Robert FarnonBy Jeff Sultanof
Robert Farnon composed several film scores, of which the best known is the music for Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951). The trombonist, composer and arranger J.J. Johnson told me that a theme from the film, “Lady Barbara” was one of his favorites. Johnson eventually recorded it with Farnon. We hear a bit of the theme in this scene from the motion picture with Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo.
Farnon recorded a long-running series of albums for U.K. Decca, released in the U.S. on the London label. Quincy Jones later produced Farnon albums for Phillips. Over his long career, Bob arranged and conducted for Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, George Shearing, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Jerry Lewis, Sarah Vaughan, and Tony Bennett.
I first heard of Farnon when I was 18 years old. I didn’t know anything about him, and couldn’t find his albums. I discovered that the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center had them, and when I heard them I was astounded. I wanted to study the scores, but soon learned that there had been a disastrous fire at Chappell’s offices in 1964, and most of them seemed lost. Chappell published several of his compositions in orchestral editions, but the only scores were piano-conductor guides, and all of those publications were long out of print and unavailable. In some cases, no copies of some of his best-known compositions were to be found in the United States. How could a case be made for a composer whose work was all but invisible, at least in this country?
I corresponded with him, and met him at a Farnon Society meeting. On that occasion, I offered to create new scores of his music; the music that was published for sale had numerous errors. Eventually, I edited 45 compositions and arrangements. Farnon approved them. Publishing them is a tricky proposition because the rights scattered when Chappell sold off its music library. Let’s just say it’s complicated, but it was wonderful to bathe in this glorious music and to work with Bob.
Farnon was a very gracious individual, proud of the fact that many professional arrangers respected and loved his music. But privately he expressed to me regret and, sometimes, anger. Decca lavished more promotion and ad space on other artists. He felt that the company never properly promoted him and he felt the same way about Chappell. Those of us who know his many compositions feel that with regard to orchestral performance, his music should be as popular as Leroy Anderson’s, but that simply has not happened. Despite accolades from such arranger/conductors as Andre Previn and John Williams, to my knowledge neither has performed his music. They could give it a much-needed push, exposing it to other conductors and encouraging them to program it.
For many years, copies of Farnon’s London albums were hard to find; arrangers learned not to lend them out, because they would probably not be returned. That changed when Dutton Vocalion issued them as two-fers on CD some years ago, and today it is very easy to get MP3s of classic Farnon recordings. All of them are worth hearing, but The Emerald Isle, From the Highlands, and Sunny Side Up are indispensable. The albums he made with Bennett were poorly promoted, but they are among the finest of this artist’s long discography. The album with Sinatra was recorded when Frank was in poor voice from touring, but “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is exquisite.
It was wonderful to know Robert Farnon. It is encouraging to realize that new generations of arrangers manage to find him and be inspired by him. His legacy continues. That’s the most that an artist can hope for.
As always, the Rifftides staff is grateful to Jeff Sultanof for sharing his expertise and insight.