About this Recording
8.223401 - FARNON: Colditz March / State Occasion (Slovak Radio Symphony, Leaper)
English 

Robert Farnon (born 1917)

It was Frank Sinatra, no less, who in 1962 dubbed Robert Farnon "The Guv'nor", when the two men first came together in London to work on an album. It was a phrase which instantly 'stuck', but it really did no more than sum up what most people had long since known - that the name of Robert Farnon was synonymous with the highest standards of craftsmanship across the widest spectrum of music-making.

Farnon was born in Toronto, Canada on 24th July, 1917 and had the benefit of growing up in an unusually musical household. His father, a clothier by trade, was a violinist, his mother and sister were pianists and his elder brother, Brian, played in a jazz band, so the influences on young Robert were many and various. He learnt his way round both the violin and the piano, but it was percussion that really took his fancy and he made such progress that he was able to perform with the Toronto Juvenile Symphony Orchestra when he was only twelve. Thereafter, he spent three years as a drummer in his brother's band during which time he also learnt to play the cornet. He was then to be found sitting at the kit playing bass drum and hi-hat with his feet, leaving his hands free to play the second trumpet part! The amazing Farnon versatility had already begun to show itself.

At fifteen, Farnon undertook a course of study in harmony and theory with Louis Weizman but kept the playing side going. In 1936, at the age of nineteen, he joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to play first trumpet for the Percy Faith Orchestra, but upon finding that several numbers did not require the services of his instrument, he began filling in the 'tacet' hours by writing arrangements for his boss and, not long afterwards, producing scores for Paul Whiteman and Andre Kostelanetz as well. When Faith left to go to America, it was Farnon who took charge of musical matters at CBC and, although he continued to play, conducting began to take up more of his time. So did composing, practically all of which consisted not of light, popular pieces - as might have been expected from a man looking after Canada's most famous variety radio show, Happy Gang, in which he not only conducted and played trumpet but also told jokes and took part in comedy sketches - but of serious concert works, some of them quite substantial. 1938 saw the commissioning of the Symphony No. 1 in D flat, which was given its first performance by Sir Ernest Macmillan and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and quickly taken up by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Symphony No. 2 in B, known as the Ottawa Symphony, followed in 1942 and was also premiered under the direction of Macmillan. In addition, there were several other orchestral works, including a Symphonette, Cascades to the Sea and an Etude for Trumpet, not to mention a modest but interesting collection of piano music.

By now, however, Robert Farnon had joined the army. Signing up at the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the music services and by 1943, as Captain Farnon, he found himself conductor of he Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. (It is wryly amusing to note that, while Farnon and his American counterpart, Glenn Miller, were recognised as commissioned officers - Miller was appointed a major - the British equivalent, George Melachrino, could muster nothing more impressive than sergeant!). It was in 1944 that Farnon brought the Band to England and from then on, light music was to play the dominant role in his creative life. He did make attempts to establish his credentials as a 'serious' musician as well, but soon found himself up against the 'snob factor'. One cannot help wondering, however, whether he would have had much opportunity to devote a great deal of time to symphonic writing had he been accepted in this field because, following his first broadcast with the Band on Monday, 4th September, 1944, he and the players found themselves heavily committed to a ceaseless round of concerts and radio shows. He was regularly to be heard on the BBC's AEF programme, especially in the Canada Show, the enormously popular series for which he wrote the signature tune, March Along, Joe Soldier. Other shows and more signature tunes, not to mention literally hundreds of arrangements, followed and by the end of the war, the name of Robert Farnon was known far and wide. He took the decision to stay in England and was soon fully occupied working as an arranger with Geraldo and Ted Heath as well as forming his own orchestra for frequent recording dates and broadcasts. Each new radio show brought its own signature tune - Journey Into Melody for the series Melody Hour, which began in 1946, and Melody Fair, which was used for a Fifties programme as well as his TV show called Contrasts.

Melody Fair had, in fact, started life as the main theme for a 1949 film Paper Orchid, starring Lucille Ball. The cinema was to elicit many fine scores from Farnon, a number of them, like Paper Orchid, written for Herbert Wilcox productions such as I Live in Grosvenor Square, Spring in Park Lane, Maytime in Mayfair, Lilacs in the Spring, Elizabeth of Ladymead and King's Rhapsody. But it was the concert, recording and broadcasting worlds which took up most of his time and it was in the above-mentioned Melody Hour that many of his finest light-music miniatures were heard for the first time. His energy was boundless, his imagination seemingly limitless and his sense of fun at its sharpest. When, in 1948, he was asked by a journalist to identify his ambitions, he replied that it was "to play cricket with a baseball bat and to break one of Selfridge's windows".

Fortunately, he managed to direct his enthusiasms into more artistic activities. As the 'resident' conductor/arranger of Decca (London in the U.S.A.), he made many outstanding albums which established him beyond all doubt as one of the very finest exponents of light and popular music. The influence which his work at this time had on other writers was considerable and several musicians freely admit to having learnt a large part of their craft from listening to Farnon's work of the Fifties. Many singers opted for the genial Canadian as Musical Director for their recordings and over the years, Farnon has provided the backing for a remarkable gamut of vocalists including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Vera Lynn, Ray Ellington, Lena Horne, Eileen Farrell, Sarah Vaughan, Singers Unlimited, Pia Zadora, George Benson and Jose Carreras.

Farnon's light music compositions continued to make a strong impact on the public and gained no fewer than three Ivor Novello Awards. He also began to produce larger-scale pieces again, the Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra appearing in the 1958 Light Music Festival in response to a request from the BBC, which went on to commission The Frontiersmen and Scherzando for Trumpet. Fellow Canadians Tommy Reilly and Bob Burns both benefited from fine works, the former with the Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra, dating from the mid Sixties, the latter from the big, three-movement, twenty-five minute long Saxophone Tripartita of 1971. A Trumpet Concerto was delivered in 1982 to the Principal Trumpeter of the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Mel Broiles while, down the years, Farnon has produced a series of atmospheric tone poems, mainly inspired by the country of his birth. There have also been more film scores, including Circle of Danger, Captain Horatio Hornblower RN, The Road to Hong Kong, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, Expresso Bongo, The Truth About Spring and Shalako amongst a total of about forty pictures.

Robert Farnon did not turn his back on radio, but continued to make regular appearances on the BBC's Light Programme, most notably in his splendid 1967 series, Farnon in Concert, broadcast on Sunday afternoons, and utilising the then comparatively new BBC Radio Orchestra, as well as featuring a veritable galaxy of star guests. In 1987, the BBC's long-running and highly prestigious show, Friday Night is Music Night, was devoted entirely to the man and his music, even the sacrosanct title itself being amended to Friday Night is Farnon Night!

Television has continued to attract some fine music from him, amongst the best of which was his stirring theme for the BBC series Colditz and the main title for Secret Army, both of which were immediately recognised as small-screen masterpieces.

Mention has yet to be made of Farnon's remarkable output of mood music which, over the years, has filled huge stretches of library shelves, beginning back in the Forties with a wonderful little number called Willie the Whistler which, incidentally, re-appeared in 1956 as the main theme of the Rank film True as a Turtle. Nor has his valuable contribution to the brass-band literature yet been referred to. This is an area which has fascinated Farnon since his Canadian Army days and he has adapted and arranged many of his own pieces, as well as those by other composers, for the medium. An original work of his, Une Vie de Matelot, was chosen as the test piece for the prestigious British National Brass Band Championships in 1975.

Now in his seventies, Robert Farnon lives in the beautiful Channel Island of Guernsey but any notion that it might be serving as a kind of retirement home could not be further from the truth. Ever the perfect gentleman, courteous and dignified, he is still composing and arranging and undertaking conducting engagements around the world. In May 1991, he received a fourth Ivor Novello Award - not, this time, for a specific work but to acknowledge and commemorate his "Outstanding Services to British Music". He does indeed remain, in every sense of the word, "The Guv'nor".

PORTRAIT OF A FLIRT: Dating from 1947, this elegant little musical picture has rightly become one of Robert Farnon's best-loved works. Its origins were very humble, being written, as were so many of the composer's shorter numbers, as a piece of mood music for the Chappell Library. The composer conducted it on several occasions for the BBC, most frequently on the celebrated programme In Town Tonight, and it was given an international boost when the notable American musician David Rose included it on an MGM album. Lasting little more than two and a half minutes, it contains a wealth of invention, not least the 'flirtation' of the main tune with different rhythms.

HOW BEAUTIFUL IS NIGHT: The inspiration for this gently evocative, delicately-scored piece - and the title - came from the opening lines of the epic poem Thalaba, written in 1799-1800 by the Bristol-born poet Robert Southey:-

How beautiful is night!

A dewy freshness fills the silent air;

No mist obscures, nor cloud, nor speck, nor stain,

Breaks the serene of heaven;

In full-orb'd glory yonder Moon divine

Rolls through the dark blue depths.

Beneath her steady ray

The desert-circle spreads,

Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky.

How beautiful is night!

MELODY FAIR: As already mentioned, this perfect example of the composer's outstanding lyrical gifts began life as music for the film Paper Orchid, but was subsequently adopted as a signature tune for a number of radio shows as well as the television series Contrasts.

A LA CLAIRE FONTAINE: Throughout his creative life, Robert Farnon has written pieces inspired by his country of birth. 1956, for example, saw the release on Decca of a suite of ten movements entitled Canadian Impressions and since then, there have been, amongst many others, the Canadian Rhapsody and a five-movement Symphonic Suite: Hands Across the Border. A la Claire Fontaine is the title of an old French-Canadian folksong which the composer remembered from his youth. He made this orchestral transcription in the early 1940s and performed it in a wartime AEF broadcast as well as featuring it in several post-war radio programmes before including it in the aforementioned Decca album, Canadian Impressions. Wreathing the somewhat wistful little tune in birdsong and cool, sophisticated, at times almost Delian, harmonies and orchestration, he set out to evoke the tale of romance as contained in the words of the song. The story is as follows. While walking in the woods one warm summer's day, a young man comes across a fountain of bright, clear water. He bathes in it and, while drying himself in the shade of an oak tree, he hears the song of a nightingale. He observes that, while the bird may be happy and carefree, he himself is unhappy at having lost his loved one through his own folly. For, in spite of the maiden's requests, he refused to give her one of the red roses he had picked. If only the roses would bloom again, he would find his love and renew their romance. The bird offers to fly to the girl with a message of love - enclosed in a rose.

THE PEANUT POLKA: The characteristic brand of Farnon humour is to the fore in this 1951 composition, especially with the strategically-placed 'wrong' note right near the beginning of the main tune, the cleverly-syncopated phrasing shortly afterwards, and the 'Bavarian'-flavoured second theme. The composer wrote it at the specific request of Chappell who wanted to cash in on the tremendous success of Jumping Bean. Initially, it was called Popcorn Polka but, in 1951, popcorn was a fairly unfamiliar commodity in Britain and so the publishers requested a change of title. Peanut Polka seemed to fit the bill and under that title, it has become a universal favourite.

IN A CALM: NO. 2 OF THREE IMPRESSIONS FOR ORCHESTRA: Each of the Three Impressions (High Street, In a Calm and Manhattan Playboy) was composed as a self-contained piece and it was Chappell, following the fashion amongst publishers for grouping disparate items into suites, that brought them together in 1952. In a Calm dates from the early 1940s and was recorded initially for Chappell's library. The limpid melody, played at the beginning and end by the flute with the violins being allowed a brief starring role halfway through, is suffused with a warm, almost impressionistic hue.

GATEWAY TO THE WEST: Another piece originally featured in the Canadian Impressions album, it cropped up again in 1983 when it was included in a suite of short tone poems, as well as serving as the title of a 1960 MGM album. Gateway to the West is the name given to Winnipeg, capital of the province of Manitoba. A rousing introduction leads to a broad, soaring theme on the violins, portraying the vast wheat prairies that surround the city, once the scene of bitter rivalry between fur-trading companies, but now a major grain-exporting centre. For many years, the piece was used as the introductory theme for CBC's shortwave transmissions from Canada.

JUMPING BEAN: Now recognised as a light music classic, this little gem was one of a considerable number of Farnon items that were first heard on the radio programmes Journey Into Melody and Melody Hour. Composed in 1947 - perhaps even earlier - it went on to establish an intriguing record by clocking up more uses as a signature tune around the world than any other piece, including being played to introduce radio weather forecasts in America! Like Peanut Polka, it achieves its humorous effect by means of an unexpected melodic interval in the introduction (a tritone, for those interested in such matters), curiously shifting harmonies and craftily-positioned offbeats.

PICTURES IN THE FIRE: The title speaks for itself in this intimate, romantic musical interlude. It dates from around 1947 and, yet again, was written for the Chappell Mood Music Library. The lovely niain theme, introduced by a solo violin, is unusually angular yet succeeds in conveying exactly the right mood.

LITTLE MISS MOLLY: A slightly later addition to the Chappell Library, Robert Farnon first recorded this perky little waltz in 1959. It soon became a popular item with pianists, especially George Shearing who has been playing it recently in concerts in a new arrangement by the composer.

COLDITZ MARCH: Colditz was the name of the forbidding castle used by the Germans in World War II as a high-security prison specially designed for Allied servicemen with a known penchant for escaping. However, its fearsome reputation did not prevent a number of its inmates from attempting to secure their freedom, several of them successfully, and after the war, their exploits were described in illuminating detail in a book entitled The Colditz Story by the man chosen by the prisoners to be the first 'escape officer', Major Pat Reid. This account was used by the BBC as the basis of a hugely successful television series in 1972/73, called simply Colditz, and starring Robert Wagner, Jack Hedley, David McCallum, Bernard Hepton and Anthony Valentine. The producer was Gerald Glaister who, in his search for an accompanying music score, turned to Robert Farnon. The latter went to see Glaister in his office at London's Television Centre, and was so impressed with the series that inspiration started to flow at once. The taxi journey back to his hotel only took twenty minutes, but in that short space of time, he wrote out the salient parts of what was to be the main march theme on the back of an envelope. It required just another few days work to complete the whole piece, which went on to share the enthusiastic critical plaudits which greeted Colditz as a whole, and win its composer his third Ivor Novello Award.

A STAR IS BORN: This splendid 'showbiz-romance-and-glamour' piece was written in 1947, yet again for the Chappell Library, but was quickly taken up by the BBC to introduce the celebrity guest on its long-running radio programme In Town Tonight. It was subsequently used as a signature theme on a variety of other occasions, most notably by Tony Bennett for his television series.

THE WESTMINSTER WALTZ: Probably the best-known of all Farnon's compositions, this exhilarating waltz dates from 1956, and was the recipient of that year's coveted Ivor Novello Award for light music. No prizes are offered for recognising the source of the very opening bars, but the lilting main theme is 100% original Farnon. The close-harmony scoring of strings and woodwind and skilful use of sequences are wholly typical of the composer, serving as unmistakable stylistic fingerprints.

MANHATTAN PLAYBOY: NO. 3 OF THREE IMPRESSIONS FOR ORCHESTRA: Just as Peanut Polka was written as a follow-up to Jumping Bean, so was Manhattan Playboy intended as a sequel to Portrait of a Flirt. It was written in 1948 and, while quite distinctive in its own right, obviously inhabits the same 'melody-on-the-move' world as its predecessor - not to mention Jumping Bean.

LAKE OF THE WOODS: Another early work, dating from the 1940s, this beautiful tone poem presents a tranquil, yet sensuous picture of a remote lake set in the forests of northern Ontario, not far from Toronto, which Robert Farnon remembered visiting in his childhood. It became famous through its inclusion in the 1956 Decca album Canadian Impressions and remains the most frequently performed of the composer's larger-scale works.

DERBY DAY: This sparkling work first appeared in the early 1950s and was an immediate success. By now, Farnon was used to seeing - and hearing - his music being employed for an astonishing variety of purposes in the worlds of film, radio and television. One or two of his bright, up-tempo march-like pieces had been used for sports programmes and this may have been the inspiration for both the nature and title of this short but invigorating number.

STATE OCCASION: Farnon proves that, when it comes to pomp and circumstance, he can produce as stirring and ceremonial a march as anybody, the score carrying such markings as Marziale pomposo and Marziale con maesta. The composer does, however, deviate from the standard pattern of such pieces by only recapitulating the opening theme, giving it the full grandiose treatment which, in similar works by Elgar, Walton, Bliss and the like, is usually reserved for the second appearance of the Trio section. The work was written in 1953 and has since been performed on several occasions, most notably by the Band of Her Majesty's Royal Marines conducted by Captain Peter Heming, during the Queen's Royal Tour of Canada in 1984 to celebrate the bicentenary of New Brunswick and the 150th anniversary of Robert Farnon's birthplace, Toronto.

The Robert Farnon Society was founded in England in 1956, since when it has steadily grown, and there are now enthusiastic members all over the world. Although the main aim of the Society is to keep members informed on all aspects of Robert Farnon's work, it also encourages and publicises many other fine musicians involved in diverse areas of music from the light classics to jazz. There seems to be no other organisation actively supporting the kind of light orchestral music contained on this recording.

For a free sample magazine, and details of the Society's activities, write to:

The Secretary,
Robert Farnon Society,
Stone Gables,
Upton Lane,
Seavington St. Michael,
Ilminster,
Somerset,
TA19 0PZ,
ENGLAND.

The author acknowledges the valuable assistance and advice of David Ades, Secretary of the Robert Farnon Society, in the compilation of these notes.

Tim McDonald


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