OF LIGHT MUSIC
For most of the second half of the 20th century,
Canadian-born Robert Farnon was generally regarded as the
greatest living composer of Light Orchestral music in the
world. Farnon was also revered as an arranger of quality popular
songs, having influenced most of the top writers on both sides
of the Atlantic during the second half of this century. He
has also produced some memorable film scores, and could have
earned considerable fame and fortune had he decided to settle
in Hollywood. But it is our good fortune in Britain that he
chose to make his home with us.
He was born on 24 July 1917 in Toronto, Ontario, the third
of four children. The eldest was his sister Norah; the other
three were boys who all made their careers in music. Older
brother Brian (born 27 November 1911) has enjoyed a glittering
career on the US West Coast - at one time with Spike Jones
and more recently at resorts such as Lake Tahoe. Younger brother
Dennis (13 August 1923) achieved universal fame through his
quirky scores for the "Mr. Magoo" cartoons. He also wrote
a great deal of music in later years for London publishers
background music libraries.
While still in his teens, Bob Farnon became a household name
through his many programmes on radio, especially the long-running
"Happy Gang". He occupied the lead trumpet chair in Percy
Faiths Canadian Broadcasting Corporations Orchestra,
also contributing vocal arrangements for the show. In 1940
Faith decided to leave for greener pastures in the USA, and
Farnon was invited to take over the baton. This provided a
wonderful opportunity to develop his arranging skills, bringing
him to the attention of Paul Whiteman and Andre Kostelanetz.
Like so many young writers, he yearned to create more serious
works, and by 1942 he had composed two symphonies which were
performed by leading orchestras in North America. He tended
to be somewhat dismissive of these works (to the disappointment
of his admirers), and all suggestions that they should be
polished for new performances were politely, but firmly, declined.
Perhaps his reluctance was due to the fact that he has "borrowed"
some of the themes from both symphonies for his later works.
As conductor of the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary
Forces, Farnon came to Britain in September 1944, working
alongside Glenn Miller and George Melachrino, who fronted
the American and British bands.
At the end of the war Farnon took his discharge in Britain,
finding the musical scene more suited to his talents, so that
he could work in films, radio and the recording industry.
In Britain he had discovered an area of music previously little
known to him. We call it Light Music (not an entirely satisfactory
title for a musical form which can embrace many different
styles). In North America it tends to be labelled "Concert
Music", but during Farnons adolescence it rarely entered
into his musical ambit.
But that is not to say that he was ignorant of its possibilities.
He had been working on a series of "symphonettes" which were
later to form the basis of compositions such as "Willie The
Whistler" and "Jumping Bean". One valuable musical aspect
of World War II was that musicians conscripted into the forces
were no longer subjected to commercial pressures, so they
could develop their ideas to test public reaction, without
having to worry about the financial consequences of any failures.
Farnon revelled in the freedom that this offered, but he need
not have worried about disappointing his public: they were
delighted with each and every one of his innovative ideas.
Which brings us neatly back to the British musical scene,
as discovered by Captain Robert Farnon. For the first time
he heard the music of Eric Coates, Haydn Wood, Charles Williams
and the other exponents of Light Music ... and he realised
just how closely his own ideas had, unknowingly, been moving
in their direction. Of course, he brought a virile, north
American freshness and approach which might have seemed to
be at variance with the slightly more "genteel" British style.
In truth, the work of Farnon and his young contemporaries
breathed new life into a musical form which could well have
faded away during the 1950s.
Farnon did not confine himself to Light Music. After all,
he had been brought up in an atmosphere of big bands and show
music. While living in Toronto he made frequent visits to
New York, where he would call in at Mintons, generally
regarded as the birthplace of "bebop". It was not rare for
him to be asked to join a jam session. His close friends at
this time included Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson; those
friendships were to endure throughout their lives.
Despite a very demanding schedule of broadcasts for the Allied
Expeditionary Forces Programme of the BBC, Farnon managed
to do some "moonlighting". His colleagues remember how he
used to listen to American broadcasts on short wave radio,
writing down the notes of the latest hits as they were being
performed. During his spell in Faiths orchestra he had
learned how to "switch off" from his surroundings and work
on a score -- something that did not always endear him to
Farnons inventive ideas were soon noticed by our own
bandleaders. Lew Stone, Ambrose and Ted Heath were not slow
to add Farnon scores to their libraries, and soon after taking
his discharge Farnon joined the Geraldo Organisation as an
arranger. When Geraldo travelled to the USA in 1947, for a
while Farnon took over the Band for its broadcasts and recordings.
It is perhaps surprising (as well as disappointing) that more
Farnon scores from this period did not find their way on to
commercial recordings - after all, the afore-mentioned bandleaders
all had good recording contracts. Just recently researchers
cataloguing the Geraldo library have been amazed at the amount
of Farnon material it contains.
The Robert Farnon Orchestra began to broadcast regularly
on BBC radio and television, both in its own programmes and
also supporting big stars such as Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields.
Decca signed Farnon as a house conductor and arranger,
and his name appeared on numerous 78s providing backings for
the likes of Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields, Denny Dennis, Paul
Carpenter, Beryl Davis, Reggie Goff, Dick James, The Johnston
Brothers, Scotty McHarg, Donald Peers, Ronnie Ronalde, Norman
Wisdom, Anne Shelton .. and even the Ilford Girls Choir. Vera
Lynns first big US hit - "You Cant Be True Dear"
- also featured the Farnon Orchestra.
Naturally he was anxious to bring his own music to the publics
attention. Thanks to his radio broadcasts, British listeners
were starting to notice the bright, fresh Farnon sound, and
towards the end of 1948 Decca released one of the finest Light
Music 78s ever recorded - "Jumping Bean" coupled with "Portrait
Of A Flirt". These two Farnon originals have become part of
the folk lore of British Light Music, and they undoubtedly
influenced a generation of composers in this genre.
Although it has to be said that he never received the promotional
support he deserved from his record company, his contract
with Decca produced many fine albums which became models of
orchestration, often copied by leading arrangers on both sides
of the Atlantic. Andre Previn called Farnon: "The greatest
living writer for strings". John Williams (writer of "Star
Wars" and many of Hollywoods best scores during the
past 30 years) happily acknowledges his debt to Farnon, as
did the late Henry Mancini. Other top writers who are not
ashamed at being labelled "Farnon sound-alikes" include Johnny
Mandel, Patrick Williams, Don Costa, Patrick Williams, Angela
Morley, Marty Paich ... the list is almost endless.
Over 40 films have benefited from a Farnon score, notably
"Spring In Park Lane", "Maytime in Mayfair" and "Captain Horatio
From the 1940s onwards Farnon has produced a steady stream
of Light Music cameos, which have been used regularly by radio
and television stations around the world - often as signature
tunes (eg. "Colditz", "The Secret Army"). Pieces such as "Jumping
Bean", "Portrait Of A Flirt", Journey Into Melody, "A Star
Is Born" and "Westminster Waltz" have become standards, instantly
recognisable, even if the title may sometimes elude the listener.
His more serious works have included "A La Claire Fontaine",
"Lake Of The Woods", "Rhapsody For Violin and Orchestra" and
"Cascades To The Sea".
By the end of the 1940s he had established himself as a "name"
in Britain. For the next 20 years he composed hundreds of
pieces of Light Music, mostly for Chappells Recorded
Music Library. During this period he also arranged countless
popular songs for broadcasts and recordings, conducted his
orchestra in numerous radio and television programmes and
made a series of LPs that have become prized collectors
items. His concert tours took him to many parts of Europe
and Canada; he worked briefly in the USA and was always in
demand for film scores. Commissions flowed in from the BBC
and others. Notable works in this area included "The Frontiersmen",
"Rhapsody For Violin and Orchestra", "Prelude and Dance for
Harmonica and Orchestra" (for harmonica virtuoso Tommy Reilly),
and "Saxophone Tripartite", commissioned by the Musicians
Union for another Canadian musician, Bob Burns.
In other words, Farnon was a busy working conductor / composer
/ arranger who was fortunate to be around at a time when radio
stations, in particular, were still actively supporting live
music. This helped to gain him the public recognition which
made many of his other activities possible.
Inevitably nothing stays the same, and as the end of the
1960s approached many of Farnons colleagues found that
broadcasters and recording companies no longer needed so many
of them. But Farnons international reputation ensured
that his career would take a new -- and perhaps even more
illustrious -- direction.
In 1962 Farnon was musical director on "The Road To Hong
Kong" with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Joan
Collins. ("They blamed me for killing off the series!" he
joked recently. "It was the last Road film they
Then in June of that year, Farnon arranged and conducted
Frank Sinatras one and only British album "Great Songs
From Great Britain". It had a mixed reception at the time,
partly due to Sinatras voice sounding a little tired
- not surprising, because he was just completing a world tour
when the sessions (in the middle of the night) took place.
In fact Sinatra refused to let one track "Roses of Picardy"
be included, and it was many years before the album was released
in the USA, although it had been available in the rest of
the world. A few years ago the CD issue included "Roses of
Picardy", and contemporary criticisms now seem harsh. Even
if Sinatra does struggle occasionally to hit the top notes,
the Farnon scores stand out.
The next year Farnon was in Copenhagen recording an album
for Sarah Vaughan - "Vaughan With Voices" which also featured
the Danish Svend Saaby Choir. Clearly he had secured his place
among the elite of top arrangers for the biggest stars.
Farnons long and fruitful association with Tony Bennett
began in 1968. Together they made several classic albums,
a television series and appeared in many concerts, notably
a charmed occasion on 31 January 1971 when Farnon conducted
the London Philharmonic for Bennett at the Royal Albert Hall
as part of the buildings 100th anniversary celebrations.
During the past 25 years many other top singers and instrumentalists
have expressed the wish to have Farnon arrange and conduct
for them. Clashing commitments and problems over contracts
have prevented some from proceeding, the most disappointing
being on-off projects with both Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar
Peterson. Although theyve performed in concerts and
on television, Farnon never managed to achieve his ambition
to record with either of these long-standing friends.
But the following list of some collaborations which have
taken place is impressive: Tony Coe, saxophone (recorded 1969);
Singers Unlimited ("Sentimental Journey" in 1974, and "Eventide"
in 1976); Lena Horne (for "Lena - A New Album" in 1976); Ray
Ellington (1978); George Shearing ("On Target" 1979/1980 and
"How Beautiful Is Night" 1992); Jose Carreras (1983); Pia
Zadora ("Pia and Phil" 1984, "I Am What I Am" 1985); Sheila
Southern (1986); Eileen Farrell ("This Time Its Love"
1990/1991, "Its Over" 1991, "Here" 1992/1993, "Love
Is Letting Go" 1994/1995); Joe Williams "Heres To Life"
(1993); J.J. Johnson ("Tangence" 1994); Eddie Fisher in 1995
- yet to be released; and with Carol Kidd in 1998.
Farnons work has often been recognised by his peers.
In Britain the foremost awards for the music (as opposed to
the entertainment) industry are the Ivor Novello Awards. Farnons
tally: "Westminster Waltz" in 1956; "Sea Shore" 1960; "Colditz
March" 1973; and "Outstanding Services to British Music" in
1991. Across the Atlantic Farnon received Grammy nominations
for arrangements in 1976 for "Sentimental Journey" (on a Singers
Unlimited album) and in 1992 "Lush Life" (sung by Eileen Farrell).
He finally reached the top for Best Instrumental Arrangement
of 1995 - "Lament" on the J.J. Johnson album "Tangence".
For 46 years Farnon lived on the Channel Island of Guernsey,
where he continued to compose and arrange until the end of
his life. During his 80th year several concerts of his music
took place, both in Britain and in Canada, and BBC Radio-2
broadcast a special Tribute to him in its Arts Programme just
a few days after his birthday - on Sunday 27th July 1997 at
11.00 pm. Earlier on the same day Bob was in London at the
Bonnington Hotel for an afternoon and evening of celebrations
(including a Dinner) arranged by the Robert Farnon Society,
at which many of his friends and colleagues from the music
business were present.
Perhaps the most memorable celebrations for Robert Farnons
80th year took place in his own homeland. In October 1997
he was invited to Toronto, where he met many fellow writers
at a special gathering organised jointly by the Guild of Canadian
Film Composers and the Society of Composers, Authors and Music
Publishers of Canada. He then went on to Ottawa, to attend
three concerts at the National Arts Centre on 30, 31 October
and 1 November. The National Arts Centre Orchestra was conducted
by Victor Feldbrill in a splendid programme of original compositions
and arrangements by Robert Farnon, one of the notable highlights
being a performance of his "Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra".
During this visit Farnon was the centre of attention from
the local media, with many reports of his visit appearing
on radio and television programmes, and in the local and national
During his Canadian visit, Farnon was commissioned to compose
a major work for piano and orchestra. The result is his Concerto
for Piano and Orchestra - Cascades to the Sea (1998),
which has already been broadcast in Britain and the USA. It
was issued on a commercial CD by Vocalion in 2002.
The general resurgence of interest in Light Music has meant
that Robert Farnons true genius as one of the major
composers of the 20th Century is now being fully recognised.
His importance was finally acknowledged by his homeland: he
was awarded the Order of Canada early in 1998.
In the Spring of 2003, the British record company Vocalion,
in association with the Robert Farnon Society, completed a
major project to reissue Robert Farnon's Decca albums from
the 1950s on new CDs. His music is also appearing on other
labels, mainly thanks to the efforts of The Robert Farnon
extend our sincere thanks to Mark Leightley
for kindly allowing us to reproduce his
photograph on our website
Early in 2004 Robert Farnon completed a new Symphony
his third which he dedicated to Edinburgh, having been
captivated by the city on a visit to the Edinburgh Festival.
Appropriately the first performance of this importance work
was programmed at the Usher Hall on 14 May 2005, with the
National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Iain
Sadly Robert Farnon died in Guernsey on Saturday 23 April
2005, just three weeks before the premiere of his symphony.
He was 87, and incredibly was still working on new compositions.
His last major work was a Bassoon Concerto, which Farnon composed
especially for the American virtuoso Daniel Smith. Entitled
"Romancing the Phoenix", Robert had been discussing
the finer points of the score at the beginning of April.
With his passing the world of Light Music has lost one of
the greatest composers and arrangers of the last century.
Copyright: David Ades, 24 April 2005