ROBERT FARNON ON "DESERT ISLAND DISCS" IN
CANADA Researched by PAUL CLATWORTHY
We have all done it at some time: you make
a list of your favourite tunes then return to it in later
years and make alterations.
While Robert Farnon was in Canada in Spring
1983 conducting at the National Arts Centre, lan Alexander
was in the Toronto CBC studio talking to Robert in the Ottawa
studio about his choice of music and his career. The interview
(broadcast on 12 August 1983) started with a short burst
of "The Happy Gang".
IAN. Your name is not mentioned in that
list but you spent some years working on that show for CBC.
BOB. Yes I was one of the beginners, we
started around 1938 I stayed until joining the army in 1941.
I was expecting to hear my voice there but didnt hear
IAN. What was the experience like - live
radio I guess.
BOB. Absolutely marvellous anything went,
we could do absolutely anything we liked and sometimes did.
It was just a joy five days a week going down there; it
was a shame to take the money.
IAN. I get the feeling that work like that
and a lot of the other work that youve done - studio
work with people like Percy Faith, can we call it "commercial
work", hones a musicians craft.
BOB. Yes thats quite true. I must
confess I enjoyed doing "The Happy Gang" but was
set on writing serious music and in those days no one could
make a living writing classical music so I joined the Gang
and earned my bread and butter. I really enjoyed it of course
but in my spare time I wrote more serious music.
IAN. Now back before even the "Happy
Gang" I believe you put in a stint with the orchestra
Ive just mentioned, Percy Faith, I remember back in
the sixties I was working as music director of an "Easy
Listening" station on the West coast and the Canadian
content regulations had just come in. We did try for a while
to justify Percy Faiths music as Canadian but really
he did leave this country in mid-career didnt he?
BOB. He did, as a matter of fact I played
with Percy on trumpet at the same period I was working with
"The Happy Gang"; it all happened around the same
IAN. A hectic sort of schedule then.
BOB. Oh but great fun!
IAN. Now we are calling this a kind of
"Desert Island Discs" with Robert Farnon; Bob
has indicated some of the music he likes to listen to and
he would like to share with our national radio audience
this evening. Bob I am interested in your first choice because
its one that I enjoy very much, a classic piece of
BOB. It most certainly is lan and theres
a little story attached to that, I was introduced to the
song by Canadian soprano named Doreen Hume who became very
famous in Britain and we worked together many times over
there. Before she returned to Canada she presented me with
this recording by Madeline Gray of "Bailero" from
"Songs of the Auvergne"; this is my favourite
tune and the most familiar.
IAN. Lets listen now to "Bailero"
by Joseph Cantaloube.
+++ +++ +++
IAN. The passage of time has not sullied
the beauty of that performance, a recording made more than
half a Century ago as you can hear from the surface noise
in 1930. Bob you worked with a number of singers over the
years and one in particular Tony Bennett.
BOB. Yes I have done a lot with Tony -
radio, television and a few concerts; hes an absolute
delight to work with, beautiful chap!
IAN. Hes strikes me as a musicians
musician impeccable in terms of everything being in its
place, everything happening just right.
BOB. Yes thats exactly what happens.
He is wonderful in that way when rehearsing a new arrangement
he listens to it and doesnt interrupt in the wrong
places. He sings the song and appreciates the arrangement,
especially if its a good one, Sinatra is exactly the
IAN. You have not only conducted for these
gentlemen you have also recorded with them and other singers,
Cleo Laine for example.
BOB. Yes I have done albums with Sinatra,
Lena Home, Sarah Vaughan and Tony, They have asked me to
provide the arrangements.
IAN. We have an album here which was not
on your list but I have put it on mine, I thought it would
be fun to sample, Its an album made in concert on
the 100th anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall. Tony Bennett
the featured vocalist, a picture on the back with you conducting
a large symphonic orchestra.
BOB. Yes I remember that.
IAN. Quite an occasion that must have been,
What was the year?
BOB. In the early seventies I think.
IAN. Just looking at the sleeve - 1971
BOB. Thats right.
IAN. A decade ago, theres a poster
here, sold out of course I thought we might sample it, was
there a favourite?
BOB. I wondered what you have chosen?
IAN. I like "Get Happy".
BOB. Yes super.
+++ +++ +++
IAN. The London Philharmonic Orchestra
really swinging to the tasty baton of Robert Farnon. That
really does swing and jump. Was it hard to make a symphony
orchestra sound like a show band?
BOB. Normally it is but Tony adds that
little extra magic; hes the one who made it swing,
one way or another.
IAN. Now your career took a turn to England
during the war years, in fact it was the war that took you
to England first.
BOB. Yes I went over with the Canadian
Army in 1944.
IAN. You worked with the BBC as well as
BOB. Yes but mostly broadcasting. There
were three AEF orchestras, Glenn Miller with the American
band, George Melachrino with the British and myself with
the Canadian. We shared concerts for the troops throughout
the country and eventually on the Continent.
IAN. Bringing things up to date I know
that in more recent times the BBC has found it uneconomical
to have as many orchestras on the payroll as it has in the
past, a situation that probably did not make you too happy.
BOB. Unfortunately they disbanded five
or six orchestras just a couple of years ago. Fortunately
for me light music is very popular on the Continent in Holland,
Belgium, France, Scandinavia and that has replaced the loss
of performances in Britain for me and other light music
IAN. Of course listeners across the country
will know we are happy that Robert Farnon is back with some
regularity to conduct concerts with Canadian orchestras.
You are in Ottawa with the N.A.C.O. and as I am a former
Vancouverite I know you have been out to Vancouver to conduct
the V.S.O. many times.
BOB. Thats right I have.
IAN. One of the Desert Island discs you
picked is a recording by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
BOB. Yes I am very fond of Respighis
music. This is quite a coincidence: coming over to Vancouver
last May in-flight music was playing a record of "Pines
of Rome". I thought what a beautiful performance that
is, I looked up the in-flight magazine and lo and behold
it was the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
IAN. Why dont we listen to part of
that performance now, its from a CBC recording, I
wondered if it would be appropriate to play the showiest
BOB. Yes delightful.
+++ +++ +++
IAN The fourth and last section. Bob talking
about great orchestras, you are very kind and generous about
Canadian orchestras but certainly one of the lushest sounds
of North American orchestras has to be that created by The
Philadelphia Orchestra, honed over many years under Eugene
BOB, Thats quite true lan, I had
the experience of providing a piece of music for them just
before the beginning of the war, I had written my first
Symphony and it had been played by The Toronto Symphony
Orchestra. It was recommended to Eugene, he performed it
IAN. I wonder that would not have been
the complete programme, you were keeping some very good
BOB. Very good: one was Debussy a very
good composer and I was very proud of my work; his "Afternoon
of a Faun" was much better, which I would like to chose
as my next selection.
IAN. A tender age to write a symphony.
BOB. It took me three years but I was so
busy trying to make money to devote all my time to it. I
finished it when I was about twenty two.
IAN. In terms of your musical taste you
enjoy light music as well as what we call serious music.
BOB. Yes with the stress on romance, I
am a romantic old trout.
IAN. Thats the thread that combines
the two. We are also talking about the people you have worked
with over the years. We heard from Tony Bennett, working
with Frank Sinatra and many others and someone I think you
got to know quite well, George Shearing - a great pianist.
BOB. Yes we first met when he was still
in Britain working with Stephane Grappelli in a club in
IAN. Someone who went the opposite way
to you across the Atlantic!
BOB. He went west and I went east to Britain.
We did not meet again until two years ago when we made a
recording with his trio and a large orchestra. My favourite
is "A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square".
IAN. A wonderful tune; lets hear
it now. It comes from an album called "On Target".
+++ +++ +++
IAN. I am very interested in your next
choice from the original cast recording of "Carousel";
how did it manage to slip in here?
BOB. Well I am a romantic and also a family
man and they go together. The "Soliloquy" from
"Carousel" is such a beautiful tale, first the
girl and then the boy, very close to my heart, I have a
tear or two each time I hear it.
IAN. John Raitt performing, one of the
things one always thinks of with Rodgers and Hammerstein
especially with the show that preceded "Oklahoma";
they created a seamless interwoven kind of musical theatre.
BOB. Yes they most certainly, my goodness
all of their music is so delightful, I have arranged an
awful lot of it.
IAN. When you talk about music for the
Broadway stage the role of the arranger is a crucial one,
maybe we could talk about that. A score comes from a team
such as Rodgers and Hammerstein - its really the arranger
who lifts it off the page and makes it work in the theatre.
BOB. In most cases I think the arranger
was Robert Russell Bennett who did a wonderful job of scoring
IAN. What kinds of things are involved,
what kind of challenges, for the arranger in this kind of
BOB. The worst thing Ian is we are the
last ones to get at it. They have made all the changes then
they throw it at us and say arrange it. We go ahead and
sure enough at rehearsals one of the singers finds parts
are a little too high for her. We go back to the drawing
board, not a very pleasant task but usually rewarding in
IAN. You arranged a symphonic version of
"Porgy and Bess" at one point in your career.
BOB. Yes that was a recording with The
London Philharmonic Orchestra.
+++ +++ +++
IAN. We want to move back to the more serious
side of the repertoire for our next music and I am interested
in your choice here. We are going to hear "Nimrod"
from "The Enigma Variations" by Sir Edward Elgar.
I am interested in the performance you have chosen, the
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn. A couple
of things strike me about this: one is that with Previn
we have someone who very much straddles the "Pop"
as well as the "Classical" world. I have also
found a quote from Previn talking about you. He says you
are the greatest string writer in the world.
BOB. Well that was an overstatement, very
kind of him to say but thats not the reason why I
chose the record.
IAN. Interesting to hear Previn because
his career has really gone into serious music but thats
not how he began.
BOB. No it is not; he has done an awful
lot for both Light music and Classical in Britain. Changed
the scene entirely in many ways, brought visual to shows
on television and presented them so beautifully making it
very interesting to look at an orchestra, even though there
were a few bald heads in view. Beautiful to watch the way
he managed it.
IAN. Why "Nimrod"?
BOB. I think it has a tune all of its own.
After he wrote it he said "Have I got a tune?"
Indeed he had.
+++ +++ +++
IAN. We are coming to a pair of twentieth
century composers who I believe have had an influence on
your own musical career.
BOB. Very much indeed, you are referring
to Stravinsky and Bartok.
IAN. Lets start with Bartok, a personal
connection there as well as a musical one.
BOB. Well not truly a personal one but
I had the opportunity of meeting him in New York very shortly
before he died. He was doing a concert in the McDowell Hall
in New York with his wife and one or two instrumentalists.
During the interval I went back stage and met my idol. I
must say I found his music very positive since first hearing
it. He walked up to the stage - it was like God walking
I was so impressed by him.
IAN. In what way was he an influence
how important to your own compositional style?
BOB. Not composition wise, I suppose it
was in his colour variation and his daring from time to
time. Although I went in other directions when writing daring
music, he gave me the courage to experiment.
IAN. You have chosen "Divertimento
for strings". Lets hear it now from a 1970 recording,
Neville Marriner conducting The Academy of St Martin in
+++ +++ +++
IAN. I guess it must be wonderful to be
in London and hear all those fine orchestras.
BOB. A pleasure and a joy. From time to
time we have the pleasure of working with them as session
players, they love to come and do a recording with a singer
or an instrumentalist.
IAN. Interesting because did not The Academy
first sort of grow up with people who had other principal
jobs. Now The Academy has become their main occupying work.
BOB. As you say they are now fully employed.
IAN. Now Stravinsky.
BOB. Ever since the age of twelve I have
loved his music especially his Ballet music. In fact he
once inspired me to write a ballet. It was not very good.
I put it under the piano.
IAN. Dont slide over it that way
- tell us more!
BOB. It was not completely lost; I used
lots of themes from it in later works when I took up writing
"Light" music. One of the pieces I called "Jumping
Bean". That will give you some idea of its content.
IAN. I hope your biographer is listening
and will use that information.
IAN. The score still exists.
BOB. It does.
IAN. Back to Stravinsky.
BOB. It concerns a broadcast he did on
the BBC. He could not let the conductor alone, keen that
it would be right he would appear on his hands and knees
pointing out parts of the score
"No not that
way, this way", glasses perched on his forehead, it
was a lovely scene. After the session I was introduced to
IAN. What age was he then?
IAN. Still very active
BOB. Oh yes I saw him nearly ten years
later conducting at The Royal Festival Hall.
IAN, Now for his "Firebird" -
Stravinsky conducting The Columbia Symphony Orchestra.
+++ +++ +++
IAN. Going over this list your modesty
has omitted a single piece of your own for us to play.
BOB. I do not enjoy listening to my music
IAN. Can I impose on you and play a little
BOB. Oh yes of course.
IAN. You are a trumpet player yourself.
BOB. Yes, but I started on violin when
very young, at the age of fifteen I switched to percussion.
I joined my brothers college orchestra, they were
very short of brass so I decided to take up trumpet. It
remained with me until I gave it up.
IAN. A kind of pragmatic choice then?
IAN. You say you did not like playing violin
but you do enjoy writing for it.
BOB. I love the sound but found it too
difficult to play.
IAN. I mentioned the trumpet because I
want to play a piece of your own titled "Scherzando
for Trumpet and Orchestra" played by the CBC Winnipeg
Orchestra conducted by Eric Wilde. The soloist is Raymond
BOB. I have not heard this performance.
It was originally written for the trumpet player in The
Chapel Royal Orchestra in Copenhagen, commissioned in 1953.
He did not record it, just played it from time to time with
various orchestras. Then it was taken up by Mel Broiles,
first trumpet of the Metropolitan Orchestra who did record
IAN. Lets hear it now.
+++ +++ +++
IAN. You had not heard that before.
BOB. No but a very good version.
IAN. You show no mercy on the soloist.
BOB. I believe some ended up with lips
IAN. I wonder if you have done much work
on a specific player
does it help to know who you
are writing for?
BOB. Yes it does help a lot. I wrote a
piece for trumpet player Mel Broiles who plays for the Metropolitan
Opera Orchestra. I recently wrote a Concerto for him that
he has played several times. It is in three movements that
again is a tour de force, he said "Why do you do this
to me, a fellow trumpet player?"
IAN. He thought you should have more sympathy.
BOB. He is such a fantastic player he had
no trouble with it at all.
IAN. I know someone else you have written
for is Harmonica virtuoso Tommy Reilly who, like yourself,
is originally from Canada but now lives in England. Do you
see much of him.
BOB. Yes we work quite a lot together,
a lot of broadcasts on the Continent, television in Britain,
and we made a recording of "Prelude and Dance"
which I wrote for him many years ago.
IAN. I want to hear that because I believe
while in a concentration camp he honed his skill as a harmonica
BOB. I think it was because he was originally
a violin player. He said there were so many good violinists
around he decided to take up harmonica instead, in 1935
or 36. He is now the worlds number one in the opinion
of a lot of other people besides myself, a fine player.
I AN. He has made the harmonica a legitimate
BOB. I am sure he has; he is greatly respected
and has had so many good composers write for him - Jacobs,
Malcolm Arnold and others.
IAN. And yourself of course.
BOB. May I tell you a little fun joke regarding
that. He was after me for years to write something as he
is with other composers, providing he does not have to pay
us. He was in Australia when I sent him a first draft, and
when he got back to England he rang me and said the only
difficult part is the last section, I will play a little
over the phone. I said thats absolutely perfect, but
it goes twice as fast as that. He hung up.
IAN. Did you change it?
BOB. No I didnt.
IAN. We will now hear that music, two men
intimately involved in its construction.
+++ +++ +++
IAN. Next you have chosen the last part
of Joseph Poulencs Concerto in "G" for organ
BOB. That choice came about because my
son David studied organ about ten years ago coming to me
with all sorts of material asking for my criticism. He brought
the record to me and we both agreed that the last part was
the most beautiful writing for the organ that we had ever
heard. I said I would like that played at my funeral although
I would not be able to hear it.
IAN. The soloist E. Power Biggs, the Philadelphia
Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Lets hope that
will not happen for very many years.
+++ +++ +++
BOB. Thank you Ian - you are going to end
with that are you?
IAN. Certainly not - in fact I want to
throw a few names at you because you have met with so interesting
musicians in your long and distinguished career; perhaps
if I mention a few of them you can say what they bring to
IAN. Sarah Vaughan.
BOB. She was a joy to work with. On first
hearing I did not like her voice, her vibrato was too wide,
she shouted, very peculiar sound. When working with her
rather than listening to recordings I fell in love with
her singing. We did a record in Copenhagen that was an experience
for both of us; she sang with a young Danish choir who sang
better in English than most choirs in Britain, absolutely
super. Sarah was a "doll" to work with - I have
worked with her since on radio and television, we are great
friends now, we smoke the same brand of cigarettes.
IAN. We wont mention the brand, this
is non-commercial radio. Now another great lady of popular
song who has been back in the limelight lately due to her
one woman show, did you catch it?
BOB. Lena Horne - no I did not, but I have
IAN. The great stories she told coupled
with her sheer energy, well over two hours carrying the
whole ball along.
BOB. Remarkable I saw a sort of junior
version in person. Not just music, she talked about everything,
a "sweety" to work with too.
IAN. Finally lets talk about two
other orchestra leaders, arrangers and people who you have
associated with. One name springs to mind, Henry Mancini.
BOB. Oh yes, I have met him once or twice,
I am a great admirer of his music; theres a chap who
knows how to write a tune, my goodness, I hate him.
IAN. Like yourself he has written much
for the screen, big and small. We were talking earlier about
the challenge as an arranger for Broadway I suppose there
are many problems when you have to synchronise your score
to the action.
BOB. Its just a craft that you learn,
not that difficult really. In musicals its even simpler
because we record all the music before the film is shot.
Sometimes we are the last to get at it - Henry would tell
you they want everything yesterday - you have thirty or
forty minutes of music to write, which can be a bit of a
bind although enjoyable. Its up on the screen not
just a one-off and will last if its a good score.
IAN. You dont feel compromised musically.
BOB. Not at all; when doing a dramatic
film it can inspire you because you have a chance to see
the product before writing. Thats a joy to have the
IAN. Remind us of some of the scores you
BOB. "Captain Horatio Hornblower"
comes to mind, one of the swashbuckling sea stories I did.
A case in point because they brought certain sections to
have a look at so I could go home filled with ideas of what
to write, so not difficult at all. I did the last Hope &
Crosby film "The Road to Hong Kong" - I killed
the series, but it was fun to do! I did "Gentlemen
Marry Brunettes" where I sang in place of Scott Brady
who did not have a voice; no one else was available so I
was drafted in. They did not pay me.
IAN. Was that the start of a whole new
career or a one-off?
BOB. No I sounded no better than in "Happy
IAN. One more classical choice: you talk
about good tunes and enjoy the virtuoso show piece - this
is Ravels "Daphnis and Chloe".
+++ +++ +++
IAN. Its been great fun talking with
you. Wonderful stories and anecdotes - a wonderful career
and by no means over; what are working on at the moment?
BOB. I am writing a piece for The Canadian
Brass, pushing the pencil as hard as I can. I wrote something
about five years ago played here in Ottawa with a full orchestra
but they wanted something for just the quintet.
IAN. Will this reflect the light hearted
music you sometimes write?
BOB. No this is a serious piece.
IAN. When can we hear it.?
BOB. I have not finished writing. They
are very kind
"whenever you can get around to
it", not a good thing to tell a composer.
IAN. We look forward to hearing it, in
the mean time my sincere thanks. I wish it had been face
to face. We are glad you are back in Canada and hope to
see much of you in the near future.
BOB. Thank you it has been an absolute
Footnote from Paul Clatworthy :
When this project was first mooted I had it in my mind that
Farnon had earlier been featured on "Desert Island
Discs" whilst living in England and it would be interesting
comparing the selection. With the help of Vernon Anderson
I received a list: "Soliloquy" John Raitt; "The
Kid from Red Bank" (Hefti) Count Basies orchestra;
"Music for strings Percussion and Celesta" (Bartok)
The LPO; "Daphnis and Chloe suite No 2" (Ravel)
French National Radio Orchestra; "My Mans gone
now" (Gershwin) sung by Anne Brown; "Iberia"
(Images no 2) (Debussy) Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; "Thank
heaven for little girls" (Lerner and Loewe) Andre Previn
and pals; "Nimrod" (from Enigma variations) (Elgar)
LPO. Bob made this selection on the first of June 1959.