Robert Farnon

by Robert Walton

"Tête à Tête"

Just over half a century ago while on holiday, I was recording a programme from the radio by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra with a school friend called Tom. At the exact moment of the climax of Tête à Tête something unprecedented happened. My friend's mother suddenly called out his name from the garden through the open window of our beach cottage. I was furious because I was sure this unexpected intrusion would have almost certainly ruined the recording, especially as we were using an exterior microphone placed in front of the wireless. Imagine our surprise when on playback everything sounded perfectly normal with not a trace of the uninvited soprano. Incredibly she must have "sung" the last two notes of the climax (C and B flat) to "To-om!"

Tête à Tête first saw the light of day as part of the soundtrack of “Spring in Park Lane” but was developed into a full length composition for the Chappell Mood Music Library. Much later the tune was re-worked as Royal Walkabout. Tête-à-tête in French literally means 'head to head.' A confidential conversation; a heart to heart talk if you like. A tête-à-tête is also an S-shaped sofa on which two people can sit face to face. Even for Robert Farnon the intimate Tête à Tête is a remarkable melody and has to be one of his most unusual. Despite that, there was no mistaking who wrote it.

The main tune is bitonal. In other words it's effectively in two keys, D and E flat. Although the introduction is clearly in the key of D, the melody is immediately hijacked by E flat and then alternates with D. This atonal freeway is full of strange twists and turns, but familiar harmonic signposts keep the puzzled listener on track. The constant tension between two unrelated keys creates an air of mystery and yet it all sounds so conventional. However, what is really extraordinary is how the eight bar phrase ends. A series of descending single notes with little pockets of the whole-tone scale begins in the key of D, but halfway down goes quite blatantly into E flat. It's all done so smoothly the listener isn't aware anything exceptional has taken place. In spite of the quirky tune, you can easily hum along with it. You can’t do that with many Schoenberg melodies! Only Farnon could pull off a daring thing like that! We stay in E flat for a while which means the piece now has some tonal stability like a regular light orchestral composition. Off we go into one of those delicate Farnon string passages with one of his favourite devices, an upper mordent (a trill), before heading for the heights to that beautifully elegant climax.

If you're not familiar with this work, you may well ask, what sort of middle section, has Robert Farnon got in store for us? Well, after the earlier complexities it couldn’t be more of a contrast if he tried! He is still having fun with different keys but mercifully one at a time. In this case it’s E, A flat and F. The whole mood has changed into a lengthy pastoral wood windy affair with the oboe and flute doing the honours. After the violins sweep upwards like Gateway to the West, the feeling is similar to that of the "trotting" tempo of Carriage and Pair. But before you know it, we're back with that weird and wonderful melody flitting between two keys, completely capturing that curious personal chemistry between two people. Then shortly after a repeat of that gentlest of climaxes, Farnon, with no fuss, brings the composition to a simple peaceful end. The key of E flat finally triumphs. Perhaps when Tête à Tête is scheduled for recording again, an official soprano might be hired just to enrich the climaxes!

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