One of the best-known pieces (if such is not an exaggeration) of Harry Farjeon’s (1878-1958) music is the ‘Tarantella’ for piano. This was made popular by the great Eileen Joyce in the late nineteen-thirties. However, there is a problem. The work does not appear to feature in the Farjeon’s 'catalogue'. I cannot find reference to it on WorldCat, the Royal Academy of Music or the British Library catalogues. Christopher Howell has suggested that ‘it does not correspond to any known piece.’
There are few references to the work in the musical press, however there is a short review of the Parlophone record release in The British Musician, November 1937:- ‘Cyril Scott’s ‘Lotus Land’ and ‘Danse Negre’ (popular pieces a quarter of a century back), along with a tarantella by Harry Farjeon, are played by Eileen Joyce with delightful dexterity of touch and brilliance of tone, the latter in ‘Lotus Land’ softening properly into the richly sensuous. The Farjeon seems more of a descriptive piece, more even a dramatic one, than a tarantella, it is all very entertaining’. Certainly the piece does not exemplify a typical ‘Tarantella’ with the rapid 6/8 figuration.
The Musical Times (May 1937) notes that it had a first performance on the ‘wireless’ and suggested that the work had ‘a welcome, sly, sentimental move or two, in fin-de-la-guerre phraseology.’
Listening to this music suggests the style of Bartok and Prokofiev rather than the ‘gentle, but civilised inventiveness’ attributed by Philip Scowcroft to Farjeon’s style. There is little music recorded by Farjeon to compare the ‘Tarantella’ with, however many of his piano scores suggest a far more conservative style suited to ‘gifted amateurs’ than the present piece would suggest. Christopher Howell has noted that by the 1930s Farjeon had begun to show ‘an inclination towards mild modernism.’ The present work exemplifies – almost parodies -this genre.
It is probable that this piece was especially composed for Eileen Joyce. It may have been misattributed, but that is doubtful as she appeared to play it at recitals on a regular basis. The fact is that she counted Farjeon as amongst her closest of friends, so it is likely to have been given to her as a keepsake, perhaps to act as a pendant to the Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances (1922) which were in her repertoire at around this time.
The National Library of Australia has a listing of the Parlophone recording made by Joyce on 14 May 1937 in London. It was released as E11391.