but Bruce Campbell probably assisted with some of the scores. It was still a case of a ‘master and pupil’ relationship, with Campbell gradually learning more about the skills of arranging and composing. Farnon’s own busy schedule meant that he would occasionally sketch out the bones of a score, which Campbell would embellish before handing it back to the maestro for the final finishing touches.

Bruce Campbell was a fellow Canadian who had come to Britain in the 1930s to play trombone with various dance bands including Jack Hylton, Jack Harris, Sid Millward and Hugo Rignold. Eventually he developed into a talented light music composer in his own right.

‘Stephen Foster Melodies’ was recorded mainly for the American market, and it provides some interesting contrasts with the big orchestral sounds that had been associated with Farnon up to that time.

The remaining tracks in this collection come from various 78s, 45s and LPs that have escaped the net so far in Vocalion’s major project to reissue the vast majority of Robert Farnon’s orchestral recordings for Decca. In the early days of LPs, a few releases were made up of 78s, rather than special projects purely for LPs. Some of Bob’s 10" albums fall into this category, and because of the contents they have not been suitable for reissue on CD as individual albums, in the same way as major projects such as "From the Highlands" or "Canadian Impressions". Now those remaining tracks have been assembled, the only few exceptions being well-known numbers ("Comedians’ Galop" and "Huckle-Buckle" are two examples) which are already available elsewhere on recently released CDs.

The Vernon Duke song April In Paris hardly needs any introduction. At one time it was in the repertoire of almost every band and orchestra, and Robert Farnon often included it in his radio programmes. Richard Addinsell’s charming Invitation Waltz is also known as ‘Ring Round The Moon’ - the title of Christopher Fry’s play, produced in 1950, for which this haunting piece was specially composed.

Robert Farnon never actually got around to making an LP of Cole Porter’s music, although he featured the works of this American genius on many occasions. Just One Of Those Things finds the orchestra on top form, with brief solos from Sidney Bright (piano – brother of the famous bandleader Geraldo) and Dave Goldberg (guitar). Kiss Me Again, Shadow Waltz and Donkey Serenade were all popular songs from 1930s film musicals, suitably dressed up to date in Farnon’s own stunning orchestrations. However the next item, Persian Nocturne, is the one track on this CD where the Farnon touch is missing as arranger. Just after the war he got to know the famous Austrian composer Robert Stolz very well, and they both admired each other’s music-making. Stolz had taken some of Farnon’s early compositions to perform in Germany, so Bob returned the compliment by recording one of his own Stolz favourites. The arranger is unknown – maybe the composer himself?

While Robert Farnon was making a name for himself in Britain as one of the leading light music composers, Leroy Anderson was doing the same in North America. He had a string of big successes, such as Sleigh Ride, Blue Tango and Belle Of The Ball. When Waltzing Cat came out, Decca asked Bob to record it, and it is interesting that his arrangement is unlike any of the other 78s of this tune that were around at the same time.

To complete this compilation we have four Robert Farnon compositions. Proud Canvas is simply a wonderful piece of ‘sea music’, conjuring up the great days of sail. Not long after he composed it, Farnon was signed to score the seafaring epic "Captain Horatio Hornblower". The eldest son of Pat and Bob Farnon is David, himself a successful musician with many fine compositions to his credit. When he was very young, one day his mother made the comment that he could "charm the birds out of the trees". At the time his father was just finishing a new piece which lacked a title: Bird Charmer provided the answer.

During his time working on films produced by Herbert Wilcox (such as "Spring in Park Lane" and "Maytime in Mayfair"), Bob found himself scoring for dance routines dreamed up by Philip and Betty Buchel. Philip liked to write the odd tune, but he always needed help in finishing it. So from the few brief notes of one of Philip’s sketchy melodies, Bob createdThe Jockey On The Carousel.

Our final track introduces again one of the most successful numbers that Robert Farnon has composed. Like so many of his works, it was originally written as background music for Chappell’s Record Music Library, and started appearing in newsreels and radio programmes. The public quickly took note, and Bob made a commercial recording for Decca. The melody won him his first Ivor Novello Award, as the best piece of Light Orchestral Music in 1956. Perhaps some of its charm lies in the opening chimes. Originally Bob had been using a working title "The First Waltz", but his publishers suggested incorporating the famous Westminster chimes which naturally meant a change of name. Some years later Bob did compose another "First Waltz" which is a delightful melody, but it hasn’t achieved the same fame.

As stated at the top of this feature, the major project to reissue Robert Farnon’s Decca albums from the 1950s is virtually complete. However, readers will be aware that he continued to be active in the recording studios long after his ‘salad days’ with Decca came to an end. There are still many fine Farnon treasures patiently waiting to be rediscovered for a new lease of life on CD!

David Ades

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