Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
It is surprising how completely the music of Harry Farjeon has disappeared from view, considering its wide range and one-time popularity. Born of British parents in New Jersey on 6 May 1878 he came to England when very young, studied in London first with Landon Ronald, then, from 1895, at the Royal Academy of Music, composition with Frederick Corder. He won many prizes there, returning in 1903 as Professor of Harmony and Composition, after a brief spell as Professor at the Blackheath Conservatory. He died on 29 December 1948 after a lifetime of teaching music, writing about it for Musical Times and the Daily Telegraph (he published Musical Words Explained, a handy little booklet, in 1933) and producing a large corpus of compositions. He was one of many British composers to conduct his own music at Bournemouth on the platform so thoughtfully and generously provided by Dan Godfrey, for example the Phantasy Concerto (1924-5), the Piano Concerto (1902-19), Idyll for oboe and orchestra, the Characteristic Variations (1903) and the Caldicott Suite (1929). His symphonic poem, Pannychis, was premiered at the Henry Wood Promenade concerts as late as 1942.
His early stage works are to be reckoned as student compositions, though all were staged in London: Floretta (1899), an opera with words by his younger sister Eleanor who was later to be renowned as a poet and actually produced at the Academy; and two operettas, The Registry Office (1900) and A Gentleman of the Road (1902), both staged at St George's Hall. Farjeon's orchestral output included several major pieces: the Piano Concerto in D, performed at the Proms in 1903, a shorter Phantasy Concerto for piano and orchestra which won a Carnegie Award in 1926, though it was not performed in London until 1935 - by the BBCSO, The Ballet of the Trees (1915) and a symphonic poem after Kipling, Mowgli. Another symphonic poem, Summer Vision, Farjeon reckoned to be his finest composition but the score was lost in transit to Germany just before the Great War broke out and was never seen again. Less ambitious pieces were an Elegy and an Air on a Ground Bass for strings, an Idyll for oboe and orchestra and the quite popular Hans Anderson Suite for small orchestra dating from 1905 and performed that year at Bournemouth.
He contributed usefully to the field of chamber music: four string quartets, of which the fourth, in C major (1927) was published. In three movements, its idiom was conservative with a jolly country dance as its finale. A Poem for violins and violas created an interesting sound when heard with other Farjeon works at the Steinway Hall in 1917. For violin there were three sonatas (the third in E flat, Opus 69, the most highly regarded) an Air on a Ground Bass and Orientale; for cello he composed two sonatas and a Humoresque (1928) and for viola the Andante and Scherzo. He produced much music for the pianist, especially the amateur: a Sonata, Preludes, Canzonetta, Elegie Heroique (1923) Hilary's Cradle Song, a Miniature Suite in B flat, a Tarantella, which became very popular on a gramophone record made by Eileen Joyce, and many suites, such as The Four Winds, Opus 18, the five Peter Pan Sketches Opus 44, the Five Little Melodies Opus 46, Summer Suite, Night Music, Tone Pictures, Three Venetian Idylls, The Ballet of the Lake and Pictures from Greece, Opus 13. The last, whose six movements were entitled The Dryads, The Fates, The Muses, Mercury, The Graces and The Naiads, was possibly his most popular piano suite as several of the movements exist in orchestral transcriptions by other hands. For two pianos he wrote Vignettes Opus 72, for piano duet the Two Italian Sketches of 1928. For organists, arrangements were made by others of several of his piano compositions but Berceuse (1925) appears to be an original organ piece.
Farjeon's most popular choral music was that designed for young voices: two-part items like As Happy as Kings, Blue-Bell Time, Chimes, The Divine Images and A Medley of Perfume or unison numbers like Infant Joy and the Christmas carol, Our Brother is Born (1925). Slightly more ambitious were his "choral ballads" like Down-adown-Derry for women's voices, flute and strings, also 1925, and much more so was his St Dominic's Mass, totally forgotten now, though it won a Carnegie Award in 1925. His songs were mainly modest, sentimental even, but they were popular in their time: An Elfin Lay, Carol, Presents from Heaven, My Father's Close, The Spirit of the Past and the cycles The Lute of Jade and Vagrant Songs. A Sussex Alphabet looks interesting on paper: 26 songs, printed in two volumes, each title beginning with a different letter from Arundel to Zouche, taking in along the way, Belloc, Chanctonbury Ring, Harold, Ouse, Rye and Weald. Of interest too are his accompaniments to the recitations Christ's Eve and La Belle Dame sans Merci.
Do we have pianists - and perhaps others - prepared to dust down Farjeon's music and allow us to hear it? Thomas Johnson, sadly now deceased, once made me a cassette of some of his piano music which delighted me - and others - with its gentle, but civilised inventiveness.
© Philip L Scowcroft.
Enquiries to Philip at
8 Rowan Mount
S YORKS DN2 5PJ
Philip's book 'British Light Music Composers' (ISBN 0903413 88 4) is currently out of print.
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