Robert Farnon (1917-2005)
Farnon, Robert (1917-2005)
Robert Farnon was born in Toronto on July 24th 1917, and by the time he celebrated his eightieth birthday in July 1997 with two tribute concerts at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, he had become famous worldwide as a composer, conductor and arranger. While he lived in Europe for the last sixty years of his life, latterly in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, his early days in Toronto gave him the musical and educational experience background for a scintillating career which was later to prompt renowned conductor/pianist Andre Previn to describe him unhesitatingly as the finest light music arranger in the world.
By the time he was five, Bob was reluctantly trying to play the violin that his father had given him, but for a while he preferred roller-skating to music. But music was in the family, and after schooling at Our Lady of Lourdes, Humbercrest High School and then Humbercrest Collegiate, Bob joined his brother Brian’s dance band as their drummer, playing one-night gigs and the occasional CBC broadcast. He later took up the trumpet – brother Brian was having trouble finding brass players – and it was because of his proficiency in jazz numbers on this instrument that he was invited to join Geoffrey Waddington’s CBC Orchestra, while he was still only in his teens.
During his time with Waddington, Bob met Louis Wiseman, a CBC music copyist, who spotted Bob’s potential and gave him private lessons in music theory, harmony and counterpoint. Bob’s newly minted arranging skills, as well as his trumpet-playing, soon prompted Percy Faith to ask him to join his CBC Orchestra, and in particular to handle the choral arrangements which weren’t Faith’s strong point. Then in 1940, when Faith moved to the States, Bob was invited to replace him as musical director of the CBC Orchestra. By 1942, when he was 25, Bob had also found time to write two symphonies.
In parallel with his orchestral work, Bob had in 1937 become a founding member of CBC Radio’s Happy Gang, where he played trumpet, composed musical material and participated in sketches. The show ran for 23 years, but in 1943 Bob’s career took another turn. He joined the Army as Captain Robert Farnon to become musical director of the Canadian Army Show, and in 1944 he took the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces to Britain, where they did broadcasts and concerts for the Allied forces.
While in England, Bob made many contacts in the music business there, and after the war ended in 1945, and the band was ready to return to Canada, Bob decided to stay in Britain and take advantage of the many offers of work which were coming his way. On his discharge from the army, Bob was hired as an arranger for the Geraldo Orchestra, which he also conducted from time to time when Geraldo was away. He was also under contract to Chappell’s, the music publishers, for whom he wrote hundreds of pieces of light music over the years, many of which became famous through their use as themes for radio and television series both in Britain and around the world.
He was soon broadcasting and recording with his own orchestra, and much in demand to arrange and conduct recordings by many famous British and international artists. He later wrote many film scores, notably the music for Captain Horatio Hornblower with Gregory Peck. His Canadian Impressions Suite contains such evocative titles as A La Claire Fontaine, Alcan Highway, Canadian Caravan, Lake of the Woods and Ottawa Heights. He won a Grammy Award for an arrangement he did for a recording with trombonist J.J. Johnson. In 1997 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
Robert Farnon died in Guernsey on April 23rd 2005. Up to shortly before his death, he was still writing music: his Third Symphony, subtitled The Edinburgh was premiered at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, only three weeks following his death, and had its North American premiere performance by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in November of that year . He had also just completed a Concerto for Bassoon .
His music, and the music of his fellow composers of light and other popular music, is honoured through the Robert Farnon Society, at www.rfsoc.org.uk.
Written by Pip Wedge - July, 2004