December 2006

The Joys of Light Music

by Jesse F. Knight

What is "light music"? As a genre it is not easy to define. Even experts in the field disagree whether this or that piece qualifies. What can be safely said is that it lies somewhere between the popular dance music of the early decades of the twentieth century--such as the foxtrot, swing, tango, or waltz--and classical music.

What are the distinguishing features of light music? First and foremost, it is tuneful. As one writer has put it, "Light Music isn't just tuneful round the outside--it's tuneful right through." Melody comes before all else. Listen to Haydn Wood's "Serenade to Youth," for example. I defy anyone to name a more beautiful melody. The tune in light music can be jaunty and charming (and charm, by the way, is something we have too little of nowadays), as in "Vanity Fair" by Anthony Collins. Or it can be fast-paced and jovial. "Montmartre," from "Suite: Paris," also by Haydn Wood, comes to mind, for example.

Light music is also immediately accessible. As David Ades, one of the foremost authorities in the field, has said, it can easily "be enjoyed for what it is." You don't need a degree in musicology to take pleasure in it. Nor do you need the composer or a critic to tell you what the music means. This is not to say that light music is unsophisticated, however. To understand how complex the music can be, read Robert Walton's incisive commentaries on Robert Farnon's compositions, in the quarterly magazine Journal Into Melody. (In March, for example, Walton wrote about Tête à Tête [not recorded on CD: search for "footnote"]; and in June, about Alcan Highway [see audio link below].) All I am suggesting is that light music can be readily enjoyed on the most fundamental level--that of sheer delight and pleasure.

Light music compositions are generally fairly short, although there is considerable flexibility. A length of only three minutes is not unusual. It therefore lacks the kind of thematic development found in a full-blown symphony or concerto. What you will observe is a fairly straightforward structure--typically, an opening section, a contrasting middle section, then a return to the first section, often in a slight variation. As Andrew Gold, once head of the BBC's Light Music Unit, has said, "the tune is more important than what you do with it." The orchestral suite reigns supreme, as evidenced by the work of Eric Coates in England and Ferde Grofé in America. Its brevity shouldn't be held against light music, however. No one sneers at Chopin because his études, preludes, or nocturnes last just a few minutes (though, admittedly, they have greater subtlety and depth). Think of light music as miniature tone poems, little jewels, carefully crafted, lovingly rendered. A diamond is no less beautiful for being small.

Though light music is primarily orchestral, it also includes operettas and pieces for solo piano, such as that by Billy Mayerl [more], as well as compositions for small ensembles. It is often "descriptive," loosely speaking. It can evoke a sparkling spring morning, as in "On a Spring Note" by Sidney Torch. Or perhaps communicate a sense of adventure and exhilaration, as in Charles Williams's "Cutty Sark." For a mood of serenity, listen to Ronald Binge's "Sailing By." Light music can also suggest a sense of character. Consider, for example, Farnon's "Portrait of a Flirt," from the days when flirting was an innocent art.

Light music has been inspired by locales throughout the world. "Broadway at Night" and the "Hudson River Suite" [tracks 7-11 on the CD], both by Ferde Grofé, are typical of pieces that evoke American scenes. Dozens of suites celebrate the city of London. Those by Eric Coates ("London Suite" [click on 'Audio Sample']) and Haydn Wood are two prime examples. Paris, too, has had its musical admirers--Roger Roger and Haydn Wood, among others. There is also Peter Hope's "Ring of Kerry Suite," inspired by Ireland's "Ring of Kerry" [more], and the "New Zealand Suite," by Ron Goodwin. In fact, one could build a geography lesson around light music! (As these titles and so many others suggest, light music is a variety of program music, which may be one reason why some critics have never taken to the genre.)

For me, the genre's most important characteristic is that it is largely untouched by tragedy. As one critic has put it, "there is an absence of angst." While light music explores a wide range of emotions, it never suggests such things as conflict. Beauty, joy, gaiety, are in abundance, but sorrow is little in evidence. Here are a few examples, among the dozens that could be cited: "Riding into Happiness" by Dolf van der Linden (for some unknown reason the title was changed by the publisher to "Grand Canyon"), "Joyousness" by Haydn Wood, Charles Ancliffe's "Nights of Gladness," and "Dance of the Little Feet - Gavotte" (composer uncertain)--the latter two can be heard in recordings from 1912.

However "old fashioned" light music might seem in its reliance on melody, it positively embraces modern life. You will find in the genre none of the uneasiness in response to the complexities of modernity that is evident in much contemporary literature or avant-garde music and "art." Instead, light music celebrates the achievements of the past century, including its technological advances. What better example to begin with than "This Modern Age" by Len Stevens? The automobile is a frequent source of inspiration. Trains, once the epitome of transportation technology, have dozens of pieces dedicated to them, such as "20th Century Express" by Trevor Duncan. Our architectural achievements are celebrated in such works as "Skyscraper Fantasy" by Donald Phillips.

Urban life is evoked with affection. Roger Roger's "Busy Streets," for instance, suggests the hustle and bustle of the city. There is also "Metropolis" by Jack Brown, and "The Voice of London" by Charles Williams. There is music celebrating light-hearted diversions, such as "Manhattan Square Dance" by David Rose, "In Party Mood" by Jack Strachey, and "Shopping Spree" by Bill Worland. Wealth is not an object of contempt. Note Peter Yorke's "Sapphires and Sables" or his "Emeralds and Ermine." Most light music composers were (and still are) hardworking professionals with a healthy respect for money. As Haydn Wood put it, "the composer is a businessman, a merchant, who endeavours to sell his wares in the best market." His piece "The City [#4]," celebrating the financial heart of the United Kingdom, is indicative of this attitude.

Light music composers have even ventured into outer space. The Trevor Duncan CD Final Frontiers comprises thirteen suites, including "The Seekers of Glory" and "The Challenge of Space" (see complete list [search for "Final Frontiers"]). In Sidney Torch Conducting the New Century Orchestra, Jack Beaver's "World of Tomorrow" suggests a future bright with beauty and promise.

Light music often reflects a sense of purpose, a positive attitude. Productivity is lauded. "Calling All Workers" by Eric Coates was inspired by that virtue. Farnon's "Alcan Highway" is a musical celebration of the heroic wartime effort that resulted in the construction of the 1,522-mile-long Alaska-Canadian Highway in just eight months and twelve days in 1942.

There is, in short, a joie de vivre about the light music genre--an exuberance, a sense that life is not only worth living but downright enjoyable. Listen to George Melachrino's "Woodland Revel" or Farnon's "Swing-Hoe." It is hard to imagine anyone's hearing such music without a smile. Ernest Tomlinson's "Exuberant Youth" is another good example. Joyousness, effervescence, exhilaration, glamour, and ecstasy are all terms that have been used with good reason in titles for light music--they underscore its spirit.

Two of the strong suits of light music composers are marches and waltzes. In their hands, marches are not in the John Philip Sousa vein but are jauntier fare--walking songs, if you will. Geoffrey Henman's sparkling "Champagne March" is one example, and Haydn Wood has written some of the finest pieces in the field: "Montmartre" and "Horse Guards, Whitehall." Among the plentiful pieces in 3/4 time are Eric Coates's gorgeous "Waltz" from "The Three Bears," and "Dancing Princess" by Frank Chacksfield and Peter Hargreaves, which has a lilting refrain.

If you like Romantic piano concertos, there are a host of light music mini-concertos in a similar spirit, many of which were first heard in films. Richard Addinsell's "Warsaw Concerto" (from Dangerous Moonlight, 1941) is but one of dozens to choose from. Charles Williams wrote a four-minute concerto called "The Dream of Olwen" [more] (from the British film While I Live, 1947). Another is the "Quebec Concerto" (from Whispering City, 1947) by Andrew Mathieu. (For other examples, see Light Music from the Silver Screen.)

Light music emerged as a distinct genre in the nineteenth century. Operettas were heard in the opera houses of the day, waltzes in ballrooms and dance halls, and salon pieces in the homes of the wealthy. But in the twentieth century, purely orchestral light music greatly expanded in range and quantity. It seemed to be everywhere.

Before the days of recorded music, live bands and orchestras provided much of the entertainment for the average music listener. Such groups consumed gargantuan amounts of material of a short, light variety. Tearooms, spas, and resorts featured an assortment of light musical fare. Virtually every orchestra and band had a resident arranger-composer, many of whom went on to successful careers as composers of light music. Ronald Binge and Ferde Grofé are prime examples.

With the advent of films, another market for light music opened. In the big movie palaces, orchestras accompanied silent films. As talkies developed, the new technology quickly added music to the sound mix for feature films. Newsreels and other fillers also employed short, atmospheric, background music, for which thousands of new scores were written and performed.

Radio became another outlet for light music. The genre provided musical themes for many shows, and any number of orchestras and bands had their own radio programs, performing a wealth of original compositions. Television soon followed suit. Finally, the popular recording industry issued 78s, 45s, and then long-playing records in the millions, which provided light music entertainment for a large and varied audience.

Light music flourished from the 1930s through the 1950s. By the mid-1950s, however, rock and roll came to dominate the popular music market, and the outlets for light music dwindled by the 1960s. While some composers continued to produce sterling work, little of it was heard either on recordings or on the airwaves. Several decades passed with nary a light ripple in the musical world.

Since the 1990s, however, there has been something of a renaissance, as recording companies have searched for repertoire to fill their catalogues. Marco Polo and Naxos, companies noted for their attention to lesser-known composers, have begun to issue CDs of light music. Spearheaded by David Ades and Alan Bunting, Guild has produced a series of superlative restorations. Both White Line and Shellwood Productions have issued a diversity of light music recordings.

Various orchestras and ensembles have also taken up the tradition of light music--from The Palm Court Orchestra in British Columbia, Shelley van Loen's Palm Court Strings, and the Scarborough Spa Orchestra in the north of England, to the four-member ensemble Fourtune [website has audio samples] and the Canadian group the Rhapsody Quintet [audio samples]. In addition, John Wilson, Gavin Sutherland, and Charles Job, eminent conductors all, have championed the cause on numerous recordings. Brian Kay's Light Programme [audio samples], a BBC show devoted to the genre, can be heard over the Internet. In the United States, the Ohio Light Opera offers an annual summer program featuring lesser-known early operettas. It has also revived the sparkling work of such composers as Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml, and Emmerich Kálmán.

At least three societies are devoted to light music. The Robert Farnon Society maintains a website offering a wealth of information--including articles and reviews--not only on Farnon, but on a good many other composers as well. In addition, it produces an informative quarterly magazine, Journal Into Melody, and carries a large catalogue of CDs for sale (orders are efficiently handled). Another fine organization is The Light Music Society. It, too, publishes an informative journal. During its annual meeting, it stages a day of light music, conducted by one of the foremost composer-conductors, Ernest Tomlinson. For those interested in light music for solo piano, there is the Billy Mayerl Society [audio samples], which sponsors quarterly recitals and meetings and also publishes an annual journal. Finally, there is even a Light Music Hall of Fame!

A compilation of hundreds of short biographies of light music composers is available on the Internet. Written by Philip J. Scowcroft, it is invaluable. Another online resource is a site devoted to the composer Haydn Wood, including biographical information and a list of recorded works. Yet another site is devoted to Leroy Anderson [includes many audio clips of his classic light orchestral pieces].

What is especially heartening is that younger composers, aiming to reach a broader audience than a few academics and "intellectuals," are turning to light music in increasing numbers. Foremost among them is Matthew Curtis, who has written delightful pieces such as "Paths to Urbino [Track/Work #4]." A skillful orchestrator, he has a genuine gift for melody. Philip Lane, who is also very active as a producer in the light music field, has written the lovely "Spring in Vermont," for piano and orchestra.

Joseph Bertolozzi is another accomplished composer of light music. Like many others in the field, he writes in other forms as well. Choral, chamber, solo piano, and liturgical music are prominent in his repertoire, not to mention stage scores. His light music fare includes "Suite Poughkeepsie"-- an evocation, he has said, "of characteristic local scenes, impressions of [his] own experiences growing up [in Poughkeepsie, N. Y.], things which will be familiar to its present inhabitants." At the other end of the musical spectrum are two of Bertolozzi's more serious works: The Contemplation of Bravery, for solo French horn and strings--characterized by him as "introspective, meditative"--and An Age Will Come (commissioned in 1992 for the Columbus Quincentennial). These inspiring contemporary compositions may be heard in their entirety on the composer's website [more on all three]. (Listen also to the United States Military Academy Band's version of The Contemplation of Bravery.)

While it is unlikely that light music will ever repeat the heady days of the mid-twentieth century, there is enough activity to keep even the most dedicated fan satisfied. Light music, when skillfully orchestrated and expertly crafted, is fun to listen to, inventive, colorful, and, yes, even moving at times. As one commentator has aptly put it, light music is "life-enhancing." Isn't that what we look for in any music?

Jesse F. Knight is a regular contributor to Firsts: The Book Collectors Magazine, in which he has published profiles of Errol Flynn and others, as well as literary biographies of Saki (H. H. Munro), the mystery novelist Mabel Seeley, and the novelist and short-story writer Rafael Sabatini [more], among others. A leading authority on Sabatini's life and work, he is the author of "The Last of the Great Swashbucklers" and has edited (among other volumes) The Evidence of the Sword and Other Mysteries [more ], a collection of thirteen stories and two novellas. Mr. Knight is also a playwright and short-story writer. An interest in the life and work of the Swedish composer Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942) led him to found the North American branch of the Peterson-Berger Society, and to write "A Crown of Wildflowers," a one-man play about the composer (with piano accompaniment), which was performed in Stockholm in 2003. Among his short stories is "Wolf White as Snow," also about Peterson-Berger. A one-act play, "The Fallen Women of San Francisco," was published in the online magazine Bygone Days.