As Jeff Sultanof makes clear in the first segment of his two-part essay for Rifftides, the most accomplished composers and arrangers looked up to Robert Farnon (1917-2005). To the left, we see him between two of his admirers, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter. Early in his career, both offered him encouragement and advice and, later, became fans. The sheer skill of Farnon’s craftsmanship would have been reason enough for envy, but he combined mastery of technique with a creative imagination that gave him range from the most subtle harmonic magic accompanying singers to the surging power of epic seaborne motion picture battles.
Mr. Sultanof is treasured by professional musicians for his analysis and editing of scores and for his writing and teaching about composers and composing. He has also written for Rifftides about Pete Rugolo, Gerry Mulligan and Russell Garcia.
Robert FarnonBy Jeff Sultanof
In today’s colleges and universities around the world, students and teachers continue to explore the world of big band and orchestral arrangements, analyzing them in classrooms, writing them, or both. It is a fascinating journey to see and hear how many different kinds of sounds and structures can be created using the same instrumentation that has been formulating and evolving over many, many years.
Somewhere along the line, anyone familiar with Nelson Riddle, Billy May and the many other legends of arranging in the popular music idiom, eventually finds the name of a man who never became very well known, at least in the United States. It’s a different story in Europe because his BBC broadcasts were heard there. Professionals everywhere, however, regard Robert Farnon as the best of them all.
I will deal only with the basics of his career. You are invited to explore the Robert Farnon Society website, the internet home of the organization that celebrates and promotes Farnon’s work as well as that of other composer/arrangers.
Farnon was born in Canada on July 24, 1917 (coincidentally, I was born on the same day in 1954, something Bob and I used to joke about). He came from a musical family. His brothers Brian and Dennis also became world-class musicians. Bob was a trumpet player and joined the CBC Orchestra as lead trumpet for broadcasts under the direction of Percy Faith. When Faith left the CBC, Farnon took his place, and his arrangements were heard all over Canada. Farnon also composed two well regarded symphonies, one of them played by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Considering them juvenilia, he later withdrew them, although some of the themes in those works were recycled for other compositions.
During WWII, he became a Captain in the Canadian army, and was commissioned to assemble an Allied Expeditionary Force orchestra from Canada to be sent overseas to entertain the troops. His was the equivalent of Glenn Miller’s American AEF ensemble and George Melachrino’s English band. The three men were great friends, and would meet at Miller’s office, which was a room at the Mt. Royal Hotel in London. The British music world recognized Farnon’s talents, and he often moonlighted as arranger for such leaders as Ted Heath and Geraldo.
During and after the war, Farnon’s ensemble broadcast regularly. Some of those recorded programs were found many years later. Farnon was not exactly thrilled at their rediscovery and availability on CD, as he had been forced to arrange the newest songs by transcribing them over short-wave radio broadcasts, and the lyrics and music were sometimes incorrect. This makes his work all the more remarkable; some arrangements, including “Laura,” are from that period, although commercially recorded several years later. “Laura” is considered one of his masterpieces. He continued to perform for it many years.
Once he was discharged, Farnon faced a major decision: stay in England, return to Canada, or perhaps go to the United States (Miller had encouraged him to come to the U.S.—it is tempting to think of Miller and Farnon working together). He decided that it would be better to stay in England. In 1946, he was invited to write for Chappell’s music library service. For such libraries, composers wrote music for possible use in radio, motion pictures and later television, music ranging from full-scale compositions that could be used as themes, or short segments to be used as transitions. This turned out to be the break of his life. Over the years, he wrote hundreds of hours of music for the library, and many of the compositions such as “Portrait of a Flirt” and “Journey Into Music” were heard all over the world. The David Susskind Show, a talk program emanating from New York, used Farnon’s “Gateway to the West” as its theme. In Europe, Farnon became known as a ‘light’ music composer. John Wilson conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra in one of those exquisitely written pieces.
In his second installment, Jeff will discuss Farnon’s music for motion pictures and his work with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Oscar Peterson and George Shearing, among many others.