ROBERT FARNON: GENIUS AND HUMILITY
A CANADIAN PERSPECTIVE
DR. STANLEY SAUNDERS
It is difficult to think of a time when the music of Robert
Farnon was not a part of my life. As an aspiring teenage
violinist in Britain, I had the good fortune to mature with
the opportunity to listen to Roberts music emanating
from so many sources in an environment and time that were
conducive to the performance of live music.
Radio gave us his great arrangements with the big dance
bands of Ted Heath, Ambrose, and Geraldo; the series "Melody
Hour," which began in 1946; and Roberts BBC programme
"Journey into Melody." from 1950 The many LP albums
and CDs with Roberts musical arrangements, and his
collaboration with such illuminaries as Gracie Fields, Vera
Lynn, Eileen Farrell, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra,
George Shearing, Joe Williams, and Dizzie Gillespie are
testament to his versatility and great abilities as are
the fine recordings with the Queens Hall Light Orchestra.
For television, we need only mention the stirring concert
march, Colditz, written in 1972 that was the theme
for the BBC TV series, "Colditz, and the main
title for "Secret Army. Melody Fair that
was often used to introduce Roberts television shows.
Other TV series included "The Prisoner" 1967,
and "The Champions" 1969. The opportunity to compose
music for films was, I believe, the main factor that persuaded
Robert to stay in the United Kingdom at the conclusion of
World War II. A good decision when one realizes that he
eventually penned the scores for over forty films including
such memorable movies as "Spring in Park Lane"
, "Maytime in Mayfair" , and "Captain
Horatio Hornblower, R.N." .
Having been surrounded with such music in my formative
years, it is only natural that Roberts fine writings
have resonated with me ever since. I readily understand
why such notable composers such as André Previn,
John Williams, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones and many others
have publicly acknowledged their musical indebtedness to
the influences of Roberts creative scores. During
the late 1940s through 1958, I would personally play
the music of Robert Farnon as an instrumentalist in many
ensembles including Her Majestys Armed Forced Bands;
the BBC, and ITV [Wales] Orchestras. The reality that I
would subsequently reside in Canada with the opportunity
to conduct his music in North America and, furthermore,
be favoured to regard Robert as a very dear friend, seems
almost beyond belief.
The pleasure of working in Canada with many of Roberts
former musical players and colleagues such as violinists
Frank Fusco, Samuel Hersenhoren, Berul Sugarman, and Albert
Pratz, allowed me to share their admiration not only of
Roberts immense and versatile musical abilities but
also of his personal warmth, his humour, and his friendship.
With the invaluable help of my good friend and neighbour,
vibraphonist, Peter Appleyard, a plan was formulated to
produce a concert that would give Roberts musical
colleagues, friends, and the Canadian general public an
opportunity to pay tribute and to hear some of his masterworks.
The Board of the Brantford Symphony Orchestra, Ontario,
Canada, readily gave their approval, and arrangements were
made by the Symphony to bring Robert to Canada to be a vital
part of this well-deserved tribute to him. On Sunday, May
4, 1997, the seventy-eight piece ensemble with Jascha Milkis
, concertmaster, and myself as conductor, presented our
personal musical tribute to Robert at the Sanderson Centre
for the Performing Arts at Brantford, Ontario. Compè
re and host was Peter Appleyard, O.C.
The programme for this memorable occasion, entitled The
Genius of Robert Farnon, consisted entirely of Roberts
compositions and arrangements : Colditz March; Shenandoah;
Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra with Canadian
Joseph Macerollo, accordion; How Beautiful is Night;
"Manhattan Playboy," No. 3 of Three Impressions
for Orchestra; À la claire Fontaine; Melody Fair; Gateway
to the West; Farrago for Brass Quintet and Orchestra; Intermezzo
for Harp and Strings with Julia Shaw, harp; The Very Thought
of You with vocalist Carol Welsman, conducted by Skitch
Henderson; and Twilight World with Peter Appleyard,
vibraphone; Show Boat Selection; and Farnon Fantasy.
The concert was an unqualified success: a packed house
in the 1200 seat Sanderson Performing Arts Centre; repeated
standing ovations; and demands for, and receiving encores
including State Occasion. Each time that Robert was
brought on stage, there was an instantaneous outburst of
applause from the capacity audience Among those in attendance
were Roberts son, Brian, from Calgary, Alberta; John
Parry of Parry Music Inc., Florida; and Skitch Henderson,
Music Director of the New York Pops Orchestra,
Carnegie Hall, New York. Regrettably, Oscar Peterson was
unable to perform because of illness. Countless greetings
were receivedtelephone calls, letters, facsimiles,
telegramsincluding greetings from André Previn,
Oscar Peterson, George and Ellie Shearing, Marian McPartland
and others. All present were invited to a reception backstage
to meet Robert, special guests, national and civic dignitaries,
and Orchestral and Board Members. In one of his communications
to me, Robert stated: "It was one of the most memorable
moments of my life. I was flabbergasted by the accolades
that I received."
It is widely acknowledged that Canadian-born Robert Farnon
is the greatest composer of light orchestral music in the
world. Often overlooked, however, are the symphonic influences
that are in evidence in such orchestral settings as À
la claire Fontaine that Robert conducted and recorded
with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the Suite, Canadian
Impressions, the Concert March, Colditz, the
Suite, Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N.; and Rhapsody
for Violin and Orchestra.
Robert Farnon manifested a great love for his native country,
Canada. Many of the Canadian public are familiar with Roberts
trumpet playing with the Toronto-based dance bands of the
1930s; his trumpet playing [1937 though 1943] with
the well-loved radio programme, "The Happy Gang"
- which began as a Summer replacement show in 1937 and ran
for twenty-two years - his work as Conductor of the Canadian
Percy Faith Orchestra; his 1961 CBC TV programme, "Music
Makers"; the 1969 television special, "The Music
of Robert Farnon"; the 1969 concert with Vera Lynn
at the Maple Leaf Gardens at Toronto; and the Christmas
concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1984. In
addition, Robert also served as Conductor of the Canadian
Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.
It is doubtful, however, if many of the Canadian public
are conversant of the tremendous influence that Canada had
upon Roberts creative writings. Prelude and Dance
for Harmonica and Orchestra was written for the Canadian
harmonica virtuoso, Tommy Reilly; Pleasure of Your Company
was written for Oscar Peterson; Saxophone Triparti was
commissioned by the British Musicians Union and premiered
by the Canadian saxophonist, Robert Burns; Gateway to
the West, and Alcan Highway were influenced by
Canadian locations; Shenandoah, written in 1959 for
an album associated with melodies of the American West,
depicts the arrival of a sailing ship at an East Coast port
prior to its long journey Westward, while Lake of the
Woods reflects a remote lake in Northern Ontario; À
la claire Fontaine based on a French Canadian folk
song, was recorded by Decca in 1955 as a compilation of
Roberts works entitled "Canadian Impressions";
Farrago for Brass Quintet and Orchestra was commissioned
by the Canadian Brass; while Rhapsody for Violin and
Orchestra was recorded by Canadian violinist, Steven
Staryk (now available again on Vocalion CDLK4146); and Scherzando
for Trumpet and Orchestra was recorded by the CBC Winnipeg
As a celebrated Member of Composers, Authors and Publishers
Association of Canada, and the Society of Composers, Authors
and Publishers of Canada, it was almost axiomatic that Robert
should be honoured by the Guild of Canadian Film Composers
at Toronto on October 24, 1997; and by the Society of Composers,
Authors and the Music Publishers of Canada. Indeed, 1997
was an impressive eightieth year for Robert. Apart from
his celebratory concerts with the Brantford Symphony Orchestra,
May 4th and with the National Arts Centre Orchestra
on October 30/31 and November 1st, it was during
this period that he was commissioned to compose Concerto
for Piano and Orchestra: Cascades to the Sea. This major
work was completed in 1998 - the same title as the earlier
orchestral work lost in 1944 - and has been broadcast both
in Britain and the USA. It was issued as a commercial CD
by the British recording company, Vocalion, in 2002. It
was also in 1997 that Robert Farnon was finally awarded
the Order of Canada.
From an early age Robert, although self-depreciating and
modest about his more substantial compositions, innately
recognized that he had the creative ability and technique
to compose such major works. This is evidenced by the fact
that by 1942 - at the twenty-five years of age - he had
written two symphonies.
Symphony No. 1 in D flat Major, completed in 1940, was
premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest
Macmillan on January 7, 1941 as Symphonic Suite.
Symphony No. 1 was later performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra
under Eugene Ormandy. It is interesting to note that the
earlier orchestral work, Cascades to the Sea - premiered
on August 31, 1944 - along with the score of Symphony No.
1 were lost at sea in 1944 together with a shipment of Army
Show music and equipment.
Symphony No. 2: "Ottawa in B Major," completed
in 1942, was also premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
under Sir Ernest Macmillan in 1943 on the CBC programme,
Concert Hour. Both symphonies were also performed
by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Symphony No.3: "Edinburgh," completed in early
2004 is dedicated to the City of Edinburgh; it was inspired
after a visit to the Edinburgh Festival by Robert. It was
first performed at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland by
the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland, conducted by
Iain Sutherland, on May 14, 2005. In a fitting tribute to
the composer, the Orchestra included as encores Westminster
Waltz and Portrait of a Flirt as Robert had died
on April 23rd, exactly three weeks before this premiere.
On learning of Roberts death, Peter Appleyard at
a concert with his Quintet with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony
Orchestra, Ontario changed the programme to include Twilight
World, In the Days of Our Love, and The Very Thought
of You as a tribute to Robert. Westminster Waltz
was included in "Salute to England" with the Toronto
Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, May 29th, and "Sixtieth
Anniversary of the End of World War II" with the Vancouver
Symphony Orchestra on June 10/11, 2005. Both programmes
were conducted by Bramwell Tovey.
The Concerto for Bassoon "Romancing the Phoenix",
was written for American bassoon virtuoso Daniel Smith,
who will premiere the work in Europe and North America..
Using an amplified bassoon backed by a big band incorporated
within a full symphony orchestra, the three-movement composition
is in jazz style, and was completed early in 2005.
The commissioning of the Wind Symphony: "The Gaels"
in 2004 was spearheaded by Professor Darryl Bott, Assistant
Director of Bands at Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA,
and Chairman of the New Jersey State Band Association on
behalf of the award-winning Honours Wind Symphony at Roxbury
High School, New Jersey.
In several discussions with me about instrumentation, musical
clefs, notation, and so on regarding this new multi-movement
work, Robert was particularly enthusiastic about the use
of the Celtic drums that play an important part in the Finale
of the Wind Symphony. The knowledge that Robert played
percussion in the Toronto Symphony Junior Orchestra at the
age of twelve, and that he was a drummer in his brother's
band for three years clearly demonstrated his passion and
continued interest in percussion. The first performance
of the Wind Symphony, which Robert dedicated to me,
is scheduled for late Spring 2006 at the Performing Arts
Centre, Newark, New Jersey. It is of interest to note also
that Robert once lived at Riverside, New Jersey, some seventy
miles from the Performing Arts Centre, Newark. Plans are
now underway for the North American publication and recording
of this work.
Roberts musical versatility is further evidenced
by his compositions for winds. His Military Band compositions,
as well as works adapted specially for bands. Une Vie
de Matelot - specially written for the British National
Brass Band Championships in 1975 - and Suite Mountbatten
- began as a tribute to Lord Louis Mountbatten by Roberts
friend, Sir Vivian Dunn are only two examples.
Douglas Field, former CBC producer and now Manager of The
Intrada Brass, Oakville, Ontario, [Musical Director, Bramwell
Gregson] told me that in the last years of his life Robert
had given them great assistance in locating out-of-print
scores and parts of his band works in the Intrada Brass
project to record all of Roberts music written for
brass bands. In 2003, Robert sent a new arrangement of À
la claire Fontaine as a gift for the Intrada Brass
as well as arranging for the Library of the Royal Marines
to forward State Occasion and Colditz March.
These three works will be included in the tribute CD.
For my final concert with the Brantford Symphony Orchestra,
Ontario, after a tenure of twenty-seven years as Music Director
and Conductor, I gave much thought to the selection of the
concluding works on the programme. I selected the Suite
Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. as a dedication
and tribute to Robert for his friendship and for the important
part that he and his music has played in my life; and a
movement of that Suite, "Lady Barbara", as a devotion
and recognition of my wife, Barbaras unswerving support
throughout that period.
For all of Roberts eminence, he still retained his
wonderful generosity of spirit, his interest in others,
and his modesty and humility. Many will testify to his reticence
to interviews when facing the television cameras, his astonishment
when faced with plaudits and acclamations, and his propensity
to divert his well-deserved accolades on to others. I remember
well his telephone call to me asking "Stanley, would
it be all right if I dedicated the Wind Symphony to you?"
It was almost as if I were doing Robert a favour!
Barbara and I will greatly miss the interchange of many
facsimiles, telephone calls, and celebratory birthday and
Christmas cards with Robert. I shall miss discussing particular
interpretations of his compositions and arrangements, the
specific instrumentation of some of his early and more recent
works; his help in obtaining scores and instrumental parts
for performances, his suggestions for programme notes, contrasting
Canadian and European weather and politics along with the
general musical scene in North America and Europe, and deliberating
on the latest news of the English Premier Soccer League.
It is so difficult to accept the fact that those contacts
have now gone, and no longer will we hear his vibrant, sonorous,
baritone voice saying, "Is that you, Lady Barbara?
Is Stanley there?"
The original postcard that he sent us - later used as the
cover photograph of his CD, "Lovers Love London"
with the Royal Philharmonic Strings containing even more
string orchestral gems - will be an important part of our
Robert Farnon personal memorabilia and treasures. I have
been privileged to have been a small part of the legacy
and genius of Robert Farnon. It is my fervent hope that
the true genius and musical importance of his music in all
of its genres will be fully recognized especially in his
beloved native homeland, Canada.
This article appeared in Journal Into Melody