Robert Farnon

Composer of film scores and popular song
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The Independent Online

Robert Farnon's enormous catalogue of hit songs and arrangements helped British light music survive the post-war years, while as a musical director he worked with many of the great names of 20th-century popular music as well as writing film scores.

Robert Joseph Farnon, composer and arranger: born Toronto, Ontario 24 July 1917; married (five sons, two daughters); died St Martin's, Guernsey 23 April 2005.

Robert Farnon's enormous catalogue of hit songs and arrangements helped British light music survive the post-war years, while as a musical director he worked with many of the great names of 20th-century popular music as well as writing film scores.

Farnon was born into a musical family in Toronto in 1917: his older brother Brian worked with Spike Jones and his younger brother Dennis wrote music for Mr Magoo cartoons. Only the eldest, Norah, did not pursue a musical career. After playing in dance bands, Farnon became first trumpet and arranger for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Orchestra at 19, while on regular trips to New York he played with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. When the CBC conductor Percy Faith left for the United States, Farnon replaced him.

Encouraged by his teacher Louis Waizman, Farnon hoped for success in "serious" music ("At that time I thought of nothing else"). Sir Ernest Macmillan and Eugene Ormandy took up his first symphony (1940) and a second, The Ottawa, followed in 1942. But Farnon was later dismissive of these early serious works though he did raid the melodies for future works.

In September 1944 Farnon came to Britain as leader of the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces - his American and British equivalents were Glenn Miller and George Melachrino. After the war he stayed and his breezily jazz-tinged pieces and Debussian textures in pastoral works such as A la claire fontaine, helped light music survive the post-war years. But he also desperately wanted to get into the film industry.

Meanwhile he wrote library music for use in radio, newsreels, films and, later, television including "Jumping Bean", "Portrait of a Flirt", and the title which sums up his ethos, "Journey into Melody", while "How Beautiful is the Night" is just one of his many endlessly anthologised songs. In the late 1940s he worked for Decca, composing and conducting his own orchestra and celebrating the Coronation with a set of English folk-song arrangements. After work with Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields, he was music director for artists including Tony Bennett, José Carreras, Bing Crosby, Eileen Farrell, Lena Horne, George Shearing, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan.

Richmal Compton's famous schoolboy helped Farnon into the film industry as he scored Just William's Luck (1947) following this with 40 or so film scores. After providing dance-hall music for Herbert Wilcox's I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945), Farnon scored several phenomenally popular vehicles for Wilcox's wife Anna Neagle: Spring in Park Lane (incorporating his orchestrations of Debussy's "En bateau" and the folk song "Early One Morning", 1948) and Maytime in Mayfair (1949). For the title music of Elizabeth of Ladymead (1948) he reworked part of his library composition "State Occasion". In the mid-Fifties, Farnon married Wilcox's casting director Patricia Smith.

The post-war years were a high-water mark as Farnon worked with popular music stars, wrote film scores and received commissions from the BBC including the "Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra" (1958) which has a foot each in the "serious" and "light" camps. One of his best film scores is Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), with its Korngoldish swashbuckling, and he later reworked one of its most ardent moments as the song "On the Lips of Lovers". In 1962 he was music director for The Road to Hong Kong, although he joked that he had killed the series off, as no more were made. The 1960s and 1970s also brought television work, most memorably the series Colditz (1972-74) and Secret Army (1977-79).

With typical modesty, the composer told David Ades, secretary of the Robert Farnon Society, that he "could not understand how people claimed to recognise a 'Farnon sound' ", but André Previn called him "the greatest living string writer in the world" and Tony Bennett said that "the greatest music I ever heard in Great Britain was composed by Robert Farnon". Farnon received a Grammy in 1995 and four Ivor Novello Awards, including one for lifetime achievement in 1991. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988. A celebratory 80th-birthday trip led to a commission and the resulting piano concerto, describing the play of water, has the typically romantic title Cascades to the Sea.

With the resurgence of interest in light music in the 1990s Farnon's own recordings were reissued on CD, but he continued to compose new pieces and make new arrangements of older ones. His last works include a jazzy concerto for amplified bassoon, and a return to the symphony, with the writing of a third, whose premiere takes place this evening in Edinburgh, the city to which it is dedicated.

John Riley



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