On Sunday 22 January 1967, at 2.30pm, the BBC Light
Programme broadcast the first programme in a new series
featuring Robert Farnon conducting the Radio Orchestra :
"Farnon in Concert". Shortly before the first
show, Robert Farnon gave a fascinating interview to Crescendo,
which was reprinted in Journal Into Melody.
Over 35 years later in 2003, we are pleased to give our
present-day members the opportunity to read what Bob had
Robert Farnon : talking about "Farnon in Concert",
and much more
Its a great pleasure to do this new weekly BBC series,
which I believe is going to be heard each Sunday until the
end of June. Im looking forward to its run. Actually,
I come over from my home in Guernsey every fortnight. On
the Tuesday we usually do all the script, because theres
a lot of talking throughout the programme, between the visiting
composer, the guest singer, the regular compere, John Dunn,
and myself. We do most of that work at Broadcasting House,
and it is cut into the show later. Then on the Wednesday,
from 2.00 in the afternoon until 10 p.m., we record the
music for one programme. On Thursday we do a second complete
That allows me to be home for one full week, rather than
come over each week. Because the travellings a bit
of a bind, you know. If you have to make it every week,
you just get here, do your work, go home, spend one day
and come back again. Thats how it was with the previous
series on BBC, and Im glad that theyve been
able to arrange it this way - thanks to the producer, Vernon
I worked with the Radio Orchestra last year, when we did
two or three isolated programmes. Just occasionally I came
in, conducted the orchestra and brought a few arrangements.
Prior to that, I worked with the string section in a couple
of programmes. On the whole, its a first-class orchestra.
And theyre magnificent readers. They read this music
just at sight - which is a godsend when we have such limited
The Radio Orchestra has some very good soloists in it -
the leader, violinist John Jezzard, Bobby Lamb (trombone),
Jimmy Chester (alto). An excellent Canadian tenor player
- Art Ellefson.
And, of course, Malcolm Cecil on bass and Jackie Dougan
on drums are first-rate. Then we have Bobby Midgeley come
in for the afternoon session, playing all the extra percussion
wonderfully well. Individually, theres an awful lot
of talent there. Collectively, theyve been together
long enough now to have some terrific teamwork. Which you
dont get in the session boys so much. Sometimes you
do - if the same four trombones or four trumpets arrive
at a date, but quite often it isnt so. I think the
only real difference is there are probably a few more virtuosos
among session players that do recordings and film work.
As a unit, this is a top-class light orchestra, which can
play almost any style of music. Weve done everything
from small Dixieland jazz and beat stuff up to a movement
from Dvoraks "New World" Symphony. Which
isnt bad going, is it? And everything you could think
Its certainly a great help to know that there are
these outstanding jazz players in the orchestra. Then I
can dig into my library and say: "Well, yes, thisll
come off well, because it has a tenor solo, and weve
got a terrific tenor player in the band." Or "Heres
a speciality for the alto," or whatever. It helps me
in programming the music, to know what I can use.
As a matter of interest, Johnny Dankworth is going to be
a guest in one of the programmes, and Im writing a
saxophone piece for him. But I must mention something else
here - this originated from a suggestion by the producer,
who thought it might be an idea if I wrote a little thing
for Johnny. And, funnily enough, Id been starting
a serious composition for another alto player, also a fellow-Canadian,
Bob Burns. But a major work - a saxophone concerto, which
will feature Bob playing tenor, alto and soprano. Hell
play one of these instruments on each of three movements.
I must say that the general standard of musicianship in
this country is very high. Right after the war, when I started
doing some vocal accompaniments at Decca and working with
the Queens Hall Light Orchestra, I found that the
reading was absolutely staggering. Id never come across
musicians who could sightread so well. Back home it
would take us probably twice the time. And its the
Where American musicians tend to excel, I think, is in
interpretation. Also, most of the American bands we hear
are permanentlyorganised outfits, so they have more
time to get a good ensemble sound. Ted Heaths band,
being permanent, got a wonderful ensemble sound. But in
session work, where were going to do an album of jazz
tunes, or whatever, we only have so much time to get these
things done. In other words, the brass or saxophone section
cant take the music away and wood-shed
it, as we call it, for half an hour - just get into a corner
and practice it, phrase it, change it and chop it about.
As, say, Ted Heaths band does - and the Americans.
Its always been my opinion that we could get the
same ensemble sound from the ordinary bands here. Teds
was not a soloists band (not later on, anyway) but
it was a great ensemble band. I remember, when I was with
Geraldo, he allowed us to have a rehearsal of up to three
or four hours, just wood-shedding one number. And, as a
result, we got a great sound.
Being a perfectionist, Im seldom completely happy
about the sound. I think its a bit mean on my part
- I shouldnt be so selfish, always wanting everything
to be perfect.
As for being a conductor, I conduct because I like conducting
my own music. But Im not really mad about actually
conducting an orchestra. I much prefer writing. It was when
I was in my teens in Toronto that the writing gradually
took hold. From the time I was seven years old, I can remember
music throughout the family. My father was a violinist;
my mother played piano. My only sister was a jazz pianist,
and my elder brother, Brian, was in a college band when
he was twelve. I was eleven or twelve when I bought my first
set of drums, just playing the bass drum and brass, and
played trumpet for many years.
What happened was: I was on drums with my brothers
band, and it was very difficult to find brass players. The
tenor saxophone player had an old cornet, which he gave
to me as a present. So I started studying it, and taking
lessons and I liked it very much. Then I used to play the
second trumpet parts at the drums, just playing the bass
drum and hi-hat cymbal with my feet, leaving my hands free
to play the trumpet! In 1936 I joined the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation, playing first trumpet for Percy Faiths
Orchestra. That was an entree for me, as far as writing
was concerned, because I used to do some arranging for Percy,
too. He wasnt a vocal writer at the time, and I did
his choir arrangements for him. When he left for America,
I suppose I filled the gap, as it were. I took over, formed
an orchestra and did a lot of conducting for CBC. But I
would play as well. I didnt give up playing until
I came to Britain with the Canadian Army in 1944.
My original studies in writing were with a private teacher
named Louis Wiseman. He was a pupil at a school in Prague
at the same time as one of the Strauss family. A very good
teacher, though not a good composer. He taught me the harmony,
the counterpoint and the general theory of music. I took
it over from there. And I didnt write any popular
music to speak of; I was just concerned in writing serious
music. I wrote a symphonette for orchestra, then two symphonies
and several orchestral works, an etude for trumpet, some
piano pieces - and this was all before I came over here.
It was when I was in Britain with the Canadian Band of the
AEF that I became more involved in the light music side.
As the conductor of a popular orchestra, which ours was,
similar to those of Glenn Miller and George Melachrino,
I wasnt accented by the BBC as a serious musician:
I remember sending my Second Symphony score to the BBC for
review, and I never heard from them about it for three years.
Finally I discovered the score in a little office in Shaftesbury
Avenue, underneath a pile of manuscripts. It had been there,
gathering dust, for all that time. I was more or less advised
by the chap there that they didnt even look at it,
because it couldnt possibly be good if it was written
by a jazz musician.
This is a strange attitude, but it is true. And I think
it still prevails today to a great extent. Ive written
one or two serious works recently: one is a "Rhapsody
For Violin And Orchestra", which has been played at
the Festival Hall, as well as all over Europe and in Canada.
But, although its been submitted to them, its
never been played by the BBC Serious Music Department at
all. And thats today.
Apart from the BBC, I find the same unawareness on the
part of the symphony orchestras here, to whom my work has
been submitted, but who have not used it. Yet the symphony
orchestras abroad consider it worth including in their repertoire.
My First Symphony was played by the Philadelphia Orchestra
under Eugene Ormandy. So if its performed by one of
the ten leading orchestras in the world, it should be good
enough for the BBC.
The AEF Band was a full aggregation, including strings,
but we didnt have the best players. During the war
the Canadian Army had several big entertainment units, and
they used to send, say, tenor twelve-piece groups out on
the Continent with a show. Some of them got up very close
behind the lines. The cream of the professional musicians
of Canada were in these units. And we were left in London
with rather the second string of players.
Therefore, with our leading brass, woodwind and string
players out entertaining the troops, we had great difficulty
in competing with Miller - and Melachrino. But we had quite
a good orchestra, because we were working a 9 to 5 routine
nearly every day of the week. So what we lacked in skill,
we made up for in ensemble playing and drilled musicianship,
Anyway, it served as a launching point for me here. Of
course, we were working in the BBC regularly and, shortly
after the war, the Corporation offered me a series along
the lines of the large orchestral music of the Canadian
Army Band. That, incidentally, was on a Sunday afternoon,
as this one is. It was called Journey Into Melody,
and we followed it with another series, Melody Hour.
Now weve either come full circle, or were turning
the clock back 20 years - I dont know what. But were
doing the same thing, more or less, again. Though I think
the styles have changed a bit.
It would be interesting, perhaps, for some people to know
that a lot of the arrangements were playing in this
present series are the ones we played in the original series
18-20 years ago. Theyre not all new arrangements,
by any means.
Unfortunately theres no budget for arranging in the
programme. Im just pulling the suitable ones out of
the book. And, according to the musicians, most of them
still stand up. Which is nice to know.
My associations with jazz and jazz musicians go back to
when I lived in Toronto. Of course, New York wasnt
very far away - just across the border. And we used to go
over every possible weekend and sit in with some of these
boys, just for a musical tonic. I first played with Dizzy
Gillespie when he came through Toronto with Cab Calloways
band. We used to have jam sessions afterwards and play like
mad all night long, together with Chu Berry on tenor and
Cozy Cole on drums. Dizzy played straight trumpet then -
he didnt have it sticking up in the air. He used to
giggle when I played a jazz solo on cornet - hed always
played trumpet himself. In fact, I think its a nicer
sound than flugelhorn, easier to control, with a better
I used to sit in and play jazz choruses at Mintons.
Also at a place called the Trianon in Buffalo, which is
even closer to Toronto. I used to work a 9 till 1 job at
a Summer place near Niagara Falls. Our way of relaxing after
the job every night was to nip over to Buffalo. It was only
about an hours drive - wed get back about 6.00
in the morning. At the Trianon, we played with some very
interesting fellows from the old Don Redman Band, such as
Jean Goldkette, Red Norvo and his brother, a drummer. Reds
wife, Mildred Bailey, was singing with the band. Those were
very happy salad days.
It was just filling my need to play jazz - that was the
only way to play it. Because there werent very many
jazz musicians in my home town at the time. Not like there
is now - we have Oscar Peterson in residence and, until
recently, we also had Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. But we didnt
then, so we had to go over the border for our jazz.
Any interest evidenced by jazz people like Quincy Jones
in my present-day work doesnt have anything to do
with jazz, I dont think. Probably, they just like
some of the arrangements Ive done on record. Harmonically,
more than anything else, and perhaps the orchestral colours.
I dont think they listen much to the jazz side of
it, because we dont play very much. The orchestras
we use are a little bit too large to play jazz. We attempt
it - to try to find that elusive combination of jazz and
symphonic. Its terribly difficult, but a lot of people
- Johnny Dankworth, John Lewis, Duke Ellington - are having
a go, too. But on a big scale, with the 60-piece Radio Orchestra
that you hear on Sundays, its not at all easy to move
a band of that size in a swinging arrangement. Occasionally,
though, it does happen.
Quincy Jones was with Philips Records for quite a long
time, as an A and R man. We made about four or five albums
together, including the one with Sarah Vaughan. I directed
the orchestra; he was in the control room A and R-ing, as
it were. I think that contract resulted from the fact that
my orchestral music appealed to him. And he was interested
in writing for the orchestra in that way -for the straighter
instruments and strings. Not just the jazz side of it, which
he had done for so many years. This, of course, is what
hes now putting into practice in his film scores.
Its surprising how many of these jazz boys want to
write for strings. I remember having a letter from Victor
Feldman, saying hed love to do some string writing,
and asking if Id give him a correspondence lesson
or two. He sent over some examples; I sent back corrections,
and so on. We just did it on a friendly basis, because were
old pals, you know.
The same applied to Quincy. We used to have little chewingthefat
sessions, when he would ask about string voicings and whatnot.
Likewise the baritone player Sahib Shihab, who lives in
Denmark. We had some friendly little gettogethers
in Copenhagen. He would do a few bars, and wed talk
about it. And I think he learned more that way than he would
trying to find some book which would instruct him along
the appropriate lines.
Writing for strings is quite an art
To write for strings well is quite an art, I believe. A
lot of people today are writing for strings the same way
they would write for saxophones. And it sounds that way,
you know, rather dull. They have one phrase for about eight
bars with a big slur marked over it. But a violin cant
do that. Hell run out of bow, even if the bow is 20
feet long. He couldnt phrase that way.
In string writing, bowing is very important. That is, whether
its an up-bow, a down-bow, or whatever. It requires
a bit of study. So does the harp; thats a most complicated
instrument to write for.
Scoring for the straight woodwinds also calls for a little
bit of skill. If it lies well for the instrument, the player
will give it more, and it sounds better. If you put the
part in front of them, and all the bowing is marked, all
the dynamics and everything is there, it immediately sounds
right on the first read-through. And, of course, that makes
a musician feel good, too - the fact that he got through,
perhaps, a difficult string piece the first time. But he
couldnt do that if the bowing was all upside-down.
It would make him look a bit of a Charlie, when hes
The string writing, I think, has had a lot to do with the
jobs Ive been asked to do. Because most of these big
dance bands-cum-string orchestras have rather uninteresting
things to play. Even Glenn Miller, when he had that magnificent
string section during the war - he didnt use it. They
were playing long notes all the time, instead of interesting
Writing for singers? Ive never enjoyed it to any
great extent. I like working with the orchestra by itself.
Ive written for many singers, and I dont ever
remember one side becoming a hit. I did string arrangements
for Vera Lynn till I was blue in the face, and never a hit.
Then she decided to get someone else, Roland Shaw, and the
very first number he wrote for her was a hit! I just didnt
have any luck. Although the Sarah Vaughan record came off.
But that was almost orchestral writing, anyway. We had the
Danish choir, the orchestra, and Sarah herself is like a
musical instrument. Shes so intelligent; she listens
to the accompaniment and just weaves in like an ad lib
tenor or whatever.
As a matter of fact, Sinatra is like that, too. He knows
just where to slide in. But on our ill-fated album, into
which I put a lot of work, he just wasnt in very good
voice. Hed just returned from a world tour, and was
doing concerts at the Festival Hall each night. He, too,
claimed that his voice was tired. Therefore he wouldnt
allow the record to be released in America, because the
singing would have done him more harm than good. So he rested
his voice after that, I think, and about five or six months
later he made an album, on which his singing was much improved.
Yes, it would be nice to do another one with him if its
not too late.
Tony Bennett and I have been trying to make an album for
years. Just recently he asked if I could come over to New
York to make one. And I couldnt, because I was just
beginning the BBC Farnon In Concert series.
Incidentally, Tony has recorded the floperoo Eurovision
Contest song that I wrote - "Country Girl". Apparently
its become quite a hit in America since its release
there. Hes also incorporated it into his act at the
Copacabana, just accompanied by a harpist; which would be
interesting. Were hoping to have him as a guest on
the Sunday radio show, when he comes over in May. So we
might have a chance to hear his performance of my song then.
But I havent done much songwriting - no talent for
it, really. "Country Girl" took me about three
months to write; it was a great struggle. I enjoyed doing
it, but no one should take that long writing a song, I dont
When it comes to arranging, even if its just a pop
song, I use the same form that I would for a serious work.
I have, more or less, an idea of the format of what Im
going to do with it, but I never know how it will develop.
And I like developing arrangements of any kind. They should
be developed somewhere. Otherwise, it could be just another
stock printed arrangement. What happens is: I lay out, say,
a complete four- or five-line sketch right from the beginning.
Then, when you score it, thats the joyful part. Adding
the gingerbread. The hard, creative work has been done in
the sketch; you have your framework, as it were. Therefore,
you can sit back and its just like writing a letter;
then you add the different little colours and flourishes
as you go along.
My approach to composition has always been the same, really.
I like to think its improved a bit, because Im
certainly learning every day. But I know what I like to
do. I still want to write serious music, because I enjoy
it so much.
In 1962 I wrote two large orchestral works, one to showcase
Oscar Peterson and his Trio and one for Dizzy Gillespie,
which we were to record in Berlin. And I wanted to use six
or seven lead men from London, not being too familiar with
the musicians in Germany, to make sure that at least the
leaders of each section were going to carry us through.
It was just as well I did, because, although we found a
wonderful string section over there, at that time the brass
and saxophone players werent too good. Theyre
much better now - at least there are more available.
However, the British men were informed by the Musicians
Union that, if they proceeded with this recording involving
American musicians, disciplinary action would be taken.
And when Dizzy, Oscar and Norman Granz, who was promoting
this album for Verve, arrived in Berlin, they each received
telegrams from the American Federation of Musicians. They
all stood to be expelled from the Union if they carried
on with the project. Of course, that scrubbed the whole
The reason we went to Berlin was that, if it were to be
done in New York, it would cost the record company a fortune,
what with the travelling expenses and everything. We had
about 75 musicians in one section of a movement, plus Oscars
Trio. Then plus Dizzy. Whereas the Union fees and general
costs in Berlin would be much lower.
So Norman wondered if we could do it in England, but that
wasnt possible, either. It was decided to shelve it
for the time being, and, if I came to New York later on,
perhaps they could do the Dizzy side of the album. Then
the Oscar side at another time, and spread the expense over
Meanwhile, Dizzy and Oscar both joined other companies.
I joined Philips, who didnt allow me to work for another
company, because I was under exclusive contract. Eventually
I got permission to do the LP on Vervebut something
else happened. Dizzy went to the Far East, I think. Some
situation always came along to stop it materialising.
But I still hope we can do it some time. I might even orchestrate
it for a smaller combination. Perhaps that would give us
a chance, financially, to record it, without having to bring
in a gallery of strings. String players are very expensive
these days. Id certainly like to revise some of it.
By now it would be a dated work: its four years old.
I do think that jazz dates very quickly. It always will,
somehow. The same as improvisations in classical works;
I think they date. In the old days, concertos included a
cadenza which was to be improvised by the particular player.
I imagine that, if what he did then was played today by
Rubinstein, it would sound very dated. Anything thats
improvised dates. Listening to the Goodman band now, although
its great and brilliant, it sounds terribly corny
to me, when you compare it with the swinging arrangements
they play today.
Some of the things they do in jazz today really amaze me.
Look at Dizzy - the way he has improved. When I used to
play with him, he was even worse than I was - dreadful player.
But now hes great, and Ive told him so. He often
says: "Im glad you gave up the cornet, man!"
When I played jazz, I didnt have the incredible facility
of, say, Al Hirt. I dont think anyone else did in
that era. In my opinion, the techniques in jazz have progressed
to such a fantastic degree of excellence that its
almost impossible to believe.
Footnote: Remember that Robert Farnon gave this
interview towards the end of 1966, and we have repeated
it here without any updating. Of course, we now know that
he was soon to achieve his wish of making some fine albums
with Tony Bennett, and that LP with Frank Sinatra is now
far more highly regarded than it was at the time.