Tribute to Robert Farnon by Dick O'Connor


Although I will miss Robert Farnon and my sympathy goes out to his family and friends for their loss, it is difficult to grieve for a man who lived a full and apparently happy creative existence from youth to old age respected and honored by his peers and loved by millions around the world for the many beautiful and captivating musical works that were its consequence. I want rather to celebrate such a life by making his unfailingly positive outlook and good-natured grace as well as his obvious impressive artistic achievements a source of joy and inspiration for all.

Throughout a lengthy career his imaginative, elegant scores were widely regarded in the business as the ultimate in musical excellence and taste. By the late 1950s he was commonly spoken of as "the arrangerís arranger", a testament to the status he enjoyed within his profession. The great majority of writers active in mainstream popular music from that decade to the present time listened to and learned from his work. Record producers and vocalists at every level of fame and influence sought his services as orchestrator and instrumentalists eagerly took up his original compositions.

Robert Farnon never made a bad record or crafted an inferior arrangement. His well of inspiration ran deep, allowing him to undertake each project with new ideas and approaches. As timeless as popular music is capable of being, his recordings retain their freshness and spontaneity a half-century or more after their creation. Appointed A&R Director of the Mercury family of record companies in 1962, Quincy Jones, who we associate with big-band bebop, pop-rock, and later funk and rap Ė musical genres outside Farnonís domain - , immediately signed the legendary arranger "just to have the best there was" on the label.

He was known to aid, help, and encourage colleagues, even would-be competitors. The eminent Angela Morley, for one, has credited him with being the major factor in her decision to take up arranging and orchestration as a full-time career. Musicians had a special feeling for him. So gracious was he to work with that instrumentalists uniformly looked forward to and savored every minute of each recording session, concert, or radio program under his baton and referred to him as "the guvínor", a colloquial British label of address signifying respect.

His sturdy tuneful, catchy, and generally delightful character pieces invigorated English light music and won for him a post-war coterie of younger listeners, some of whom started a Robert Farnon Society in 1956 to honor his achievements and out of enthusiasm for that genre. While the longevity of that society, whose scope has now broadened to include jazz, big band, traditional popular vocalists, motion picture and production music, is as much a tribute to the dedication, commitment, and hard work of certain of its members, the support and recognition it rendered the composer for well over half his life must have been profoundly gratifying and inspiriting.

Comparisons with Percy Faith are I suppose inescapable. Growing up in the heart of British Canada they received nearly identical formal preparations with some of the same instructors and matured professionally under the varied stringent disciplines of live radio at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Early drawn to the expressive and ennobling possibilities of popular music for orchestra, each became a successful artist in that field in another English-speaking country with the support, in part, of a major recording company. Both were highly skilled, yet publicly humble men, greatly loved and admired by associates, who became institutions of sorts in their adopted countries as well as in popular music in general.

Despite these similarities they were very different in style, tone, method, and temperament. Several years older, Percy faith came of age just in time to naturally absorb the jazz-age influences of the silent cinema, Whiteman, Gershwin and symphonic jazz, later adding the swing conventions of Benny Goodman. Robert Farnon experienced the unfolding of the swing era and moved on to embrace the early innovations of modern jazz. Confronted later with the onslaught of youth music in the 1960s Farnon chose to ignore it and continue working in his accustomed musical language, while Faith endeavored to accommodate, assimilate, and appease it, though it sometimes gave him no pleasure.

Percy Faith molded and reshaped Ė streamlined - the giddy, careening, often pointless instrumental excitement of the jazz age into strong lyrical and romantic counterpoints packed with emotional intensity which he set in a bed of vibrant and respiring orchestral sonics. Farnon softened, broadened, and extended the tight sectional give-and-take of the wartime dance bands through the juxtaposition and often surprising interplay of free and eloquent individual lines and carefully controlled ensemble textures. Faith worked in big, bold musical strokes while Farnon employed more delicate, detailed, novel, and neutral elements which he assembled into ensemble structures of great beauty. Faithís music is earnest, serious, and direct, reaching out to embrace us and draw us in. Farnonís is elegant, gentle, playful, and piquant, dancing with us and beguiling us.

Because Percy Faith enjoyed great success as a recording artist he inevitably worked under the onus of continuing and prolonging that success with a public that increasingly took his music for granted. Less well-known by the record-buying public but secure in his considerable professional status, Bob Farnon was able to select projects more congenial and comfortable to his background and writing strengths, sense of style, taste, and pacing, ironically drawing greater adulation in the process from musically sophisticated circles. As the generalist audience for mainstream popular entertainment dwindled he turned more and more to writing concert works but found his efforts time and again passed over or ignored by the official academic and broadcasting arbiters of British high culture. It is to his credit that he never allowed his disappointment to cloud his artistic vision or impede his creative progress. As a young man Faith had composed longer works and incidental backgrounds for radio plays, but it is clear that he ultimately regarded himself as a purely popular musician more at home in the recording studio than on the concert stage.

I would like to have been present in the Toronto radio studios late in the 1930s when they worked together. Busy with various responsibilities, enthusiasms, problems, plans, and hopes I suspect they were not close. Farnon no doubt became impatient with the older manís (all of 30) overly cautious and guarded utilization of new musical ideas and basically conservative approach to musical presentation. Faith, on the other hand, may have viewed the young trumpet playerís multi-talented precocity as mere youthful distraction and diversion. This is of course all speculation. One thing I know. Working with Percy Faith at that time Robert Farnon was exposed to the best there was. He often claimed to have "learned a lot" from his older colleague. Iím sure that was an understatement.