British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content
, June 2011
Whenever I hear Robert Farnon’s Manhattan Playboy, I tend to think of Bertie Wooster and his ‘American’ adventures—as played by Hugh Laurie and admirably supported by Stephen Fry as Jeeves. Certainly the character depicted is not a bad person or a roué. More likely a man about town who has a little more money and free-time than sense!
The timescale would appear to be the ‘thirties’ in spite of the piece having been composed in 1948, although I guess that a ‘playboy’ would not be inhibited by a few years one way or the other. Certainly I feel an ‘art deco’ mood in these bars that suggests drinks at the Rainbow Room (now closed) with its stunning views over towards the Empire State Building, Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty. Out of interest it used to be possible to see Central Park from the gent’s toilets there! And then again the ‘playboy’ would always make use of the latest Chevrolet or Chrysler or possibly taxi. He would never use the EL (Elevated Railway). Whatever mode of transport he used, he would always be dashing from one assignation to another, no doubt by way of a bar or club.
The musical portrait opens with an upward sweep from the strings. It is a work that is predicated around syncopation without ever becoming ‘jazz’ or ‘ragtime.’ The principal melody is a gorgeous confection for strings that dominates the entire piece. The progress of the music is has many comments from woodwind, xylophone and brass. The entire piece is characterised by a rhythmic subtlety that is a feature of so much of Robert Farnon’s music.
Manhattan Playboy was the third of Three Impressions for orchestra—the other two being High Street and In a Calm. However the Manahattan Playboy was considered to be a companion piece to his ubiquitous A Portrait of a Flirt, which also dated from 1947. I consider that this latter piece portrays a lady from the British side of the pond. The Playboy walks down Fifth Avenue: the Flirt is at home in Mayfair.