Robert Farnon | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Robert Farnon

While a composition pupil of Louis Waizman in the 1930s, Farnon arranged music for Faith's choral groups and for the US orchestras of André Kostelanetz and Paul Whiteman. His first symphony, completed in 1940, was premiered 7 Jan 1941 as Symphonic Suite by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Farnon, Robert

 Robert (Joseph) Farnon. Composer, arranger, conductor, trumpeter, b Toronto 24 Jul 1917, d Guernsey, UK 23 April 2005. Farnon began by learning violin; he studied piano with his mother at seven and with Jack Gray at nine. In 1930 he began playing drums in the dance band of his brother Brian; he also studied percussion with Duncan Snider. By 1934, however, he had turned exclusively to the trumpet, and played in the Toronto dance bands of Bus Browne, Stanley St John, Bob Shuttleworth, and others and in the CRBC (CBC) orchestras of Percy Faith and Geoffrey Waddington. He was a member 1937-43 of the Happy Gang.

While a composition pupil of Louis Waizman in the 1930s, Farnon arranged music for Faith's choral groups and for the US orchestras of André Kostelanetz and Paul Whiteman. His first symphony, completed in 1940, was premiered 7 Jan 1941 as Symphonic Suite by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The Philadelphia Orchestra also performed it on several occasions. After one such performance at Massey Hall, Augustus Bridle (Toronto Daily Star, 13 May 1942) praised the work's 'extremely modern design without a single ugly dissonance; its infallible beauty of tone-painting and its continuous enchantment in both themes and harmonic invention; [and] its sagacious instrumentations.' The only scores of this work and of Cascades to the Sea (premiered 31 Aug 1944 under Jean-Marie Beaudet) were lost at sea in 1944 along with a shipment of Army Show music and equipment. Farnon's second symphony, the Ottawa, completed in 1942, was premiered by the Toronto Symphony in 1943 on the CBC radio program 'Concert Hour.'

Early Years in the United Kingdom

Farnon went overseas during World War II as music director for The Army Show and also conducted the Canadian band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces on the BBC. He subsequently arranged music for the English dance bands of Ambrose, Geraldo, and Ted Heath and by 1950 had his own BBC radio programs (eg, 'Journey into Melody'), for which he composed, arranged, and conducted music for a large orchestra. In the late 1940s he also began recording commercially for Decca under his own name and as choral arranger for Vera Lynn and others.

Writing for Film and Television

Concurrently Farnon made several LPs with the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra for Chappell & Co Mood Music, a library intended for use by the radio, TV, and film industries. His arrangements for Chappell, some originally conceived for the Canadian army orchestra, are acknowledged widely as having exerted a decisive influence on European and North American composers and orchestrators of film and popular music. He is especially known for his handling of strings. Farnon himself composed the scores for William Comes to Town and Spring in Park Lane (1947), Just William's Luck (1948), Elizabeth of Ladymead (1949), Captain Horatio Hornblower and Circle of Danger (1951), Maytime in Mayfair (1952), His Majesty O'Keefe (1953), Gentlemen Marry Brunettes and Let's Make Up (1955), The Little Hut (1957), The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), The Road to Hong Kong (1962), The Truth About Spring (1965), and Shalako (1968). His last film score was written around 1981. Some of his film scores were released on LP. Farnon's music was heard on Playhouse Ninety, and other television shows. He also wrote and conducted under several pseudonyms.

Farnon's Influential Contributions to Popular Music

Farnon returned briefly to Canada in 1953, moved to Riverside, New Jersey, in 1954 but quickly returned to the UK, and finally made his home on Guernsey in the Channel Islands in 1958, providing easy access to work in London and European studios. He conducted orchestras for the BBC radio series 'Music All the Way' and 'Farnon in Concert' in the mid-1960s and arranged and/or conducted music for recordings by many performers, including the pop singers Tony Bennett (several LPs), Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Pia Zadora, the choral groups Singers Unlimited and the Swingle Singers, and the jazz musicians Tony Coe, George Shearing, Ben Webster, and Phil Woods. Under his own name Farnon made many LPs for Decca and Philips, some devoted to the works of an individual songwriter or songwriting team (eg, Stephen Foster Melodies, Decca LF-1034, and Music of Vincent Youmans, Decca LF-1052) and others to songs popularized by a particular performer (eg, The Hits of Frank Sinatra) or associated with a particular theme (Portrait of the West, Poly 2310-232, of music from films about the 'old west,' and From the Highlands, London LC-3007, of music from Scotland).

Farnon's Compositions

The most popular of Farnon's compositions were his orchestral setting of 'À la claire fontaine,' his suite Canadian Impressions, his theme for the BBC-TV series 'Colditz' (Colditz March, for which he won a 1972 Novello Award), and his shorter pieces How Beautiful Is Night, Jumping Bean, Manhattan Playboy, On the Sea Shore (Novello Award 1960), Peanut Polka, Portrait of a Flirt, A Star Is Born, and Westminster Waltz (Novello Award 1956). Some of his melodies were given lyrics by Milton Raskin. Much of his music has been published by Chappell.

Farnon's writing displays elements of Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Debussy, Delius, Bartok and Sibelius. His albums have been used as teaching material by and for many US arrangers. The UK broadcaster Malcolm Laycock described Farnon's arrangements as giving soloists "a luscious musical bed to lie on and luxuriate in. The arrangements wrap around the singer or instrumentalist, but they don't smother them ..." (Ottawa Citizen, 26 Oct 1997).

Maintaining Canadian Connections

Although he has often been portrayed as one of Canada's forgotten musicians, Farnon maintained several connections with his country of birth. He composed Pleasure of Your Company for Oscar Peterson, Scherzo for trumpet and orchestra (recorded by the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra), Rhapsody for violin and orchestra (recorded by Steven Staryk), Prelude and Dance for harmonica and orchestra (written for and recorded by Tommy Reilly), and Saxophone Triparti (premiered by the Canadian-born saxophonist Bob Burns with the London Philharmonic Orchestra). Gateway to the West and Alcan Highway were inspired by Canadian locations.

Farnon returned to Canada for CBC appearances in 1961 (the TV program 'Music Makers') and 1969 (the TV special 'The Music of Robert Farnon' shown in 1970, in 1975 and 1976) and for a concert in 1969 with Vera Lynn at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Several Farnon works were performed in the composer's presence 20 Dec 1984 at a Toronto Symphony TS Christmas concert.

Farnon returned again to attend a tribute concert by the Brantford Symphony 4 May 1997. He was honoured in Canada by the Guild of Canadian Film Composers in Toronto 24 Oct 1997, and with three concerts of his work by the National Arts Centre Orchestra (30 Oct-1 Nov 1997).

Farnon was a member of CAPAC and SOCAN.

Farnon's Later Career

Robert Farnon continued writing, recording and broadcasting through the 1990s and early 2000s, eg Here's to Life (with Joe Williams), and How Beautiful Is Night (with George Shearing), both on Telarc. In 1992, Farnon conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra's recording of Hornblower Suite and À la Claire Fontaine. Farnon won a US Grammy award for best instrumental arrangement (1995, for Lament) on J.J. Johnson's Tangence, which he also conducted. Returning to writing serious music in his later years, he completed Symphony No. 3, The Edinburgh in 2004; the 2004 commission An American Wind Symphony: The Gaels; and the bassoon concerto Romancing the Phoenix in 2005.

Rediscovered material from Farnon's war years (The Lost Recordings; More Lost Recordings) was issued in the late 1990s on the Cowtown label.

Awards and Recognition

The Robert Farnon Appreciation Society (later, the Robert Farnon Society), founded in England in 1956 to 'further the interests of all good light music in general, and the work of Robert Farnon in particular,' publishes the periodical Journal into Melody.

Farnon was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1997. In addition to three UK Novello awards for recordings, Farnon received the 1991 Novello award for outstanding service to British music.

Among those influenced by Farnon's writing are film composers Quincy Jones and John Williams, composers André Previn and Henry Mancini, and jazz arranger Johnny Mandel. Rob McConnell called Farnon "the greatest arranger in the world." The US arranger Jeff Sultanof launched a project to reconstruct the many lost Farnon scores. By the early 2000s, Marc Fortier (Montreal Pops Orchestra) had rewritten many of Farnon's scores, for small orchestra.

The Farnon Family

Farnon's brothers Dennis and Brian also had careers in film composing. Dennis moved to Hollywood in 1951, wrote music for such cartoon characters as 'Mr Magoo' and 'Bullwinkle,' and made several LPs for RCA Victor, including Magoo in Hi Fi (LPM-1362). He later worked in London and Portugal. Brian (Bryan) worked in Hollywood for TV and in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

Robert Farnon's son David (M MUS, Cambridge) is a composer and has written music for The Muppet Show.

Further Reading

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