Robert Farnon

By Robert Walton


Robert Farnon's miniatures tend to fall into one of two categories. Either the rousing attention seekers or the modest "no fuss" ones which sort of seep into the senses. Ironically the latter can often have more impact. Why should this be? Perhaps it could be compared to a softly spoken person one is drawn to in a crowd, as opposed to the loud-mouthed show-off type. Of course it's the content that is most important, but sometimes (as comedian Frank Carson says), "It's the way you tell 'em!"

The effortless Sophistication Waltz sounds as if it wrote itself, unlike some Farnon numbers that give the impression of having being endlessly refined and sculptured down to the last detail, until complete satisfaction has been achieved. (Beethoven was also a perfectionist, never accepting the first draft). But occasionally along comes an idea so simple and original it would be foolish to change a thing. Just go with the flow as they say! All Farnon had to do with Sophistication Waltz was enrich it with his own brand of enchanting orchestration and harmony and ... Bob's your Uncle! Not a problem. For him it was like falling off a log. Probably something he casually tossed off, but you'd never know it from the meticulous craftsmanship. So let's see if we can uncover some of the secrets of Farnon's style, and at the same time share the pleasure of one of his most lilting waltzes.

From the very start an air of mystery pervades the piece, as we go into an eight bar introduction which you'd swear was taking us straight to the main melody. But no! Farnon completely fools us with four extra warm up bars, in which the first note of the actual tune is held throughout, and ending with an ascending bell-like effect. Once the tune is up and running though we can sit back and enjoy a magical melody by this modern day "Johann Strauss 2nd." Being quite a fastish waltz it doesn't hang about. The stealthy strain ascends almost step by step in much the same way as That's Entertainment, and more than any other piece I know, has such built-in markings relating to interpretation, that the dumbest musician would give a perfectly adequate performance.

Then shortly Farnon casually slips into A flat, but only for a moment, and we're soon back on track after a bluesy/Hawaiian type cadence returns us to the written key of C. And then we find ourselves briefly in E flat. Farnon makes these unrelated keys seem quite natural in the general scheme of things. The first eight bars of the actual tune of Sophistication Waltz could be the work of any professional light orchestral composer, but that unexpected move into A flat, places Farnon in a class of his own. The melody has been lifted out of the commonplace into the rare. This is true of so much of his music. The waltz as we knew it would never be the same again. Suddenly it soars! In one defining moment the dance has been re-invented. But it’s only when we reach the first climax, we become aware of such a beautifully shaped composition.

On entering an A flat bridge we realise the earlier brief encounter with that key was but a taste of things to come. A complete transformation has taken place. This is now a full-blown waltz. And borrowing from the main theme, Farnon uses that bluesy cadence four times. If you were expecting the final chorus to revert back to its introspective opening you’d be mistaken. Clearly the middle section mood was contagious because those ravishing Farnon strings now triumphant take over. The piece ends, as it began, in a quiet mysterious mood.

Weber might have been the first to give the waltz a new look with his Invitation to the Dance (1819), but Farnon is the 20th century equivalent. In fact he's more. It's one thing arranging something imaginatively, but quite another to break new compositional ground as well - to go where no one else has been. Even if Farnon had only written for the piano, his originality would have still shone through. Sophistication Waltz with all its harmonic subtleties and orchestral ingenuity could still be appreciated by the man in the street, even if he didn't realise he was listening to something fresh and exciting. A good deal of that is achieved by Farnon's inner parts. With a simple tune like this, most arrangers would have settled for just one chord per bar, but Farnon provides internal momentum with a variety of harmonies and passing dissonances which reveal unsuspected beauty. They might be gone in a flash but without them the result would be extremely dull. Students of harmony should study the discipline of his writing. It may be unconventional but it all fits together like clockwork. From the intoxicating melodies and joyful rhythms of Vienna, to the intricate sounds of our own times, Robert Farnon climbed one small step for a man, but one giant leap for music!

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