Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Robert Farnon: ‘How Beautiful is the Night’

‘How Beautiful is the Night’ is a gorgeous miniature that was inspired by an epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer written in 1899 by the Bristolian writer Robert Southey. Certainly the words that caught Robert Farnon’s imagination had little to do with the massive sweep of magic, intrigue, suffering and violence that are themes of this long work.  Interestingly, Granville Bantock was also inspired by this poem, and produced his eponymous tone poem in 1900.

How beautiful is the night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air:
No mist obscure, nor cloud, nor speck, nor stain,
Breaks the serene of heaven:
In full orb’d glory yonder Moon divine
Rolls through the dark blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray
The desert circle spreads.
Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky.
How beautiful is the night.
Robert Southey

Robert Farnon is well-known for his fast moving, bright and romantic numbers such as 'Portrait of a Flirt', 'Jumping Bean' and 'The Westminster Waltz'. However there is another side to this composer which is revealed in works that were to appear late in his career such as the Symphony, the Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra and his 'Cascades to the Sea'. It is to this mood that ‘How Beautiful the Night’ is beholden.
On my first hearing of this work I wrote that  Robert Farnon had painted a picture of a ‘typical ‘Home Counties’ evening with this thoughtful piece.  However, after having given this music a little more thought I have decided that this reflective piece is more a seascape – or at the very least a picture of an estuary at dusk. I guess I have in mind sitting up above Clevedon on Wain’s Hill looking out across the Bristol Channel towards Flatholm and Steepholm as the light begins to fade. Perhaps Alfred Sisley’s picture provides the correct image.
I am not sure when ‘How Beautiful is Night’ was composed: however the piano sheet music was issued c. 1949 by Chappell & Co. The first reference to a recording that I could find was one issued in 1950 on Decca F9264. This was reviewed in The Gramophone magazine (May 1950) by Oliver King. He considered that this was ‘restful, Debussy-esque music for woodwinds and strings, and [that] it must take its place with the best that this country has offered in this sphere. The ‘flip’ side of the 78rpm disc was Farnon’s ‘Persian Nocturne’ which was ‘a tailor-made oriental scene’.  
There is a fine version of ‘How Beautiful is Night’ on YouTube played by George Shearing with Robert Farnon conducting an unspecified orchestra. There are a number of versions of this piece available on CD and MP3 downloads including Marco Polo 8.223401 and Guild: The Golden Age of Light Music- Melodies for the Starlight Hours GLCD5196.

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