Sunday, 19 June 2011

Robert Farnon: Jumping Bean

Robert Farnon’s miniature Jumping Bean is a perennial favourite. I guess that it is known by all enthusiasts of light music and is remembered by most music lovers. However, there can be confusion. On a (unnamed) webpage someone has suggested that it was used as the theme tune to ‘Top of the Form’. It wasn’t. That particular favourite was Marching Strings by Marshall Ross. However, Jumping Bean was used by the producers of the radio programmes ‘Journey into Melody’ and ‘Melody Hour'.

Like so many pieces of light music, it is hard to pin down an ‘exact’ date of composition. Tim MacDonald writing in the liner notes or the Marco Polo edition of Robert Farnon’s music suggests that it was written ‘in 1947 perhaps even earlier'. He notes that this piece has been used as a signature tune for more programmes than any similar work. This reputedly included the weather reports in a certain US state!

As a child I always wanted a ‘jumping bean’ needless to say I never got one! However, as I understand it, the ‘jumping bean’ comes from Mexico, most especially the state of Sonora.
According to Wikipedia, these beans were used in various cartoons and comedy sketches which played on the fact that if one ate these beans, one would jump around too! The technical reason the ‘frijoles saltarines’ beans ‘jump’ is caused by the larva of a small moth which has climbed inside the seed pod: when the larva gets warm, it ‘snaps’ its body whilst trying to get cool! Hence the ‘bean jumps.’
Nevertheless, the musical depiction in this short piece has little to do with flora and fauna. I guess that the ‘cartoon’ imagery is nearer the mark. However, I recall when I was young my father would accuse me of being like a ‘jumping bean’ when I was not prepared to sit still. So maybe it is a musical picture of someone who is ‘full of beans’ and is ‘jumping’ from one thing to another?

Jumping Bean is based on a ‘tritone’ figure. For the record, as it were, this means the melodic interval of the augmented fourth, for example, from C to F# on the piano. This ‘interval’ dominates the music. In spite of the title suggesting otherwise, this is not a fast piece: it is more bouncy or perhaps even ‘galumphing.’ The piece is underpinned with a memorable main theme, it is well scored with excellent muted brass and percussion excursions including wooden blocks in the middle eight. The composer is witty in his subtle use of ‘shifting harmonies’ and ‘craftily-positioned offbeats.’
Perhaps the final word can go to Andrew Lamb writing for the Hyperion conspectus of Light Music Volume 1. He suggests that Jumping Bean ‘exemplifies as well as anything the characteristic of so many …light-music classics that the title and the composer may mean little but the piece itself is instantly and gratifyingly familiar.’
Perhaps the revival of light music in recent years has done much to bring composers such as Robert Farnon back into the popular imagination. However, for most folk Jumping Bean will be a tune they know and enjoy but cannot quite place.

Listen to Jumping Bean on Hyperion or on YouTube


Mathias Richter said...

John, I suppose you have noticed that BBC Radio 3 dedicates a lot of time to light music the coming week. The most interesting show will probably be the "Composer of the Week". Donald Macleod collaborates with Brian Kay in documenting the history of light music. (The Jumping Bean is programmed too of course!)

Anonymous said...

Jumping Bean was the theme of WCCO Television weather reports in the 1950's and early 1960's. WCCO is channel 4 in Minneapolis St Paul Minnesota USA.It is an affiliate of CBS.The name of the piece or who the composer was(Farnon) were virtually unknown to the channel 4 viewers. It was known only as Channel 4's weather theme. The weather man was named Bud Kraehling and he may have selected the music piece.