Saturday, March 3, 2018

Robert Farnon: An Arranger’s Arranger

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“[Although a Canadian who spent most of his professional career in England following a posting there during WW II,] Robert Farnon’s influence as an arranger has been strongly felt in the USA. Quincy Jones, Johnny Mandel, Henry Mancini, Marian Evans, Marty Paich and Neal Hefti are some of the top writers who aren’t ashamed to admit occasionally having ‘borrowed’ some of his ideas.”
- David Aides, English writer and music critic

“… I had never heard anything like this. The harmony was exquisite, fresh and adventurous; and if I could not analyze the voice leading I could certainly hear it. It was startling stuff, and I got my hands on as much of it as I could. Forty and more years later, I still have the London LPs I acquired at that time.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author and critic

“I wanted to enhance the popular song. When I do an arrangement of a popular song, I like to put some thought into it, not just dish it up in two choruses. Make it into a piece of music, a composition, tell a story.”
- Robert Farnon

"I look at Bob as a composer who is an arranger, His mastery of music is almost total. The lines that he writes! His music is extraordinarily linear. Gil Evans wrote that way. The individual parts are wonderful to play. They make incredible sense.

What really attracted me initially were the arrangements. All the arrangers love his harmony. But his harmony is derived from linear writing. The way he would realize these things for orchestra was just extraordinary. And of course we all know about the string writing. Everybody has commented on it.”
- Jeffrey Sultanof, Jazz composer-arranger, educator

As a young boy, I was a big fan of pirate movies.

My Dad was always taking me to see them at The Strand, The Majestic, The RKO Albee, The Loew’s State and other less, palatial theaters in Providence RI, where I grew up.

My all-time favorite buccaneer flick was The Crimson Pirate which starred the incredibly acrobatic, Burt Lancaster.

On more than one occasion, I almost killed myself trying to duplicate some of the Crimson Pirate’s stunts using the roof tops of three-storied, tenement buildings in place of the rigging on the three masts of a barkentine.

Another seafaring adventure film that made a indelible impression on me was Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. which starred Gregory Peck. The movie was set during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century and Peck’s character was loosely based on Lord Nelson, who commanded the British fleet during a number of its epic battles against the navies of Napoleon and his allies.

But, what struck me most about this film was not the gymnastic gyrations of its hero [Peck was no Lancaster], but rather, the beauty and grandeur of the film’s music.

The film’s score contained music that was the aural counterpart of the many breathtakingly beautiful Technicolor images that made up the film.

The Technicolor Company’s movie film was so densely rich and bright in color that I always wished that I could put a spoon into it to see what would come out. It was the first time I ever felt that way about a film score, too.

I had no idea who composed the music to Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. until many years later.

Once I learned the film’s score was written by Robert Farnon, it seemed that whenever I encountered his name after that, it was always followed by expressions of deep and abiding admiration.

Gene Lees once observed about Farnon:

“The reverence in which Farnon is held by arrangers and other musicians, not to mention singers, is unlimited. They have long referred to him as the Governor, or just the Guv, and I heard one arranger say in a radio interview, "He is God."

When someone unfamiliar with Farnon's music asked Rob McConnell who he was, Rob said, ‘He is the greatest arranger in the world.’

Andre Previn long ago called Bob ‘the world's greatest string writer.’ Andre told me once that when John (then Johnny) Williams was a young studio pianist in Los Angeles, he asked a question about string writing. Andre gave him a Farnon album, telling him to take it home and listen to it. Late that night, Johnny called him back to ask what the hell Farnon was doing at such-and-such point in one of the tunes. Andre said, ‘I don't know, but if you figure it out, call me back.’”

Johnny Mandel, one of the most brilliant composers and arrangers jazz has produced, said:

"Most of what I know is based on having stolen everything I could from Farnon. I'll say that right off. I've listened to him and tried to approximate what I thought he was doing. He made strings sound like they always should have and never did. Everybody wrote them skinny. He knew how to write them so that it could wrench at you. I'd never heard anybody like him before and I've never heard anybody like him since. We're all pale imitations of him, those of us who are influenced by him."

Another great admirer of Robert Farnon’s work was Marion Evans, a highly regarded studio arranger who was particularly admired for his use of strings in albums by vocalists Steve Lawrence, Edie Gorme and Tony Bennett.

Marion was unapologetic in his admiration [and replication] of Farnon’s approach whose influence he further disseminated as explained in the following excerpt from by Gene Lees in his chapter on Farnon from his book entitled Arranging the Score: Portraits of the Great Arrangers:

“Further disseminating the Farnon influence, Marion founded an informal school for arrangers in his cluttered apartment on West 49th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

Marion denies that it was ever a school, and in any case he refused payment from his students. ‘I'd get drunk and we'd talk about music,’ he said. He imposed two strict disciplines on his students: they had to study thoroughly the composition and harmony books of Percy Goetschius and the records of Bob Farnon. Through that ‘school’ passed Patrick Williams, J.J. Johnson, Torrie Zito, Jack Cortner, and Nick Perito, and you can hear the Farnon influence in the writing of all of them.

Nor was Marion the only arranger to use the Farnon albums as teaching material. "We all used them for that purpose," [noted composer-arranger] Ralph Burns said.”

Marion's evaluation of Farnon: "He just simply is the best," he said.

‘He's a rare combination. Every once in a while, by some biological meeting, some cross-fertilization, we produce an Albert Einstein. We produce somebody who has the talent, the dedication, the training. Farnon had it all. And it was all in one place.

‘Plus, through no fault of his own, he found himself in an incredible position in London, where he was standing in front of a large orchestra every day and writing. You do that for a while and you learn. And that's doing it the hard way.

‘He had that rare combination of everything. He is exceptional by every standard.

I think it's not really kosher to analyze Bob in a highly technical manner. It doesn't begin to touch the depth of his talent. Bob has enormous technique, but his talent far exceeds his technique, and so did Mozart's. And that is precisely what you want. Anyone can learn as much technique as Bob Farnon has by going to music school. But they don't have that extra edge.

‘Mozart didn't write masterpieces all the time. He sat down and kept writing and let it flow. Bob has a lot of that in him. He's fast. He is one of the fastest writers I've ever known. He just does it, and that's it. He doesn't labor over it. When it's good, it's fantastic.’” [excerpts from pp. 63-64]

I guess there was a reason why I was so impressed with Robert Farnon’s music the first time I ever heard it.

And it looks like I was in good company.

To give you a sampling of what’s on offer with Robert Farnon, here is an audio track of his beautifully orchestra theme from the movie Laura. 

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